Nielsen Misses the Point

I return from vacation (hi, everybody!) to find a new post from Jakob Nielsen about usability issues with using social media.

Nielson, Jakob. Social Media Outsourcing Can Be Risky. Alertbox, September 8, 2009.

The main point of his article seems to be this sentence: “One of our findings is that the mega-IA decision to host some services on external sites can create usability problems for your customers.” From my point of view, I would tend to reverse this and say something more like this, “The decision to NOT host some services on external sites can create usability problems for your customers.” Let me take a second and explain what I mean, and what I think Nielsen means, and portions are in agreement and some important take home messages are very different.

Nielsen gives a few examples of institutions or organizations hosting their content on social media sites such as YouTube. He talks about how the usability of the content on YouTube is less than ideal when it comes to promoting your brand or identity, and how YouTube has some conventions that are occasionally a bit awkward. I see two problems with how this is handled in his post. First, he blames the usability problems on the enduser and not on YouTube, and second, he doesn’t offer much in the way of suggestions for how people can work with YouTube’s constraints to make things better.

I recently talked about YouTube on this blog and why it is so important for groups or individuals with video content to be sure to place some of that content in YouTube. Briefly, placing the videos in YouTube maximises discovery and accessibility and protects your content/brand. Placing the video in iTunesU establishes academic credibility. Placing the video in Vimeo allows you to offer high resolution video and audio for the more selective audience. Both YouTube and Vimeo offer embedding and sharing, which can link back to your original, making your site more discoverable. Everything embeddable can be put both on your website and in your blog. What I’ve found for my own stats is that videos placed in YouTube get WAY more views than the same video on the website or in iTunesU, on the scale of a factor of ten. It all depends on your topic, your audience, and where they prefer to be. If you think of the web as a Not-One-Size-Fits-All environment you will be on the right track.

OK, that gives you my argument in a nutshell and my understanding of Nielsen’s argument in a nutshell. Let’s look at specifics.

Bad Example?

Nielsen provides a “Bad Example” of the Youtube channel for Deval Patrick, the Governor of Massachusetts. He refers to this as the “Massachusetts Governor’s Site” which is actually here instead. His main concerns were: (1) “same video is represented thrice in the UI”; and (2) “poorly chosen thumbnails.”

Problem #1: Repetition of Content

Repetition of content, icons and links is part of the YouTube standard interface. The enduser can’t really do much about that on the YouTube page. YouTube is what YouTube is, and that is the nature of dealing with social media web services. BUT the enduser can make a video section on their own website and can ensure that the comment or description section of each video includes a link back to the video on their own website where they can control the interface, layout, design, thumbnails, and related factors. This provides a variety of benefits. You have a more discoverable product. You have a more shareable product, since is can be embedded on other people’s websites and blogs, which increases your marketing bang-for-the-buck. You get content in multiple locations to reach multiple audiences. The content drives people back to your main website, increasing traffic there. You also can still have the same content in a place where you have as much control as you want over interface design and quality.

Problem #2: Thumbnails

Well, here again, this is what YouTube does. For the version of the video actually accessed from the YouTube website you can’t pick your thumbnail or icon. YouTube seems to choose a frame that is roughly dead center of the video. You have a choice here. You can edit your video specifically to ensure that the central section of the video has cool catchy images that you want used as a thumbnail. Or you can edit your video to make it the best possible video you can have under whatever your constraints are, and just live with whatever YouTube picks as the thumbnail. There are advantages and disadvantages of both approaches, but it is your decision. If you have a big budget you might be able to do both. If you are doing it yourself as a home-grown operation you might not be able to do either. If you are providing videos that are not edited but are captures of presentations you will probably end up with the same problem that happened the day Nielsen looked at the MassGovernor YouTube channel.


Nielsen provides a couple “Better” examples – Martha Stewart and Harvard Business Publishing. What he likes about Martha Stewart’s YouTube channel is the thumbnails (which we already discussed), and what he doesn’t like is the lack of easy browsing and searching. The reverse is true for the Harvard Business Review channel. At the end of the essay, Nielsen returns to the MassGovernor channel with a concern about descriptive titling. Let’s take a look at the the last two concerns.

Problem #3: Browsing and Searching in Youtube

IMHO, Nielsen hit the nail on the head with this one. He complains that for the MarthaStewart channel you can’t find the video on blueberry pie without scrolling back to the beginning. I know people who go to YouTube before Google to search for information and it always surprises me since YouTube really isn’t very good at searching. The way YouTube structures the videos, the URLs don’t make it clear what user created the content — you have to actually click through to the content to find out. This makes it even trickier trying to search elsewhere. Nielsen points out that Harvard Business Review has created Playlists of their own content organized by theme to make it easier to find what the visitor wants. This is a really good idea. Better than searching, but searching is still what we have to do most of the time.

Here is how I find videos in YouTube when I am searching for a known item like, for example, the Martha Stewart blueberry pie video that Dr. Nielsen wanted to find.

In Google:
1. Search YouTube as a site
2. Include the name of the user’s channel if you know it.
3. include a keyword or phrase that would be included in the title or description of the video you want.
NOTE: This isn’t perfect, since it will retrieve videos created by other users, but there is no way to limit to just videos created by Martha Stewart. Now, it might be possible with a little SEO work, say, if Martha included a unique tag that denoted her channel, made sure it was included on each video she posted, and prayed that other folks didn’t use it. YouTube doesn’t make this at all easy, but you can work around it, imperfectly.

Example: MarthaStewart blueberry

Now Martha’s name is also a common tag, so we could expand the search to include that also, like this. (MarthaStewart OR “Martha Stewart”) blueberry

Since we aren’t finding a blueberry pie recipe in Martha’s channel, we can even make sure we are looking for blueberry PIE rather than anything else, by using quotation marks, like this. (MarthaStewart OR “Martha Stewart”) “blueberry pie”

You know what? Even if Jakob Nielsen scrolls through all 126 videos in Martha’s channel, he is not going to find one on blueberry pie. There isn’t one.

Blogs: YouTube

Not even if you search through Google Video, which is my other choice for searching YouTube videos.

Blog: YouTube

And the first video is about a dancing dog.

Blogs: YouTube

Problem #4: Titles Can be Powerful or Problems

Another point where Nielsen is 100% right. You want to use short descriptive titles that make it clear what the content is in the video. Then you want to use the description space to provide more information. Keep it clear, keep it simple, but include words that people might search for to find what you’re offering. Also keep tags in mind, and tag appropriately.

Take Home Points

Nielsen closed his essay by putting his concerns in the context of what you lose if you don’t use social media.

“These arguments count in favor of keeping social features on your own site where you can design them to provide a better user experience for your customers. By doing so, however, you give up on the potentially much bigger audience that 3rd-party social networking services (SNSs) offer. “

Very true. You are giving up quite a lot if you don’t engage with social media. Let me return to my original statement: “The decision to NOT host some services on external sites can create usability problems for your customers.” Just looking at the use of YouTube, I’d like to share feedback from people who’ve come to me for help or who have expressed problems in public venues. One of the complaints I’ve heard about videos on websites that are not in YouTube is that people can’t find them. That is a big one, and for this not to be an issue for you, you’d have to have such a big profile that people are checking your site as often as they check YouTube. Ummmmm, unlikely. I’ve also heard a number of complaints specifically from persons with special needs that they have trouble with videos in Vimeo and other video sharing sites. The problem often relates to the fact that they don’t have a lot of money and don’t have the best computers or fast network connections. At this point, Vimeo is for the elite, and YouTube is for the masses. If you want the masses to find and access your content, then put it in YouTube. You can always put it in more than one place. Libraries have a saying that applies here: “Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe” also known as LOCKSS. The LOCKSS mentality doesn’t just apply to keeping stuff safe so that it continues to exist, but also to visibility and discoverability, implied concepts that underlie the library concerns and apply more directly to marketing and enterprise applications of social media.

Nielsen’s final recommendation is to hold onto the good stuff and use social media to share your lesser quality content.

“It’s too early to provide definite advice for how to resolve this conundrum. One possible approach is to feed the outside sites only broadly targeted material that might go viral and/or attract casual browsers, while keeping higher-value specialized material on your own site, including any action-oriented and need-to-know content and discussions.”

This is old school thinking, the way the computing environment worked five or ten years ago, 180 degrees opposed to what you ought to be doing with social media. There are some good points and concerns in the Nielsen essay, and it is worth reading, but please, take the conclusions with a large handful of salt. If you really want to draw people to your website and control your best content, don’t restrict it completely to your website, but provide snippets, free samples, excerpts, and use these to bring people to your primary web site. The more you share, and the more places you share, the more people will find you.


5 responses to “Nielsen Misses the Point

  1. Hi — You and I have complementary viewpoints on Nielsen’s argument.

    To your thorough examination of the benefits of a social media presence, all else being equal, I would add that all else is not even necessarily equal.

    In particular


  2. Hi — You and I have complementary viewpoints on Nielsen’s argument.

    To your thorough examination of the benefits of a social media presence, all else being equal, I would add (1) that there are technological advantages (in terms of cost of setup and maintenance) to using sites like YouTube and Flickr especially, and (2) that with the right technical expertise applied in the right way (e.g., using APIs instead of embed code), you can eliminate all of Nielsen’s concerns.

    See my post here:


    • Thanks, Devan! Really interesting post. I appreciate your sharing it here, and hope folks go read it.

      In addition, someone pointed out to me that even within YouTube there are ways to have a little more control over thumbnails. I’ll post on that later.

      Much appreciated!


  3. Thanks! And sorry for the accidental double-comment. Look forward to your post about the thumbnails.


  4. Just came across this post and wanted to thank you for the helpful insight. I oversee the MassGovernor YouTube channel that Jakob Nielsen held up as a “bad example”. I sent him an email when I saw it and thought you and some of your readers might find some of what I pointed out to him at the time helpful:

    • Regarding the overall channel layout: The version he was reviewing was a beta version of our YouTube branded channel that YouTube was rolling out. At the time, we were having a lot of issues with it, ourselves. Ironically, the day his post went live, we reverted our channel to the pre-beta version which was pretty much in line with his “better” examples…if not even better than those (if I do say so, myself). 🙂

    • Regarding our thumbnails: He complained that a few of our thumbnails were almost identical. I explained in my email that we have post a lot of content and that when he reviewed our channel, the most recent few videos happened to be official press conferences because those were the most recent things the Governor had done. While I agree that videos of press conferences aren’t the best way to engage users on YouTube, there are folks that find them valuable. And, when that’s what you’re posting, there really isn’t a more exciting thumbnail to choose than the governor at the podium. Also, we’d love to have more time to design our own nifty thumbnails, but we’re a small group in a high-pressure, resource-strained environment and we do the best we can to provide citizens as much as possible with the resources we have. If I had Martha Stewart or Harvard’s resources, we’d likely have better thumbnails, too! 🙂

    • Regarding content: He took what I thought was a bit of a cheap shot at some of our content choices by alluding to the “gripping topic of the gubernatorial hip” We had posted a video of the Governor discussing his upcoming hip replacement surgery after numerous requests for it. I know it doesn’t sound like the most thrilling content, but you’d be surprised at how much discussion there’d been about it and his subsequent recovery.

    I would have commented on Jakob Nielsen’s post, but he doesn’t seem to welcome comments (at least not anywhere I could find?).

    Feedback is always welcome. Check out our channel at

    Some ways to reach us with additional thoughts/comments are:



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