A few years ago I stepped into a role as an information architect and user experience designer at a Portland ad agency. Coming from a background in search marketing, this was quite a bit of a change for me. The first thing I noticed was that SEO & UX should really be a more integrated system in the designing of a site. The second thing I noticed was that SEO really gets a bad rap from the UX and design community.
This was really an invaluable experience for me, as I was able to look at both my former job and my current job in a different light. I got to be removed from my instincts as an SEO, while simultaneously questioning the foundations of UX.
What I learned in the end was that SEO & UX must work together in order for a site to be successful:
- The myths about SEO & UX are false – it’s not impossible to coexist, and neither hinders the other.
- Poor UX will lead to poor SEO. Plain and simple, and the reverse is also true
- SEO should live within and be a part of the user experience
Myth: SEO & UX are like Oil & Water
Myth 1: All SEOs focus on is traffic, ranking, revenue, and web presence
Well sure, to a degree. SEO is highly focused on generating traffic for your website. SEO helps you rank well, generate revenue and be visible on search engine results pages (SERPs). None of these things are that terrible. In fact, they are good things for websites that advertise online.
However, this isn’t the only focus for SEO. SEO is also concerned with quality content, page load times, and other tasks that affect the user experience (UX).
Myth 2: SEO is just getting links any way you can
This is true, back in 2009 maybe. After 2011’s Panda updates, a site’s sheer number of links isn’t nearly as important as it once was. Today, SEO focuses on superb content in order to obtain quality links over quantity links. Finding 1,000 links on poor quality sites isn’t going to cut it in a post-Panda world.
Myth 1: Everything is about what’s on the site
User experience is definitely focused on your user’s interactions, feelings, and opinions about your website. That being said, keeping your user engaged all depends on why and how they found your site. UX is involved in this process through site designs catered to many users. The site’s content can then be based on the criteria the user used to get to the site and what the user was looking for on the site.
Myth 2: UX is so focused on the on-site experience that it ignores that the first step for many users is a search engine
This isn’t entirely true, but it’s definitely been the case in the past. A lot of UX can be based on best practices, industry standards, and common sense, but UX shouldn’t end there. From creating a landing page tailored to users’ search queries, to conducting user testing – there should be more to your website’s UX project than just the design and layout of your pages.
Examples of Poor UX
Amazon – Busy sites can confuse your user
Tons of actions
- Drop down shopping list on the left
- Promos for the Kindle Fire
- Spring’s Most Wanted
- Camera & Photo shop
- On page ad
- Deal of the Day
Amazon has long been a staple of how to do things right, but of late, they’ve become the opposite example of user experience. Amazon has become a product seller itself with the Kindle line of products, and there lies the problem. Because of this shift in philosophy, Amazon’s site has started to push their products first and foremost. However, they still try to be the online one stop shopping experience for everything and everyone. This creates a very busy homepage, full of roadblocks preventing quality user interaction with your site.
On this page, there are a lot of actions that the user is shown, from the drop down shopping list on the left, to the promos for the Kindle Fire, Spring’s Most Wanted, the Camera & Photo shop, the on page ad, the Deal of the Day, and the various other options that await the user.
All of these are roadblocks to user interaction with your site.
Marc Ecko – Flash, full image sites, and too much interaction
- Site that is difficult to use
- Difficult to see
- Offers no real direction
- Way too much interaction for a user to really take in
- Site doesn’t retain visitors
- Some users don’t have Flash, some users get overwhelmed, etc.
While the example here isn’t the worst for the site’s demographic, it’s a good example of a site that is difficult to use, difficult to see, offers no action path, and way features way too much interaction for a user to really take in. The site ends up being more like a collage of imagery and interactions which never really draws a user in.
Many sites opt for the big visuals, to really draw their users’ eyes. However, more often than not, these sites don’t retain visitors for multiple reasons – some users don’t have Flash, some users get overwhelmed, etc.
Examples of Good UX
Groupon – Clean & Clear
Groupon is killing it right now, and it’s not just because of everyday amazing deals. They have made smart, eloquent copy a high priority for their daily listings, and designed a simple, clean, and clear website and interface.
Make it easy for users to interact with your site, through an easy-to-use navigation, an obvious reminder to where the user is on the site (current page is highlighted in the top navigation), and a clear call to action.
The proper use of white space, imagery, and buttons goes a long way towards getting users to interact with your site the way you want them to.
Hubspan – Options without the Confusion
In the world of B2B, sometimes you cater to multiple user types. It’s not easy to figure out what a new customer, current customer, or potential partner want to see first when they visit your site.
In this example, all 3 are catered to without experiencing alienation in the design.
SEO within UX
So how can you make SEO and UX work together?
Focus the design using principles of SEO
- Create content for the user and the search engines
- Push for H1 & H2 tags
- Work to improve link equity, menu functionality, and menu names
- Create clear navigation labels
- Use focused product descriptions and names
Personas & User Paths
Personas should be based on the online activities the user is going to take. They shouldn’t follow the old standard persona formula based on demographics, personality, or gender unless those characteristics are inherently important to the website.
User paths through the website should then be created for each persona in order to best suit that user’s needs. Hubspan’s site in the example above was able to cater to 3 different personas by designing different user paths for each.
Creating different experiences for different users opens up different keywords, content, and links for SEO.
Calls to action have long been staples of web design and conversion optimization. They are also very important for SEO & UX. Buttons or links with calls to action like “Buy now,” “download,” or “learn more” should lead the user to content and page elements designed for SEO.
Additionally, these can be combined with product names or offers to create highly optimized calls to action, like the one seen below:
Order [product name] Today!
Search Engines Taking Cues from UX
In addition to the importance of SEO & UX working together for the greater good of your website, Google has been slowly shifting focus away from links and keywords for the last few years. While these are still the main ranking factors, they have found some new areas of focus that provide a more full view of a site’s quality.
What’s included in “quality?”
- Page speed
- Ease of navigation
- Internal link structure
- No duplicate content
- Relevant and descriptive content
- Page layout
What Your Website Should Be
Employ a clean and clear design, with little interference in terms of excess imagery, erroneous functionality, or filler content.
Action items and user paths help you develop a site that makes sense. The user needs to understand how to reach their goals when visiting a site. When you build a site around information silos, action items, and user paths, you build a site that is designed for the functionality of the user.
Developing personas and using calls to action are a clear way to tell your users what you’d like them to do. Don’t be afraid to tell the user to buy, download, or sign up for something. On the internet, we all respond to calls to action much more directly than in our day to day lives.
There’s no point in having a great site that can’t be found. Content & keyword research will always be the cornerstone of your website’s online presence. Despite Google’s decreasing importance placed on links, links are still important as well. Work to find quality links and your site will rank well.
Be sure your site is capitalizing on all the work you’ve put into it. That means focusing on conversion optimization through SEO and UX.
Following these guidelines will be a major first step in the process of developing your site or redesigning a site that needs to focus more on user experience. Similarly, in light of Google’s new focus on quality sites, user experience, and page speed, maybe it’s time you look at the UX from an SEO’s perspective. You’d be surprised what a difference this activity can have on your site.