Unlike Orange is the New Black or 60 is the new 40, this adage is true. UX is the new way to optimize sites for search engines because Google said so. Yes, that benign search giant has decided that links are no longer as important as they once thought. Out of deep concern for its users that click on the search ads, Google has decided that user experience (UX) is a much better determinant of relevance. This left the entire SEO is gob-smacked and floundering, at least those that have not already stepped off the ledge are.
Google picked UX because, unlike the laser-focused SEO community, the UX community is diffused, scattered, at odds with allied disciplines Information Architecture (IA) and Interaction Design and all three lusting after Content Strategy’s current fame and fortune. It’s Game of Thrones without the bad food and bloodshed. Jesse James Garrett, one of the founding fathers of IA, disclaimed his child: “There are no information architects. There are no interaction designers. There are only, and only ever have been, user experience designers.” Yes, those black turtleneck-wearing, poetry-slam loving, head-in-the-clouds persona-loving “designers” are now the dominant influence on ranking in search results.
What’s Wrong with Google Using UX for Ranking?
There are a lot of reasons why it is a bad idea for an autocratic tech giant to determine what constitutes a positive human experience. The two best that I can think of are:
Google’s help is not really helping. As their search engine has gotten smarter with personalization and query revision, we’ve gotten dumber at searching.
- Searchers do not know “how to search” with 56% constructed poor queries. So, Google comes to the rescue with the Hummingbird update where they are now rewriting our queries for us.
- Ads to the right, images mixed in, knowledge graph placards and the SERP control panel makes for a very busy search results page. Searchers now get lost in this data soup with 33% having problems navigating the search results let alone finding what they need once they get to an actual website.
- Most tragic of all, searchers today show a lack of interest in their search results. According to Using the Internet: Skill Related Problems in User Online Behavior by van Deursen & van Dijk, 55% selected irrelevant results 1 or more times, 36% did not go beyond the first 3 results on page one, 91% did not go beyond the first page of search results. No one browses any more. Searching is more about answers than information, more about tidbits than the bigger picture.
Data-driven design and engineered experience are not the same as human mediated design and experience. Douglas Bowman described it best upon his departure as head of user experience at Google: “When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data… And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.” True that!
I don’t know about you but I don’t want to live in with a Web where everything looks the same, where algorithms (often conflicting) determine what kind of a site experience I have based on what other people did for reasons that are not measurable by the algorithm. I believe that technologists and user experience designers, information architects and content strategists must work together to ensure the best possible online environments for information discovery and consumption. And here’s how I think we can do it.
End Discipline-centric Xenophobia
There’s a lot of talk about working across discipline silos yet it does not translate into action often enough. I hand off my designs to the production team and often find that changes have been made by necessity of the technology stack or platform. Let’s start projects with a shared end goal that consolidates my vision of how users engage with the site with the software constraints Web developers’ face in building out the site. And to the Web developers, just because it is cool, doesn’t mean it is useful.
Let’s stop preaching to the choir and start educating our colleagues. Discipline-centric conferences should have 20% of the presentations on search or user experience issues. In a loose survey: Confab 2013 (major content strategy conference) had 28 sessions with 1 on SEO, IxDA 14 (Interaction Design international conference) had 128 sessions with zero on anything remotely related to search, Convey UX 2014 had 40 sessions also with zero on search-related topics and Search Engine Strategies 2013 had 50+ sessions with 5 on content strategy and zero on UX.
I am fortunate in that my Web career has spanned 3 disciplines. I started out as an information architect, migrated to Web producer and then focused on SEO. Google’s switch from a link-based to a user-experience-based ranking model has been good for my career longevity. I manage to keep my intellectual claws somewhat sharp in the Web production arena with the help of my very smart and very much more technical colleagues here at Portent. I subscribe to blogs on Analytics, follow software developers on twitter and read news and online journals outside of my core discipline. This helps me to ask the right questions and that’s where cross-discipline work starts.
I created a 4-hour workshop; UX is the New SEO, to fill this education gap. It debuted at EuroIA 2013, is on the schedule for the IA Summit 2014 and Enterprise Search Summit 2014 and is offered here at the Portent offices on occasion. The goal of the workshop is to educate my user experience colleagues on the inner workings of search engines and how this technology “calculates” experience and to educate my SEO on how behavior influences engagement and my content strategy colleagues on how search engines determine what constitutes quality content.
User Experience is a bit harder to measure for return on investment than keyword ranking. However, it can be done. Google’s Panda updates focus on content quality measured by click-through (does the user select the page from the search results), bounce rate (does the user do anything on the page), and conversion (does the user indicate that their information need has been solved). Relevant user experience data points from most site analytics programs would be: unique visitors, their social actions, the number of pages visited, the average time on page (exclude the bounces), bounce rate, exit rate, top content and top landing pages.
Before signing the Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin is believed to have remarked: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” So it is with us, our clients and their users. As the thought-processing bipeds of the Web experience SEO, user experience, information architecture, interaction design, content strategy and Web Development must work together or capitulate and let Google decide what we find and why.
I’m for taking back relevance. You?