SEO and User Experience: Finding the Common Ground
SEO professionals and other people involved in online marketing to some extent have known of a certain dilemma for quite some time. The dilemma is that they know they need to create websites that provide visitors with a good overall experience, but in doing so, the website may not make it to the top of search results. If they tweak the site to cater to what search engines are looking for, there’s a good chance user experience will be compromised.
This catch 22 has been around for so long and SEO professionals have had enough of it. This is why they’re now trying their best to find the balance between user experience and SEO. Before you can successfully achieve that, it may be worth your while to understand why these two concepts don’t seem to work well together.
Visuals – Search engine bots don’t have the capability to view visuals the way humans do. People are known to like seeing graphics more than they like reading full text articles, which then poses a bit of a problem because search engine bots cannot interpret graphics. As a webmaster, should you cater to the target audience by using more graphics or cater to search engines by using more keyword-rich text? The answer lies somewhere in between. Additionally, search engines are “cold blooded”, if I may say so. They don’t react emotionally to visuals, as humans do.
Text – Most people prefer choppy text, or text that’s broken up into sub-headings and quick bullet points. This is because most people read on-the-go these days, so they want to be able to skim through text. The problem is that although search engine bots can understand choppy text, they do need a more than few list items to really get a grasp of what a particular web page is all about and how high they should rank it. You therefore need to learn how to create content that has enough plain text for bots to understand, but structured in a way people will still find interesting and worth their time.
Keywords and queries – When people do an online search, they aren’t likely to type full sentences into the search box (although this is different with voice search). Rather, they use keywords to find the information they need. It seems only logical for you to use keywords as well to make sure your target audience finds you when they search for the kind of information you provide. Remember, though, that Google is penalizes sites that fill their content to the brim with keywords. Make sure you use keywords sparingly, preferably at least in your page title, main heading and sub-headings. If you have to use them in your copy, make sure they blend naturally into the discussion.
Yes, there are problems, but this doesn’t mean user experience and SEO can never work together. As mentioned above, you just need to find the right balance, and this time, that may be a lot easier than it was before. Search engines are now constantly upgrading their algorithms with the aim of providing users with the best possible results. That is to say, search engines are now striving to limit their search results to the sites their searchers find satisfactory. These sites generally have four traits in common.
- They are easy to navigate and understand.
- They provide direct and actionable information that’s relevant to the user’s query.
- They are designed in a professional manner and are easily accessible to modern browsers.
- They deliver accurate and credible content of high quality.
Although the algorithmic updates haven’t brought search engines to the point of being able to completely understand text, and though search engines still aren’t able to view images and video the same way humans do, they’re now capable of understanding the way users interact with web pages. This ability allows them to gain incredible insight with regard to the quality of web pages and brings you closer to finding the balance between SEO and user experience.
Bringing SEO and User Experience Together
How exactly can you combine user experience and SEO to create an environment for your website that search engines can easily access and visitors will find highly engaging at the same time? Here are a few useful tips:
Use Sitemaps and Simplify Website Navigation
As a SEO professional, you’re well aware of the importance of sitemaps and ease of navigation. Search engine bots operate such that they’re only able to index a certain number of pages on any given website, based on the website’s overall authority. If it’s difficult to navigate certain areas of your site for whatever reason, the chances of your web pages getting indexed will likely be wasted.
If you think sitemaps and ease of navigation are only important for SEO purposes, think again. Remember that many online users these days are busy. They want things simple and quick. Put yourself in the shoes of the average user. How would you feel if you were made to click through five pages before being given that single piece of information you were looking for? You probably wouldn’t even make it that far, would you? You probably would have left the site after three clicks. So what makes you think your site visitors won’t do the same?
When you apply the best practices for sitemap creation and implement a navigation system that brings users to any page on your site within a maximum of three clicks, you are therefore addressing the preferences of both users and search engines.
Combine Elements of SEO and User Experience
As mentioned earlier, a large amount of pure text is good from the point-of-view of search engines. They allow the search engine spiders to gain a better understanding of what your site is all about, thereby increasing the chance of your site getting good rankings. It can also help improve keyword discovery, thereby possibly increasing the number of queries for which your site will rank. From the point-of-view of users, however, a huge chunk of uninterrupted text isn’t really that appealing. In fact, it can be downright boring and may cause a visitor to immediately leave your site.
So, what do you do then? The good news is that you don’t really have to choose between pure text, which is favored by search engines, and graphics, which is preferred by your site visitors. The key lies in how well you can combine these two elements on your web pages. Remember that the first few seconds are critical to grabbing the interest of site visitors. It is therefore advisable for you to place graphic elements at the top of the page where visitors can immediately see them and then place text below for search engines to crawl. There’s a win-win solution for you!
Create Content for Both Users and Search Engines
Yes, we’re going to say it again—content is king. It offers a wide variety of benefits, from increasing the chances of your website getting indexed to improving your chance of getting high rankings. Other than that, high-quality content also helps improve user experience to a large extent. Now, how do you make sure your content improves both user experience and SEO effectiveness?
Remember that keyword stuffing is considered a big no-no by search engines. It is also frowned upon by users because reading a single sentence that’s 50% keyword can be extremely annoying. Try to mention your keyword only once in your headline tag, title, and the body of the content. The key is to make your sentences sound natural, so as to attract both search engines and your target audience.
Keep Away from Flash
Flash is a dying technology, at least on mobile devices. While it’s true that search engines have improved a lot in terms of reading content within Flash objects, they still don’t have the capability to process the information accurately a hundred percent of the time. If you fill your site with Flash content, therefore, you’ve practically filled it with content no search engine can fully understand! Is that really something you want, considering you’re trying to optimize your site?
Now, what about user experience? Sure, when videos and animation first entered the picture, people were impressed with practically anything that moves onscreen. But those days have long since passed. Users these days want information and they want it NOW! This means they don’t really have the patience to sit through that 5-minute presentation you’re so proud of. People appreciate simplicity in websites, and you can start making things simpler by throwing out all those Flash objects.
Take Advantage of Microdata Markup
Microdata that follow Schema.org protocols can be especially useful for your SEO efforts in terms of letting search engines know what your website’s intent and purpose are. Let’s say, for example, that your business has to do with music and you have a page on “Kansas.” When you add an “itemtype” tag to that particular page’s HTML, you can indicate that the page is about the band, not the city or state. This enables search engines to index your site for more relevant SERP placements.
This type of structured data also provides valuable information that may be displayed with your listing on search results, thus giving users a sneak peek into the kind of information you have on your site. Such convenience increases the likelihood of users choosing to click through to your site instead of your competitors’.
Let’s get back to that catch 22 dilemma mentioned at the beginning of this article. Is there really a need to choose between SEO and user experience? Should you compromise one in favor of the other? Not necessarily. In making these two concepts work together, the best advice is probably to put user experience first and then SEO second. This isn’t to say you can ignore SEO, just that you need to put your audience first.
- When doing keyword research, be sure to choose keywords that resonate well with your target audience (words they commonly use in doing online searches). This improves your chance of ranking high on SERPs and also helps improve conversion rates, as users are more likely to click through to your site.
- In categorizing content, be sure to place the most important content above the fold. Users appreciate getting all the important details immediately and search engines typically give more weight to top-page text.
- Make sure there is always new and updated content on your site. This gives users a reason to keep visiting your site and boosts your authority with search engines because it enhances your site’s freshness score.
- When linking web pages, it’s best to embed keywords into your links. This increases the relevance of the links for SEO and lets users know what type of information the link leads to without having to look for contextual information below or above the link.
- Have you ever been to a site where you’re provided with a link, saying: “Other people also viewed/bought (list of related products)?” You would do well to follow this example. Links to related products boost SEO by establishing an internal link network at the product level. It also helps improve conversion rates by offering more options to your customers.
Is there ever an instance when SEO should be considered before user experience? Generally, no. Users are likely to hate your website if it’s targeted more towards search engine bots than to them, and as their recent algorithmic updates indicate, Google doesn’t appreciate too much focus on SEO either.
Think about it this way: When you create content that caters to your target audience’s needs and preferences, and design your website so as to provide excellent user experience, site visitors will likely have a positive perception of your brand. They’re also more likely to share your content, visit your site regularly, promote your brand to their social circles, and link to your site in more ways than one. All of these will be seen by search engines as strong signals of website authority, thereby contributing to high rankings. Focusing on providing the best user experience possible, therefore, is nothing short of genius.