Editor’s Note: This is a section of our completely redone SEO Guide. Enjoy!
I’ve been in the web marketing industry so long that I get to tell “back in the day” stories that leave today’s younger generation of SEOs scratching their head wondering what the heck I’m talking about. It’s kind of like explaining to your children that cartoons used to air on TV for only three hours a week! And you had to get up at 7 AM to watch them live!
Just to prove my point, when I started doing SEO (“back in the day”), rankings were the only thing that mattered. I’m ashamed to admit it, but in my very earliest days, my optimization practices constituted getting the keyword on the page as many times as possible without ruining the visitor’s on-page experience.
It’s heartening to know that I, and the industry at large, have come a long, long way since then. In fact, if there was just one very significant evolution that has happened over the years (and there have been many), I would say it would be the transition of SEOs (aka digital marketers, web marketers, inbound marketers, etc.) growing up to be real marketers. We realized things like search engine rankings were important, but what was even more important was helping businesses do a better job at reaching, attracting, and converting their target audience.
But SEOs aren’t the only ones who have grown up; search engines grew up as well. In an interesting pattern, search engines grew up because “SEOs” forced them to (yes, I deliberately used scare quotes.) Spammers have always sought the lowest bar for entry (easiest way to achieve rankings) and brute forced attacked the hell out of it. Search engines were forced to raise the bar, which forced SEOs to raise the bar. This is a cycle that repeated year after year to where we are today.
And for that, the search engines can thank us.
Yet, the smart SEOs are those who got ahead of the search engines long before any new algorithm rolled out. Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird and all the other algorithm updates had nary an impact on the web marketers that were focused on marketing their clients’ websites. Those who were still looking for the easy way to get rankings got hit and hit hard, time and time again. Yet, a small handful of SEOs through the years breezed through each algorithm update like it was expected. Because, well, it kinda was.
We were busy working for our clients’ larger goals rather than working for rankings that may or may not help them achieve what they wanted: Growth. And for any business to grow, they have to focus on their customers first.
User Experience is Critical to SEO
There is a whole field of UX optimization that requires its own level of expertise. The typical SEO, however, doesn’t have to be a full-fledged UX expert, but they should have an understanding of many of the basic website UX principles.
UX optimization is nothing more than focusing on the visitor. Everything we do in the sphere of web marketing has to have the visitor in mind. Yes, we do certain things for search engines, but search engines (almost always) require those things because they have learned it’s what their users (searchers) want.
Search engines have some of the most advanced data mining operations in the world. They aren’t just helping people find what they want; they’re collecting data that helps them understand user behavior. From that data, the algorithms get tweaked in order to give searchers more of what they want and less of what they don’t.
Which means websites that do a better job of meeting the needs of searchers have a better chance of landing on the first page of the search results. In this sense, anything we do for search engines we are doing for the searchers.
User experience shouldn’t just be a by-product of SEO, however. We don’t do UX because the search engines tell us to! Wise SEOs are going above and beyond the requirements of Google and Bing and looking for ways to improve their user experience overall. And one really good reason is because search engines can only assess certain aspects of searcher behavior. If they see someone is bouncing back to the search results after hitting your site, they just know they bounced, they don’t really know why.
That bounce could be the result of one or ten things wrong with your site. It doesn’t matter to the search engine; they just see the bounce and, perhaps, factor that into how well you should rank. Your job as the SEO is to determine what’s causing this behavior and then figure out ways to provide a better result for the visitor overall.
SEO / UX Best Practices
As I said above, you don’t have to be a UX expert to take some strong strides in providing a better user experience that complements your SEO efforts. In fact, the best place to start is with conventional wisdom.
Before we get into some semi-universal best practices for SEO/UX, keep in mind that not all “best practices” are going to be the best thing for you, your industry, or your visitors. In fact, something that may work wonders for the website around the corner could end up being disastrous for you. Just because Amazon does it doesn’t mean you should too! (Of course, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, either.)
The base starting point for almost all online marketing is keyword research. This affects everything from web design to site messaging to navigation to the content of the site. While keyword research isn’t a “best practice” that you can implement into your website, it is essential to for most of the best practices outlined here. Which means this is where you should start.
There is a whole art to keyword research, and I recommend you read up on it. Once you’ve got the hang of how to do keyword research, there are a few other points that are helpful to understand before deciding which keywords will be important to your overall marketing efforts.
- Searcher Language: Keywords give us extremely valuable insight on how searchers think about our products or services. Far too often, businesses use language that is native to those within the industry. However, many searchers aren’t in the industry and may not even know the “official” words that describe any particular product or service. Keyword research not only uncovers the words they use to describe what they want, but also the problems and solutions they are looking for. This is valuable information that can inform your content later.
- Searcher Intent: Not all keywords or phrases will mean what we think they mean. For example, one person searching with the phrase “website audit” may be looking for someone to perform the audit, while another may be looking for tips on how to do the audit themselves. Often, the intent becomes clearer as you get into more long-tail phrases, but be careful about making assumptions. You always want to deliver searchers to pages that match their intent.
Entice the Click
Optimization isn’t just about rankings, but about getting searchers to click to your site. All things equal, the higher up on the page you are, the more likely you are to get clicked. But there is no reason you need to be equal when you can be superior to the competing search results! It’s entirely possible to get more clicks to your site than a competitor who is ranking higher than you.
This can be accomplished by making sure that your search listing captures the visitor’s attention while using language that encourages them to click your result rather than another. Bland language in the search results leads to poor click-through rate. Give searchers a reason to choose you over the 10-20 other links on the page.
- Title Tags: This is (typically) the clickable link in the search result. You have very limited space (about 70 characters), so use it wisely. Make sure you use language that fits the search (keywords!) and provide additional, relevant information that is more likely to get the searcher’s attention as they scan the results.
- URLs / Breadcrumbs: The URL of the page or the breadcrumb trail follows the title tag. This provides an additional signal to the searcher regarding the relevance of the result. If the URL or displayed breadcrumb trail doesn’t add value, or match the searcher’s intent, they may choose to disregard your site as a viable option.
- Meta Descriptions: This comes after the URL in the search result. Here, you’re given a bit more room to reinforce and expand on the title tag message that caught their attention. You have about 150 characters or so to provide information that searchers might find valuable and, again, encourage them to click through to your site. Remember to address their needs using their language.
Keep the Scent
Getting visitors to click into your site is a job well done, but not a job completed. There is still a lot more to do. You have to remember that visitors are always in a hurry. They don’t want to take a lot of time trying to figure out where they are or whether or not the page they landed on fulfills their needs. In fact, if searchers don’t find what they are looking for within a few seconds of landing on your page, they often leave. Which means you have to make sure you do everything you can to confirm your page is the right one.
That’s called keeping the scent. There was something about your search result that made them click into your site. They have started down a path based on that scent. Now, you have to keep the scent by quickly confirming that you have what they came looking for, and encourage them to continue engaging with your site until they get a resolution. Don’t let them lose the scent at any point; If they lose the scent you lose them!
- Site ID: One of the first things visitors see when they land on a page is the Site ID, aka logo. Your logo should be obvious, and not surrounded by clutter. And, of course, it helps if your logo (or accompanying tagline) provides some association with what the visitor needs.
- Header Tags: Aside from the logo, visitors will often look to the header at the top of the page content to confirm that the page they landed on provides the information they came for. The topmost heading tag (which should be an H1–and the only H1 on the page) should provide a similar message as the page’s title tag. You have no limitations here, other than what makes sense visually for the page, but use this to reinforce the message and to “title” the content that is below it. You can also use additional headings to break up long content. Visitors will often scan content looking for particular answers or solutions and heading tags can help them do that.
- Navigation: Another signal many visitors use to confirm they are on the right site overall is to scan the navigation. This offers a nice chance to display your full value to the visitor. Do you meet one need? Well, maybe you meet many others! Don’t hide your solutions or services under a “shop” or “services” menu link. Display them proudly in your navigation, grouping them into relevant headings. You want visitors to be able to articulate exactly what you offer by looking at your navigation alone. Oh, one last thing about navigation. This is a great place to use keywords! Each navigation link can be a relevant keyword phrase that leads to the content for that topic or solution.
- Content Optimization: This is where you fulfill the searchers’ needs in full. It’s not just the scent but the meal you deliver here. Whatever they were looking for, the content must deliver. Keep the content focused on a single need and use links to direct the visitor to more information as needed. Each page of content should have a primary goal, and everything on the page should direct the visitor toward the completion of that primary goal. Use keywords as needed (and relevant), but focus the content on a single topic that addresses the visitor’s needs and your goals for them.
- Calls to action: Navigation is important, but you need to incorporate other calls to action for the page’s goal(s). Make sure your calls to action explicitly state what the visitor will get when they click. While each page may have one primary goal, not every visitor will be ready to pull the trigger, so to speak. It can be beneficial to provide some secondary goals with calls to action that will keep the visitor engaged on your site but through a less direct route to the goal.
Speed is an increasingly important component of optimization. Regardless of what platform (desktop, table, phone) the search is performed on, if your pages are slow to load, the search engines will likely limit your exposure to searchers, especially those working from slow connections. That means you want your site to be lightning fast. Searchers and site visitors are very impatient. They are more apt to leave and start a new search then they are to wait around to see what you offer.
- Image Compression: Large images can take up a whole lot of bandwidth, but with HD resolution screens so common, you cannot compromise on image quality for speed. Instead, make sure to save images in the best format (jpg, gif, bmp) depending on what provides the best quality for your image. You can then run your image through compression tools to decrease the size without decreasing the quality.
- Streamlined Code: Technology has improved quite a bit since back in the day. We can do things today with just a few lines of code that required a gluttony of code just a few years ago. And it keeps getting better! While this is good for the web at large, it often means if you’re not keeping up, you’re slowing down. Keep your code lean and clean to keep your site speed up to par.
- Fast Servers: Your web host can also play a critical role in your site speed issues. Sharing server space is likely to slow you down, so consider getting a dedicated server. This is especially critical for businesses with a lot of traffic. Talk to your web host about what you can do to speed up your site for a minimal cost. Every host will have different options, but it’s imperative not to let your server bog you down.
Always be Testing
There is always room for improvement. Just because a change you made works well doesn’t mean it can’t work better. Everything that can be tested should be tested, and it’s okay to fail. Even a test that turns out poorly is a learning experience for what not to do. You’d never know unless you test it, right?
In a perfect world, you’d test every UX change you make to see if the result improved performance before moving on to the next. Unfortunately, we rarely visit–let alone live in–that perfect world. Most sites are in such poor condition that taking one best practice at a time would take far too long to get measurable results. If that’s you, you can probably make good headway implementing the best practices here and then going back to test variations and additional changes later.
What user experience best practices would you add?
Featured Image: Image by Stoney deGeyter
In-post Image #1: Image by Stoney deGetyer
In-post Image #2: Pixabay.com/jjj_901
In-post Image #3: Pixabay.com/ceskyfreund36
In-post Image #4: Screenshot by Stoney deGeyter
In-post Image #5: Pixabay.com/Unsplash