Sometimes search engine optimizers get so caught up in the job’s minutiae that they forget any website’s main purpose.
It’s not to game an algorithm to rank higher on a search results page – it’s to provide information to real, live humans.
And that comes down to creating quality experiences.
It’s simple logic: If a visitor is confused or frustrated by your site, they’ll navigate away before they can take action – which could include making a purchase, filling out a form, or even reading an article.
For that reason alone, UX should be important to search optimizers.
But there’s more to it than that.
The quality user experience is factored into your ranking.
Read on to learn how.
What Exactly Are SEO And UX?
If you’re reading this, you probably already know a little about search engine optimization (SEO).
In the simplest terms, it’s the process of ranking a webpage higher in SERPs (search engine results pages) for relevant queries, thus increasing traffic.
It focuses solely on unpaid or organic traffic rather than paid ad placement.
The other important term you may not be as familiar with is user experience (UX), which refers to a person’s experience when using your website.
Is it easy to use or confusing?
Is it aesthetically pleasing or visually messy?
Is it efficient or clunky and slow?
Does it easily provide the information people want, or do they have to dig for it?
The answers to these, and similar questions, determine whether you have good or bad UX.
But what does UX have to do with SEO? As an SEO professional, is it something you need to consider?
Yes: SEO and UX are functions of one another and inexorably intertwined.
You could even make the case that every fulfilled search is UX at work, where expectations about results interact with reality.
To do SEO well, you also need to adopt a UX mindset.
How Does UX Impact SEO?
At its most basic level, Google is attempting to do just one thing: Provide searchers with the best possible answer for their query.
To do this, the search engine giant is always tinkering, seeking to create a smarter, more accurate algorithm that better understands user intent, context, and countless other signals to improve search results.
Several algorithm updates, including Panda in 2011, Penguin in 2012, Hummingbird in 2013, and RankBrain in 2015, included increasingly complex means of evaluating a page’s value and user experience.
This experience score is then factored in alongside other, more “traditional” SEO elements like backlinks and keywords to determine overall ranking.
Once more for the people in the back: UX scores are factored into overall SEO rankings.
Google is increasingly user-focused and uses machine learning, natural language processing, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies to determine which web pages provide the best responses to a search.
And all of those are part of UX.
What UX Factors Does Google Care About Most?
Okay, so we’ve established that they’re connected.
Now, let’s get to where UX and SEO overlap – and how these impact your SERP positioning.
In May 2020, Google released Core Web Vitals to help site owners measure their page experience.
Undoubtedly something that will continue to evolve, it included three focal points with corresponding metrics:
- Loading speed: The time your page takes to load the largest content element.
- Interactivity: The time it takes a site to respond to an input.
- Visual stability: How the screen is affected by movements.
Page load time has been part of technical SEO for a long time. Now that aspect of user experience has trackable metrics from Google. It wants you to aim for under 2.5 seconds.
Delayed input is also a factor that can cause a negative experience. Don’t make users wait for the page to respond after they click on an element on the page.
Visual stability can cause real issues for users, especially if the locations of input buttons change.
Navigation is critical to your website’s experience – true for both users and search engines.
Even without an XML sitemap, you can ensure that Google crawlers can access all of your pages by providing a good navigation experience.
Breadcrumbs help users understand where they are in a website’s structure and navigate back to previous pages.
Make sure that a user or crawler can navigate to every page by following links.
Make links easy to understand, and organize your website by grouping related pages under categories.
Read more about improving navigation.
In the fourth quarter of 2021, mobile traffic accounted for 54.4% of all internet traffic.
So, if you don’t have a mobile responsive site, you could miss out on over half of all web users.
Of course, Google knows this too.
Back in November 2016, recognizing how the winds were blowing regarding smartphones and other mobile devices, the search engine began mobile indexing.
By March 2021, it was using mobile sites first when determining rankings.
That means your mobile site is even more important than your desktop site.
If a Google spider crawls your website and finds it lacking in mobile responsiveness, performance, or user experience, it will count that against you when determining your quality score.
If you’re unsure how your site operates for mobile users, you can check it with the Mobile Usability report.
Over time, popup ads have gone from opening in separate windows to appearing on-page. And those popups – which appear between the user and the webpage they’re interested in – are known as interstitials.
Websites tend to like these because they offer interaction opportunities and focus the user’s attention.
On the other hand, many users find them only slightly less annoying than old-fashioned popups.
Google has seen it from both sides, shifting from penalizing all interstitials in 2017 to a more nuanced position that allows webmasters to use these ads while minimizing the irritation they cause searchers.
That said, so-called “intrusive interstitial ads” will hurt the user experience.
These include popups that cover the main content, standalone ads that must be dismissed to access content, and layouts where “above-the-fold” content looks like an interstitial with content below.
Bear in mind there are some necessary interstitials, such as user consent popups.
There’s a lot of information available online.
And it’s not just that “Five Fascinating Facts About Cats” article your grandma sent you – it’s personal details, credit card numbers, and other private information.
As technology has become more sophisticated, the opportunities for bad actors have grown alongside it.
The importance of cybersecurity can’t be stressed enough, which is why Google includes site safety in its rankings.
Sites that have secured their data via an SSL certificate and an HTTPS domain are considered safer for users than regular HTTP sites.
And while you might not notice an immediate jump in your SERP position by securing your site, there’s a far more important reason to do it: If your site is risky for visitors, it isn’t just your SEO that will suffer. Data breaches have significant ramifications.
For instance, if malware infects your site, it could even be diminished completely.
The SEO aspects of site security are clear, but what does this have to do with UX?
It’s simple: UX is not just about sites that look great and are easy to use. It’s also how a site functions, with cybersecurity being the main objective.
And, of course, people will not linger on a site that feels unsafe, which leads to shorter visits and lower user experience scores.
UX Best Practices And Myths
UX Best Practices
Now that we’ve covered what user experience factors go into SEO rankings, it’s time to talk about UX best practices that will also help your search ranking.
Keep It Simple, Search Engine Optimizer (KISSEO)
UX design should be intuitive and easy to navigate. Try to help users find what they’re looking for in as few clicks as possible.
Take A Mobile-First Approach
More people search the web using a mobile device than a desktop, which means your site should be designed primarily for them.
Don’t neglect your desktop site, but ensure you’re focused on responsiveness to ensure good experiences and better rankings.
Make It Fast
No one will wait around on a site that takes forever to load.
Test your page speed regularly to ensure you’re not lagging and fix issues like unnecessary scripts, images that are not optimized, and redirects.
Keep A Clear Structure
Page layout should be user-friendly, with relevant information (like what the user is searching for) prominently displayed.
Header hierarchies make your content more scannable and help web crawlers better understand the page’s content.
Use Language Your Audience Responds To
Every industry, hobby, or organization has its own vocabulary.
But more than vocabulary, with voice search on the rise, it has become more important than ever to use natural language in your text.
Stick With It
UX best practices are constantly evolving, just like SEO approaches.
Understand that this is an ongoing process, and what works today may not work in the future.
Wait – What About SEO And UI?
We’ve slightly blurred the line between UX and UI (user interface), but they are not the same.
UX refers to the entire interaction a user has with your website, while UI includes the site’s screens, buttons, icons, and other visual aspects.
In other words: UI is the aesthetic part of the site.
While the link between SEO and UI is more tenuous than between SEO and UX, there is a relationship.
At the very least, an effective UI will help keep people from abandoning your site.
UX & SEO Myths
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about how UX impacts SEO.
Let’s take a look at some of these.
Internet users are a fickle bunch.
Users will navigate away from your page for all sorts of reasons.
A UX issue is one reason. But they also might have simply misclicked.
Or they might have landed looking for something specific and then found it. That’s good UX! If they then leave without interacting, it would be silly to penalize you for that.
So, does a high bounce rate necessarily indicate a bad user experience?
Does it impact rankings?
Google has been very clear on this: Bounce rate is not factored into rankings.
Bounce rate will become more useful in GA4 as the inverse of engagement rate. The added time factor makes it more helpful, but exit pages are likely still more informative.
It has often been claimed that pogo-sticking – which refers to the practice of rapidly switching back and forth between webpages and search results – is a bad indication.
However, Google’s John Mueller has stated this is not a signal to the search engine about your site’s quality. There are many other reasons a user might pogo-stick that don’t have to do with your UX.
Everything Needs An Image
Some people will tell you that every webpage should have an image, no matter what – even if it’s a stock photo that looks completely out of place. They say this breaks up the text and gives search engine spiders more information.
While it’s good to use images, low-quality or unrelated images won’t help your UX or SEO efforts as much as organizing your information clearly. Too many images, or images that are too large, can negatively affect UX by increasing load times.
UX And SEO Should Complement Each Other
By this point, it should be clear how UX and SEO work together to create positive experiences for both users and search engines.
Users are the center of both disciplines – which can achieve more by working together than if each operated independently.
Remember: Your website exists for the real, live human on the other end, not the bot being sent out by a search engine.
Improve the experience for them, and your SERP position will follow suit.
5 Key Areas Where UX Impacts SEO
Here are five key UX elements that affect SEO as a cheat sheet you can refer to with further reading. We recommend you at least check out the accessibility pieces.
- Site navigation and page layout:
- Page loading speed:
- Responsiveness/mobile-first design:
Featured Image: Chaosamran_Studio/Shutterstock