The Intersection of SEO and User Experience

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Sujan Patel
Sujan Patel
The Intersection of SEO and User Experience

SEO UsabilityOne of the biggest criticisms that exists regarding the process of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is that it’s entirely self-promotional—that is, that it manipulates websites based on what the search engines prefer to see, not based on what’s most beneficial to website users.

As such, it would appear that a conflict exists between SEO and the creation of a good user experience. After all, if you’re constantly tweaking and tailoring your website for natural search success, doesn’t it also stand to reason that this diminished focus on your website’s users creates an environment that isn’t enjoyable or interesting for real people?

In fact, I disagree. As you’ll see in the following examples, there are plenty of instances in which these dual focuses actually work together—with best practices from both disciplines combining to create an environment that’s both easily accessible to the search engines and highly engaging to the actual visitors that wind up on your site.

Use Sitemaps and Simple Navigation

It’s no secret that sitemaps and effective navigation strategies are important from an SEO perspective. Search engines operate on limited crawl budgets, meaning that they may only index a certain number of pages on your site on any given visit. If they have any difficulty navigating to different areas of your website (whether because of a lack of internal links or because of Flash-based navigation systems), you risk squandering this crawl budget unnecessarily.

As a result, sitemaps and efficient navigation options are great for the search engines, but their also great for your users. Keep in mind that users like things simplified as well. Really, nobody has time these days to click through page after page, looking for a single piece of information that could have been made easily accessible with a better navigation system.

So, do both your users and the search engines a favor by following sitemap creation best practices and implementing an HTML-based navigation system that ensures that every page on your site can be found within three clicks or less!

Combine SEO and User Experience Elements

From an SEO standpoint, huge chunks of text are good. Not only do they give the search engines’ spider programs a better understanding of your site’s focus area (increasing the odds that you’ll rank for the right search queries in the natural results), they also improve keyword discovery for webmasters (increasing the number of search queries for which you’ll rank).

But from a user standpoint, long stretches of uninterrupted text-based content aren’t all that great. Nobody wants to click on to a new website—only to be assaulted by the sheer volume of required reading offered by some pages.

That said, you don’t need to choose between the text content that’s favored by the search engines and the graphic experience preferred by website visitors. Just keep “the fold” of your website’s pages in mind. Because the first few moments of interaction on your website are so critical to interesting and retaining new visitors, consider including graphic elements on the top of your pages (where they’ll be seen right away by users) and text blogs on the bottom (where they’ll still be accessible by the search engines).  Everybody wins!

Write Content for Users and the Search Engines

As any webmaster with at least a basic understanding of SEO knows, content is king. Content does your website a number of SEO favors—from increasing the odds that your site will be indexed for a particular target keyword to aiding your chances of ranking highly by improving your overall “freshness” score. And for the most part, it should be obvious that adding high-quality content to your site on a regular basis goes a long way towards improving the user experience on your site as well.

That said, confusion occurs when it comes to how this content should be written in order to maximize its SEO effectiveness. The days of keyword density playing a role in SEO rankings has long since passed, and yet, many webmasters still believe that they need to create paragraphs like the ones below in order to secure the top spots in the natural search results pages:

“Melissa’s Gift Shop has the best low cost gifts on the Web.  Her store sells women’s gifts, men’s gifts, children’s gifts, pet gifts and more.  Her low cost gifts are great for any occasion, so be sure to check back the next time you need a low cost gift.”

No …  Just no!

When it comes to keyword inclusion, it’s a good idea to include your target keyword in your page title, headline tag and body content, but don’t include more than one instance in any of these areas. More than this simply isn’t necessary when it comes to SEO (in fact, doing so could put your site at risk of an over-optimization penalty) and risks annoying your readers to the extent that they leave your site and never return.

Repeat after me: High-quality, natural-sounding website content benefits both my readers and the search engine spiders!

Avoid Flash

Can we all make an agreement to simply stop using this outdated technology? Here’s the thing…

Although search engines have come a long way in their ability to recognize and parse the content found within Flash objects on websites, the still aren’t able to process this information correctly 100 percent of the time. So at best, you’ve filled up your site with content that the search engines can’t understand. At worst, though, you’ve diminished the overall SEO effectiveness of your site by including important information in a format that the search engines can’t process correctly.

And don’t even try to tell me that Flash is necessary for your user experience! We’re long since passed the days when website visitors were impressed by every moving object and animated experience you could cram into your site. These days, people want information ASAP, which means that they don’t want to waste time sitting through the minute-long Flash splash page or presentation your Web team is so proud of.

So yes, while I know it’s possible to work around the SEO weaknesses that Flash presents, my point is that there’s no reason to. Users don’t want to deal with these animations, so do everybody a favor and eliminate them from your website entirely.

Incorporate Microdata Markup into Your Pages

One final intersection between SEO and the user experience that you’ll want to be aware of is the impact that microdata usage can have on your website’s performance.

When it comes to SEO, microdata—particularly those that follow protocols—can be incredibly useful when it comes to providing the search engines with extra data about your site’s purpose and intent. As an example, adding the system’s “itemtype” tag to your page’s HTML could allow you to clarify that your page on “Pride & Prejudice” refers to the original book, not the recent movie.

As a result, the search engines that are able to interpret this structured data could serve your site up for more relevant search result placements than sites without this additional information.

As you might expect by this point in the article, users benefit from the addition of microdata as well. In many cases, especially that of the “rel=author” tag, structured data provides additional information that can be displayed alongside a site’s listing in the natural search results.

Not only does this extra data help users to make more informed search decisions, these enhanced displays have a notable impact on SERPs click-through rates, increasing the likelihood that a search user will wind up on your page over a competitor’s.

As you can see, there are plenty ways in which SEO and user experience objectives can work together to create a website that’s both engaging to read and easy to rank in the natural search results. However, if you ever identify a potential conflict between the two, keep in mind that your first priority is to the user. While SEO best practices may come and go over time, making a commitment to serve your user first will never go out of style!

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Robsonphoto

Sujan Patel

Sujan Patel

Sujan Patel has over 12 years of digital marketing experience and has helped hundreds of clients increase web traffic, boost ... [Read full bio]