Improve SEO using Usability Techniques

by John J
When it comes to SEO and website usability, focusing only on one attribute or the other can negatively effect the long term success of a website. However, when both are given equal consideration they can have a synergistic effect that results in a site with great SERP rank and usability. At first glance, SEO and usability can seem to oppose to one another. An example of this would be the fact that “visitors often prefer graphic-based webpages as opposed to text-based webpages.” (Visser, 2011) This can be a problem given that web crawlers rely on text to determine the website content. As I will explain in this blog, even this does not have to be a problem if the designer holistically applies usability techniques and not just SEO by itself throughout the website. Let’s first take a look at some usability elements that readily lend themselves to good SEO.

The title tag is a element that could easily be overlooked if it is not understood for it’s importance in both SEO and usability. In terms of search engine rankings, the title tag is the most important on-page factor. (Spencer, 2009) One of the reasons the title tag is so important is that it is used as the link in the results page. So, if a designer uses this tag to stuff as many keywords as possible, it will look like “keyword gibberish” and the user will not click on that listing. (Spencer, 2009) However, it is recommended to use keywords here. Use no more than three keywords and keep them as close to the start of tag as possible. “The closer the word is to the start of the tag, the more weight it is given.” (Spencer, 2009) Every page on the site should have a unique title tag with the aforementioned rules applied. The great thing about this is that it gives the designer the opportunity to use more keywords. Rather than trying to stuff a ton of keywords on the homepage, use unique descriptive titles for every page on the site with different keywords that describe the content of that page. (Misfud, 2011)

For pictures, the filename, title and alt attribute are what Google uses for ranking purposes. The interesting thing is that two of those attributes have the overlapping purpose of increasing usability. The alt attribute will be displayed in lieu of the image and it will be read by screen readers for the visually impaired. The title attribute is displayed on hover over with the mouse. This attribute also works for links and provides yet another opportunity to use keywords to provide useful information about the link. Together these attributes offer a great opportunity to increase both SEO and usability.

Links are very important to both SERP rank and usability. For usability, good descriptive anchor text clearly informs the user about where the link will take them. At the same time, it also tells search engine crawlers about the content of the page. The anchor text and the title attribute both present another opportunity to use a keyword. Links are also very important because of something called Link juice. “Link juice refers to the fact that major search engines treat links like votes. When you link to a page, you are voting for it, vouching for it.” (Spencer, 2009) By far the best way to increase both SEO through ‘link juice’ and the usability of your website is through two features: sitemap and breadcrumb navigation. These features make it easy for your visitors to get around your site without getting lost or frustrated. But they also make it easy for search engine crawlers to completely navigate and index your entire site, thereby increasing your page rank.

The last easy intersection of SEO and usability I want to look at is page speed because “Search engines penalize slow-loading websites and Google have even introduced site speed in web search ranking.” (Misfud, 2012) Also, as Visser (2011) has pointed out, it makes more sense just to back out and search for a competitor website than it is to wait for page to load. Either way, these facts makes page load speed critical. The good news is that it’s easy to fix. Just make sure to put JavaScript and CSS in seperate files rather than in the html file.

And now we move on to the areas of usability that aren’t so clearly compatible with SEO…
As mentioned earlier, search engines currently lack the ability to intelligently decipher images and thus rely on text to determine a websites content. This fact might lead some website designers to overly emphasize text content. They might do so for any number of reasons, one of them being that the more content they have, the more opportunities to inject keywords they have. While that might sound reasonable enough, it runs in direct contradiction to what usability experts say is good design. According to these experts “visitors often view a webpage for 45–60 seconds [and they] estimate that a visitor could read a maximum of 200 words during that time period.” (Visser, 2011) That puts a damper on an SEO focused individuals’ designs to load a page with text.

One final area I’ll mention that really seems to highlight how SEO and usability can sometimes conflict is the with a usability attribute called trust and credibility. This attribute involves the inclusion of privacy policy, about us, company overview, feedback, testimonials and contact form pages into a website. You might ask, how do these elements harm SEO and if so, why bother including them? The answer to the first question is that it is believed (because the source code for the crawlers is secret) that crawler algorithms define a range for what is considered a good keyword density. The addition of the above-mentioned content would dilute the keyword density, as it would not employ the keywords. The answer to the second question is that there is “evidence that [these usability] attributes do have an effect on conversion.” It is also concluded that these usability attributes are “not a luxury, but a prerequisite for that particular type of websites success.” (Visser, 2011) The particular type of website being referenced to in the previous quote is any website is any website that requires the visitor to interact with a website form. In my opinion that encompasses any website that would also be concerned with SEO.

Most elements for good usability also contribute well to the SEO of a website and vice versa. There are some usability elements that can be tricky, but if both SEO and usability concerns are weighed together, the balance will be a website that is on track for longterm success.

References

Mifsud, J. (2012, December 3). Usability, SEO And The Modern Day Internet Marketing Professional | Usability Geek [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://usabilitygeek.com/usability-seo-internet-marketing-professional/

Misfud, J. (2011, October 3). 15 Title Tag Optimization Guidelines For Usability and SEO | Usability Geek [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://usabilitygeek.com/15-title-tag-optimization-guidelines-for-usability-and-seo/

Misfud, J. (2012, April 16). 7 HTML Guidelines For Website Usability & SEO | Usability Geek [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://usabilitygeek.com/7-html-guidelines-for-website-usability-seo/

Nielsen, J. (2012, August 13). SEO and Usability. Retrieved June 1, 2013, from http://www.nngroup.com/articles/seo-and-usability/

Spencer, S. (2009). How to balance usability with SEO. Multichannel Merchant, 26(4), 24-n/a. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/195869656?accountid=10357

Visser, E. B., & Weideman, M. (2011). An empirical study on website usability elements and how they affect search engine optimisation. South African Journal of Information Management, 13(1), C1-C9. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/878044433?accountid=10357

4 thoughts on “Improve SEO using Usability Techniques

  • June 7, 2013 at 12:58 pm
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    The attributes that you listed that can be used through SEO and website usability is a good way to improve ones website, however combine those attributes with Heat Maps and you have a great precise tool that can be used to expand ones website to reach success in a short amount of time and to maintain popularity. Overall I found your article to be informative and well explained.

  • June 8, 2013 at 3:28 pm
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    I like how you began the blog on the synergetic properties of working on both SEO and Usability at the same time. It seems most people would be focused on one or the other, but this hits two birds with one stone. I find your article an informative introduction into the subject of addressing both issues.

  • June 8, 2013 at 9:45 pm
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    Well written blog John. I never realized that the names of links, title tags.. basically everything you name is important in SEO. I found that pretty interesting. The more I read these blogs the more I know how to optimize websites! I feel like with a little bit of research people can find that building and making their site successful isn’t as easy as 1, 2, 3. But, can be beneficial to them with that knowledge.

    I’m definitely going to use these techniques for when I build my sites!

  • June 9, 2013 at 11:41 pm
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    John, Nice blog. I also didn’t realize that the names of links, title tags.. Basically everything is important in SEO. The points mentioned about usability and SEO together helped fill in a few gaps for me. I also did not know people on average will only stay on a site if frustrated for 1 min before moving on. Well written.

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