As Google has changed over the years, the skill set required to be at the forefront of search engine optimization (SEO) and ranking in the first position has also changed.
What was first a land ruled by developers with an understanding of technical SEO eventually branched into copywriting and content marketing. While technical SEO and on-page optimization are still extremely important for SEO success today, user experience (UX) is the new kid on the block and is taking the industry by storm.
At Blue Compass, we’ve been following UX design trends and how they affect SEO for a while, and it’s easily one of the most important factors to take into account when optimizing a site.
Why is it important to pay attention to UX for SEO success?
UX and SEO go hand in hand. Each and every Google update has made the search engine more user-friendly and user-focused. We’ve seen changes to SERPs, like rich snippets and knowledge panel, and algorithm updates that show how important UX has become to Google.
Ranking Factors Have Changed to Include Behavior Metrics
Introduced to the world in October 2015, RankBrain brought UX to the forefront of search. Placed as the third most important ranking factor to Google, RankBrain (and subsequently UX) only fall below content and links when it comes to influencing your site’s SEO value.
RankBrain is driven by behavior metrics, such as:
- Organic CTR
- Dwell time (average session duration for you Google Analytics pros)
- Bounce rate
- Pages per session
These metrics tell Google if a user enjoys their experience on the webpage. If a user spends more time on the page, moves throughout the site and frequents the page again and again, Google recognizes that they served the user a great result for their query. If Google sees users liked a page, they may rank that page higher in search results the next time around.
If Google sees that a user is clicking on a search result, spending very little time on the site and immediately returning back to the search results, that will indicate that the user didn't find relevant content. If Google sees a search result isn't leading the user to quality content, that page could fall in the rankings.
This is where UX comes in. As digital marketers, we can no longer think of just the content and the keywords on the page when it comes to SEO; we have to think about how users interact with the content on that page and the content on the next page they view on the website. We have to provide the users with a great experience.
UX and SEO Have Common Goals
If you’ve been following SEO over the past couple of years, you know that it has shifted away from solely ranking for search terms and more toward providing searchers with information that answers their questions.
This is where SEO and UX start to interact. Both are about providing users with relevant content and helping users complete their tasks. SEO leads searchers to the content they are looking for, and the user experience makes it so once a user ends up on the page, the information is intuitive and easy to navigate. In 2018, a site optimized for search will naturally follow UX best practices.
SEO Best Practices That Are UX Best Practices
Whether you're leading your company's SEO strategy or you're partnering with a digital or UX agency, there are probably SEO best practices you are already following that are also improving the user experience on your site. If you’re writing content in a conversational tone and have the proper heading and image tags set, you’re already working with UX. Though you may not notice, it’s small actions like these that influence user behavior.
Just take a look at these common content and SEO practices that influence UX.
Anyone in SEO knows their way around heading tags, but how do they influence UX? Simple. They improve page readability and help structure the content on the page, making it easy for users to scan the page and understand the content.
This is a frequently overlooked usability issue on websites. Image tags improve usability by providing information when images do not load, ensuring the user receives a similar experience, image or no image. Also, from an SEO perspective, they are another opportunity to utilize your target keywords.
Page Copy Over 600 Words:
When creating content, we use 600 words as a minimum for page copy. Why? It ensures every page has in-depth content that can answer user questions.
How is this relevant to UX?
Let’s say you’re trying to answer someone’s questions about UX and SEO. You probably want a fairly in-depth guide, right? There’s nothing worse than trying to find an answer to something, only to be given brief, low-quality content that leaves you with follow-up questions. Long-form content, as long as it’s relevant, will improve the user experience.
No one wants to wait more than 2 seconds for a page to load. By default, this also means Google doesn’t want to wait longer than 2 seconds, either.
With this in mind, page speed has become an SEO metric that’s largely UX-based. The quicker the page loads, the better the experience on the site. How many times have you waited for a page to load, refreshing it over and over until you leave in frustration?
A speedy site also means it’s likely developed well and isn’t too bulky. By designing a site with this SEO practice in mind, your site will intuitively be more user-friendly.
In 2016, mobile surpassed desktop in total internet usage worldwide, and every digital marketer, SEO strategist and UX consultant knows mobile will be the focus moving forward. Today, mobile makes up 52.2 percent of the market share. How a site works on mobile is more important than desktop, especially with Google’s recent switch to a mobile-first index.
While this makes sense for SEO, it’s also easy to see that a site not optimized for mobile devices would provide a poor user experience. Sites with too wide of a viewport, content that is too small to read or content that is misplaced when viewed on a mobile device can ruin a user’s whole experience.
Bad SEO Often Leads to Bad UX
Just as SEO influences a lot of UX best practices, bad SEO leads to a poor user experience. This goes to show just how far Google has come at understanding how people interact with a page. Something as simple as how you layout content on a page can lead to poor rankings and, ultimately, an unenjoyable experience.
For example, let’s look at one of the oldest examples of poor SEO, keyword stuffing.
This outdated practice makes pages difficult to read, dulls down any heading or subheadings and ends up making the content almost unreadable. The language and keywords on a page must be natural to read.
Something as simple as how you write must be looked at through an SEO and UX lens. It’s when you start to let these things slide that you may see your site perform poorly — for both users and search engines.
More UX Best Practices That Can Improve SEO
Outside of the realm of copy, headings and all things SEO, compelling portions of the design and the UI of your site will influence the overall UX.
One of our favorite examples to use is Airbnb. When you visit Airbnb, the first thing users see is a search bar. Why? Because if you’re going to airbnb.com, you are without a doubt looking for a place to stay.
They anticipate what the user is looking for and make it easily accessible. Whether it’s a landing page or your homepage, designing your layout and content with the users’ end goal in mind is an effective way to improve your site’s UX.
Using a style guide and clearly designing a visual hierarchy are two other design elements that can be implemented to improve the user experience. A style guide will streamline any design and visually reveal your brand identity to the user, while a visual hierarchy will help guide a user through the page with your goals in mind.
As users move through your page, they will build their own hierarchy of information. We typically see this in the infamous “capital F” movement that users follow when working down a page, scanning the page from left to right and down. Creating a clear hierarchy, by indicating prominence with contrast, image size and whitespace, helps guide users to the most important information on the site.
The last UX best practice we want to leave you with is maybe the hardest to do but easiest to implement. Simply eliminate content that is not useful to users. If your site has a section that is rarely used or doesn’t offer anything beneficial to the user, remove it. Always be thinking of your user and how you can ease their use of your site.
Using SEO Data to Improve User Experience
As we mentioned above, there are some key parts of SEO (RankBrain) that are specifically addressing UX. Why not use the data behind these SEO metrics and put them to use when it comes to your UX?
Metrics like the bounce rate, conversion rate and average pages per session all matter when it comes to the user experience. UX and SEO strategies should be overlapped, with data shared and broken down between the two practices to garner the best results.
Determine General User Trends
Understanding the basics of what today’s users are doing is one of the best places to start when building out your UX strategy. Is it challenging to get a click from a user? Is a scroll easier to achieve or a swipe on mobile? User research platforms, such as Hotjar, are effective tools to gain user insight through heatmapping, mouse tracking and funnel tracking.
After conducting user testing and research, you can then use the behavior trends you learned about your users to best determine how to optimize your site.
Learn What Users Are Looking For
We could sum this whole section up with one thought: “think like your user.”
Like the Airbnb example, consider what the user may be looking for and design your site around that experience. So how to do you discover what users truly want from your website?
Testing is critical when making any changes to the design of your site. Track behavior metrics, such as conversion rates, bounce rates and the average session duration, and continually test what design or content changes improve the key metrics and what changes do not.
Let’s say after tracking users on a page, you are able to determine that only one-third of your users click on a link on your homepage. Using our knowledge of UX and SEO, we can now determine that two-thirds of our users are not finding what they’re looking for and are leaving the site.
Asking these questions and testing on your site is the only way you can properly implement UX best practices.
Another place to look for information about what users hope to gain from your website is Google Search Console. A commonly used tool for organic insight, Search Console can help determine why a user is coming to your site and what they’re searching for when they get there. Search queries are a great place to start when deciding what areas to improve or optimize on your site.
By tying together organic insight and testing your site’s usability, you can determine what the user wants to see on your site and how to best deliver that information.
Boost Your SEO With UX Consulting
With UX being the new kid on the block, we understand that it can be hard to know where to start. There are many nuanced pieces that go into it and quite few borrowed elements from design and SEO.
That’s why partnering with a UX agency could be your best bet to improve your SEO in 2018. At Blue Compass, we incorporate UX strategies into our digital marketing, web design and development processes. Learn more about how we’re driving results for our clients using UX strategies and best practices.