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April 21, 2014

Is Usability the New SEO?

Photo Credit: Luca Mascaro via flickr

SEO ranks at the top of many marketers’ “most important” list, so much so that the world seems totally obsessed with the topic. In essence, SEO is about creating content that Google adores, and thus ranks accordingly. In other words, it’s a bot-centric practice that aims to garner the attention of algorithms, not human beings.

The result of the SEO fad has, for all intents and purposes, been relatively positive. As algorithms increase in intelligence, so does the usability of the content produced for SEO determinations. After all, Google and company wouldn’t benefit from highlighting sites that trick the algorithms into high rankings. Actual users are turned-off by content that doesn’t speak directly to them, so in practice, this would be a short-lived success. So the search experts have spent thousands of hours perfecting algorithms to match what people want, not robots.

Yet we’ve all seen the reverse happen frequently enough. SEO-savvy marketers use every trick in the book to woo the bots of the world, and we (the users) are left reading keyword dense nonsense that has the usability of a site circa 1996.

That’s why a marriage between SEO and usability is the yin and yang of successful web design. Let’s explore the strengths of each. It may even be that you’ll discover usability is more critical than SEO. Please your audience first, and the bots will follow. That’s a timeless mantra for content creation if ever there was one.

How to Merge SEO and Usability

First, a little clarification:

  • SEO is the art of luring traffic to your site and content via search engine algorithms. Content written with SEO in mind follows the current search engine trends to ensure high search query rankings.
  • Usability focuses on the overall experience of your site, with special attention paid to specific behaviors you wish to trigger (like product purchases and opt-ins.) Usability, then, cares most about conversions, not search engine bots.

Make no mistake, creating sites and content that appeal to bots and humans alike is no easy task. If it were, we’d be frolicking in a world full of fabulous sites that get uber-high rankings. Some days, it feels as if the reverse is true. The challenge is very, very real.

For example, we all love to feature the most critical parts of our content above the fold. We want to include enough words to clue the search engine bots into our niche and expertise, but not so much text that we turn-off visitors. This is often a difficult balance to strike.

The easy solution lies in tabs, or expanding div. These allow you to highlight a small block of text, granting intrigued visitors the opportunity to reveal more details with a click. Search engines can read the entire block of text, too. It’s a total win-win.

Here’s another conundrum that many site owners face: duplicate content. You might run an ecommerce store that wants to run sale promotional text on a large number of pages. These pages likely contain limited content, meaning that your sales copy is going to get you dinged by bots seeing the duplicate announcements.

The SEO solution here is to make duplicate blocks like this embedded in an image. Bots can’t crawl images for content, so you can communicate the big announcement wherever you choose without the red flag. This works well for things like copyrights and disclaimer text too.

Conflicts Between SEO and Usability

There are many inherent disconnects between usability and SEO, but all are truly manageable. They just require a little big-picture thinking.

First of all, please abandon the tactic of keyword stuffing. It’s working less frequently now (Google has long since been on to this annoyance), and it’s never belonged in the usability camp. Instead, use your keywords, but note that it’s no longer necessary to make these equate to X percent of your overall word count in order to succeed. Write content that reads well, that has a pleasing flow and an informative feel. You’ll gain your readers’ trust and attention, and the bots will follow in kind.

Additionally, please stop creating fat (or obese) footers. Many started doing this a few years back as an SEO tactic, as it strengthened structural SEO to have all your site links and keywords present in the footer. This got severely out of hand, and we still see archaic sites with massive footers on every page. This is a major usability no-no and it no longer boosts SEO either.

Rich media used to be a conundrum too; great for usability (people love videos and images) but bad for SEO (bots can’t crawl ’em). Thanks to a gaggle of smart folks, there are many tools and tactics available now to let your video content also assist in your SEO efforts. The usage of a video sitemap, tilting techniques, video schema, script transcripts, and video sharing networks now significantly help SEO. So by all means, use video to reach your users, and enjoy the SEO benefits as well.

The final word is clear: focusing on a true unification of SEO and usability is the fast track to site success. By thoughtfully considering how to please the bots and your demographic with each critical decision, you’re doubling your chances at high rankings and high conversions. Resist the short-term SEO tricks that turn off users long-term; it’s no longer worth the risk. Now that we have the tools and tactics to please both parties, there’s no excuse to take the easy way out.

What other savvy ways have you discovered to marry usability and SEO? Have you found the practice difficult or relatively intuitive?


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Conscious online marketer, web executive, and multi-faceted writer Tina Courtney has been creating and fostering online innovations since 1996. Tina has assisted many clients in maximizing online production and marketing efforts, and is a staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs. She’s produced and marketed innovative content for major players like Disney and JDate, as well as boutique startups galore, with fortes including social media, SEO, influencer marketing, community management, lead generation, and project management. Tina is also a certified Reiki practitioner, herbalist, and accomplished life coach.  Learn more on LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+. Visit My Google+ Profile

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