Must SEO always battle UX?

In the world of search marketing, various battles have raged since the advent of modern web search in the 1990s. While the most obvious is the conflict between white-hat and black-hat SEOs, a quieter, but substantially more important battle rages between the forces of user experience (UX) and search engine optimization (SEO). Both parties have the best intentions, but seldom find their agendas advanced through the same initiatives.

In most cases, the roots of this battle come from a belief that search and usability are unrelated – a belief that is absolutely wrong. While projects will have independent goals, most UX changes have SEO impact, and vice versa. By ignoring this inevitable relationship between search and usability, gains for one group often result in losses for the other. To avoid this myopic, counter-productive behavior, it is vital to bring these two groups together with a focus on high-level, shared goals.

An example of a high-level, shared goal is time, a limited resource for both search engine bots and end users. People inherently gravitate toward resources that efficiently provide accurate and actionable information. Because our time is limited, we allow ourselves only a certain amount of it to research before making decisions. The faster our questions are answered, the sooner we draw conclusions.

Search engine crawlers like Googlebot must also deal with time as a limited resource. Since about 2001, I’ve optimized for speed, knowing that it was important for UX and believing it was important for SEO. In 2009, while managing SEO for a major travel site, Googlebot crawl data confirmed my hypothesis. On days when our servers were slow, Googlebot crawled fewer pages and showed our site less favor.  Since then, I have seen similar examples with other sites.  If the number of pages Google crawls on your site varies greatly from day to day, check to see if unpredictable server response times are leading Google to believe that your site is volatile.

So, it’s in a site’s best interest – from both UX and SEO perspectives – to make finding needed information on a site as quick and easy as possible. The following five projects make your site more time-efficient for both users and bots.

  1. Intuitive headings and callouts. Many of the techniques used in newspaper, magazine, and book printing can be effective at improving SEO and UX. Leverage headings, subheadings, and callouts to emphasize key points on any page. This works well for virtually all types of pages – articles, blog posts, product pages, etc. Use H1 and H2 tags for headings and subheadings, and use a floated H3 tag for callouts. When writing these elements, be sure to use consumer lingo, and not industry jargon that may not be commonly used by your average consumer.
  2. Efficient levels of content. Both search engine crawlers and end users appreciate rich brevity. In most cases, 200 words of content will not be rich enough to help someone make a purchase decision, yet a page with 10,000 words is virtually impossible for the average shopper to consume. When writing web content for product and service pages, respect time limitations and keep pages to about 1,000 words. Pages about this size are typically preferred by both users and search engines.
  3. Helpful questions and answers. Almost without fail, shoppers have questions. By including product-specific questions and answers on your site, you can easily create additional pages of rich content, which will help move purchase decisions forward. These pages will also contain excellent question-focused search phrases that are very search-relevant. The addition of phrases that include words like how, where, what, and why can drastically expand your keyword reach.  The presence of these words allows your site to rank for search phrases that are worded in question format. Without questions in your content, your pages are unlikely to rank when users type a question into Google or Bing.
  4. User-generated reviews. Product descriptions focus on the product’s most positive attributes in an effort to sell more. Consumers understand this, and do not fully trust sites that only have professionally-written content. Rather than investing time and money in eloquent 1,000-word product descriptions, write a brief 100 to 200-word description and let users provide the remainder in the form of reviews. Consumers trust opinions from people like them, and reviews are written in the same casual language shoppers use in search queries. The frequent addition of new reviews will also keep your product pages fresh, making them more attractive to search engines.
  5. Fast page load times. If your web pages load slowly, time is wasted. Search engines prefer pages that load quickly, and so do users. Time is measured in milliseconds on the Internet, and every 500-millisecond (half-second) delay invites distractions that could pull users away from your site. Compare the amount to time it takes to load your pages to the time it takes to do a search on Google. If your site is significantly slower, there is room for improvement.

Time is a valuable resource, both for shoppers and search engine crawlers. To capture both of these online audiences, SEO and UX managers alike should focus on making their site as time-efficient as possible.

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