In recent years, Google has made it clear that their search algorithm is intended, above all else, to help offer users the best possible search experience. Although Google's own bots may do the bulk of the crawling and calculating, the algorithm itself is intended to "think" like a user, offering the best user experience, or UX, possible. Google's own Matt Cutts even referenced the importance of writing and linking for users in his famous article here on the fall of guest blogging. However, even this has yet to fully convince all webmasters.
When it comes down to it, SEO still manages to play a significant role in search engine results, leading to many questions regarding the critical search factor: does a substantive connection between SEO and user experience really exist? More specifically, should this relationship exist, or should SEO and UX ultimately aim to be kept separate?
Why User Experience and SEO are Intertwined
As mentioned above, SEO and UX are related in that they both deal with what a user sees and experiences on the web-- SEO helps to determine whether a site ranks among the relevant results on a search engine results page (SERP), while UX is defined by whether or not people are clicking on and finding quality in those results. While there may be a few instances where the two don't always go hand in hand, the answer to the questions posed above will generally be a resounding yes--a crucial connection does exist between the two.
According to a prominent Moz guide on the relationship between user experience and SEO, it helps to think of usability and user experience as strong influences on search engine ranking success, while factors such as keywords, links, and site structure weigh in as highly significant influences as well.
The guide adds,
"[User experience] provides an indirect but measurable benefit to a site's external popularity, which the engines can then interpret as a signal of higher quality [...]. Crafting a thoughtful, empathetic UX helps ensure that visitors to your site perceive it positively, encouraging sharing, bookmarking, return visits and inbound links--all signals that trickle down to the search engines and contribute to high rankings."
Put simply, a positive user experience provides an indirect (but consistent) benefit on where a website will ultimately rank.It's up to webmasters to see how the two can work together, ideally leveraging that collaboration for their own success.
Top Ways UX Can Prove an Indirect Benefit for SEO Success
As mentioned, Google always likes to see that your website offers a strong UX. According to the aforementioned Moz guide, along with several of our own opinions and analysis, there are a variety of different ways for you to send the signal to Google that your website offers a quality UX:
- Ease of Navigation.
XML sitemaps and navigation systems are key for both UX and SEO, so when focusing on navigation, you stand to gain both the direct and indirect benefits for rankings. In addition, sitemaps ensure that your website is properly indexed and can be easily crawled by bots--don't forget that this is also great for UX.
In helping to make navigation simple, sitemaps can also make your website easier to click through and read. You'll always want to make sure that your users can get to any page on your website in about 4 clicks or less, and an XML sitemap will generally help make that happen. This will also make it easier for Google to index content, so it's a win-win formula for everyone.
- Relevant and Actionable Content.
When writing content for UX, you'll also want to consider what Google looks for when determining whether your content is relevant and actionable for users. There are three major signals of quality content that Google tends to emphasize in 2015:
- Engagement Metrics. Search engines will analyze timed metrics that show when a user clicks a search result and then stays on that page, as opposed to immediately hitting the back button--this will show Google whether or not your content is getting engagement. After a while, they can develop a solid data set regarding how engaging your content is.
- Panda Evaluation. In recent years, Google has placed an emphasis on a series of Panda updates for their search results algorithms. In short, Google uses real human evaluations (along with algorithmic evaluations that mimic these human evaluations) in order to gauge what users think of the quality of a website. You'll want to make sure that your site adheres to most (if not all) of the Panda best practices advised by Google, in order to avoid any penalties that could affect your site's ranking.
- Link Structure. Higher quality sites tend to organically earn more links than low quality sites, so this continues to serve as a major factor for Google's rankings. Developing a strong network of links, both to and from authoritative sites within the same area of interest as your site, will send a strong signal to Google that your site serves as a relevant resource for users in search of your area of expertise. This relationship with authoritative sites in your spectrum defines the concept of link building.
If you can keep these three major points in mind when developing your content and your strategy, you should begin to see your positive user experience also transfer into better rankings--again, this is a win-win on all accounts, which is why quality content has been stressed so much over the past few years for businesses small and large alike.
- Responsive Design, Accessible to All Browsers and Screens.
Plain and simple, you'll want to ensure that your website can be seen both on modern desktop browsers--Chrome, Safari, Firefox--and on all leading mobile devices. Mobile optimization has been a huge topic of interest across SEO industry news lately, as more and more people begin to search on mobile devices. A responsive web design on mobile will not only allow for additional users to access your site, but indicate a greater quality to Google bots as well, as this practice tends to indicate a better long term UX. Smaller businesses may want to consider hiring a professional to make sure that their website is designed well for (and fully accessible to) mobile web browsers.
Try to Write Content for both SEO and UX
You may be noticing that the trend here is quality content above all else--keep in mind that your content doesn't need to be written for one or the other. Your first move should always be to focus on quality, while hopefully earning indirect UX benefits in the process. Your next step, however, should be to consider where to strategically place your content for SEO and UX success. According to a Search Engine Journal article, you should keep "the fold" of your website's pages in mind, stating, "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 and text blogs on the bottom."
In other words, because long-form text articles are sometimes easiest for bots to index and read, it's important that they be included on your site. However, users often prefer to see something short and entertaining when first entering a site. This is where the "fold" comes into play--putting your engaging content at the top and your long-form content at the bottom may work best for both UX and SEO.
In the end, it's important to remember that you will often run into conflicts along the way, but that doesn't mean those conflicts can't be solved--if you think about users first and SEO second, you're still thinking about both aspects -there is always a way to find a balance between the two and write for both users as well as search engines.