When I started out in SEO one things we SEOs knew for certain was the experience of the user on a website had very little to do with the ability of a website to rank in a search engine. Fast forward too many years to mention and user experience or UX, is important for SEO and that importance is growing. So what do you need to consider when how important UX is for SEO?
I remember back in the day when the idea of designing a website – rather than coding a website – seemed like a radical, innovative idea. Of course, it wasn’t, businesses have been tailoring the experiences of their customers since time immemorial, it just took a while for that mindset to transfer online.
But for a long time, I was convinced that design wasn’t that important. It was more important to get a website live and get a load of text on there, then market it and improve it as you went along.
I started to understand the value of UX from a conversion rate optimisation (CRO) perspective relatively early on, and some of my biggest wins online have been in tweaking a bit of copy, form or the colour of a button. In the mid-noughties, after a round of extensive testing, I once changed the button on a calculator from green to yellow and increased submissions by about 60%. A few years later, I was working on a product page, which had three packages in boxes, I removed the word FREE from the name of the entry-level package and the company’s revenue increased by 300%. Another time I restructured the navigation and categorisation of a luxury furniture brand and overnight they started selling products in volume because the people on their site could find their way around.
But even after all these wins, I still didn’t consider UX to be an important part of SEO. Conversions and user experience were still far removed from rankings. That all started to change as Google started to update the way it considered websites. This all changed forever in 2015 when Google first released its Quality Rater Guidelines. At this point, everyone knew what they had to look at when reviewing how Google thought about their website. The fact this was released in 2015 probably suggests that it was in circulation in some form for some time beforehand. Google tends to be a little tardy in what they give away.
Of course, we’d known earlier that Google was considering the ‘quality’ of a website and this had already forced SEOs and web designers to make design changes, but it’s questionable if we really knew about that point that we were making changes for the visitors. It’s probably fair to say a lot of the changes that were made to the design of a website were made for the purposes of pleasing Google.
Google released its legendary Panda Update in February 2011. I remember the day well! On this day Google introduced quality into its algorithm in a way it had never done before. The Panda Update was brought about because of the fallout from a previous update made in 2009 called the Caffeine Update. The Caffeine Update had been created to enable Google to index greater volumes of content. This was important because with the advent of content management systems – such as WordPress – it was increasingly easier for businesses to create and distribute content. In fact, this would become the mainstay of marketing for most businesses to this day.
In 2010 Google confirmed that page load speed was an important part of their ranking factors. And many SEO have spent a lot of time concentrating on speeding up websites to ensure they load as fast as possible, as this is the first thing a user experiences about their website. In 2018, it was confirmed that mobile page speed was going to be part of their algorithm and by now every SEO worth their salt should be making sites run as smoothly and as quickly as possible. But speed isn’t the only thing that impact experience or even the experience of quality.
Whilst Google was busy introducing page speed as a ranking factor, a funny thing happened as a knock on impact of the Caffeine update; there was an ever-increasing amount of thin content and arguably spam content. The spam content came in the form of content farming. Content farming was a form of link building and saw people creating networks of blogs and spinning content to create huge amounts of connected barely legible content, which was rapidly dominating Google’s index.
To overcome this, Google released Panda to increase the rankings of those websites which seemed to be quality websites. It was after the Panda Update that we removed the ads from GrowTraffic. Sure we lost money, but Google had argued that most business blogs shouldn’t be looking to make money from the content they are producing through advertising. It lost a small amount of revenue but I’m sure this is one of the reasons I was able to get the website ranking and keep it ranking for years for keywords such as Freelance SEO Consultant.
For the purposes of this blog, I’m not going to talk about the Penguin or Hummingbird updates, which should also be considered when thinking about the types of content Google wants to display to its searchers and how that impacts the type of content we produce. Let’s just say for now that Hummingbird, which came out in 2013 was the logical progression of the Caffeine and Panda Update and the Penguin Update – which came out in 2012 – dealt with all the spam and poor-quality offsite content that had been produced prior to the Panda and which was still there clogging up the index.
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
- Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
- Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
- Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
- Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
- How much quality control is done on content?
- Does the article describe both sides of a story?
- Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
- Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
- Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
- For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
- Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
- Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
- Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
- Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
- Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
- Would users complain when they see pages from this site?
Even now, some 8 years later, when I think about the quality of a website I generally refer back to these 23 questions. They’re a great place to start.
So at this point design becomes a consideration for SEO, because if you can’t make your visitor feel like they’re on a quality website they aren’t going to have a good experience. Crucially, the thing that made the Panda Update special was there were talks that Google’s index would have to be manually curated, but the Panda Update was algorithmic.
So, there was a standard that could be added to an algorithm that Google would be able to understand and come to a conclusion about the quality of a website. An algorithm can get a feel (if that’s the right turn of phrase) for the layout of a webpage – roughly the menu is in a certain place on the page, the logo is up at the top, there aren’t ads (or there aren’t a lot of them), things such as phone numbers, addresses, company numbers, VAT numbers etc are all clearly visible. But there’s more to it than that, Google can also see how a person, or group of people, are interacting with a website.
It therefore essential that no one trying to improve the SEO of their website ignores the user signals that Google values. To start with, I’d suggest looking at the things they record in Google Analytics as standard: time on page, bounce rate, number of pages per duration etc.
This is going to give you a rough feel for what Google is looking at, but they are going to be thinking about much more than that. What’s more, the fact that four years after the Panda Update they had to officially let people know that there was a form of manual curation, in the form of Quality Raters, we can now see that it’s not just about what an algorithm can impart from user activity but also the subjectiveness of human interaction and interpretation.
Both SEO and design/UX have always been subjective art forms. But they come at things from different angles and it can be quite difficult to put yourself in the shoes of something that at times feels diametrically opposed to what you’re trying to achieve. But it’s not. There are common elements to improve both UX and SEO.
According to Rankwatch, these can be seen as:
- Page layout
- HIgh-quality content
- Intuitive navigation and breadcrumbs
- Page speed
- Sitemaps (especially HTML sitemaps)
Personally, I think there’s a lot more to it than that, but again, it’s a good place to start.
- Focus on designs that fit SEO principles
- Personas and User Paths
- Focus on quality
I also think it’s important to think about Google from the point of view of what a commercial operation is looking for: to increase revenues, reduce costs and ensure its ongoing sustainability. I think looking at UX from this perspective demonstrate why SEOs, marketing managers and business owners should all make UX part of their considerations for SEO. There is so much content being produced now and Google needs new ways to work out what people are looking for when they land on a website. Quality of content is one thing, but what happens when you have thousands of well-researched blogs on the same or similar subjects? You’ve got to look to the users to get some idea about how they are finding the content.
That means, as part of your SEO plans, you want to be implementing software such as HotJar, which enables you to analyse what people are doing on your website, where they are scrolling to, what they are clicking on etc. In addition, you’re going to want to get real people to give you their feedback. Pro tip here: Don’t ask a web designer, UX consultant or your SEO agency – they will be trying to sell you something – just go out and get people who are like your customers to give you some feedback. There are loads of websites out there that enable you to do this.
Once you’ve got some conclusions about the experiences of your visitors on your website, come up with a hypothesis about how you could improve your site and then try to improve it! Keep testing and see what works. If something doesn’t work then you’ll have to go back to what you’d been working with before.
But remember the old saying: Rome wasn’t built in a day. The average business should be leaving your tests live for weeks perhaps a couple of months. Of course, some websites have enough traffic to be able to make decisions on smaller time frames. The key is always statistical significance.
You also need to remember that this could well have an impact on your SEO and you don’t want to react to your SEO challenges when really it’s a UX change, because then you’ll be changing too much all at once.
Right, so er, I spent about an hour writing this blog, in the knowledge that the UX of GrowTraffic.co.uk is shocking and I should have spent this hour trying to finish off the new growtraffic.co.uk development site – which has a number better user experience, is more intuitive, discusses the services that we actually do.
Ho hum. Rome wasn’t built in a day.