Usability and SEO: A Match Made in Heaven

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a technique for improving the ranking of a website in search engine results. A high ranking in the search results improves the likelihood that users will visit the site. For websites, SEO and usability are critical for success. That’s because SEO helps make it easier for sites to be found by search engines (and thus people). Once found, usability helps people complete tasks on those sites.

What may come as a surprise to some designers is that SEO and usability share six common elements, and changing any of these elements, along one dimension (for example, usability) will likely impact the same element as it applies to SEO. Applying both SEO and usability best practices on a website can lead to a match made in heaven. Coupling the necessity of the site being found in the first place with the pleasant experience of being easy to use, improves the number of tasks completed on a website. Assuming these tasks relate to purchasing goods or services, the benefit is improved website revenue.

SEO & Usability Matrix
Common Element SEO Usability
Information Architecture Site organization & structure “Mental map” evaluation point
Labeling Enables content sorting Provides location information
Linking Provides access method GIves access & visual content data
Navigation Primary access method Primary access method
Site Map Helps deep indexation Compass for the lost & confused
Technology Enables/hinders content access Motivates or eliminates visits

The Six Common Elements of SEO and Usability

The six common elements shared by SEO and usability are:

  1. Information Architecture
  2. Labeling
  3. Linking
  4. Navigation
  5. Site Mapping
  6. Technology

By understanding the impact each of these six common elements has on SEO and usability, website designers can manipulate each element to optimize the site’s identity to search engines while improving usability for the humans that ultimately interact on the site.

1. Information Architecture –

The foundation upon which all SEO and usability rely. For SEO purposes, the organization of the website, and thus its structure, is derived from the information architecture. Search engines use the information architecture to provide the context for the content scanned. By grouping similar topics into a unique bucket or silo of information, designers help search engine algorithms better identify, and thus categorize, the content. As an example, grouping content associated with “Mustang” in a category called “Cars” helps search engines determine “Mustang” is content regarding an automobile, and not a horse.

As to usability, the website’s information architecture should replicate as best as possible the typical user’s “mental map” of the content organization. Aligning the information architecture with the user’s understanding of the order and grouping of topics provides a more efficient user experience and more effective access to the site’s content. By aligning the information architecture to the assumed mental map of the typical user, designers help users identify the content and context, and thus improve usability.

2. Labeling –

Should be readable and used consistently for maximum SEO benefit; the label must match the language your website visitors use and expect.

First and foremost, page and navigation labels must be readable by search engines. Using text for labels is helpful because use of gifs or images for labels can be invisible to the search engines that scan the content. An exception to this rule is adding an alt attribute to an image, which makes the image readable by search engines. However, using text instead of images is preferred because it reduces the effort necessary to produce the label and for the search engines to read it. Using labels consistently throughout the website helps to ensure that search engines can better sort and categorize the content.

Included in labeling is the proper use of meta tags, including Title, Description, Keywords, H1, H2, and other tags. Using meta tags helps ensure that search engines clearly understand how the content is structured, and provides an additional means for classification and indexing of content.

With regard to usability, labeling is crucial to assist website visitors, especially those who are in scanning mode when first visiting the site. Labels are the signposts of a site and thus provide location information used for “information scent gathering” by visitors. The label term must match the visitor’s expectations for terminology to ensure comprehension of the content underneath the label. Using H1, H2, and, if necessary, H3 meta tags will visually help visitors scan the content, providing additional means for evaluating their location within the page.

3. Linking –

A primary tool used by search engines to access and establish context for your content. For visitors, it’s the primary way to access the information they seek. Linking has three components:

  • Internal links – From one page to another in the same site
  • External links – From a website to a third party website
  • Third party links – From other sites to your website

Internal links impact SEO significantly because they are the access points for search engines to index site content. Plus, the actual text used for the link, and the text around the link, serve as additional data points to establish the context of the content. This determines how the content is classified and ultimately indexed. Therefore it is a best practice to use descriptive text for links, such as, “Learn about mustang cars,” rather than “Click here.”

For external sites that link to your site, the text used in the link by those sites will influence your website search engine rankings for those key terms. Search engines use third party links coming to the site as a means of establishing the authority of your site. Well-respected and high-traffic sites that link to a website provide more authority for that site and help to move it higher up in the search results ranks.

The impact of links on usability is similar, in that internal links are the primary gateway website visitors use when accessing information, especially from within body copy. However, unlike search engines, there is a strong visual component to links which, if broken, can cause usability errors. Using the best practice of blue underlined text for links, especially those in body copy, instantly communicates two important things: first that there is a link to further information, and second, that the information will be about the topic represented by the text in the link. Not following link display best practices is a frequent cause of usability issues on websites.

4. Navigation –

Refers to the way search engines and users move throughout your site.

For both SEO and usability, search engines and website visitors use primary and secondary navigation to access content. Typically a mixture of permanent navigation (such as global navigation bars) plus ad-hoc navigation (such as bread-crumb navigation trails), helps search engines and visitors move through content.

The use of JavaScript or other non-accessible methods (such as Flash) for navigation will deny search engines access to website content. It can also decrease usability by causing additional cognitive load for website visitors. Such methods are prime culprits for poor search results indexing and substandard user experience. Use of these tools can also negatively impact access for disabled website visitors who rely on screen readers to navigate the Web.

5. Site Maps –

Used by search engines to index the content of a site, and by users looking to find their way to specific content.

Well-defined site maps benefit SEO by allowing search engines to gain access and context for content that is deeper in the site, for instance two, three, or more levels deep. Typical site map best practices for SEO call for each main section and sub-sections underneath to have hypertext links with brief descriptive text. This maximizes the ability of search engines to navigate the pages and index the sub-sections that comprise the content.

From a usability perspective, site maps enable website visitors to gain a big picture view of the structure of the site, and can frequently help them find their way when lost or confused. Many website visitors will try the site map to help them get back on the “information scent” if they end up getting off-track.

6. Technology –

Heavily impacts the ability of both search engines and humans to access and use the website, and can motivate, or repel visitors.

When considering technology from an SEO perspective, the elements used to provide web pages and content can heavily influence search engines. For example, websites that use Flash for content can actually hide that content from search engines. Slow load times or special applications requiring downloading before content is accessed can hurt search engine indexing results. Google has indicated that the speed of page load is an important element in determining rankings.

In terms of usability, the use of technologies such as Flash, or applications that require a download prior to use, can cause visitors to abandon the site. Slow loading pages or errors on a page will also cause abandonment of the site. Rather than stimulating a desire to explore the site, poor use of technology can cause visitors to leave the site, never to return.

Conclusion

For websites, SEO and usability are connected by six shared elements; thus changes made for SEO purposes will impact usability, and vice versa. This can lead to a match made in heaven if SEO and usability changes are made in harmony. Website designers should carefully consider the six shared elements of SEO and usability prior to making any changes on an existing site, or when developing new websites.

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