Why UX should be a string in your SEO bow
Posted by Luci Wood on September 22, 2021
On 9th September, I spoke at BrightonSEO about UX and SEO: their similarities, crossovers and how to employ mindsets from both disciplines to supercharge your SEO strategy.
If you missed the live talk, you can catch the recorded version on 23rd September at 15:30 BST. Sign up here.
In this article, I’ll cover the key points I mentioned in my talk, though you can also find my slides via SlideShare
- The closing gap between SEO and UX
- The UX honeycomb model and how it applies to SEO
- What makes a good page in the eyes of users?
- Accessibility considerations
- A/B testing: a good idea for SEO?
Just for a moment, stop reading. Close your eyes and think about the last time you felt really excited about something. It could be anything, from buying something you’ve always wanted to meeting up with friends and family after many months apart. Once you’ve got that thought in your mind, then consider why. Why did you feel so excited about that thing? What were you looking forward to?
In most cases, you can trace this excitement back to the anticipation of the experience of doing this particular thing. Namely, that experience might bring you something positive – happiness, fulfilment, knowledge, confidence – whatever it may be.
What makes the world go round?
Contrary to mottos and bumper stickers the world over, it’s not love, nor money that makes the world go round. It’s experiences. Humans are naturally curious by nature, we’re always looking for the next place to go, the next thing to do or see, (or in my case, the next dog to adopt!).
The trouble comes then, when we turn to SEO. SEO is all about uncovering those experiences and directling users towards them. We help people find destinations (think of websites like destinations), but once they’ve reached that destination, their actual experience is often a secondary consideration.
The *age-old battle
There’s a perceived ‘age old’ battle between the disciplines of SEO and UX: with each side seeing the other as an usurper to well laid plans, adding complexity needlessly and posing challenges to the status quo.
Whilst SEOs may steer their focus towards topics such as search friendly site structure, compressed images and keyword-rich optimised content, their UX counterpart may be busily introducing large hero videos to the site or introducing infinite scroll to benefit the user. The latter becomes a sufficient issue for the SEO to raise their glance from a spreadsheet when such issues as page speed and rendering come to light.
The idea of this ‘age old’ is laughable for two reasons, though. Firstly, there’s nothing age old about either UX or SEO, since Don Norman only coined the term ‘user experience’ in 1993, which was a full five years before Google was founded.
Secondly, the two disciplines are more intertwined than ever before. User experience is now an inescapable part of building and optimising a website that ranks well.
A tale of two users
Or rather, a tale of two different types of users. Most of the time we think of users as human beings, just like you or I, browsing the world wide web in search of something or other. Therefore, we treat the following quote from Google as a given: “You should build a website to benefit your users, and gear any optimization toward making the user experience better.” However, the second part of this quote which is often forgotten is as follows: “One of those users is a search engine, which helps other users discover your content”. We mustn’t forget that a search engine is a user in its own right, and an important one too, playing a pivotal role in amplifying your site to other users.
So taking these ideas in mind, how can we apply UX thinking to our SEO approach?
The UX honeycomb
The UX honeycomb visualisation model was developed by Peter Morville. Evolving from the humble Venn diagram, Morville wanted to highlight the depth of UX design beyond just bringing together context, content and users. Each facet of the honeycomb contains a key design principle and serves as a cornerstone for good user experience design. By keeping each of these key points in mind, the idea is that the honeycomb serves as a way to define priorities without losing sight of the holistic ‘50,000 foot view’ of the user experience.
The SEO honeycomb
If we take Morville’s honeycomb model and consider how it applies to SEO, you could argue that it’s really just a case of semantics. The principles outline above are all important for SEO, though we may know them by another name. The table below is just an illustration of how we might overlay the UX honeycomb with an SEO layer.
The page experience update
Never more has UX been a focus for SEO since the announcement of the Page Experience Update from Google, which finished rolling out earlier this month (September 2021). The page experience update combines several signals including Core Web Vitals to decide ranking and suitability for users. According to Google, “These signals measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page and contribute to our ongoing work to ensure people get the most helpful and enjoyable experiences from the web.”
Although many SEOs have been focused solely on improving Core Web Vitals metrics to reach that elusive ‘green’, we must remember that Core Web Vitals alone do not comprise the page experience. Furthermore, there are many elements that make up a ‘good’ page for users. We’ll explore some of these in this article.
Performance is a key aspect of how users perceive and interact with a page. Of course, this includes those all-important Core Web Vitals and Page Speed, but equally important is how the page renders, whether pages redirect elsewhere, the status code they return, and whether your servers are equipped to handle the level of traffic coming into your site.
Right behind performance is security. On August 4th 2021, Google confirmed that the Safe Browsing and Ad Experience widgets had been removed from the Page Experience report. Nevertheless, the perceived trustworthiness of a site can make all the difference to users. Users are much less likely to convert and/or part with personal information on a site that doesn’t take privacy and security considerations seriously. HTTPS still forms part of the Page Experience update, so all resources should be delivered over HTTPS to users wherever possible. For a refresher on HTTPS, check out this recent article from Kristi Hines.
Usability & navigation
Website usability and navigation is a huge topic in itself, so for the sake of brevity, we’ll look at it from a single question: Can I find what I need, quickly and easily, as a human user or a bot?
Whilst putting together my talk, I came across an archery website which I can only describe as a living museum of sorts; a throwback to the early days of designing eCommerce sites to resemble physical shops. Despite the very retro look and feel, happily this site does also feature a navigation menu towards the top, otherwise I’d hate to think how a bot would make sense of it all:
If you’re about to embark on creating an IA for your site, or considering doing an audit and overhaul of the existing site architecture, here are a couple of tools that may be of interest:
Draw.io is a simple, fuss-free tool with a heap of different templates including everything from flow chart diagrams to Kanban board templates.
- Lots of templates to choose from
- Integrates with Google Drive & Atlassian
Dyno Mapper can be used to create a site inventory and create an interactive visual site map and website hierarchy.
- Free trial available
- Integates with Google Analytics
- Ideal for content planning and auditing
- Includes keyword rank tracking and accessibility testing
Omnigraffle sits firmly towards the design and UX side of things. It’s a purpose-built application for creating professional diagrams and may be worth the investment if you’re building out a whole site or completely restructuring your current site.
- Free trial available
- Ideal for rapid prototyping and wireframe creation
- Design tools included for creating vector graphics
- Intelligent grouping, snapping and alignment tools.
Relevance and audience understanding
In both SEO and UX, one of the questions that should underpin all decision is: who are we doing this for? Thinking specifically about online users, we can shift that question a little to ‘Where does our audience hang out online and why?’
As an SEO it’s very easy to become siloed in our thinking about a user – seeing them only as a target for a narrow and specific set of keywords related to the particular product or service we’re representing.
However, just like you and me, we all use the internet for a variety of things. These can include (but aren’t limited to):
- Social Media
Google Analytics is usually the first port of call for getting insights about these users. Of course, we’ve got our basic level insights like demographics and device type. However, audience interests is also a good place to look, especially if you also find yourself getting stuck in a bit of a keyword silo. Audience interests let you know what other topics are of interest to users on your site as part of their wider lives.
YouGov’s Audience Explorer tool allows you to get insights into opinions and brand affinities, behaviours, media consumption, hobbies and interests of your desired audience. The tool has changed quite a bit over the last few years and seems to be moving more features to a paid model, however, it may be worth a look if you’re bringing a new brand to market and want to get a feel for your expected audience.
The search intent buckets
Generally speaking, search engine users tend to fall into one of four buckets depending on what they’re looking to achieve from their search:
- I want to know (informational)
- I want to go (navigational)
- I want to do (actionable)
- I want to buy (transactional)
It’s important that we’re mindful of that search intent when designing wireframes for pages, building out copy and selecting images.
There are several ways (and plenty of tools you can use) to check search intent. One of the simplest ways is simply to visit the SERP. By checking out things like featured snippets, PAAs and auto suggest for your target keywords, you’ll get a quick feel for the kind of questions and challenges your users are facing. Looking at what other sites are ranking for those keywords also gives you a clue to relevancy: are the other sites selling products, offering information or directing users to a location. If the other results are in contradiction to your own site, you may need to reconsider whether that keyword has the right intent for you site, and your users.
Reviews can be a goldmine for finding out more about your users too. You can use them to identify the gaps in informing and persuading the buyer; did they understand how your product or service works, are they using it in the way you expected or have they found alternatives uses for it (that’s some great free market research right there!), and what are the common issues that come up time and again that you could address via content or product evolution?
Lastly, we’ll talk about accessibility. Thanks to a Twitter poll by Ruth Everett, we know that accessibility was a consideration for around 60% of respondents working on SEO.
However, when it comes to accessibility, we often don’t go quite far enough in SEO. Sure we encourage our clients to add alt tags and image captions, and optimise their anchor text (more so for bots than humans but that’s by the by).
If we unpack accessibility from a UX perspective, we move down a level to the ‘who, what, why and how?’
The ‘who’, of courses, refers to your users. Consider their individual needs, challenges and language, or languages (both verbal and non-verbal) your users are using. If you are creating personas, user archetypes or stories, include users with accessibility needs as part of this.
What are you users aiming to achieve? Do they fall into the know, go, do or buy buckets? What types of content are they consuming? Do you have alternative versions of your content for different users (e.g. if you have videos on your site, is there also a transcript available?)
Users’ accessibility needs may not always be permanent – often a users’ needs change depending on their situation. Imagine if you’re travelling on the train but you’ve forgotten your headphones and you want to watch a video – you may decide to watch the video without sound, meaning you’ll need captions to understand the context. Alternatively, you may be in a location with a poor data connection and you may not be able to consume large pieces of content as you usually would.
How are users arriving at your site, and how are they navigating it? Some users may use specialist equipment, such as screen readers, whilst others may navigate using just a keyboard. Some may view the site in greyscale rather than colour, and some may be accessing your site or app via smart devices, rather than a traditional desktop or mobile device.
Something to try today:
If you’re looking for some ideas around the different types of accessibility changes users may face, try empathyprompts.net. This site will challenge you to try a variety of different scenarios, from lowering your bandwidth, muting your speakers, lowering your screen’s brightness and many more. You may come across an accessibility issue on your site you’ve never noticed or considered before!
Other signals to consider
These are the signals that often get voted for as influencing rankings, but haven’t been “officially” confirmed by Google or other search engines. Nevertheless, these metrics are key for tracking user experience across your site and include:
- Bounce rate
- Pages per session
Whether you choose these specific metrics will of course “depend” on your site, though most sites can benefit from an audit of where users are dropping off the site (again, overlaying GA data with Dynomapper might help here).
To wrap up
In May 2020, Google said: “Users show they prefer sites with a great page experience. In recent years, search has added a variety of user experience criteria, such as how quickly pages load and mobile-friendliness, as factors for ranking results.”
This quote alone illustrates the importance of bringing UX principles into your SEO strategy, remembering that the Page Experience update is more than just Core Web Vitals, and a good page experience for users is made up of many factors, including:
- Relevant, useful content that adheres to EAT principles
I’d like to finish with a great quote from Kim Krause Berg that I feel sums up what we all should keep in mind:
“The best user experience is being seen and acknowledged.
We don’t often consider treating website visitors as our guests.
A well-designed, functioning, user-friendly, inclusive web page is a sign of respect.”
Both bots and users are our guests, let’s make them feel welcome and included, help them find what they need, and give them great experiences!
This talk was presented at BrightonSEO Autumn 2021. If you missed the live talk, you can catch the recorded version on 23rd September at 15:30 BST. Sign up here.