In theory, the relationship between a UX expert and an SEO expert should be a contentious tug-of-war.
You might imagine the two of them looking at a whiteboard together saying.
“We need to take this block of text away, it’s hurting the user experience.”
“Well, you can’t take it away. I need that block for SEO.”
They stare for a few tense seconds and then draw their lightsabers and duel to the death.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it’s never been more important that they work together.
UX is absolutely one of the most important factors in predicting how likely your site is to rank. Good UX makes an SEO agency’s work easier to do. The Google bot’s crawling behavior now mirrors a human searcher’s behavior and it’s getting more human-like every single day. So, improving the user experience improves the Google bot’s experience.
At the same time, giving your users a good experience means they’re going to stay, click around, probably read some stuff, and maybe buy some stuff. All of these things are good for your SEO. At the same time, a bad user experience means your user is going to quickly get frustrated and leave you forever. This kills your SEO.
Here is a deep dive into why UX people and SEO people need to get along.
The History of UX and SEO Working Together
In the earliest days of the internet, you could get away with a lot. You could achieve SEO success through keyword stuffing and spammy tactics. Simply having a web presence meant you were cutting-edge. However, those early websites were primitive and the user experiences across the board were pretty much garbage. Even the best sites for Fortune 500 companies relied heavily on the user having to do a lot of work to find what they want. The word “intuitive design” wasn’t really in any conversations about building websites yet… the word “design” barely was.
However, web design started to evolve and mature. Webpages got more user-friendly as marketers looked at how people were interacting with their site. Providing the best possible experience became a competitive advantage. And thus, the art/science of UX was born.
Companies started to hire UX experts to audit and fix their websites or their E-commerce pages. The company would say, “We need you to tell us why people are abandoning their shopping carts before buying from us.”
The UX expert would then audit the entire site and find any of the barriers that could stand between the user and the desired action. They would find the problem(s) and tell the company something like “Your instructions are unclear here” or “There is too much lag here.” And, huzzah! The problem would be solved. The sales funnel would unclog, the leads would start pouring in, and the UX expert would be hailed as a savior.
After seeing the difference that a good UX can have on a site’s CRO, the best SEO companies and marketing agencies realized that it can also help a site’s SEO.
We started to realize that if we structure our site in a way that’s easy for users to navigate, we’re also making it easier for Google’s bots to crawl. And, if we provide a strong UX, users will be more likely to link to our content, which also helps our SEO.
Today, we know the value of having the SEO expert and the UX expert sitting right next to each other while a website’s design (or redesign) is being strategized. They need to work together in perfect harmony.
With that in mind, here are 4 ways that a strong UX can boost your site’s SEO.
1. Page Speed is Crucial to Both UX and SEO Success
It all starts here. Users have no time for a slow site and neither does Google’s algorithm.
Google has been saying that page speed has been a major factor in their search algo since 2010, meaning you will be rewarded for good speeds and punished for bad speeds.
They have stated that you’re likely going to lose half of your visitors if your site takes over 3 seconds to load.
They also published this infographic to illustrate how your bounce rate will increase as your load time increases.
Basically, slow page load speeds will kill the user’s experience. They won’t even stick around to see how the rest of your site is. They don’t care, they’re gone. And they are most likely going to leave your site and go right to your competitor.
In recent years, Google has announced two major updates to its search algo:
- They’re moving to mobile-first indexing. So your site had better be good
- The Speed Update factors in your mobile site’s speed. So it had better be fast too
When announcing the Speed Update, they said it “will only affect pages that deliver the slowest experience to users and will only affect a small percentage of queries.”
They added, “We encourage developers to think broadly about how performance affects a user’s experience of their page and to consider a variety of user experience metrics.”
The 2 Secret Reasons So Many Websites are Slow
We do quite a few site audits, as an SEO agency. One of the first things we do is take a look at the website’s speed to see if that is currently hampering their SEO. And we can confidently say that site speed is hurting at least 70% of the would-be clients we meet with. We actually sort of assume it’s a problem until we see otherwise.
Why is this the case? Two main reasons:
1. Most test it and forget it
Most companies will test their site once and assume it’s OK. However, they will then proceed to add a ton of new blogs, images, videos and plugins without testing it again. All of those new elements and assets will slow you down.
2. Most only test the home page
We were guilty of this ourselves, for a long time.
“But, I don’t get it. I ran a speed test on the home page and we’re fine.”
You can’t simply test your home page and assume that’s a site-wide score. You could easily have a fast home page with much slower interior pages. This means your blog pages and/or landing pages are running slow and your users are bouncing, while Google notices their slow speed and ranks you accordingly.
Run your speed tests on the entire site, particularly on your most important blog pages and landing pages.
2. User Engagement Signals to Google That Your Page is Good
This is a tad bit controversial. Google says that user interactions do not have a direct impact on how they rank your site. However, there is significant data to show that these things do matter.
UX experts can help you boost your click-thru rates. They create a seamless journey and make it easy for the user to see more and click deeper into your site.
This helps your CRO immensely, as a strong UX guides your lead from click to conversion in as few steps as possible, whether your end-goal is a free quote or an actual sale.
But… does click-thru matter when it comes to SEO? That’s very much up for debate and I think bar fights have broken out over this one. Google has gone on the record and said it doesn’t impact how they assess and rank your site.
However, there are a lot of well-respected SEO minds that would beg to differ and have the data to prove it.
Take Moz’s Rand Fishkin for example, he’s put together a compelling video that definitely points to more clicks contributing to a higher ranking.
Time on Page/ Dwell Time
Before we go any further, these two metrics are often used interchangeably. They’re both very important, but they’re not the same thing:
- Dwell Time: The amount of time the user spends on a page after the click, before they return to the SERPs.
- Time on Page: The amount of time a user spends on your page before going anywhere else.
In either case, good UX ensures that your visitors are there to stay for a while, and not clicking away because they’re confused or put-off for any reason.
This is very big in CRO and a major predictor of pay-per-click success… But does it really matter for SEO? Again, officially, Google says no. And once again, there are a lot of SEO agencies and individuals that will tell you otherwise.
For example, ahrefs has identified dwell time as a signal that the user found what they were looking for at your site; one that search engines have to notice.
And while Google hasn’t come right out and said these times matter, they have alluded to it. Particularly when they’ve spoken about how Rankbrain uses machine learning.
Nick Frost, the Head of Google Brain said that, “Google is now integrating machine learning into that process. So then training models on when someone clicks on a page and stays on that page, when they go back or when they and trying to figure out exactly on that relationship.”
AI learning how human searchers interact with pages would certainly point to Google factoring in our clicks and dwells. These are strong signals on whether or not we stuck around on a page long enough to read a blog or a service page, or clicked deeper into the site because we’re engaged.
3. Good Site Navigation Means More Clicks and Crawls
Good UX design leads to deep site navigation. Your UX expert can help you identify any issues with your information hierarchy and show you how to fix it. This may mean removing any unnecessary elements that are confusing or distracting to the user, or adding more clear instruction on how to navigate.
This is absolutely crucial when creating a usable and navigable site. But, does it help SEO? The impact of good site navigation may be a bit more tangible than the other points we’ve already explored.
Simply put, if a human being has issues finding out what your site is all about, so will Google. A bad user journey will be mirrored by a bad Google-bot’s journey.
The same navigation elements that we use to make a site more navigable for human beings will also help create a roadmap for a search engine’s crawlers.
These elements include:
Links in the Top Navigation, Body Content, and Footer
Are the links in your top nav well named and sorted into logically related groups? Do your internal links encourage your user (or a robot) to go from one page to another? Or are your pages dead ends with nowhere to go?
Also, remember, this journey will not always happen from your home page. In fact, if you do a very good job owning various keywords, more of your users’ journeys will start with a dedicated landing page.
Let’s say you’ve built a page for Toronto’s CNE. Maybe you’ve done a great job of optimizing “How to Get Around Toronto During the CNE” and you’ve earned a high ranking and lots of traffic for that search term.
Your user travels from the SERPs to your landing page or blog. They can now see lots of useful information about streetcars and road closures near the CNE. But, where do they go from here?
You want to make it as easy as possible for them to click around some more, so you provide easily seen and accessible information about ride-share options and accommodations near the event. You will put those links in:
- Your header
- Your body content
- Your footers
Google’s crawlers also need those links to get from one page to another.
There is no official word from Google on which links carry more weight, but it is widely believed that:
- Body content links hold the most SEO value. And the higher up in the content, the better
- Top nav links are second
- Footer links hold little-to-no weight or value
The same can be said for the weight of both internal links and external links.
Headings are important to both human users and robots for essentially the same reason: They show you exactly what this page is all about.
The use of keywords in headings and titles is obviously important for SEO. This is the first signal you send to your readers and bots to indicate what this page is about.
At the same time, good UX involves adding headings to your landing pages and blogs to make the content easily digestible and to break up any big blocks of text for users. Humans will click away from any page that appears to be nothing but a big block of text, because it looks boring and intimidating. You can take that exact same block of text and simply add some headings and paragraph breaks to make it more digestible. You will also see far more engagement.
4. The Mobile Experience is More Important Than Ever
As we stated earlier, Google is now all-in on mobile-first browsing. Even if you think most of your target users will look at your site from a laptop or desktop site, it doesn’t matter. Your mobile site still needs to be amazing. Google will go to your mobile site first, even if your target audience doesn’t.
The small screen on a mobile device is where both the UX and SEO gurus really earn their money. You have less space and almost no margin for error. This small space and mobile-first indexing now mean that a bad mobile UX is going to hurt your SEO more than ever.
Google has provided a number of resources to help you make sure your mobile UX is where it needs to be. For example, they have provided these guidelines, which give you a pretty deep dive into how to make sure your site is mobile-friendly.
They give you detailed instruction on how to fix some of the most common mobile UX issues, most of which also happened to be SEO barriers. These include:
- Unplayable Content
- Faulty Redirects
- Mobile-Only 404s
- Bulky interstitials
- Irrelevant Cross Links
- Slow Mobile Pages
- Small font size
- Touch elements too close
However, keep in mind that making sure all of these things check out or “pass” does not ensure success. Consider them the bare minimum you need to get a 65% on the exam. Just because Google’s guidelines don’t flag any problems with your mobile pages, doesn’t mean your users won’t find any.
How to Get SEO Content onto a Mobile Page Without Ruining the UX
This is the classic game of tug-of-war we mentioned in the lead. The UX pro wants the pages to be lean with minimal copy. Meanwhile, the SEO pro says we need enough copy on the page for Google to crawl us.
Getting enough optimized SEO copy on a blog page is rarely a problem. It’s supposed to be text-heavy. People are there to read. But, things get a little more dicey when it comes to home pages and landing pages. The tendency is always to make them as light and lean as possible, with a minimalist approach to copy. However, you still need these pages to rank, so you still need SEO copy.
Can these two sides meet in the middle? Absolutely.
We have had great success with this formula. Imagine your mobile page cut into 3 thirds:
The Top Third:
This is where you will put the most important parts. You want your logo, banner, and call-to-action (CTA). If the users can only see a few things, you want it to be those 3.
The Middle Third:
Use some copy to describe your organization as concisely as possible. You can also put your social proof here. These may be awards, badges, industry certification, big-ticket client logos, or a great testimonial. These are things that cement your trustworthiness and legitimacy to users.
The Bottom Third:
This is where you put you more SEO-focused copy. Avoid the bulky look by adding drop-down menus to reveal the rest of your text. That way, Google can still crawl your copy, but users won’t see it unless they want to.
UX and SEO definitely have one thing in common: If you’re using 2016’s playbook for either, you’re way behind and your site will suffer.
Both areas are evolving at an incredible pace. Don’t get too attached to what is working today, because it may be very different a year from now. The shelf life for a trend in UX or SEO is measured in months, not years.
However, the secret to success is finding an SEO agency or a UX professional that can tell which of these trends are simply fads, and which ones will become the new best practices moving forward.
You can’t have one without the other. In a perfect world, you would work with both professionals at the same time while you’re in the planning stage of your website. That way, they can look at the whiteboard together and plan to do things the right way together. It can be much harder for either to work their magic retroactively on a site that has already been built.
Ideally, your dream team should include:
– An SEO expert
– A UX expert
– A designer
– A WordPress expert
– A copywriter/ content writer
– A PR expert/ link building expert for off-page SEO
SEO people should love working with UX people. They are the ones who set the entire site’s architecture up for success and make sure it’s appealing to both users and search engines. And UX people should love working with SEO nerds, because we’re the ones who make sure their great work isn’t being wasted on a beautiful site that nobody can find.
If you’re looking to build a new site and you have any SEO questions, or you’re looking for an SEO agency to hire, contact us any time.