Riding the Fine Line of SEO and Usability

In the world of website development, search engine optimization (SEO) is important, and so is usability. In fact, they depend on each other. SEO strategies ensure an audience will see your site when they search online, while usability ensures they can easily navigate your site to meet their needs. So, how do marketing professionals maintain that careful balance between SEO and usability?

web-site-usabilityTackle Usability First

Usability is a fundamental component of effective website development. If a user cannot learn how to use your site and enjoy the experience, he or she may never come back, regardless of the site’s ranking in search engines. Another reason to work on usability first is because search engines reward websites that are easy to use. Improving usability enhances SEO strategies.

To improve usability, conduct user testing. Use a real-world test group and ask them to complete certain tasks in the website. Look for testers who have qualities in common with your ideal customers. Do not interact with the users, but closely monitor their behaviors on the website. Do they all have the same difficulties? Do they tend to follow certain pathways on the website? What were their subjective experiences with the site?

Any web developer can use test groups to enhance usability, but many don’t. For success over time, consider adding usability tests to your company’s routine website activities. Without regular testing, you may find that commonly used SEO tactics wear down site usability over time.

Bad SEO Tactics Hurt Usability

Some SEO tactics are usability-centric but many are not. Companies that follow the old-school approach to SEO may hurt usability with keyword stuffed, irrelevant articles and poor link-building practices. The good news is that SEO algorithms used by popular search engines are starting to reward user-friendly factors, including strategic but minimal keyword inclusion, natural links, and site hierarchy.

However, these SEO tactics can diminish your website usability (which may ultimately hurt your SEO):

  • Infinite scrolling – Some web designers today love the sleek look of the infinite scroll design. The idea behind the concept is that creating fewer barriers to content will enhance user experience. In practice, the technique can create too much scrolling for user-friendliness. Infinite scrolling completely changes a company’s ability to create an interconnected network of SEO-friendly landing pages. It also slows down the site’s overall speed, which automatically diminishes search engine visibility. In most cases, infinite scrolling is not the right approach to web design.
  • Creating doorway pages – A black-hat SEO tactic, a doorway page is developed solely to generate keyword-driven optimization. The pages often offer little value to customers (reducing usability), and while they can trick a search engine for a while, the practice is not sustainable.
  • Keyword stuffing – Many marketers recognize that keywords stuffing is not a best practice for SEO anymore, but some agencies still promote it. Keyword stuffing, like doorway pages, reduces the efficacy of a piece of content. Today, web developers can create a much more sustainable SEO and usability keyword practice focused on a few optimized long-tail keywords.
  • Spam-worthy link building – Link building is a mainstay in SEO practices, but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about building them. Links should apply only to relevant phrases, and they should include a healthy mix of inbound and outbound pathways. If you highlight a search phrase “how to fix a tire” and link back to a blog on types of tires, it creates usability issues and can lead to search engine penalties.
  • Putting SEO above content – SEO is valuable, but it is not the end-goal. It’s a means to earn better online visibility and drive conversions. When companies focus too much on SEO, usability suffers. Focus instead on creating valuable content, and then optimize that content for search engines.

Balancing Usability and SEO for Better ROI

Website professionals must constantly search for and maintain the balance between SEO and usability to reach their online goals. To get the best of both worlds, website developers and SEO professionals should regularly consume current information about search engine operations. Stay informed regarding the latest algorithm updates, and keyword and link-building practices. Avoid black-hat SEO tactics, and focus on optimizing the website for user friendliness.

Start working on functionality and usability. Then, focus on creating analytics-backed content strategies. SEO should play a role in all of the above, but only to improve on it – not to govern the direction of your website or content strategies. Look at competitor sites that rank above your website in search engine results. See if you can recognize, subjectively, differences that might elevate the site above yours. Explore optimizing those differences on your own site.

When you start shifting your website away from poor SEO techniques and toward usability, keep tabs on user engagement. Use that data to confirm that usability supports SEO and continually optimize the way users engage with your website.