Covering User Experience Design with a SEO Strategy

25 June 2012
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Has a User Experience Designer ever had a client seek their services specifically to augment a SEO plan?

What User Experience Designer has ever had a client seek their services specifically to augment a search engine optimization plan? It may sound ridiculous because, you might say to yourself, “That’s what your SEO team/adviser is for.” Right? Well, yes and no. User Experience (UX) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) are, in actuality complementary fields. Louis Rosenfeld of renowned UX publishing  Rosenfeld Media illustrated this perceived contrast in a “Table of Overgeneralized Dichotomies” from his “Beyond User Research” presentation(see Figure 1). The table conveys that SEO discovers “the what” (user behavior) from web metrics and UX explores “the why” (user’s motives) from personas and user testing.

lou_table_of_dichotomies-figure_1_497x370
Figure 1

When user experience design is executed well, it can indeed have a positively correlating effect on the search engine ranking and overall website traffic. Conversely, if the metrics from a properly and optimally implemented SEO strategy are analyzed, they will give you insight on the strengths and weaknesses of the website’s UX. This is an ideal situation of course. The absurdity of such a rift in the iterative design and development process is so concisely expressed by Rosenfeld when he also said, “Not much use to know what is happening if you don’t know why; [and it is] hard to know why things are happening, if you don’t know what is happening.”

Avinash Kaushnik outlines the process of finding the happy medium where the quantitative and qualitative research can “drive a continual improvement of the online experience that your customers, and potential customers have, which translates into your desired outcomes (online and offline).” in his book  “Web Analytics 2.0”. How can we attempt to address this segregation of thought so that as UXers we are purposefully applying elements of SEO? We must explore the fundamentals of SEO, consider key metrics and assess how our work converges.

Fundamentals of SEO

Recently, I did extensive research on this very subject of SEO for CURTIS Digital in preparation for their new website launch. Of all the blogs, articles, ebooks, infographics, etc. that were written on this subject, I found  Search Engine Land’s 10 Chapter Guide to SEO to be the most comprehensive while also being easy to understand. They also created a super-cool infographic (see Figure 2) from which the basis of their guide was developed. This will also be the primary reference for this portion on SEO. So, please feel free to (and do!) refer to their wonderful blog for the full guide.

Ranking Factors

There are several but specific elements that will affect a website’s ranking. You can see in the table in Figure 2 that the major SEO ranking “factors”have been separated into 4 major groups and each with major subgroups. I will briefly summarize all major groups in ascending order; however, I will focus only on those apropos to UX work:

  • Blocking – A new ranking indicator where people now have the ability to block a website from appearing in their personal search results permanently, whether there was SPAM or not. If enough individuals block the same website, this may lead to a penalty to the website owner by the search engine.
  • Violations– SPAM or universally recognized “black hat” tricks, such as keyword stuffing, hidden text, or any other of the 16 Flavors of Search Engine SPAM as identified by Search Engine Watch.
  • Off the Page Factors– Inbound links, Social Sharing, Consumer Reviews, as well as information personal to the individual searchers such as search history, location, etc.
  • On Page Factors– These are the most relevant elements for UX, as it pertains to the construction and architecture of the website itself. These are elements we deal with directly and can shape our designs specifically to a search engine optimization strategy:

— Content – We all know content strategy is key to UXD, but now we are able to look at it from an SEO Strategy standpoint.

  • Content Quality – Ask yourself: is it relevant, informative, engaging?
  • Content (Keyword Research) – You know who your audience is and its objectives right? If so, then you should have an idea of the most appropriate words, phrases and terminology that the audience identifies with and most importantly searches for.
  • Content Words (Keywords) – These keywords need to be integrated on the pages appropriately and often enough that they are an accurate indicator of the pages content.

— HTML – Now, the coding is most definitely in the development arena. However, if you are mindful of specific HTML attributes that will impact how  the website and pages are viewed by a search engine, your perspective on the design may be greatly influenced.

  • Title Tags, Header Tags and Meta Descriptions – These are all attributes that are scanned by search engines for validation of content. Of course, keyword usage is paramount. Yet, content management systems, attribution management and awareness of search engine crawling behavior (linearly  from top-to-bottom) are also important considerations.

— Architecture – Structuring the site is what we do! Now we can be conscious of design choices that may prove to be issues for a search engine.

  • Crawlability – Don’t use Flash. Period. Flash can hide links and information that should be indexed. And sitemaps assist search engines with site navigation.
  • Website Speed/Performance – You do not want too much content on a page. If a webpage takes too long to load, it can affect the bottom line; according to KISSmetrics, 47% of consumers expect a page to load in 2 seconds or less and 30% will wait 6-10 seconds for load before abandoning. Add that performance measurement to usability testing and see how you fare.
  • URLs and Nomenclature – Keyword usage in the page URLs is also effective in increasing ranking.
searchengineland_periodic_table_of_seo_condensed-figure_2_500x619Figure 2

Web Analytics

Now that we have some idea as to what aspects of our work effect an SEO strategy, we now need to gain an understanding of what types of data are collected by the SEO team to measure growth and success based on established objectives; aka Key Performance Indicators. Web analytics provide an overwhelming amount of clickstream data.

Key Behavior Metrics for SEO

What really are the most pertinent metrics? Marko Hurst, is an expert in this area of “content analysis”. He advises us to focus on “behavior metrics” which can give us valuable insight into user behavior on the website, as opposed to letting the quantity metrics like visits, visitors, unique visitors, etc. distract us. A few of these behavior metrics are:

  • Bounce Rate – % of visits that resulted in a singe page view… I came, I saw, I left. This measurement may identify a weak landing page design.
  • Active Time – average amount of time visitors spent interacting with a webpage. Great metric to see which pages users find to be least/most engaging.
  • Site/Visit Flow (Clickpath) – the journey (sequence of hyperlinks clicked) of a visitor from referrer on through your site. Google’s Flow Visualization feature in their analytics tool offers a really cool visual of this journey (see Figure 3). This can be an immensely helpful tool in understanding how the website is being navigated by users.
visit_flow-figure_3_497x240Figure 3

A New Approach to UX|SEO

Hopefully you see how valuable it is to you and your growth as a UXer to approach your work with acuity of thought to other aspects that may affect the overall experience of users. SEO may seem as though the search-engine is unicentric to the strategy, but it is clear that our work plays a major role in “the big picture.” I will leave you with reference to Avinash Kaushik’s Trinity Strategy (see Figure 4), an exceptional model illustrating a new approach to designing an optimal web experience that leads to the realization of organizational goals:

  • Observe and compile data on what is happening thru web metrics.
  • Gain an understanding of the experience and why users are exhibiting certain behaviors.
  • Review the results so as to modify and improve upon the strategy and influence desired user behavior.
trinity_strategy-figure_4_497x375Figure 4