Over half of all website traffic comes from Google, Bing, and other search engines, according to a study by BrightEdge.
The practice of search engine optimization (SEO) deals with the thousands of little things you can do to get some of that traffic: what content to write, how to design your site, how to make it easy for search engines to crawl, and many other things.
The great news for readers of this blog: Search engine optimization is actually the practice of search experience optimization. And search experience is all about usability.
What Google is trying to do
Google is solving a formidable problem. It has to allow a searcher to put in just a couple of words, and then figure out, using only that data, what it is they’re trying to do or learn.
For a simple query like “pictures of adorable kittens,” it’s not too hard to know.
But what about a complex query, like “mobile payments”? Are you looking to make mobile payments, to learn about them, to figure out how big the industry is? What about “bagels”? Do you want to know how to make a bagel, or nutrition information, or places to buy them?
Once it has guessed your intent, Google has to rank all the millions of matching pages in its index to figure out which result is best for you. Should it show you a long or a short page? Which site, of the many dozens that talk about bagels, has the best information for you? What about design, speed, and readability?
In short: what page will be most useful for you in that moment, based on those few words you searched for? Or to put it another way, what site will let you complete your task the fastest?
We know that the content itself is critical for high search ranking, but usability factors are important as well.
1. Leave an information scent
Information scent is a set of cues that help visitors zero in on what they’re looking for, and it's critical for search traffic.
In search, you have several opportunities to provide an information scent. The main ones are through your page title and description, and also through a miniature navigation bar that Google and other search engines can show in your results (“site links”).
Compare these two entries from Google:
The first provides a compelling call to action, a relevant domain name, and site links that let a searcher go directly to the section of the site they’re interested in. The second simply repeats the search query (“halloween costumes”) several times, and gives almost no detail on what the user is clicking into. There’s also no way to quickly click through to results that are more specific to me.
The first result is more usable. As a result, it probably drives a lot more traffic than the second.
2. Design a clear navigation structure
Once users are on your site, they have to be able to find what they’re looking for easily. Your users like a clear navigation, and so does Google.
Basic usability calls for a clear navigation structure, and plenty of clear navigation opportunities on each page. You also want your URLs to reflect the content they represent. For example, if your site has a men’s shirts category, the URL should contain something like /mens-shirts.
All of these great navigational choices are also critical for effective SEO. Google determines what your site is about using many factors, but three of the most important are:
- Words that are used in links to your page
- Words that are most prominent on your page
- Words in the page’s title and URL
Well-thought-out navigation will give Google this data automatically. For example, if I have breadcrumbs on the page that follow the pattern Men’s > Men’s Shirts > Polo Shirts, the links for each of those items will tell Google what the content on the corresponding page is about.
And because the main navigation is on every page of your site, every page of your site is an opportunity to give Google lots of useful hints about what pages are available, what they contain, and how to index them.
If you keep your navigation lean, so that related information is grouped together on a single page—for example, you have men’s polo shirts all showing up together—you’ll be making the correct destination extremely clear for visitors, and for Google, too.
By the way, navigation doesn’t just include pages that are currently on your site. It also applies to pages that you take down, and the redirects you choose.
If you stop selling a certain type of unicycle, redirect the visitor to something else that’s highly relevant to their query, such as your Unicycles category page offering similar products. Better still, put a message on that page telling the visitor that the particular product they came in for isn’t available, but here are other suggestions they might like.
That’s a better experience for the user. And it signals to Google that the new page is relevant for visitors to the old page, which helps it rank better in search results.
3. Make your site accessible to all visitors
The Google search crawler is a robot, and “sees” your site very differently from human users. But many of the things you can do to improve your site for Google will also make the experience better for human beings, and vice versa.
For example, you can provide a simple text representation of any image on your site (known as “alt”, or alternative, text). Adding this text is important for vision-impaired visitors so that their screen readers can parse the images you’ve added. But since Google’s bot can’t see what’s on your site, it also reads your alternative text and uses it as another clue to what the page is about.
For the same reasons, good link text is important. Imagine a blog article snippet with a “Read More” link below it. Simple enough to understand, if you can see how the page is laid out. But if you only had access to the text, it might not be clear what “Read More” is referring to.
Instead, try link text like “Read more about urban sombreros”, which both gives Google a hint as to what the link refers to, and makes it easier for your users to understand, too.
For users using mobile devices, accessibility is even more important. Phones have comparatively tiny displays, and much less bandwidth, which can make using a site on a mobile device unpleasant.
For this reason, Google gives a ranking bonus to sites that render fast, and that are easy to navigate for all users on all devices. Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool will even give you a score for your user experience.
Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, is arguably the most important voice in SEO. Here’s something Matt said in 2013:
“In terms of what you should be working on… make a great site that users love, that they’ll want to tell their friends about, bookmark, come back to, visit over and over again. As long as you’re working hard for users, we’re working hard to show your high-quality content to users as well.” —Matt Cutts
What else do you need to hear? Of course SEO still matters, but it’s come a long way from the days of keyword stuffing. Focus on great content and a great experience, and search traffic will follow.
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Justin Dunham is a digital marketing nerd and marketing engineer. He’s led digital marketing functions at MongoDB, Urban Airship, and One Acre Fund, and lives in sunny Portland, Oregon.