Hey Usability Professionals: Get With The SEO Program

For over 10 years, I have been trying to convince my clients, colleagues, friends, family, and my 2 cats that SEO and website usability go hand in hand, that they are intricately related. And I have even chastised colleagues and clients for not considering users during the optimization process.

I have seen many of my SEO colleagues work very hard to understand website usability. But I am not seeing many website usability professionals trying to understand search engine optimization, dismissing many of us as snake-oil salesman and some other colorful descriptions. It is time for usability professionals to get with the SEO program. Here are some of my biggest beefs with many usability professionals.

Keywords are important – so stop eliminating them!

When I read usability professionals’ reports, I often see a common mistake that many journalists and public relations (PR) professionals make: they take the keywords off of the page. After I put them in. And believe me, keyword stuffing and hidden text have never been my optimization strategies. And I’m someone who actually conducts usability tests before presenting reports and recommendations to clients. It is frustrating for me to see usability professionals take important keywords off of a page. I am sure many of my colleagues feel the same way.

SEO professionals “get” a fundamental concept that many usability professionals do not seem to grasp easily. When searchers click on a link from a search engine results page (SERP) to a website, they expect to see those keywords on the page. And the web page content should appear somewhat focused on those very keywords. If not? Then searchers abandon the web page.

When usability professionals take important keywords off of a web page, they are making it more difficult for users to find their desired information via both retrieval and browsing.

Additionally, after removing important keywords, many usability professionals moan and groan about how poor site search engine results are. Surely, the site search engine is not programmed well. Guess what? How do you expect a site search engine to deliver accurate results when you keep taking keywords off of the web page? Meta-tag content is not the “magic” solution. It hasn’t been the “magic” solution for many, many years. Searchers need to see important keywords on a web page. When users scan web pages, they stop when they locate their desired keywords, and they read in greater detail.

I am certainly not saying that lack of keyword focus is the only reason site search engine results are not accurate. But the lack of keyword focus is part of the problem. Usability professionals, stop eliminating important keywords.

Using a common seo and usability vocabulary

For both usability and SEO professionals to understand each other, we must use a common vocabulary. Both SEO and usability professionals are equally guilty of using industry jargon, in spite of our mantra to “use the users’ language.”

For example, in one of my recent articles, I commented on how SEO professionals’ interpretation of the phrase “information architecture” is nowhere near what a usability professional or an information architect might come up with. Because of the different interpretations of this phrase, one can easily see why communication among these groups of professionals can be problematic. SEOs think information architecture is one thing. Information architects think it is another.

During my client consultation, I discovered a major source of miscommunication between SEO and website usability professionals. Many website usability professionals do not know how to code or program web pages. They might not know the difference between a title tag and a heading. They might not know what a CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) layer is. And the word “menu” has a completely different meaning in the usability industry. Why don’t website usability professionals know the parts of a web page? I am certainly not saying that website usability professionals should know how to code and program an entire website. But I at least would expect them to understand the parts of a web page. Heck, I even know some SEO professionals that do not know the parts of a web page.

But that is not the point. We cannot expect to communicate with each other unless we establish a common vocabulary and a common frame of reference. Both SEO and usability professionals have the same goal for a website—achieving business goals through a positive user experience. To me, it seems odd that we are all on the same team but are playing different games with different rules… and expecting the website, and users, to win. How can anyone win when no one knows the rules?

This is my plea to usability professionals. Quit writing search engine optimizers off as snake-oil salesman. I will admit that some people in our industry are snake-oil salesman. But not all of us are. Many of us are genuinely trying to improve the user experience. Open your ears and your minds. You will find that we are all playing for the same team.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).

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  • http://www.usereffect.com Dr. Pete

    Thanks for the bridge-building here, Shari. Having made the shift from academia to business, I suspect that part of the problem (at least for some folks) is the tendency of traditional usability professionals to treat the subject with a certain purism, for lack of a better word. In other words, we see usability as pure and virtuous, and so we try to keep it separate from persuasion, marketing, and any perceived attempts at influence.

    Of course, it’s not that simple, and persuasion and influence aren’t the same as manipulation. Building strong sites with clear paths and a sense of the visitor’s journey from search to conversion isn’t just good for usability, it’s the right thing to do. Well-placed keywords and thoughtful copywriting are an important part of helping visitors accomplish their goals. If that isn’t usability, then I don’t know what is.

  • http://www.SearchTactix.com TheDoug

    Shari! THANK YOU! What you say is absolutely correct, and happily I can tell you we are working with a Usability company currently that is allowing us to do our part first BECAUSE they know how important it is, and have promised to work around what we supply. Yes, it absolutely needs to be friendly to the people coming to the site, but people need to find the site first, which means catering to the properly developed SEO portion of the design (not just link-building dependence).

    Great post!

    The Doug

  • max_t

    Hi Shari, Finally!
    I have been frustrated by the lack of SEO knowledge among UX and IA proffesionals for some time now. No one seems to understand that SEO is really usability design but on another level (ok. not totally but to a large degree). Making your site as usability friendly as possible has good SEO implications.

    There is no way the one or the other can be excluded from a site building or re-building. Finally i found a post that manifests my thoughts. Thank you for a great post!


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