User-Centered Or Usage-Centered Design: Which Is Better For SEO?

In one of my previous Search Engine Land columns, SEO Smackdown: Information Architecture vs. Technical Architecture, I reviewed some of the differences between IA and technical architecture. When our context is search engine optimization, is the primary focus on the user or the commercial web search engine? Or vice versa?

Some SEO professionals are more technology (search engine) focused. Some SEO professionals are more searcher focused…and there are various shades in between the two extremes.

When I train or consult clients on how Web documents more search-engine friendly for users, I often run into another dilemma: user-centered design vs. usage-centered design. At this point in time, I feel that SEO professionals lean heavily on usage-centered design.

User-centered design (UCD) and search engine optimization (SEO) - image

Usage-Centered Design & Activity-Centered Design

Usage-centered design is a term coined by software developer and professor Larry Constantine and Lucy Lockwood that focuses on user intentions and usage patterns.

It is very similar to activity-centered design (ACD), which is also concerned more with the activities of users but not the characteristics of users.

I admit I was very excited when I first encountered the topic of usage-centered design. I grasped it immediately because, as an SEO professional, I am very focused on how people search.

Is the searcher behavior navigational, informational, transactional, commercial? What are the keywords that searchers genuinely type into the major Web search engines? What are the clickstreams?

Many SEO and analytics tools are built to identify, troubleshoot, and understand user behaviors and activities. In my opinion, I believe SEO professionals are light years ahead of usability professionals and information architects because they do not ignore or discount searcher activities. SEO professionals do not ignore findability as a facet of the user/searcher experience.

However, and I’ve said this many times over the years in conferences and articles, these tools show us searcher activities—how people search.

But they do not tell us why people search. And that is where user-centered design fits into the SEO equation.

User-Centered Design (UCD)

Now, as a usability professional (putting on my website usability hat right now – it’s not black), I absolutely understand the value of usage-centered design. If any of you have had to do any work with personas, you might know how difficult it might be to explain the need for them, identify them, and create them.

For example, I often have problems explaining personas and usability tests to a marketing team. A usability test is not a focus group, and a persona is not a market segment. CennyDD Bowles and James Box, co-authors of Undercover User Experience Design, explained the difference:

Personas represent the other side of the marketing data coin. Segments cluster individuals into groups. Personas create individuals to represent groups.”

I have a confession to make. When I was first educated and trained on personas, I thought my instructors were full of hooha. I felt that they were more concerned with the personal characteristics of users rather than their behaviors and activities. I was dumbfounded that no one seemed to put searcher characteristics (newbie vs. expert, etc.) in their personas. And I did not understand why findability and SEO were discounted or ignored when creating relevant scenarios.

In other words, I was not a persona and user-centered design fan for quite some time.

Then I started conducting usability tests as both an observer and a facilitator. I was absolutely dumbfounded at how people performed tasks (different from me, at least). Keywords were ignored when formatted and positioned in various places on a webpage…and these keywords seemed so obvious to me. On the flip side, I was also gobsmacked at what keywords test participants did notice.

Ultimately, I grew to accept that when I designed or developed an interface, I should not create or conduct any usability tests because of my lack of objectivity. That entire learning experience was so eye opening.

I understand that many SEO professionals have limited knowledge and experience in website usability, information architecture, and user-centered design. I understand that my SEO journey is unique. Others become better SEOs by following a more technical path. Other SEOs become very skilled link developers and social media experts. All in all, I see that the field of search engine optimization has clearly been a part of usage-centered design.

What do you think? Is search-engine friendly design: user-centered design, usage-centered design, or both?


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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  • Reg Charie

    I think there has been a major shift in SEO indexing factors from the technical, bot oriented content, (How many times do you want to repeat the keywords?), to one focused on presenting relevance to guide the user.

    People (and Google), judge relevance by content and presentation.
    Larger text assumes more importance (relevance) and position of this text on the page is a factor.

    I look at presentation of relevance.. where and how the keywords are presented
    Eye tracking studies tell me where people look, so I know where to position the various elements. Jakob Nielsen on Usability and Web Design studies give a clue into how people read from a monitor and the (lack of) importance of graphics to search.

    Structure of the content is important as people read only the first dozen or so characters in each line and more than 4 lines together in a paragraph can present “a wall of text”.

    SEO is a visual process with both human and AI judging from the presentation.


  • Nancy


    Doesn’t it depend upon the type of business represented on the website? I work with a huge range of businesses, so I lean towards a blend of both. If I had restricted myself to one industry segment (say aircraft avionics manufacturing vs. HVAC), then I would most likely develop a strategy leaning towards one way or the other.

    Great article to get people thinking about what they can contribute as SEOers – thanks!

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi guys-

    Thank you for your comments.

    Reg, I’m going to add to your statement. Relevance has to do with not only content and presentation. It’s also context and labeling and aboutness. Aboutness is communicated through various ways: content, content labels, information architecture and corresponding navigation.

    Also, be careful of eye-tracking studies. I’m finding that many firms do not conduct them properly. Visual hierarchy is important. I do not discount the importance of establishing and maintaining a visual hierarchy. I’m always interested in visual hierarchies in different countries. For example, a visual hierarchy for a US website is completely different than a visual hierarchy for a Chinese site.

    People do read on the Web. I believe there was a recent, well-conducted study on that. But that’s another subject.

    With all due respect, I do not agree with this statement: “SEO is a visual process with both human and AI judging from the presentation.” Appearances are deceiving. Ever hear of cloaking? Hiding elements on a page that are for bots only? Appearances can be very, very deceiving.

    Great feedback.

    Hi Nancy. I believe that SEO is a combination of UCD and usage-centered design…or at least it should be. Just like I believe that search-engine friendly website design is a merging of UCD and technology-centered design.

    This article was a challenging one to write because the abbreviation for UCD could mean user-centered design and usage-centered design. I gave it a shot.

    I’m a fan of both types of design.

  • J.A.

    When designing a new site you need to get SEO help to make sure the top phrases are exposed and a designer that understands usability to communicate your message.

    When someone says, “I just launched a website and I need SEO” I should be excited for the potential business coming my way, but there are usually two issues that get in the way, 1) the new designs don’t take SEO into account (the words they want to rank for are not in the design) and 2) home spun, overly busy designs obscure the message (everything is on the home page).

  • tomfurton

    Hi Shari, and thanks for all your work on the intersection between search and usability. I’m still learning this industry, but I keep finding myself drawn to the kind of topics you write about.

    At this point I’m constantly reminding myself that there are real usability benefits underpinning a lot of the standard SEO 101 on-page tactics, provided we really understand what the engines are trying to reward.

    Take ‘use your keyword in the title tag’ for instance. Yes, it’s a strong ranking factor and an obvious first step in communicating to a search engine what your page is about. But the text of the title tag is also bold and underlined in a SERP listing, stating very clearly (hopefully) to a searcher what a page is about as she scans the search results. Keyword closer to the start of the tag? So much the better because 1) people read from left to right in Western languages, and 2) people want to expend as little effort as necessary when reading online, so you help them accomplish their goals if you say what your page is about right away. All things being equal, a search engine is right to reward this style of writing because it acknowledges how searchers behave online.

    Headings, links and even body copy work similarly from a scanning/information foraging perspective, so I like to think of search and usability working hand-in-hand in this regard. It’s about understanding the context of these on-page tactics, I think. Writing for engines can be writing for people, provided we’re not just going through motions we don’t really understand.

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi Tim-

    Looks like we are on the same page. The title-tag content should communicate aboutness, information scent, and it is actually a navigation label.

    Labeling is a job that information architects do quite well. I don’t think many people realize that that is one area where SEO and IA overlap — labeling systems.

    I really do not like to leave labeling decisions to technical and other types architects, in general. Granted, there are some pretty talented people out there who come up with great labeling systems, people who are not information architects. Unfortunately, I do not encounter these people as often as I would like to during my work time.

    And JA, you are preaching to the proverbial choir. Danny “hired” me to be a speaker at the very first search engine conference on the topic of search-engine friendly design, a session that I still do for SMX and Third Door Media.

    I have always said, in that session, to always consider SEO before a site is built. SEO should be a part of the planning, architecture, design, and development processes. I think we’ve all seen what happens when people skip SEO in any of these processes. I swear, sometimes the result is a spam penalty waiting to happen. I find it sad that so many companies learn that lesson the hard way.

    Nice comments, everyone. Keep ‘em coming!

  • Dario

    This reminds me of Rand’s June 23rd Whiteboard Friday article, “How Google’s Panda Update Changed SEO Best Practices Forever,” in that the engines are potentially including design signals into their algorithms. Shari, I saw your presentation at SES in Chicago a number of years ago, and I still preach that an effective user experience equates to effective SEO.

  • Shari Thurow

    Hi Dario-

    Thank you for your kind words.

    I cannot help but laugh and shrug about Rand’s article. For people like me, I’ve been practicing and preaching UCD, usability, etc. since 1995 as part of SEO best practices. And SEOs come around because of Panda or some other flavor-of-the-month algorithm “thing”? That’s just sad, isn’t it?

    Those of us who have been in the industry for a long time (pre-Google) have seen what does and does not work. PageRank sculpting existed before Google…just with a different name but the practice of it was slightly different.

    And those of us who are really good at UCD and usability? We’ve had years to test and refine our best practices. So it’s interesting to observe how other SEOs catch up to us.


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