Have you ever heard a search engine optimization (SEO) professional use the term user experience during a presentation, in an article or as part of a sales pitch? On the web, user experience (commonly abbreviated as UX or UE) is a term used to describe the overall perception, experience, and satisfaction that users have as a result of their interactions with a website.
Search engine optimization is all about the user experience, because the idea behind SEO is to get users to their desired information and destination(s) as quickly and easily as possible by using the users’ language (keywords). Searchers type in keywords at a commercial web search engine. Searchers’ expectations are validated in search results pages and, hopefully, after they click on links within those search results…a perfect, seamless user experience.
On the surface, an SEO professional’s presumed knowledge of user experience might sound impressive. However, if you do a little digging, you might discover that search professionals have their own preconceived notions as to what constitutes a positive user experience, notions that have little or nothing to do with users at all.
Users + experience = user experience
At the core of user experience is, you guessed it, users. I know this seems blatantly obvious and a little bit stupid for me to write. Nevertheless, user experience is a concept that seems to be lost on many search professionals. Here is why.
There are many different ways that both search professionals and usability professionals gather information about users. Focus groups, Web analytics data, keyword research, field interviews, and usability tests are all ways that these professionals can gather information about searcher behavior and interaction with a website. Search professionals rely heavily on keyword research tools and Web analytics data to determine how users, and search engines, interact with a website. However, as I outlined in a previous article, When Keyword Research and Search Data Deceives, keyword data can lead search marketers down the wrong path.
For example, a keyword phrase might be popular. And a site might rank well for this particular keyword phrase and its long-tail variations. But if the searchers who use this keyword phrase are not among your site’s target audience, then all of the time and expense put into the optimization and advertising for this keyword phrase is wasted. I often hear the legitimate-sounding excuse of the “positive brand experience” for appearing at the top of search results for various keyword phrases. How is appearing at the top of search results to the wrong target audience a positive brand (user) experience?
When I test search results pages for usability, I do not hear test participants say that they view these websites in a positive manner. Rather, they are quite irritated when search listings (and the corresponding web pages) do not meet their expectations. And they become increasingly irritated when the same site appears over and over again for multiple searches. They are not only irritated with the website—they are also irritated with the search engine that keeps delivering listings from the same site over and over again. Test participants usually do not blame themselves for formulating poor search queries. They often blame the website owner and the search engine.
The user experience does not come from a brand manager’s perspective, a marketing manager’s perspective, or even a search engine’s perspective. The user experience comes from the users’ perspective. Search marketers would do well to keep this point in mind when doing SEO.
User experience and interaction
Also at the core of the user experience is interaction. How do site visitors interact with a website? Are web pages sticky, encouraging site visitors to continue viewing other pages within a website? Is a page’s bounce rate extremely high? Do all web pages need to be sticky?
Web analytics data can certainly tell search marketers how site visitors use a website. But this data doesn’t tell us why site visitors do the things they do on a website, what motivates them. In my opinion, it is the combination of the how and the why that delivers the best ROI (return on investment). All too often, search marketers completely miss the boat on the why part because they limit their knowledge of site interaction to web analytics data and general website usability guidelines. They never truly interact with users.
In order to truly evaluate the how and the why of website interaction, you need to:
- Put the interface in front of members of your primary target audience,
- Objectively observe their behaviors, and
- Ask questions about their behaviors without leading them into giving you answers that you want to hear
Focus groups cannot give you this feedback because the focus group leaders are driving the interactions. Web analytics data is not communicating users’ motivations behind their actions. So if I hear a search professional claim that he or she is all about promoting a positive user experience, my questions to them are:
- How many usability tests have you done in the past three months?
- What are the names of these usability tests?
- Without violating client confidentiality, what did you learn from these tests?
- What other types of client interaction do you measure, and how?
Of course, I am not saying that search professionals are not “pro” user experience because they do not usability test. However, if I hear the job title of User Experience Designer or User Experience Specialist, I want to know that the person with these job titles actually interacts with users to truly understand their experience.
One of my favorite usability best practices quotations came from Susan Weinschenk from Human Factors International:
“You can apply all usability guidelines to a website and have a completely unusable interface.”
The search experience is a large part of the overall user experience. I laud all search marketers who follow usability best practices during the optimization process, because usability certainly helps with a site’s link development and conversions. But I also know that reading guidelines and following them without actually observing human interaction with optimized websites can lead search marketers and website owners down the wrong path. As part of the SEO and usabality testing process, be sure not to neglect one-on-one interaction with your target audience. You won’t regret it.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.