What SEO/SEM Professionals Should Know About Website Usability

100% Organic - A Column From Search Engine Land

In an effort to differentiate themselves from competitors, many SEO/SEM firms come up with interesting unique selling propositions (USPs). Some SEO/SEM firms emphasize search engine advertising and create quite useful tools to help manage PPC campaigns. Some SEO firms specialize in training, again creating tools that help newbie and experienced SEO professionals optimize existing web pages. For the past two to three years, I have been watching SEO/SEM firms increasingly focus on the user, specifically offering website usability services.

Although I laud the evolution of SEO/SEM firms to increasingly focus on the user, I admit that I find some of their conclusions and methodologies rather troubling. Recently, I worked with a company who was happy with their SEO firm, but when they showed me the heuristic analysis I was dumbfounded. The SEO firm actually told this company to remove the primary call to action on product pages because it interfered with keyword density. There were countless other mistakes in the heuristic analysis, and it is that report that inspired me to write this article.

Website usability and user-friendly design are certainly great terms to use during the sales process. However, do SEO professionals really "get" website usability, and is it a benefit for website owners to hire such firms to promote their company or organization sites in the commercial web search engines?

Rather than give my personal opinion, for this two-part article, I decided to ask some of my well-known colleagues about the usability industry’s opinion of search engine optimization. My question to them was a simple one, "What should SEO professionals know about usability?" I hope both website owners and SEO professionals take their answers to heart. Enjoy.

Usability testing and SEO

"The word usability serves as a boundary object that invites diverse communities of practice to share experiences and negotiate solutions," said Peter Morville, President of Semantic Studios and author of the renowned books, Information Architecture for the WWW and Ambient Findability. "For instance, as an information architect who consults with major corporations, it’s vital for me to understand usability heuristics and perform usability tests, but it’s equally essential that I go beyond usability."

"As I explained in an article on user experience design, we must strive to create products that are useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, and credible," Moreville continues. "The relative importance of each quality depends upon the context, and we must find the right balance"

"On the Web, findability is a huge challenge," he said. "Can your users find your website? Can they find their way around your website? And, can they find your products and services despite your website? When you start asking these sorts of questions, it becomes obvious there’s no bright line separating usability, findability, information architecture, and SEO."

"In my experience, there’s simply no substitute for one-on-one testing with real users," said Morville. "Usability tests are a tremendous source of insight and empathy. But, it’s also true that our observations and analyses are shaped by our expectations and bias. For this reason, it’s helpful (and refreshing) to see differently by immersing ourselves in the ideas and practices of another discipline, community, or culture.

"So, my advice is to integrate usability concepts and methods into your practice, but don’t stop there," he said. "Information architecture, interaction design, knowledge management, cognitve [sic] psychology, and ethnography are but a few of the fields with potential to change how you think about SEO and its relationship to usability."

Heuristic analysis and SEO

The goal of a heuristic evaluation is to usability problems early in the design of a Web site so that improvements can be made as part of the iterative design process (Source: http://www.usability.gov/methods/heuristiceval.html). Though Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich came up with some outstanding guidelines in the early 90s, their research and others’ continues to evolve, as web site usability is an iterative process.

What I’ve seen happen in the past few years is SEO firms offering heuristic or site analyses as one of their services. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? An SEO firm that focuses on both users and the search engines. Unfortunately, many SEO firms are unqualified to offer this type of service. Dr. Susan Weinschenk, Chief of Technical Staff and Director of Training at Human Factors International, explains.

"Heuristics and guidelines are important, but that’s not all there is," said Weinschenk. "On a big picture level, people don’t really think they [heuristics] can be encapsulated with a couple of guidelines. You can apply all usability guideliness [sic] to a website an [sic] have a completely unusable interface. Heuristics are rules of thumb. At the heart of usability is user-centered design (UCD), and in each situation is an interaction point. What does each person do at a particular point?"

"In a lot of ways," she continues, "a lot of usability professionals are oblivious to SEO — what’s an SEO? In many cases, SEO has nothing to do with their jobs. Many usability professionals are unaware that there are SEO initiatives going on in their organizations."


Both website usability and SEO/SEM are iterative processes, meaning that methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a work in progress (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iterative_design). At the heart of iterative design is the objective observation of interaction between users and an interface: not focus groups, not web analytics, and not an SEO professional’s personal opinion about website usability.

In Part 2 of this article, we will learn more about what more usability professionals wish SEOs would remember about website usability.

Shari Thurow is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the book Search Engine Visibility. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.

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

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO | SEO: General


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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