Why Usability and SEO Go Hand-in-hand

Jill Whalen on
  • Categories: All Things SEO Column, Channel: SEO, Columns
  • Many years ago, when Danny Sullivan was still part of Search Engine Watch and the Search Engine strategies conferences, a few of us approached him on having a session on usability. Surprisingly, he dismissed the suggestion saying that while usability was a great topic, it wasn’t really a search marketing issue.

    Thankfully, Danny did eventually see the connection between SEO and usability as evidenced by SMX East and West sessions covering the topic. There have been numerous articles by Shari Thurow, Kim Krause Berg and others here at Search Engine Land that provide lots of usability details. I’m not well-versed in all aspects of usability like Shari and Kim are, but I have understood how much it is intertwined with organic SEO for a long time. I’ve believed in the connection so strongly that I’ve been providing our SEO clients with Kim’s usability reports since 2004. They always add value as well as corroborate the SEO recommendations we make.

    Search engines want to provide the best pages to searchers

    Usability and SEO going hand-in-hand makes total sense when you think about it. What makes a website better for your site visitors should also make a site better for SEO because the search engines want to find the pages that are the best for their visitors-the searchers. Search engines aren’t looking for the pages with the most keyword density or the most toolbar PageRank or the most anything else. Search engines are looking for the best, most relevant pages that most meet the user’s search query.

    Check out usability.gov

    To illustrate just how much usability and SEO go hand-in-hand, visit the usability.gov website, which is an official U.S. Government website providing a free step-by-step usability guide for anyone designing or redesigning their website. I love this site because it’s very simple to use and practices what it preaches. It also provides a lot of the same advice I’ve been providing to SEO clients for many years, only I was providing it as a way to increase their targeted search engine traffic.

    Search engines love organized sites (so do users!)

    I love the way usability.gov starts with four main topics (or categories).

    • Plan
    • Analyze
    • Design
    • Test & Refine

    As one would expect, these 4 categories are part of the main navigation so that the user can click to any of those topics from any other page of the site. They are telling their users that these are the most important pages of this site, which is why they are linking to them from every other page.

    Their sub-section on defining the site architecture provides a great tutorial on how to organize a site. And it’s almost exactly the advice we provide to SEO clients. The search engines understand that the most important (and general) information of your site should be the most easily accessible at the top-level of your navigation, and that the more detailed (and specific) info should be accessible by drilling further into the website.

    Search engines (and users) need to know what each page is about

    I also love how usability.gov places a paragraph “blurb” of content at the top of nearly every main page that describes exactly what it is all about. After that blurb, they provide 5 or 6 main points that they cover briefly with a few sub-topic bullet points, and then link to a deeper page for more specific info on each.

    This too is something we’ve been recommending for SEO purposes for ages as it enables you to naturally use your most important keyword phrases for that page within the copy. On high-level pages you use your more general keywords phrases in the top paragraph blurb and your more specific keyword phrases in the sub-sections below that link to individual product or service pages.

    Where have you heard these before?

    Along those lines, usability.gov’s writing for the web section also provides great advice that most SEOs would agree with and recommend. “Put in many headings,” “write useful headings,” “put what users need most first”–now where have we heard these before? Yep, nearly every SEO writing tutorial out there! Once again, what’s good for your users is good for the search engines. Search engines know that important info is often contained in headings and they know that what comes near the beginning of a page is typically going to be what users need. Thus they weight these factors accordingly.

    It’s all about target audience

    The learning about your users section of usability.gov is very similar to the advice we provide in SEO about discovering who your target audience is. After all, how can you research the keywords they might be typing into search engines if you don’t know much (if anything) about them?

    All in all, just about every page on the usability.gov website has solid advice that also jibes with creating a great site for SEO purposes. I highly recommend anyone designing websites or performing any SEO tasks read the information it provides and figure out how to work the advice into your SEO strategies. Your clients will love that you are helping them to make a better site overall, while also bringing more targeted traffic to it. Not only that, but since the site will now be so targeted to its users, it’s more likely they’ll take the action you desire, which will result in more leads, conversions and sales!

    Jill Whalen, CEO and founder of High Rankings, a search marketing firm outside of Boston, and co-founder of SEMNE, a New England search marketing networking organization, has been performing SEO since 1995. Jill is the host of the High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.


    About The Author

    Jill Whalen