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When SEO & Usability Go Head To Head

At Ai Digital we’ve been relaunching our usability and conversion marketing services and I’ve been thinking a lot about how usability best practice and SEO go hand in hand. For me generally the 2 go together like peas and carrots, they’re both based on the guiding principle of making a better site.

Twitter Bird

However at times what’s best for the user doesn’t always seem to be what’s best for the search engine and vice versa so compromises have to be made. I’ve gone over here some of the most common flash points between usability and SEO best practice I see.

#1 The title tag

For SEO’s its the most important part of the page and its all about the keywords but usability best practice essentially says the shorter the better, just a quick description of the page and the site name. Oh and the site name should be at the front of the title tag not the end on the homepage.

For example this title for helpmetravel.co.uk throws a lot of keywords at me but doesn’t give me the company name, even though it’s the homepage and there’s know way I’m going to read the whole thing meaning SERPS performance is going to be hindered.

helpmetravel.co.uk

The compromise

You’ve got to get the keywords in there, no doubt about it but the titles shouldn’t be gibberish. So something like this sounds good to me…

Helpmetravel.co.uk – Compare Airport Parking & Car Parks

Nice for users in search results pages, nice for bookmarking and not really compromising on SEO.

#2 Copywriting

Some usability guys will say ‘cut the text down by half- then half what’s left’ but SEO’s can have a habit of saying with 400 words which could have been said with 40. Ideally you don’t want to be using any words which aren’t helping the user to get the information they need out of that page and move on as quickly as possible, but similarly long pages with lots of copy do tend to rank well.

Long or short?

Somewhere in between! Cut out unnecessary words and any repetition and marketing speak but leave in enough content to tell the user what they need to know and give the search engines something to play with. Blogs, articles, whitepapers and the like are a bit different to regular web pages as your readers are already engaged so here you can go into as much detail as neccesary- one of the reasons this type of content is all good SEO fodder. Jakob Nielsen has a good article on long vs short content.

#3 Hidden content

While slick ‘web2’ stuff like content stashed in javascript spans can be a handy way to get more content on the page without compromising design, lending itself well to SEO. In reality the implementation of this stuff tends to fall short of usable.

Anything which causes a page to lengthen when activated and drop below the fold can cause extra scrolling which doubles the work of the user who has to click to reveal the extra content then move back to their scrollbar to see it.

Web2 unusable?

Not at all, just some of the tools which are starting to get used don’t have basic users in mind. Take the new BBC homepage for example-

bbc homepage

#4 Blogs

Blogs are now common place in SEO/ social media strategies but blog interfaces themselves are rarely pillars of usable interface design.

The archive based information architecture and navigation system used by most blogs are tricky for unfamiliar users to get their heads round and generally don’t lend themselves to making the posts you want easy to find. Categories fair a bit better but not if there’s a category list the length of your arm.

Additionally the use of terminology like ‘tags’, ‘blogrolls’ and ‘diggs’ don’t give many clues if its your first time on a blog.

Blogs can help your search efforts but they should be treated as an extension of the main site and adhere to the same usability principles.

#4.1 RSS

In addition to the blogs point- RSS another tool of choice for the modern SEO has questionable usability primarily because most users still don’t know what it is, what it stands for or how it works!

By all means use your RSS for syndication onto other sites but if you want users to pick up your feeds as well its worth explaining what RSS is and ideally not calling it RSS in the first place!

#5 Subtle link highlighting

Internal linking is one of the first things most SEO’s will look at when sorting out the onsite factors influencing its ranking and building links between pages in the body text can be an effective way of boosting a sites overall link count. More and more though SEO’s choose to hide these links from users, styling them link normal text so the link isn’t visible (unless its clicked).

Making links easy to recognise for users is always one of the first things a usability study will address so that really goes against the idea of hiding them away. If the links not visible to the user should it be there?

In practice this may not be such a problem as if a user can’t see a link at all they’ll rarely know any different, but if its just a really subtle link like a faint underline it could cause problems so either hide them properly or better still don’t hide them at all!

Thats my run down of the top SEO/ usability conflicts, let me know any more you can think of in the comments.

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31 Comments
  • In my opinion, SEO is dead! You need to optimize your site for the visitors: it’s called VEO or Visitor Experience Optimization. The idea is to build a website your visitors will absolutely love. Provide useful information and provide links to other sites related to yours. If you build a quality site other webmasters will link to it to enrich their own visitors’ experience and your site’s popularity will rise.

  • Erika- Technology Goddess on August 16, 2008

    This is a great post. I have been in the process of moving Technology Goddess to a new server, and a new theme, and since I am a professional Silo blueprint engineer, figured I would work with siloing WP, which is NOT my area of SEO.

    Holy Cow! I have been sacrificing the SEO standards I uphold on any other site for pure usability.

    I feel that if you make a great blog, with fresh, cool content, and follow the best SEO you can while considering your readers in the process, that a little bit of page bleed isn’t going to shoot you down the google drain.

  • Marcel on August 16, 2008

    Speaking of usability, please make your body copy larger!

  • A Tucson SEO on August 16, 2008

    Most of your article makes a lot of sense until you start hiding things. The Goggle God doesn’t much like it when things are hidden.

    And do you really subscribe to the fold theory? That goes back to the early days of the Internet when browser where new and people did not know how to use them. That was been obsolete for years.

  • Sebastian on August 17, 2008

    I agree with you Marcel, not everyone has 20/20 vision.
    The article was well written and enjoyable to read, but maybe the font could be a little bigger.

  • Simon on August 18, 2008

    As to the font – press ctrl + + :)

  • Simon on August 18, 2008

    As to the font – press ctrl + + :)

  • John on August 18, 2008

    -Tuscan SEO: Content within the js tabs in this example does get indexed by Google. The fold issue in this example refers to content which starts above the fold and ends up below it when you expand the link which causes the user to make 3 movements to read a few lines of text.

    -Marcel/ Sebastian: fair point about the font I think!

  • Kelvin on August 18, 2008

    i’ve got simon on the case with the font now, one of thosethings we’ve been meaning to sort for ages, finally given us the kick up the bum to get it sorted!

  • Kelvin on August 18, 2008

    i’ve got simon on the case with the font now, one of thosethings we’ve been meaning to sort for ages, finally given us the kick up the bum to get it sorted!

  • jeremy h on August 18, 2008

    You make a comment – “Oh and the site name should be at the front of the title tag not the end on the homepage.” Can you give some reasoning behind this accusation ?

    Thanks!

  • jeremy h on August 18, 2008

    You make a comment – “Oh and the site name should be at the front of the title tag not the end on the homepage.” Can you give some reasoning behind this accusation ?

    Thanks!

  • John on August 18, 2008

    @jeremy- Traditionally its so the site will bookmark under your company name. i.e. if you bookmark sitevisibility.co.uk you can find it in your bookmarks under ‘s’.

    Also makes sense in serps from a branding perspective to have the site name prominent so if you search for ‘SEO agency brighton’ the first word you read is ‘SiteVisibility.’

    Hope that helps?

  • John on August 18, 2008

    @jeremy- Traditionally its so the site will bookmark under your company name. i.e. if you bookmark sitevisibility.co.uk you can find it in your bookmarks under ‘s’.

    Also makes sense in serps from a branding perspective to have the site name prominent so if you search for ‘SEO agency brighton’ the first word you read is ‘SiteVisibility.’

    Hope that helps?

  • Matty S on August 19, 2008

    lulz @Kevin. Your link-baity comment forced me to follow through to your site to check out what you are about. :)

    Interesting article. I think which way you move the SEO/UX bar really depends on where you are with the maturity of your site. If you are a new site with a very small marketing budget, you are going to want to dial your SEO up to 11 IMO. Google and other search engines aren’t going to be focusing their efforts on figuring out how to index the valuable pages on your site, you need to get your message out there and a well SEO’ed site is a good way to go.

    A more established brand/site, or someone with a decent marketing budget that can afford to get their message out another way can afford to make comprises to SEO in favor of creating a better experience.

    All this varies depending on the various circumstances, type of site, etc.

  • Matty S on August 19, 2008

    lulz @Kevin. Your link-baity comment forced me to follow through to your site to check out what you are about. :)

    Interesting article. I think which way you move the SEO/UX bar really depends on where you are with the maturity of your site. If you are a new site with a very small marketing budget, you are going to want to dial your SEO up to 11 IMO. Google and other search engines aren’t going to be focusing their efforts on figuring out how to index the valuable pages on your site, you need to get your message out there and a well SEO’ed site is a good way to go.

    A more established brand/site, or someone with a decent marketing budget that can afford to get their message out another way can afford to make comprises to SEO in favor of creating a better experience.

    All this varies depending on the various circumstances, type of site, etc.

  • Data Entry Services on August 21, 2008

    I like that Ctrl++ thing. I disagree with the reader that said SEO is dead. We live in the real world and if your customers/readers can’t find your site, it doesn’t matter how nice it is. So I agree with this blog that you must balance the two.

  • Data Entry Services on August 21, 2008

    I like that Ctrl++ thing. I disagree with the reader that said SEO is dead. We live in the real world and if your customers/readers can’t find your site, it doesn’t matter how nice it is. So I agree with this blog that you must balance the two.

  • Sebastian on August 22, 2008

    While on the subject of SEO and site optimisation, wouldn’t it be better if instead of the file name – http://www.sitevisibility.co.uk/blog/?p=171 the file name was – http://www.sitevisibility.co.uk/blog/when seo & usability go head to head in a perfect seo world/. Also I couldn’t see any meta keywords in the source file that relate to the page content.
    As regards SEO being dead, it is very much alive, it’s amazing the power of organic SEO, as well as Visitor Experience Optimization.
    Using this blog article as a case in point for page title I’d go – When SEO & Usability Go Head To Head :: Site Visibility. Foregrounding the Page Title, supporting the header and backing it up with meta description and keywords, relevant to, content, in conjunction with the new file name.

  • Sebastian on August 22, 2008

    While on the subject of SEO and site optimisation, wouldn’t it be better if instead of the file name – http://www.sitevisibility.co.uk/blog/?p=171 the file name was – http://www.sitevisibility.co.uk/blog/when seo & usability go head to head in a perfect seo world/. Also I couldn’t see any meta keywords in the source file that relate to the page content.
    As regards SEO being dead, it is very much alive, it’s amazing the power of organic SEO, as well as Visitor Experience Optimization.
    Using this blog article as a case in point for page title I’d go – When SEO & Usability Go Head To Head :: Site Visibility. Foregrounding the Page Title, supporting the header and backing it up with meta description and keywords, relevant to, content, in conjunction with the new file name.

  • John on August 29, 2008

    Thanks for the tips sebastian! I think we have SEO on sitevisibility.co.uk booked in for sometime 2010 when we have a free hour from client work!

  • John on August 29, 2008

    Thanks for the tips sebastian! I think we have SEO on sitevisibility.co.uk booked in for sometime 2010 when we have a free hour from client work!

  • SEO Consultant Joel on October 15, 2008

    WOW Great post. Could not have written it better myself. I believe wholeheartedly you should provide users with a great experience and don’t keyword spam. Also a WordPress blog or something of that nature is great for SEO as well. Love the dog pic

  • SEO Consultant Joel on October 15, 2008

    WOW Great post. Could not have written it better myself. I believe wholeheartedly you should provide users with a great experience and don’t keyword spam. Also a WordPress blog or something of that nature is great for SEO as well. Love the dog pic

  • Rahul on February 13, 2009

    <p>Great post, just what I was searching for. Thanks a ton.</p>

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