When SEO & Usability Go Head To Head

Posted by in Search Marketing (SEO) on August 13th, 2008 31 Comments

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.

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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.

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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-

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#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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