How Do User Experience and SEO Work Together

UX and SEO are the perfect team. Here’s how to make sure they mesh.

We write a lot about both user experience and SEO (Search Engine Optimization) on this site, and if you know anything about them, you’re probably aware that they are closely related. SEO is all about creating a website that Google will prioritize in search results based on the quality of its content. Meanwhile, UX (User Experience) focuses on creating a frictionless design on the website that is engaging and helpful to visitors.

Part of building good SEO involves creating good UX, which is why these two concepts are so closely related. In the most general terms, a site with poor UX is likely to drive away any search traffic that comes its way, and because bounce rate is a statistic Google tracks, that will affect the site’s rankings. Meanwhile, good UX often leads to good SEO, as the same things that provide a good experience for the user are what helps Google understand the structure and content of the site. Let’s take a look at why.

Headings: you need them.

There’s a reason we talk about “browsing” the Internet. Your users aren’t going to read your website cover to cover (so to speak). Instead, they tend to skim content to assess whether it is relevant to their interests. Then, once they’ve determined the content meets their needs, they will read through sections in more detail.

Headings contribute to user experience by aiding this scanning behavior. But they also help SEO by signaling to Google what the key content phrases are.

That said, this only works if header tags are used appropriately. Use only one H1 heading per page for headlines or titles. For the rest, use H2 and descending to create a hierarchy of content on the page. H2’s should be your main points, with H3’s being the sub points to H2’s, and H4’s the sub points to H3’s, etc. Screen readers use headers to aid navigation, so always choose headers according to hierarchy rather than appearance.

Navigation: it’s a roadmap.

Menu navigation continues to be a major stumbling block for some, although why is unclear. In theory, navigation should be the most straightforward part of your site. As the table of contents to your site, it has one job: to direct users to where they need to go. Users need this for obvious reasons, but Google needs it to, so that it can better map your content, understand how it relates to each other, and determine whether to show navigation pages in search results.

And yet, this area of the webpage seems to be a magnet for designers who want to “innovate” without considering the user. Maybe they think being creative with the most utilitarian feature of the site is a fun challenge, or maybe they’re being pressured into making bad decisions by a client. Either way, I’ve yet to see a creative navigation feature that does anything but confuse users and Google.

A note on this: avoid menus that take over a screen when they’re clicked. These are awful, and everyone hates them, so just don’t.

Why are they bad? Well, for one, they are terrible for blind people who rely on screen readers to navigate your site. Do you want to build a site that’s bad for blind people? Are you a Bond villain or something?

But for the rest of us, this navigation style blocks out the rest of the content on the site. It disrupts the experience of the site, and takes control out of the hands of the users. I’m convinced people try to make these menus work simply because they’re novel. But they are neither practicable or enjoyable, so leave them off your site.

Site speed: a lightweight design is best.

Slow load times kill websites. If your website takes more than a couple seconds to load, most of your traffic will disappear. In fact, many users won’t even wait a minute for your website to load before they bounce.

This isn’t the fault of poor attention spans, but rather the realities of an Internet where multitasking is the norm. People are sensitive to even the slightest pauses, and in order to maximize our time, we’re quick to look for something else to do. If your website is slow, they’ll go check their email while they wait, and that’s likely to lead them on to other things. They may only remember to come back to your site later in the day when they’re closing their web browser to head home.

Obviously this is bad for UX, but Google has made it clear that web speed is a ranking factor for search results as well. And while it’s true that a poor connection can sometimes be at fault, there are steps most websites can take to improve page speed. These include optimizing images for web, avoiding heavy loading elements such as video banners, and smart use of web caching and lazy loading.

A screenshot of Office Depot with poor mobile optimization.

A screenshot of Office Depot’s website, without mobile optimization.

Mobile friendliness: if it’s not responsive, you’re losing over half your traffic.

Finally, it hurts to say this, but many companies still don’t have mobile-friendly websites. It’s been over three years since mobile search surpassed desktop search on the Internet, but I would be willing to bet that anyone who’s used their phone to browse the Internet for more than a few minutes this past week has encountered a sight that hadn’t been optimized for mobile.

One baffling trend I’ve noticed is that some large websites seem to try to get around creating a mobile friendly website by offering an app instead. Unfortunately, while an app may be designed specifically for mobile use, it doesn’t replace a website. If all I want is to look up some basic information on your website, I’m not going to download your app to do so.

And, of course, Google won’t be happy with that solution, either. After all, if your users have to use their fingers to zoom in on your page, or scroll sideways to read your copy, they’re not likely to stick around.

SEO brings traffic in, UX entices them to stay.

Long story short: user experience and SEO need each other. You can’t focus all your SEO efforts on off-page strategies like link-building if your visitors are going to leave the moment they land on your site. And if your UX isn’t contributing to SEO, that’s probably a sign you’re doing it wrong.

Published 07/06/18 by Laura Lynch