23 April 2003
best practices for search usability and SEO
What It Means To Put Your Users First
23 April 2003
What does it mean to put your users first? Simply that the users' needs come first with regard to page design and optimization. I've divided my response into two sections: Basic and Advanced. The Basic section covers issues that should be accessible to any webmaster, designer, or marketing professional even if they don't have much experience with SEO (search engine optimization). The Advanced section covers issues of interest from an SEO perspective.
From a Basic Perspective, consider the following:
Ease of Use
Is your site easy to navigate? How easily can your user find what they're looking for? Equally important to ease of use, is speed. How fast can they find what they're looking for?
If they have to wade through mounds of words, data, or information simply to find one product, product detail, price, etc., the process is neither fast nor painless. In such a case, you will want to think about redesigning the content on the pages (as well as navigation) to make your user's experience easier and faster.
If you've provided an option for them to shop online, how easy it is for them to place the order? (Do you have them enter repeat information that a simple line of code could take care of to make the process easier for them?) And how secure is the process? Are your security, privacy, return policies easy to locate and easy to understand? Is it easy to contact customer service? How easy?
How visually clean or simple are your pages? Can they be made simpler? Most market research indicates a preference for pages that don't overwhelm the user with too much unnecessary or unimportant information (including advertising). That's a reason why many search engines have started to adopt Google's lead in presenting a simplified but full-bodied search page (e.g. just this past year, FAST and Yahoo have adopted streamlined pages for their search tools).
Do your users really need:
- to see flashy graphics, hear muzak in the background, or view huge image files that can take a good amount of bandwidth and time to load?
- 100+ words drop-down navigation menus on top, on the sides, and on the bottom? (or would providing a sitemap, simplified navigation bar, and effective internal search tool be just as good a solution if not better?)
Is Your Site Searchable?
If your site is large enough, an internal search tool can improve your user's experience. But only if it's effective and provides relevant results. Surprisingly, I've encountered many clients whose sites run ineffective or poor search tools. The best ways to measure its effectiveness is to test it yourself for your top keywords (and see which pages it refers to). This assumes you know the site thoroughly. You can also measure its relevancy against an engine such as Google (assuming Google has spidered your entire site; this tends to apply to larger companies) by doing a search on "site:<www.yourURLhere.com> <keyword1> <keyword2>" etc.
Thus, if your URL is: www.widgets.com and your main keywords are "blue widgets", you'd do a search on "site:www.widgets.com blue widgets".
Last, but never least, you should also review your log reports to get a sense of how often the search tool is used and in conjunction with its use, what exit page your users are leaving on (to get some sense of user satisfaction or frustration).
Tap Into Your Users' Perspective
In trying to assess your users' experiences (short of doing direct market research), you need to review the content on your pages from their perspective (be it a consumer's perspective, an engineer's perspective, a teenager's perspective, etc.). Is the content provided relevant from their perspective? If it's mostly hype, and not data- or feature- rich with the information that's relevant for their reasons for visiting your site, this will be a turn-off.
From an Advanced Perspective, let's consider SEO practices that present a challenge to placing users first. Specifically, I'll look at the following:
- pages optimized for the search engines but not your users.
- link strategies that advise you not to link to a resource that's good for your users out of concern that your number of outbound links will "dilute" your Google PageRank or because the resource page has a low PageRank itself.
Pages Optimized Primarily for the Search Engines (Not Your Users) Are a Waste of Time
I believe that pages that are optimized purely for the search engines and not for your users are a waste of time and resources. You will end up creating duplicate sets of information in different formats and potentially be seen by the search engines in a negative light (spam pages). If you don't know the kind of page I'm talking about, here's an example taken to its extreme.
The page uses <h1> header tags that loudly and boldly scream particular keywords- even if the size isn't appropriate to the rest of the page design or layout. The keywords are repeated over and over again in the text in an unnatural way (that is, you wouldn't talk like this) or in a hyped-up manner (with no research, reasoning, good explanations, or third-party evaluations to back up the hype). There's only one link on the page that perhaps takes you to the homepage of a different company. And your end experience (as a user) is one of frustration and disappointment. That is, you didn't learn what you needed or get what you wanted- and you felt your time was wasted. This is NOT the user experience you or any search engine optimization company should advocate.
Very specifically, if you can't be happy or proud with a page once its search engine optimization is complete- and by happy and proud, I mean happy and proud for your audience to see it, then it shouldn't be up. Don't post it. Don't make it live. Don't forget that your actual target at the end of the day- is your audience. And by audience, I mean the real humans who have an interest in your services, products, or information. I do not mean the search engines.
A lot of webmasters, designers, and yes, marketing pros- forget that the search engines also have an audience. If that audience views pages that serve the search engine robots better (and not the human viewers), resulting in a poor experience, no one wins.
I should mention that this view (that pages optimized primarily for the search engines and not users are a waste of time) is a controversial one. The status of cloaking within the SEO community remains a hotly-debated one. For our purposes here, let "cloaking" be defined as serving a particular set of pages to the search engines that no human is intended to see or generally would have access to. My essential position on cloaking and other more nebulous SEO practices still remains: "if you have to create deceptive pages, content, or links that you would never want your real target audience to see, your efforts are not serving your users or helping you to connect with your users more. (And equally, you're potentially contributing to poor or irrelevant results on the search engines thereby alienating a strong resource.)" Source: SEO Ethics: Hype and Hypocrisy?.
An alternative perspective (pro-cloaking) can be found in the Fantomaster Response. I remain open-minded to the possibility that some cloaking could indeed be putting the users' needs first (but have yet to see true concrete examples of this). Thus, I can't recommend it to my clients yet in practice.
Link Strategies that Place Your Users Second to Search Engine Rankings Are Short-Sighted
The refusal to link to a good resource may sound crazy at first. In fact, when I first heard this was happening, I thought it was ridiculous until I watched more and more webmasters making choices that placed search engine "needs" over the end users'; an extremely short-sighted solution.
Some background: it is commonly believed in the SEO community that the famous Google algorithm values the quality and number of inbound links to a page as a determining factor in assessing that page's relevancy for a particular keyword (or keyword phrase). Thus, what matters (in terms of a link strategy) are other pages linking to your page: so-called inbound links. Less important and possibly harmful are the outbound pages you link out to.
It is also believed (I won't go into specific details here) that the relevancy "power" of a page is diluted by the number of outbound links on that page. This is one of the reasons why most SEOs will recommend restricting both the number of outbound links on the nav bars of a page as well as other outbound links on that page. Thus, the more outbound links a page has, the greater its power is diluted. Further, for those participating in link exchanges (I link to your page, and you link to mine), some consider the Google PageRank of any particular page very seriously. The practical reason is: a link from a higher PageRank page is thought to have more weight or to assign more relevancy "power" than that of a lower PageRank page. Another way of conceptualizing this is: a link from CNN.com is believed to be of greater worth than a link from some small-business URL that only has a local reach. [In truth, I think establishing "worth" is relative to your particular audience and other values- e.g. valuing conversions over traffic, and truly understanding who your audience is. But this does not change popular perception.]
Thus, there are those who refuse to link to other sites (even if the other sites offer something of genuine value to their audience) out of the fear that placing such a link on their page will lower that page's rankings (for the reasons stated above; either their page suffers a dilution of "power" because their number of outbound links on the page has increased or because a link exchange with a page of lesser PageRank value is not considered of significant value to improve their own rankings and could in fact, jeopardize that page's rankings).
This choice is prompted by a practical concern for rankings. But it places the search engines' theoretical "dictates" and limitations of their current algorithms above the needs of the site's audience or users. That is, people are influenced in the short-term with regard to choice of content, design, link strategies, etc. by the strategies they believe will either increase or decrease their rankings on the search engines. But in following such strategies, often their end-audience, their own users are not best served. I use the term "theoretical" because none of us (outside the search engines), presumably, have access to the actual algorithms; our theories are judged by how well in practice our clients place in the rankings.
Such a choice is short-sighted. I have argued elsewhere that it doesn't make sense to hold search engines as moral authorities. Nor does it make sense to place the "needs" of their algorithms (and robots) above the needs of your users- when it comes to final design, content, and optimization of any particular page on your site.
In the long run, I believe that best business practices hold their users' needs central. A lot of companies tout "customer satisfaction" and have yet to deliver that with regard to their online presence- although this is changing. Time and again, companies which have managed to place their customers' needs first have been rewarded with consistent and often repeat business or visits. I have used the term "users" here instead of "customers" in recognition of the fact that online, not all sites serve commercial interests. The search engines are a powerful medium but only one medium out of several by which to connect with your audience. But even their own survival depends on how well they serve their users- and the quality of experience their users are provided with.
Thus, the practice of putting your users first is not quite as intuitive as it may have appeared originally. And it may require a careful balance between creating pages that are friendly to the search engines yet still place your users' needs first- especially in those potential areas where the two may conflict. This is not overly difficult to implement in practice- but it does require both awareness of the issues involved and attention to detail and the kind of experience you want to provide your users with.
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