SEO vs User Experience

It can seem like an impossible choice.  SEO or Usability.  Where is the compromise?

It can seem like an impossible choice. SEO or Usability. Where is the compromise?

SEO is vital to the success of any website.  After all, if you can’t get found, then you can’t give your message.  However, once you have been found, it would be nice if people actually stayed on your site and read some of your content instead of clicking off somewhere else within seconds.  Content writing skills are extremely important.

Why are SEO and User Experience often opposites?

It all comes down to how the human mind works and how algorithms work.  Take pictures for example.  Google can’t “see” your graphics in the same way as humans do.

Despite huge improvements in search algorithms, the bottom line is that they still place a massive emphasis on original text content.

This contradicts what humans like to read.  We are the exact opposite.  We don’t really like reading online.  We like pictures and lots of them.

Heuristics – what have they ever done for us?

Jakob Nielsen is regarded by most as the father of usability heuristics (heuristics simply means that the rules are only loosely defined rather than strict).  It is worth reading through them.  What usability heuristics do is give us a rough template on how to not annoy users of both applications and websites (websites being a type of application really).

Keep Visitors Longer

By sticking to heuristic principles we have more chance of keeping our visitors for longer on our site, and of giving them an experience that in all probability they don’t particularly notice.  Not getting noticed in this case is a good thing.  We have all been frustrated on websites by not being able to simply navigate to where we want to go.  Mostly we just look for a new site when that happens.  This is the converse of heuristic principles.

This eye tracking study shows how we tend to read in a vaguely f shaped pattern online.  This shows the importance of top google ranking too by the way.

This eye tracking study shows how we tend to read in a vaguely f shaped pattern online. This shows the importance of top google ranking too by the way.

How humans read web pages

We, as humans, read web pages quite differently to how we would read a book.  Broadly speaking, we scan down the left hand side of a web page, reading headings and only some of the words in the paragraphs below them.  How much depends on the level of interest the headline and the first few words invoked.

Thus, the way I wrote that last paragraph was not ideal from a heuristics point of view, since I essentially repeated the heading in my first line.  However that was ideal from an SEO perspective.  I train people to write like that.

Humans like short and snappy text, preferably backed up with pictures.  Google likes text, text and more text.  This is why content writing is such an artform.

How to please both humans and search engines with your content

I was recently working on a site relaunch for a recruitment agency specialising in Medical Jobs.  The website ranked really well for their chosen keywords within a very competitive niche market (no prizes for guessing who does their SEO!). However, the front page had a LOT of text on it that 99% of visitors would never read.

For the relaunch user experience was high on the list of priorities.  But we were faced with a problem.  A good user experience and lots of text on the front page do not good bedfellows make.

The solution was to turn to javascript and make the front page into a slideshow.  Not any javascript will do, and Ajax will not do at all.  The key to this is to make sure that when you view the source of your page, all the content is visible.  This means that search engines get to read all of your text.

Users get movement and interaction (which are plusses) while having the information broken down in such a way that they are more likely to read more of that text.

Did making a slideshow help keep visitors?

Yes it did.  Putting the information into a slideshow increased the average time on the front page of the site by 16 seconds straight away.  This means that people are actually staying to read the information, which is what you want if you have a website.

Benefits of Heuristics to SEO

Google take things like bounce rate and time on site into consideration for SEO too.  So, by providing a better user experience and keeping visitors longer through the use of heuristic principles, you are also improving your standing with the search engines.

How do I know if I should break up text on my page?

It is not always the case that text needs to be broken up for humans to appreciate it properly.  It is very simple to find out if your page needs help.  Use your analytics.  The key factor here is the amount of time spent on the page.  If it is really low on a page that has a lot of text then it stands to reason that your users are not reading it.  If that doesn’t upset you it should.  The only reason it would not upset you is if the content is really only there for the search engines.  In other words it’s spam content.  There should be nothing on your website that you do not want people to read.  Spam content can be recognised by search engines simply by measuring the time your visitors spend on your page.  If it’s too short for the amount of content, then the quality of the writing must be really bad. Thus at the very least, the page does not deserve to be ranked highly.

I don’t like slideshows (other ways to break up text)

If you have a lot of text on your page that you realise could not possibly be read in the time your analytics say people are taking to read it then you need to make some changes.  The following are ways of breaking up text in a page to make it more accessible…

  • Lists.  Put your content into lists.  They are easier to read than straight paragraphs.
  • Plenty of headings.  These hugely increase the chances of people reading more of your content.
  • Boxes.  Place your content into bite sized individual boxes.
  • Pictures. Pictures and picture captions are about the only thing that will distract us from reading down the left hand side of a page at the speed of light.  We love images.  However, stock images that we have seen before tend to be ignored.  Your pictures have to get attention too.
  • Ruthless editing.  Big long sentences are bad.  Get rid of your verbose ramblings and stick to the point. (I could do with remembering that one).
  • Highlight text. Using bold or italic text helps to get pertinent points noticed.

As always, remember that keyword stuffing is really annoying to users.  I don’t want to read about seo training in the latest seo training article on this seo training website.  Neither do search engines.  It may work to some extent, but it’s effect on users is to make you look bad, so don’t do it!

About Ian Wortley


Ian is one of Irelands leading SEO consultants with over 8 years experience in the Irish market. Ian discovered his love of all things internet related in 2005 and has been living nearly exclusively online since then, causing much worry to friends and family, but getting great results for clients. Contact Ian: Phone: 01 6854806 Mobile: 086 3817149

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