The Interview: UX and SEO

Overview
As we expand our services, Box UK’s Search and User Experience Consultants discuss the relationship between their separate disciplines.
Author
Chris Bangs and Steve Morgan
Date

Digital Marketing

Recently at Box UK we’ve extended our offering, with the introduction of a Digital Marketing division incorporating Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Pay Per Click (PPC) Consultancy among other specialisms.

We’re proud of helping clients achieve the most from their sites and applications, and the introduction of these new services has enabled us to plan for crucial search issues at the very start of a project. We interviewed SEO Strategist Steve Morgan, and User Experience (UX) Consultant Chris Bangs, about how each discipline can benefit the other, starting with the ways User Experience can positively affect Search…

User Experience's effect on SEO

SM: The SEO requirements of a page change depending on whether it will be used to target organic traffic, or as part of a PPC campaign, as it needs to have a clearly defined objective and be optimised with regards to achieving this.

CB: It’s also critical for UX designers to know the intended use of each page, as well as have a knowledge of the company’s broad strategic plans for their site. For example, a PPC page is much more focused on converting the visitor; therefore we should be stripping out all unnecessary features to avoid distraction and clearly signposting the call to action. Conversely, if someone is coming to a page organically it’s vital that the IA (Information Architecture) is well defined so that they can immediately tell where they are within the site, even if it’s a deep link.

Deep Linking

SM: The viewpoint of the user is becoming more and more prominent, as search engines continue to improve their algorithms to match human readability. While it can still only read the code, the way a site is laid out could affect the rankings, particularly elements such as the placement of text on the page, which shouldn’t be too far down.

CB: We employ a number of techniques during our design process based on the behaviour we see in real users. These include breaking up large blocks of text and using bullet points as part of F-shaped reading patterns, all of which helps ensure that important text is easily visible – for the user and the search engine.

F-shaped reading pattern

SM: Additionally an online tool such as W3C Validator can be used to check code for accessibility, increasing the likelihood it will rank well.

CB: However it’s important to remember that prototypes can’t easily be checked through this tool, highlighting the importance of involving development teams too. Similarly, we embrace technologies such as HTML5, which is semantically much neater than older languages, and it’s great to have developers that are able and enthusiastic about these new tools.

SM: Another key way in which Google is trying to improve is by taking into account factors such as bounce rate and time on site, which indicate whether someone is struggling on a page. This makes sense – if people keep clicking away as they can’t find what they want should that result be shown at all? – but it has UX implications too. If your site is designed with the user’s needs at heart they are likely to have a much easier and better experience, and therefore stay on your site, potentially helping improve your search rankings.

Bounce rate

SEO's effect on User Experience

So, it’s clear that taking the time to craft a good user experience has a positive impact beyond the page. But what about SEO’s effect on UX?

SM: You can optimise all available pages for the right traffic, not just PPC campaigns. A search engine might recognise the correct topic but might not distinguish the specific audience you’re looking to attract; for example, you might only deal with large companies but the results will be sending individuals or small businesses to your site. Also, you could accidentally rank for something completely unrelated to your line of work, if the algorithm fails to see a different between an Agile ‘scrum’ and a rugby ‘scrum’, for instance.

CB: So it’s important to get an SEO perspective from the very beginning of the UX process, as we’re defining the user journeys, wireframes and prototypes. Finding out what traffic the client is looking to drive to each page and the terms they’re targeting at this stage enables us to embed it in design elements such as headings. It’s certainly easier to incorporate it early rather than have to change things down the line.

SM: In the past SEO consultants might have made the assumption that if a client was selling a certain product, they would be trying to attract a certain type of person, but now we have to think more about it. There may be two distinct audiences out there who use very different language to search for what is essentially the same thing.

CB: We consider these questions when defining user types and personas in the Discovery phase of UX Consultancy, but traditionally we’ve only thought about how they behave once they’re on the site, not in the steps leading up to that. Seeing as we have this information it absolutely makes sense to share it with SEO teams.

User Journeys

Redesigning Sites

A common motivation for seeking UX Consultancy is a site redesign; this, of course, brings with it SEO implications. How can the two teams work together to maintain performance?

CB: When we first start thinking about a site redesign we look at the top search rankings and relay that back to the client, to show them what’s currently driving visitors to their site. Often it varies significantly from what the client thinks attracts people, so it’s really valuable to have this objective data to ensure the language they employ matches that of their users.

Google Analytics Search Terms

SM: There are plenty of horror stories where sites have been redesigned with no SEO input or involvement, leading to links going nowhere and high ranking pages producing 404s. I would usually only recommend changing the URL structure if completely necessary, especially if you’ve already invested in successful SEO work previously. However, you might want to investigate whether the potential for stronger URLs (e.g. human-readable, incorporating keywords) does indeed outweigh the risk of damage to the ranking power your current URLs have. There is a definite fear around changing these elements, particularly if you’ve just started to rank well for your target terms – really this is where the insight and experience of a specialist adds a lot of value.

CB: Thinking about these things early in a redesign facilitates a more holistic strategy – the UX Consultants can undertake research and work with SEO strategists to find keywords and URL structures that balance usability and search power, and make these recommendations to clients and developers in the prototyping phase.

SM: That’s true – this can’t be an afterthought or an oversight. It needs to be considered and integrated from the start. Clients sometimes expect this to be covered, but if no-one ‘owns’ the SEO aspect of the redesign it might not be considered until it’s too late.

Staying Current

Obviously then any work on a site or application should take note of current SEO, and UX, best practice. But how do you keep current with the latest updates?

SM: SEO factors can affect the way UX teams design pages; for example, using a lot of images ‘above the fold’ – especially adverts – can negatively affect your rankings as it suggests you are more focused on making money from advertisers than serving the needs of your users.

CB: This fact is an important UX issue too; you shouldn’t have the same image at the top of each page at the expense of text, and should always design considering where the fold is and making sure people can understand the page immediately.

SM: It’s common for these types of SEO and UX best practice to overlap, as search engines are always thinking of usability. When Google make changes to their algorithms they often ask real users questions such as “What did you think of the site?” and “What did you particularly like about the site?” so they’re not likely to make an update that goes against UX principles. However, if they ever did it would be my job to inform our designers of the change and its implications, and vice versa.

Conclusion

What’s obvious from this discussion is the increasing connection between Search Marketing and User Experience activities. At Box UK we’ve seen the importance of integrating the two disciplines, taking advantage of the wide range of knowledge we have to balance SEO and usability. There’s no point having a beautiful website if no one gets to see it, just as there’s no point securing a top position with a site full of nonsense. This may mean going through the details together rather than the traditional siloed approach, but it brings many benefits.

If you can also feed UX and SEO considerations directly into your development team you increase the impact these changes have as the whole project benefits from the range of expertise available. This is in fact one of the primary reasons we embrace Agile; its focus on communication ensures decisions are made collaboratively, with a shared knowledge of the project’s end goals.

Get in touch

Have you had experience working with both SEO and UX teams? What impact did it have on the quality of your project? Any important lessons or factors we haven’t considered? Let us know your thoughts below, or get in touch to find out more about our Search Marketing and User Experience Consultancy services.

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