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August 9, 2006

Usability & SEO: A One, Two Punch

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It makes sense to me that if SEO is about getting people to your site, and usability is about getting them to do what you want them to do, that the two would work together. If you create a site that’s easy for users to navigate, it’s likely you have also created a site the engines can crawl.

Today’s Usability & SEO: Two Things for the Price of One session showed users how good usability can help human visitors navigate your site, while also delivering high search traffic. The session featured the Enthusiastic Usability Duo known as Shari Thurow and Matt Bailey. You have to love them.

Shari Thurow started the session by defining the term web usability. Shari defines it as "a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use." It is the balance between user goals and business goals, addressing all search behaviors, including querying, browsing, scanning and reading.

It’s a great definition; however, I think Matt really drove the point home when he broke down the main principles behind SEO and usability to show the audience how they’re connected.

According to Matt:

The main principle of usability: if the user can’t find it, it’s not there. And that’s your problem, not theirs.

The main principle of SEO: If the user can’t find you, you don’t exist. And that’s your problem, not theirs.

An excellent way to look at it. And he’s right, if a user can’t find your site or figure how to navigate it, it’s no one’s problem but yours. That user will find another site and you’ll be out the conversion.

Another thing both presenters focused on was that visitors need to know where they are on your site. They need to be able to understand what page they are viewing, what content the page is focused on, what they can do on your site, where they can travel, how they can get there (and back) and where they have been. We know, they’re needy, but if you don’t give them this information, they’re not going to convert.

A great way to do this is through cross-linking and using breadcrumbs. Your site should have both vertical and horizontal cross-links. Only using vertical cross-links gives your homepage far more weight than you want. Horizontal links tell the engines that all of your pages are important, not just your homepage.

By properly using breadcrumbs, you can tell your users exactly where they are and reverse your keywords in a natural way. Instead of just targeting the phrase "home loans", your breadcrumbs allow you to also include the phrase "loans home". Remember, searchers don’t always query terms in the proper order.

Shari also touched on the importance of using term highlighting in your site’s HTML tag, Meta description and Web address. Term highlighting does exactly what it sound like it would do – highlights the terms in your URL and body snippet that match the user’s query. Research and common sense says users are far more likely to click on listings that show their terms highlighted, than those that don’t.

Tips for increasing usability:

  • Call your products what they are – If you sell video equipment, call the link video equipment. Don’t call it products. No one found your site by searching for "products".
  • Use embedded links – Embedded links provide context to users.
  • Use Related Links – These links give your users more information and shows the engines you know who is an authority.
  • Alternative Links – Gives users options if the product they’re looking out is sold out, and the keywords used to describe the additional products will make your page more keyword-rich.
  • Don’t use characters in your URLS – Including characters like ‘&’, ‘?’, ‘=" or "%’ complicates your URL, making it hard for users to remember. They symbols are also considered stop characters for the search engines and may act as potential "spider traps".
  • Don’t Encourage Second Guessing: Never make users have to choose between two options to enter your site. If you ask them if they want to view your product page or your store page, they’ll pick one and obsess over the other. People don’t like to feel like they’re missing something. Matt compared this to his wife’s affection for shoes.
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