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FEATURE: SEO and User Experience: Serving Robots and Humans Together

by Virginia Nussey, July 20, 2012

Audience: SEO

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


  • Google recommends webmasters and SEOs think about the best interests of the users and not focus on search engine ranking signals..
  • Considerations that are UX oriented and those which are SEO oriented may present conflicts, but there are solutions.
  • SEOs can work closely with user experience professionals to create an optimal experience for both human and search engine users.

With a name like search engine optimization, it can be easy to forget the user at the center of it all. But listen to any talk by Google ambassador to the SEO community, Matt Cutts, and it's clear that search serves the user, and so must SEO.

In a recent video, Matt advised SEOs on what to focus on, and it wasn't search ranking signals:

"An SEO should make sure that the content is crawlable. You want to have good URL architecture. You want to make sure that the site can be reached by just clicking on links. You want to have good titles. You want to make sure that you think about the keywords that people will use when they type in what they're looking for and make sure that you have those keywords on the page somewhere. But I wouldn't focus as much on the actual ranking signals. Rather I would concentrate on trying to make something that's compelling because that's the sort of thing that's going to be really rewarding for users and so it's going to be the kind of thing that we would like to return in our search results."

Google makes efforts to help webmasters implement best practices in website development regarding those specific needs for search engines. Setting a preferred domain, URL redirects, verifying a site in Webmaster Tools, and using the tools to avoid problems with a search engine's experience of the site — these are topics covered in a Google Webmasters Help video meant to get site owners up to speed on some basic SEO considerations.

Search Engines Are Users, Too

There are steps webmasters are recommended to take that go beyond strictly human needs. SEO is a marketing practice specializing in a website's performance in search engines, with the goal of delivering interested visitors.

While specialists are responsible to their clients for their area of expertise, it does not preclude them from responsibility of cooperating with other facets of the organization's marketing and beyond. In order to put the silent "U" back into SEO, a close working relationship with a user experience (UX) specialist will deliver a superior experience for end users — of both the human and robot variety.

"I think that each department should understand how what they do affects the next department. They don't need to be an expert in it — but at least stay current on big trends (rel="author" for example on SEO)," says Mark Oleszczak, a marketer who marries SEO and UX in his practice.

In UX & SEO: A Love Story, Mark offers seven simple SEO considerations for Web designers. XML Sitemaps, microformat markup like rel="author", and the use of H-tags to structure the content of the page are all considerations that could be considered for the benefit of search engines. Yet, SEO and UX serve the same end master: the user — and by way of the search engine, a machine continually seeking to be a proxy for a human user.

Potential Conflicts Between SEO and UX

And yet, there are times when SEO recommendations must be weighed against user experience. In an interview on the Bruce Clay, Inc. blog this month, conversion optimization author, speaker and thought leader Tim Ash spoke to the value of user testing when developing a site, and the delicate balance between SEO and UX requirements:

"Search engine optimization is a great source of traffic, but it’s often at odds with conversion. You might have all the on-page stuff that’s great for SEO, like your content for example, but nobody reads that.

I mean, let’s not kid ourselves; people have the attention span of a lit match on the Web. So, they’re going to show up, poke around, look at the pictures and click on a link or a button. And that’s it. That’s their experience of your site.

So, if you want to convince yourself about things like the need for lots of content, do a quick session or two on your page. Ask them to look at the screen for five seconds and then turn it off and tell you what they remember. And they won’t remember much. They’re certainly not reading, nobody reads on the Web.

So the text content is important for good SEO hygiene, but it should not trump your user’s experience. At the top of the page, you should have a more intuitive and graphical experience for people. The bottom of the page is for search engine spiders."

Serving the Same Master

That's not to say that SEO and UX don't play nicely together. Loren Baxter, designer and user experience expert, explained the complementary relationships between a website's stewards:

"UX is about designing great products. Development is about building them. Marketing is about getting those products in front of the right people, and SEO is a subset of that. However, there are always overlaps, and coordination between the disciplines is mandatory for success.

A great user experience will always improve your marketing. It helps your SEO, because it means you've built a compelling product that real people will talk about and link to. That's a defensible search strategy, because Google or any of the other engines will never penalize real links from real people. A great user experience means that you've written clear and useful content, another fantastic way to rank higher."

As SEO works to funnel qualified visitors from a search down a conversion funnel on a site; likewise, a UX practitioner is working to ensure that users enjoys a frictionless visit, aiding the likelihood of conversions. Search engines serve a human master. Doing right by users is doing right by search engines, with some additional considerations for robots. Therefore, keeping user experience at the forefront of any Web marketing strategy is key.

For permission to reprint or reuse any materials, please contact us. To learn more about our authors, please visit the Bruce Clay Authors page. Copyright © 2012 Bruce Clay, Inc.