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Balancing Usability and Search Engine Optimization

by Susan Esparza, November 15, 2007

Every few months, a familiar discussion resurfaces in the forums, blogs and newsgroups. When you are designing your Web site, who should you be targeting, the search engines or the humans? Which should take precedence in your site design and how do you serve both? Luckily, the truth of the matter is not as complicated as many try to make it. Search engine optimisation and usability can work hand in hand. In fact, many of the things that are good for search engines will benefit human visitors as well.

Some marketers are adamant that usability take priority over SEO, arguing that a Web site that no one can use can be at the top of the search engine results pages and still never make money. The reverse was pointed out as well--search engine optimisation has to come first because the most perfectly usable site in the world still has to have visitors who will use it before it is worth anything.

The confusion arises because of the common perception of what the goal of each approach really is. Search engine optimisation has developed over the years, and in people's mind, as a complicated set of algorithms to game, pages to write and hoops to jump through that mostly involve getting people to link to your site in the ways that you want them to link. Usability has taken on similarly complicated ideas, incorporating the use of personas, conversion funnels and psychology degrees in Human Factors. Stripping away all of the ways that both are done, the goals are remarkably similar. Search engine optimisation is the process of designing a Web strategy so that search engine spiders will get the best picture of the Web site that they can. Usability is the process of designing a Web strategy so that visitors will be satisfied with their experience.

SEO vs Usability - A False Dilemma

While some techniques are very clearly going to support either usability or search engine optimisation--users simply don't care if your page is W3C compliant so long as it loads properly in the browser, for example--they aren't often going to come into conflict. So long as you recognize that the ultimate goal is to maximize the potential of your Web site, the conflict becomes minimal.

The key is to first focus on the things that both have in common and then put the rest into balance. SEO is about more than simply ranking well in the search engines. The key is to rank well in the search engines for the keywords that are most relevant. If your site is the most expert and best for your human visitors, your SEO campaign should be working to reflect that to search engines. Knowing where your users are looking for you is part of keyword research. Developing a sense of which landing page is right for which user is on page optimisation. Link building is critical to the perception that you're an expert. Discerning where your customers live online when they aren't on your site is how you determine where you need to be getting links--chances are, those sites are going to be relevant. Clearly marked navigation that makes sense for the page and the site will keep humans and search engines on the right path to conversion.

Considering the needs of all your visitors is part of usability as well. How best do you serve your visitors? Give them clean copy that states exactly what you offer them. Use clarifying words so that your terms make sense in context. Put your site on a fast, stable server that's been optimised to return pages without errors or redirects. If an error is encountered, present a page that explains what happened (Page not found) and offers your user solutions. Present them with a link back to the home page, some commonly mistyped pages, and popular pages on the site. Don't just leave them hanging.

Define your Goals

Asking the question "which comes first" presents a false start. In order to determine what your Web site needs more, you should be asking yourself first "what is the goal of your Web site" and second "who is your audience". Are you a Web site driven by traffic, looking for ad impressions? Are you trying to sell services or products? When you say that you want visitors to convert, what does that mean--signing up for a newsletter, registering, buying something, clicking on an ad?

Ask yourself what sort of person is looking for your Web site? Is your target demographic Web savvy? How will they try to communicate with you? What are their needs and where can you find them? When you write your Web pages, you'll be writing for these people and you'll have to use the language that they are in order to attract their attention.

Once you have determined who your audience is and what you want your visitors to do, you can start to define how your marketing strategy should be structured and how usability and SEO will fit into it. A visitor who lands on a page that has been optimised to show up for a particular keyword and is designed to guide and persuade the user to convert once they're on site is far better served than they would be if either element had been prioritized to the detriment of the other.

SEO positioning comes into play in this instance as well. If the goal of SEO is to present your Web site to the people who need it, then knowing that your audience will always research through several sites before committing will play into your decision of where in the SERPs you want to be.

So between usability and search engine optimisation, which is more important to your Web site's success? The answer is that they're both equally necessary. Build your site for all your visitors, human and search engine alike. Instead of taking the approach that one or the other will be sufficient, realize that by working in tandem, your Web site will be stronger, easier to navigate and more accessible to your target audience.

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