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Maintaining a harmonious relationship between UX and SEO

User experience and search engine optimization best practices have come a long way in recent years, but some believe there are obstacles barring a harmonious relationship. Why do some practitioners believe that UX and SEO cannot coexist? How can companies improve both simultaneously?

UX and SEO defined

User experience, or UX for short, is a term that is often used interchangeably with user interface or UI. UX is more analytical and technical, while UI is more along the lines of graphic design. An analogy outlining the two as described by Rahul Varshney, co-creator of the domain registry

“A UI without UX is like a painter slapping paint onto canvas without thought; while UX without UI is like the frame of a sculpture with no paper mache on it. A great product experience starts with UX followed by UI.”

UX design is a process that provides relevant and deeply meaningful experiences to your audience. The key to its success is to start with data, research, and user insight. User experience design decisions should always be made by considering the needs and realities of the audience.

The primary goal of UX is to focus on the visitor and provide the best experience for them. Decisions regarding UX design are never easy, as user experience professionals have to analyze a lot of data in order to make the best decisions.

Search engine optimization (SEO) on the other hand, is how you increase the visibility of your website on search engines. Organizations use SEO to signal to their audience what content they can expect to see on a page or site. There are two main methods to implement proper SEO strategies, off-page and on-page. On-page focuses on what your page is about through content that you can control. Off-page is how authoritative your website is, measured by popularity or links embedded that help build trust.  

Properly conducted SEO will attract more relevant traffic and reduce reliance on paid advertising. In order for people to reach your content organically and find what they need, proper SEO practices are crucial to the growth and development of your online audience.

Is there a conflict between UX & SEO?

image of a person between two boxing gloves to signify conflict

Some practitioners will argue the answer boils down to conflicting schools of thought. UX and SEO have the same end goal and address different aspects of the journey. However, this does not pit them against each other, it bolsters one another. Let’s review why some people might think there are tensions barring a harmonious relationship.

The impact of UX and SEO on sessions and ranking

UX and SEO could be seen to be in conflict in terms of session times and search engine ranking. UX does not directly affect SEO in terms of keywords or meta tags. However, improper UX design could indirectly hinder SEO and vice versa, causing some tension.

Search engines cannot view content as a human would. Instead, search engines rely on data from human interactions with sites and pages. UX designers must ensure the user journey is smooth and successful. If a user remains on the site for long periods of time, enjoys the content, shares the URL or returns frequently, Google will reward your site’s credibility with better rankings. 

image of browser screenshot with a growth chart signifying search growth

This is where those in the SEO camp may experience some frustration. A lot of time and effort is placed into implementing SEO to not only acquire relevant traffic but retain it using methods that will be discussed later on in further detail. If there is a lack of usability, all of the creative and technical SEO best practises can easily be nullified.

Navigational paths towards proper UX & SEO

Navigational features are a great asset to your site in terms of ease of use, accessibility and overall organization. There is a misconception that “choice always trumps simplicity.” Of course, it makes sense to have navigation options for better UX and SEO, but an abundance of options will prove to be very overwhelming for your user.

It is very important to ensure preparations are made to create a clear path for your users to follow through the site. Some of the misconceptions regarding UX and SEO practitioners being at odds will come from UX designers blaming improper SEO content as to why users aren’t sticking around. The same can be said about SEO experts blaming messy or poorly thought out user experience journeys as the cause for bounce rates.

The fact of the matter is that UX and SEO are both responsible for the proper use or misuse of relevant and easily recognizable tab titles, destinations and menus.

Appeal to robots or people?

If UX and SEO practitioners are not involved in the planning process together, the argument regarding their divergence could be interpreted. When one is acting without the thought of the other in mind, there will be issues with the final product.

SEO specialists are on a never-ending mission to keep up with the algorithms and find a balance in content that acts as a billboard for both search engines and visitors. There is a latent tendency to create content that a search engine will rank higher. But when you write to appeal to algorithms, it sounds robotic. Luckily, Google has progressed to the point where it’s ranking factors take into account human interactions over copy tailored to appease algorithms.

image of robots interacting with people

A UX designer usually isn’t concerned with how well your site will rank on a web browser, or whether the particular product or service will sell. This is another area where some perceived tension could be viewed between both camps.

UX designers are aware that Google does not know if the usability or user experience of one site is better than another. Their role is ultimately to create a journey or an experience for the user once he or she is already on the website. UX professionals are usually considering factors such as design content, usability, ease of use and satisfaction a user will feel when navigating the site.

To ease any past notions of conflict, UX and SEO should both be concerned with the customer journey as a whole, not solely each part they both individually have to play. The journey must be unified from start to finish.

Ways to improve UX and SEO

Now that the discrepancies have been discussed, let’s review some of the best ways UX and SEO mutually benefit one another.

UX designers are prioritizing end-users by spending a great deal of time understanding their needs and create designs people want to use. SEO experts not only have to focus on end-users but also try to capture what search algorithms are prioritizing at any given time to attain users.

Search engines respond positively to those who serve relevant UX content to its users and by making sure your SEO efforts are successful. Both sides are rewarded in the ranking process by helping one another.

image of people climbing

People who reside solely in the UX camp tend to believe that UX is the only ranking factor that matters. Their logic is that any and all SEO efforts implemented will go to waste given a poor UX design. They believe a good UX will draw users to your site and keep them there, inherently improving SEO.

It is important to take into consideration that hours of time and effort can be wasted creating a beautiful website, only to have it viewed by very few people due to poor SEO implementations.

There are several ways that UX and SEO can help each other rank higher.

Reduce bounce rate

Visitors will abandon a website for many reasons. The most common reasons can be mitigated by making sure your keywords are relevant to your site’s content, the site loads quickly, and making sure visitors do not experience errors when landing on the page. Complying with the accessibility standards will improve user experience and reduce bounce rates.

Other best practices to lower bounce rate through UX and SEO are:

  • Content organization, colour contrast, font size, bullet lists
  • Quality content with keywords that are relevant, images, tags
  • Various landing pages to allow various types of organic traffic to land on relevant pages based on the keywords used to direct different traffic
  • Meta descriptions that draw people to your site in search results

Site navigation

Site navigation will affect the number of people that will convert once they land on your website. Having a site that is not easy to use will negatively impact UX and SEO. If your site is easy to use, you will see an increase in the number of page visits, session times, and higher ranking.

A few best practices to consider:

  • Be clear and descriptive where each item leads
  • Insert a powerful search functionality like Apache Solr on Drupal websites to allow for greater specificity in the user’s search
  • Add a navigation menu on each page in case people do not land on your homepage
  • Ensure a mobile-first digital solution to ensure site navigational functions are quick and easy to use

Session duration

Not to be confused with bounce rate, they are both dependent on “hits” or user interactions with a page. The more value you add to your page through engaging content, the more time people will spend exploring your site improving both UX and SEO simultaneously.

Using tools such as Google Analytics, you can monitor the session time of each visitor. If you notice that people are not staying on your pages very long, try making sure that:

  • Call to action buttons are legible and clear
  • The home page is reachable from the landing page
  • Keywords pertain to your services

It’s important to test features on your site to assess what your visitors enjoy. If you find any discrepancies, it’s possible to make the best UX or SEO decisions based on the data collected.

The point of no return

Search engines, as well as UX and SEO,  have progressed to the point where your users expect a stunningly visual and easily navigable website, alongside creative, thought-provoking and relevant information they are searching for. It is no longer enough to deliver content that fails to leverage proper UX and SEO practices.

image of a u turn sign painted on a street

Before the days when genuine thought-provoking content creation was rewarded, it was common practice to engage in SEO tactics such as keyword stuffing and meta tag bombarding to drive more traffic to your site.

A user’s digital experience should be continuously evaluated to ensure proper UX alongside SEO. This is accomplished by modifying content as well as code to increase your web pages’ relevance to certain keywords.

Final thoughts on UX & SEO

The things that positively or negatively impact UX will almost always impact SEO in a corresponding way. SEO practitioner Rand Fishkin sums it up perfectly:

“We don’t live in a world where we have the luxury of thinking about just user experience or just SEO. The two share many of the same spaces online, working in tandem and sometimes even clashing.”

Now, more than ever, its imperative that any myths regarding UX and SEO controversies be dispelled. Informed and intelligent users are bringing rise to greater importance on expanding what UX and SEO truly means.

SEO practices have to evolve as we progress forward in our digital universe. UX has to do the same in order to continue to push the envelope of what is expected.

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