5 Usability Principles That Also Benefit SEO

Most people in the SEO industry usually have some type of marketing or web development background. Individuals with a marketing background will excel more at the on-page, content aspect of SEO, while web developers utilize their expertise in the technical elements of SEO optimization and implementation. I, on the other hand, came directly from a usability, or more specifically, a Human Computer Interaction (HCI) background. This is not a complete shift like some others I know (think lawyer turned SEO specialist), but is a different path than most who study in that field.

Fortunately, there are many principles of usability that directly and indirectly affect SEO, which I have been using to my advantage when coming up with effective SEO strategies throughout the years. As a bit of a refresher, I decided to read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. It is a very simple, but enlightening, read on how to design websites with the user in mind. But I also found some useful parallels that an SEO practitioner can and should already be incorporating into an SEO strategy. Here are 5 usability principles that also benefit SEO.

1. Krug’s first law of usability is “Don’t make me think! Websites should be easy to use, provide all the information users are looking for (or at least make it as easily accessible as possible), and be obvious as to how the users are expected to interact with your website. “When we’re using the Web, every question adds to our cognitive workload, distracting our attention from the task at hand. The distractions may be slight, but they add up, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to throw us.” If the action you want your users to take is to call a number, fill out a form, or make a purchase, be sure you provide your users the easiest way to accomplish those goals.

SEO Takeaway: Target each page with unique keywords and optimize (all on-page elements) for those terms, while providing clear takeaways and call to actions, and linking to relevant converting pages to drive them down the conversion funnel.

What we design for@ Steve Krug 2015

2. Build Your Website with the Proper Foundational Elements. Krug identifies the following as primary elements of any webpage: Site ID, Page Name, Sections & Subsections, Local Navigation, “You are here” indicator, and Search. “All conventions start life as somebody’s bright idea. If the idea works well enough, other sites imitate it, and eventually enough people have seen it in enough places that it needs no explanation. This adoption process takes time, but it happens pretty quickly on the Internet, like everything else.” An example of a convention is the Site ID, or company logo image. Initially just a logo, it has since transformed into the universal button to send a user back to the homepage. These foundational elements are necessary to provide users with an experience they are accustomed to so they can successfully navigate through your site.

A grocery store is a perfect, real-life example of conventions and how customers shop (and subsequently, browse websites). Let’s say they are looking for eggs (which are almost always in the back of the store for usability purposes…) The customer will perform one the following actions: ask an associate where the eggs are (website search feature), look at the ends of the aisles for the dairy label (website navigational links), or just walk up and down the aisles until they find the eggs (browsing a website, one product at a time). Customers shop differently, the same way website users interact with websites differently. It is important to provide those conventional elements to meet all users’ needs.

SEO Takeaway: In addition to ensuring these foundational elements are on a website for a positive user experience, make sure they are optimized from an SEO perspective as well. For example, by doing the proper keyword research, you can help provide guidance on the entire information architecture of a website to ensure the navigational links are using the proper naming conventions.

Site Navigation@ Steve Krug 2015

3. Omit Needless Words. This principle contradicts SEO to a degree. For the longest time, the saying within the SEO industry was “content is king”, the more the better. But webmasters took that too literally and churned out useless content for the sake of having content. Fortunately, Google’s Panda algorithm update helped weed out sites that had very thin and poor quality content. Krug recommends removing half of the content that is on any given page since most users will glance at each new page, scan some of the text, and click on the first link that catches their interest or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for. He has very valid points that will help reduce the noise level on the page, while making the content that is left more prominent. Less content also makes the page shorter, allowing users to read more without having to scroll (below the fold).

SEO Takeaway: Since Google’s web crawler is text-based, it relies on on-page elements like the HTML meta tags, headers, and the body copy to understand what a page is about. We are past the days of just listing out keywords you want to rank for, but it is still important to incorporate your targeted keywords throughout your copy. With all things in life, you must do so in moderation. You need to strike a balance between Krug’s methods of cutting out unnecessary copy, while ensuring you still have instances of the keywords you’re optimizing for from an SEO perspective.

4. Usability Testing on 10 Cents a Day. I’m not exactly sure how Krug came to this final calculation, but he calls this DIY style of user testing, Lost our lease, going-out-of-business-sale usability testing. You can see the difference between traditional user testing vs. the quick (and cheap) user testing he presented at length in his book below. The process is pretty straight forward: find a few (3-4) willing participants and either watch and see how they interact with your website, or note how they go about performing a task you ask of them. This will provide clear evidence of how everyday users are behaving, and where they are getting stuck or confused on your website.

SEO Takeaway: Although user testing is never done for the sole benefit of SEO, you can definitely use the learnings to drive your SEO strategy. One way user testing is different from eye tracking and click studies is users are encouraged to ‘think out loud’ and talk through what they see and explain why they chose to interact with the website the way they did. This data can provide invaluable information on how you should be structuring your website, the naming conventions, and what type of content to provide your users.

Traditional vs Lost-our-Lease User Testing@ Steve Krug 2015

5. The Reservoir of Goodwill. As Krug mentions, “every time we enter a Web site, we start out with a reservoir of goodwill. Each problem we encounter on the site lowers the level of that reservoir.” In other words, all users have their own breaking point to the number (and severity) of issues they encounter on your website before giving up. A few things to note about the reservoir: it’s idiosyncratic (all users begin with a varying amount of goodwill), it’s situational (a user who typically has a larger reservoir may be near depleted after visiting many poorly designed websites before coming to yours), you can refill it (provide a good user experience and give people what they want on your website), but sometimes a single mistake can completely empty that reservoir (emphasizing the importance of user testing).

SEO Takeaway: Many, many years ago, Google actually used the meta keywords tag as a ranking factor. This led to webmasters abusing this tag by stuffing the most irrelevant (but highly searched) keywords just to rank and drive traffic to their site. This definitely caused a lot of reservoirs of goodwill to deplete quickly. In the same vein, you want to make sure the keywords you’re targeting and optimizing for are relevant to your business, and if you do end up ranking for those terms, the landing page provides the information they expected when they made that search. This will lead to happy users, with a positive view of the brand, and a full reservoir of goodwill.

Even if you’re not a web developer, Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think! is an excellent read about user experience and usability. As you can see, there are many ways to apply this information in other areas of web marketing, in this case SEO strategy. I actually read the second edition, which added three new chapters from the original book. There is a third edition that includes a chapter about mobile usability, which is very important as we are moving rapidly to a mobile world. As mentioned in a previous post, 2015 will finally be the year of mobile…because Google is making it so!

All images @ Steve Krug 2015. Used by permission of the author.

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