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Search-Engine Friendly Design vs. Searcher-Friendly Design

Somewhere along search engine marketing's evolution, 'search-engine friendly design' came to mean friendly only to Google or Yahoo. What happened to searchers and the user experience?

Searcher vs. search engine image

A search-engine friendly website isn't only about being Google-friendly. Sounds a bit odd coming from a search engine optimization (SEO) professional, doesn't it?

Search friendliness isn't only about Google, Bing, or any other crawler-based search engine. Search friendliness is first and foremost about actual users (searchers). Having a searcher-friendly site is just as important as having a search-engine friendly site.

In This Article

Agency issues with SEO firms

I credit one of search engine advertising's pioneers, Dana Todd, for helping me understand others' perspectives about search-engine friendly design. At a search conference presentation, Todd pointed out one of the biggest complaints agencies have about search optimization and advertising firms is:

"Search engine marketers want to make websites ugly. "

My gut reaction to that statement? I was offended. I often feel agency-based site designers are more concerned with eye candy than websites with effective usability, findability, and usefulness

I have seen plenty of "ugly" sites generate millions of dollars in sales because the text, layout, color scheme, and site navigation are exactly what the target audience wants to see and use. The sites are functional, usable, and event delightful without having to resort to slick graphics or the latest rich-media animations.

On the flip side, have also seen attractive, media-heavy sites generate little or no sales.

In addition, I've observed sites with top search engine positions for popular keyword phrases generate little or no sales. I've also seen sites 2nd- or 3rd-page rankings generate thousands of dollars. Search engine rankings alone should not determine the success or failure of a website.

What happened to the user experience (UX)? And the searcher experience?

Search experience optimization (SXO)

Consider this equation:

SXO = Search-Engine Friendly + Searcher Friendly

Search-engine friendly design seems only to focus on Google, Bing, and other spider-based search engines.

Searcher-friendly design, however, focuses on both human users (searchers) and search engines. One of my colleagues came up with the acronym SXO, which means search expeerience optimization. I like it!

In reality, search engine optimization has alwasys been about optimizing a website for people who use search engines. SEO is not only about making search engines "happy." SEO also accommodates known searcher behaviors. Please read Searcher Behavior: The 4th Building Block Of Search Engine Optimization for details.

How to determine findability

To determine whether or not a website is designed and developed to accommodate findability, questions I often ask include:

  • How easy is it for site visitors to form a mental model of your website?
  • When you ask site visitors: (a) what website, and (b) what section of your website they're viewing, can they answer without hesitation?
  • On an ecommerce site, if you asked visitors how they arrived at a particular product page, would the answer be a logical sequence or a convoluted clickstream?

Usability/UX professionals and information architects use a number of different qualitative and quantitative usability tests to determine findability, including:

  • Open card-sort test
  • Closed card-sort test
  • Tree test
  • 5-second usability test
  • Expectancy test
  • Performance test (for navigation)
  • Visual signifier test

Additionally, when your site is truly search-engine friendly, your site search results should be accurate.

If your website has a site search engine, here are some suggestions.

Ecommerce site (B2C)

If you have an ecommerce site, search for product names, model or SKU numbers, brands you carry, or a short product description. Do the most relevant pages appear at the top of site-search results?

If not, then your site probably needs proper search engine optimization...without considering what Google or Bing have to say.

Business-to-business site (B2B)

If you have a business-to-business site, type a short service description in the search box. Do the most appropriate service pages, FAQs (frequently asked questions), or customer service pages appear at the top of search results?

If designers, developers, and search marketers would focus more on findability and usability , they might find their sites can:

  1. Easily generate targeted search engine traffic, and
  2. Convert visitors into buyers

...within a single site. Design for findability. Design for human users first and accommodate the technology that people use.

This article originally appeared in Search Engine Land. It has been updated since its original publication.


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