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Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and the User Experience

How search engine optimization can contribute to a positive UX on a website

7 Facets of the User Experience

On the web, user experience (commonly abbreviated as UX or UE) is a term used to describe the overall perception, experience, and satisfaction that people have as a result of their interactions with a website.

Unlike traditional SEO, which tends to focus more on meeting the needs of technology (search engines) than meeting the needs of web searchers, user experience design puts special emphasis on the human side of human-computer interaction.

In other words: users first, technology second. Not: technology first, users second.

Always architect, design, and program your website for users first. But also make sure your website accommodates common technologies your target audience uses.

Web professionals commonly mistake user experience for personal opinion. For example, if a customer mentions that he thinks an ecommerce website is cool, does that automatically mean that he had a positive user experience? Did the customer Add to Cart? Did the customer return to the website to make more purchases? Did he tell his friends and colleagues about how cool the website is?

The "coolness" factor should not be mistaken for a positive user experience. Similarly, with SEO, just because a website has thousands of links pointing to it does not mean that all site visitors had a positive user experience.

All facets of the user experience can be measured…and can be measured in the right context. What follows are the 7 facets of a positive user experience and how search engine optimizers and other web professionals can measure them.

UX Facet 1: Usability

Usability professionals typically analyze, test and measure the following items on a website:

  • Effectiveness: Can users achieve their objectives on your website?
  • Efficiency: How quickly can users achieve their objectivzs on your website?
  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish simple tasks the first time they encounter your website?
  • Memorability: How quickly and easily can repeat visitors remember how to use your website in order to accomplish their goals?
  • Error prevention and handling: How does the website help users recover from errors?
  • User satisfaction: Do users like using your website and recommend it to others (word-of-mouth, social media recommendations, etc.)?

Website usability's main focus is not on user satisfaction. Its main focus is on task completion. Can people who fit your target audience complete their desired goals on your website? And if site visitors are unable to reach their goals or have and difficult time reaching their goals, what roadblocks prevented them from reaching their goals?

User satisfaction is dependent on task completion. If site visitors are able to reach their goals easily, they generally report high satisfaction. If they do not or cannot reach their goals, they generally report low satisfaction.

For example, we have observed users on the 1800flowers.com website since the 90s. The site has outstanding usability and user satisfaction. Year after year, especially around Mother's Day, we observe the same users order flowers or gifts. Users find it easy to locate special gifts for special occasions, even if they need a gift delivered the next day.

The high satisfaction rate has nothing to do with the flavor-of-the-month design obsession. Site visitors get exactly what they want: the specific type of flower arrangement (that they see on the website) or gift delivered at the right time.

Usability is measured via usability tests and supporting data gathering methods (A/B and multivariate tests, web analytics data, diary studies, etc.) One main benefit of usability testing is that it puts all of that Big Data in the proper context.

UX Facet 2: Findability

As information architecture guru Peter Morville stated years ago, people can't use what they can't find. In fact, many usability professionals, academics, and information architects continue to dismiss SEO professionals as "snake-oil salesmen" when, they would benefit by learning the importance of keywords and labels.

Keywords (or keyphrases or keyword phrases) are not dead. They are critical for communicating aboutness, a sense of place, and information scent to both humans and technology. They are essential for findability – for searching, browsing, and asking.

Here is an web-page example from a health website, Mayo Clinic:

Information scent and aboutness in a website's labeling system

Mayo Clinic - good navigation

Figure 1: Mayo Clinic’s website provides effective document, content, and navigation labels for both humans and technology.

This is a page about allergy symptoms. How can users tell?

  • Navigation labels are highlighted to indicate what section of the site that both humans and technology are viewing.
  • Content labels (headings and subheadings) also indicate what page content is about.
  • Document labels (titles and URLs), not shown here, also communicate aboutness and sense of place to humans and technology.

This page's title is:

Allergies Symptoms – Diseases and Conditions – Mayo Clinic.

The page's URL is:

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/allergies/basics/symptoms/con-20034030

Does your website communicate aboutness, sense of place, and information scent to both humans and technology? Here's one way to find out.

In Google search box, type in your domain name. Let's use the 1800flowers.com website as an example. Then type some important keywords after that. In this example, we will just use the word daisies. Here is the result:

Navigational queries to for search listings

Navigational query - Google search results

Figure 2: Google selected the most appropriate page in the organic search results: the daisies category page.

Google found the right section of the site both in the advertising section and the organic (unpaid) section.

A more advanced search is:[keyword phrase] site:www.domain.com

If the right pages are not showing up in search results, then your website probably was not constructed using the proper terminology.

Finally, how do UX professionals measure findability after users arrive at a website? Qualified UX professionals do what information architects do: they use two usability tests -- card sort tests and tree tests.

Now, imagine a website that can be easily found via searching, browsing, and asking. And the content on the same website can be easily located after users arrive. THAT is a website that delivers a positive user experience.


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UX Facet 3 - Usefulness

Remember, we am talking about the user experience, not the website owner's experience. Site visitors should find the products, services, and information that you offer on your website to be useful.

In fact, a website with useful content encourages link development and social media mentions. As a search engine optimizer, I call this useful content a digital asset. Does your website have digital assets that: (a) help people reach their goals, and (b) encourage people to return to your site?

For example, a location finder is a tool that helps prospects and customers determine where they can purchase and pick up a product. Walgreen's has a store locator section that helps their site visitors locate where they can pick up a product or prescription filled after other pharmacies are typically closed.

Useful content: store locator

Store locator screenshot

Figure 3: An online tool is useful to users if it helps them reach their desired goals. A store locator can help shoppers go to the nearest store that has the desired product in stock.

This site did a particularly good job because it also accommodates all three aspects of findability: search, browse, and ask.

  1. Users can type in their address and zip code and use the search functionality (FIND A STORE).
  2. Users can also browse by state.
  3. This page is easy to bookmark and share.

Granted, not all websites need to have a store locator, but all websites can have multiple digital assets that their target audience might find useful.

Types of Digital Content Assets
  • Checklists
  • Coupons
  • Fact sheets
  • Guides
  • How-to articles
  • Infographics
  • Podcasts
  • Quizzes/Tests
  • Reference
  • Slideshows
  • Tutorials
  • Videos

Usefulness can be measured in multiple ways. The first way is to review your web analytics data. Are site visitors actually using your tool or printing out your checklist?

Another way to see if site visitors find your content useful is if they link to it and/or cite it via social media. Usefulness is not a flash-in-the-pan concept. Over time, actual usage and citations should increase.

UX Facet 4: Value

For B2B and B2C websites, valuable content has two sides: the business side and consumer side. For a business, a website should help the business achieve ROI (return on investment) and increase customer satisfaction.

For consumers, not only should a website meet their needs and expectations, the products and services the site offers should meet consumer goals and expectations. Consumers are sensitive to misleading and contradictory statements. For example, "Free with subscription," is misleading to consumers. So is the phrase, "Buy one and get half off your next purchase." If a product, service, or information were truly free, customers shouldn’t have to pay for anything.

One mistake we commonly view that leads to a negative user experience is downloading white papers or case studies. On the business side, these downloads are done for lead generation, which helps the company’s bottom line. From the consumer’s point of view, they feel that they are leaving themselves open to overzealous sales calls and a flood of unwanted emails and text messages.

Non-profit sites are different than for-profit sites in that the user experience is extra personal. The non-profit organization’s values and ideals should match users’ values and ideals. Therefore, the user experience should advance the organization’s mission and make users feel good about supporting the cause.

Before people decide whether or not to donate to a non-profit organization, they want to know:

  • The organization’s mission, goals, and objectives
  • How the organization uses donations and contributions
  • Activities or events in their community
  • Volunteering opportunities and process

Both for-profit and non-profit website should balance business goals with user expectations. Keeping track of web traffic via analytics software, link development, and social media sharing can help website owners determine if these sales and donation strategies work well.

One quick tip: Be aware with consistency between online and offline discounts. Credibility is lost if the numbers do not match.  And that leads to the next user experience facet….


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UX Facet 5: Credibility & Trust

People will not purchase your products or services, and donors will not contribute to your organization if they do not trust your website and its content. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet many website owners, designers, and developers overlook many simple characteristics that make a site (and business) seem trustworthy.

Web-page elements that influence whether or not users believe what the site communicates include but are not limited to:

On a website, all clickable elements should LOOK clickable and BE clickable. All unclickable elements should NOT look clickable and should NOT be clickable.

Likewise on a tablet and smartphone, all tappable elements should LOOK tappable and BE tappable. All untappable elements should NOT look tappable and should NOT be tappable. If users have to move their cursor around a computer monitor or move their fingers all over a tablet or smartphone to determine whether or not an item is clickable, guess what? The site, and therefore the business, seems less trustworthy.

When users click on links from one web page to another, they follow an information scent. With every click or tap, users want their information scent validated. Information scent consists of textual and graphical cues that communicate:

  • Where am I?
  • Am I in the right place?
  • Is the information I want available on this page/site?
  • Where can I go and how can I get there?

If users’ information scent is maintained or gets stronger, people continue to click. However, if users’ information scent diminishes or disappears, people will likely abandon your website.

We use Stanford’s Guidelines for Web Credibility as a quick, 10-point checklist.

SEO professionals should pay special attention to credibility issues. A #1 position in Google gives an initial impression of credibility. One click can make that credibility vanish no matter how many top search engine positions a site has.

UX Facet 6: Desirability

For a positive user experience, desirable content should come from the mental models of your target audience, not the mental models of your technical and design teams.

Does your website offer content and tools that your target audience genuinely wants to see and to use? Many SEO professionals recommend creating a blog for both ranking and recency reasons. What if your target audience does not have the time to read your blog content?

Slideshows and photo galleries can be desirable content in the right context. For example, if a person wants to book a hotel room or rent an apartment, that person wants to see photos of the place he is staying. He might want to know restaurants and grocery stores that are nearby. For travel websites, we almost always include slideshows and photo galleries to delight users.

Emotional design and delight are part of the user experience. If people find a website or web page attractive, the website appears to be more effective to users.

Remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What is attractive in one culture might look completely absurd in another culture. For example, a Japanese or Chinese website might look cartoonish or childish to Western users. But in the proper geographical and cultural contexts, the site might be financially successful and delight users.

What words would you use to describe this web page?

Japanese web page

Figure 4: A screenshot from a Japanese website.

Web and marketing professionals typically misunderstand the purpose of delightfulness. A website's content should delight and interest human users, not the site's information architecture and navigation system. In fact, a website's information architecture (IA) is best when it is not noticed at all. Navigation systems are best when they make things easier, not harder.

One of the biggest mistakes SEO professionals make is not taking into account cultural differences and preferences. Simply translating a page is not enough to communicate credibility and trust. Colors have different meanings in different countries. For example, the color red means happiness in China. In the US, it means danger or stop. In France, the color green symbolizes criminality. In the US, green symbolizes safety and sustainability.

UX Facet 7: Accessibility

Humans, as well as technology (including search engines), should have user-friendly access to your website's content. On a website, accessibility means how easily and effectively your content can be accessed and used. Good accessibility accommodates a wide range of physical and mental capabilities in the right context.

Accessibility is important for both human and non-human users. According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people are estimated to be visually impaired worldwide: 39 million are blind and 246 have low vision. Color blindness is more common in men than in women.

Did you know that the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has red-green color blindness? That is the reason that Facebook's color scheme is blue. Go to lighthouse.org for statistics on color blindness and other vision disabilities.

For people with visual impairments and for technology users, use descriptive text attributes on graphic images, links, and videos. That way, both humans and technology can determine the aboutness of these items.

Search engines cannot determine the aboutness of your site's content if they do not have access to that content.

Search engines are non-human users, or, as I like to call them, technology users. Search engines cannot determine the aboutness of your site's content if they do not have access to that content.

Complex URL structures (ones that contain symbols such as ?, &, =, %) can limit technology's access to content. Improperly coded redirects and canonicalization can also limit access to content. Even duplication can hinder access to desirable content.

So the flavor-of-the-month, cool feature that the design and development teams just implemented on your site in the name of a positive user experience? Well, that flavor-of-the-month thing just limited access to content that users genuinely want to see and use. Bring in a qualified SEO professional early in the development process to ensure your content is accessible to both technology and users. A positive user experience is not about ones personal opinions. A positive user experience isn't only about delight.

Remember, a positive user experience consists of multiple facets. The ones we wrote about come from Peter Morville's User Experience Honeycomb, a concept he came up with years ago. They have helped us stay focused on what is really important to users. Hopefully, these facets can help your websites as well.



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If you have any questions about Omni Marketing Interactive's search engine optimization (SEO), website usability, information architecture (IA), or web design services, please call us at 847-426-4256.

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