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SEO versus Usability

Anyone who maintains a website has two big duties, aside from actually making the website: accumulating users, and making sure the site works as well...

October 20, 2013

Anyone who maintains a website has two big duties, aside from actually making the website: accumulating users, and making sure the site works as well as possible for them. In technical terms, this means that the focus naturally rests on both search engine optimization (SEO) and usability. The way search algorithms have historically been set up has created a rift between these two vital aspects of web content creation; fixing bugs in SEO often causes usability issues, and vice versa. However, many search engines, particularly Google, have been retooling their algorithms with usability in mind in an effort to bridge that gap.

What is SEO?

SEO is vital if you’re at all interested in driving traffic to your website. This term relates to the act of assessing how search engines find websites and making sure that yours complies, thereby making you easy for potential users to find. Optimizing your website includes a wide variety of actions- such as determining the keywords users would plug into Google to find you and putting those keywords in strategic locations on your site, as well as making sure there are high-quality websites linking back in to you. SEO bugs hinder your searchability; neglecting to include alt tags on images or links, which can help search engines to properly read and understand that content, are considered to be SEO missteps.

What is Usability?

In contrast, usability is solely about the end user’s experience with the website. The focus is on making sure the user can easily access all of the information on the website, so common usability bugs would be images that don’t load, links that go nowhere, and text that doesn’t make sense. However, accuracy in your coding doesn’t guarantee that your website is usable; your links may go to the right place, but if they’re white dark grey text on a white black background, they still don’t count as “usable,” even if they’re the result of a conscious design decision.e,” even if that white text and background are a conscious choice that are coded properly.

If you’re trying to increase your website usability, try to look at your site as if you’re seeing it for the first time and assess how easily you can find basic information. It may also help to ask someone else to go through the website and give you their feedback as an unofficial web usability tester, and ask them to look for the same. How many clicks does it take to get to important information, like the “Contact” or “About Us” page? If you post long articles, like on a blog or a section for white papers, are they broken up with into sets of short paragraphs with relevant headings? Usability can also be increased by paying close attention to the website’s user interface, flow of information, and appearance, as pleasantness is an aspect of usability. Many of the examples provided here can also negatively affect search rankings, making them even more important to keep in mind for web testers.

Conflict between SEO and Usability

One of the problems with SEO from a usability standpoint is something that most search engines are actively trying to ratify: often, the keywords someone would search (and, therefore, that web content writers include) are not set up as they would speak (or write) them. This often leads to writers and admins trying to finagle snippets of text or unnatural combinations of words into their websites simply to ensure that they are easily searchable. The words aren’t necessarily incorrect, and the grammar might not be either, but the syntax is still awkward, clunky, or just plain unnatural. This includes improper conjugations or verb tenses, or pluralizations that don’t make sense; one example could be a headline reading, “Are you looking for holiday gift basket?” on a site that sells these items. Next time you’re browsing a website and you see headings that look like a confused jumble of keywords, you can be sure that you’re witnessing a clash between SEO and usability.

The key to mitigating the clash between the two is a matter of treading the fine line between including the aspects that are important to search engines while properly conveying important information to your end user.

As mentioned previously, the two concepts aren’t constantly at odds. An increasing number of usability aspects like clear navigation and relevant page titles can also be helpful for boosting your SEO. Search engines themselves are evolving; modern search algorithms are becoming much more usability-sensitive and are getting better at identifying keyword stuffing and other actions that hinder the user’s experience. Part of the confusion is just that it’s really hard for us as people to define what makes a good website, and that confusion ends up being passed on to the algorithms we develop. Hopefully search engine developers will soon get to the point where web content writers and website admins can easily navigate the differences between searchability and usability, but for now the two concepts can be confusing and often seem to contradict each other. The key to mitigating the clash between the two is a matter of treading the fine line between including the aspects that are important to search engines while properly conveying important information to your end user.

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