How to balance usability with SEO

Apr 01, 2009 9:30 PM  By

Finding the balance between search engine optimization and a successful user experience can be a challenge. The two strategies can conflict, and companies may mistakenly favor one over the other.

For example, one company may choose to “stuff” the same keywords into every “alt” tag in its navigation graphics. That detracts from the user experience, making the page both slower to load and difficult to interpret for the visually impaired who are using screen readers.

Then there are others who try to maximize usability without any concern for SEO. They choose to “Googleize” their home paged, stripping all nonessential elements and making their pages as simple and streamlined as Google.com‘s home page. That, unfortunately, offers very little for the search engines to sink their teeth into and, consequently, insufficient clues to enable the search engine to identify appropriate keyword themes for your page.

In most cases, your home page gets the most weight of all the pages on your site. So don’t squander that opportunity. SEO, when done right, enhances the usability of the site for the user. And when done right, usability also enhances the search engine findability of the site.

For example, breadcrumb navigation is a useful technique for both users and search engines. The Cabela’s breadcrumb above contains text links with (hopefully) relevant keywords in the anchor text.

Contrast that with using the words “click here” everywhere in the anchor text of your internal links, which is not easy for the user to interpret because the underlined words are not related to the linked page’s content. Also, all the major search engines — Google, Yahoo and Live Search — associate that anchor text with the page to which you are linking. So using the words “click here” tells Google that the page to which you link is all about “click here.”

When thinking through your internal hierarchical linking structure, consider the impact on both users and search engines. Your most important pages should be linked from the home page, because that will pass a maximum amount of “link juice” (e.g., Google PageRank) to the pages, as well as drawing the user’s attention to the page.

Link juice refers to the fact that major search engines treat links like votes. When you link to a page, you are voting for it, vouching for it. A site that has no links pointing to it has no one vouching for it and, consequently, it is relegated to the bottom of the search-results heap. But not all links are created equal: A link from CNN.com is worth more than a link from Jim Bob’s personal home page.

When linking to pages within your site, think through the implications of that link as far as search engines and users are concerned. If you want a page to rank well in the search engines, link to it from the home page, or as far up in your site tree as feasible. At the same time, a very unusable home page would be a massive page of links.

So you need to balance this out. The home page needs to be usable, simple to scan, and designed so users can easily see the logical path forward. It must also provide links into your most important pages for the search engines — with text links that include relevant and important keywords that are popular with searchers.

Avoid title-tag temptation

Page titles are another place where a balance must be struck between usability and findability. The title tag is given a lot of weight by the search engines. It is, in fact, the top on-page factor — more important than the body copy, more important than “alt” tags, heading tags, meta tags, and so on.

You must absolutely resist the temptation to insert as many of your sought-after keywords as possible into the title tag. That is neither good usability nor good SEO.

A good title tag is focused on one, two, possibly three keyword themes — and no more. It is no more than 12 to 15 words long. The shorter it is, the more focused it is around the keywords that are included in the title.

Lead with the important keywords rather than including them at the end of the title tag. The closer the word is to the start of the title tag, the more weight it is given.

Remember that the title tag is also displayed in the search results, so if it looks like keyword rich gibberish, it won’t compel the searcher to click on your listing. You need to ensure that the title tag is compelling, focused on the reader, value added, succinct and engaging.

Every page of your site, whether it is dynamic or static, should have a unique title tag. That is because every page of your site has its own song to sing — both to the search engines and to the reader.

You can’t be everything to everybody on your home page — search engines included. You can’t possibly get your home page ranking number-one for your 1,000 most important keywords. You therefore need to look to your other pages — namely your secondary pages, tertiary level pages and even deeper — to deliver search engine traffic.

So each page should have body copy, ideally several hundred words of it, that further reinforces the keyword themes that you are targeting on that page. If you are targeting a keyword that is mentioned in the title tag and nowhere else on that page, you’ll be at a disadvantage.

Shut out doorway pages

Be careful not to engage in keyword stuffing. Crafting copy like this is just asking for trouble: “Welcome to my Blue Widgets page. This page is all about Blue Widgets. We have plenty of Blue Widgets for you to purchase. Please read on and we will tell you more about our Blue Widgets.”

That sort of copy isn’t just useless to readers; it will also fail to achieve a top ranking for “blue widgets” because it looks like search engine spam. In fact, features that read like this are often termed “doorway pages” because they are designed just for search engine rankings — to get users in and then quickly get them off that page and on to some other, more presentable entry into the Website.

Doorway pages are a very bad idea — a quick way to get a penalty from Google or, worse yet, a total site ban. BMW experienced this not too long ago with doorway pages that finally caught up with the upscale auto maker. Its entire Bmw.de site was banned from Google until BMW removed the offending doorway pages from its Website.

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Heading tags (“H1,” “H2,” through to “H6”) are another useful element for both usability and findability. A good heading tag includes important keywords that relate to the copy underneath — explaining what it is about, as well as providing cues to the reader that enhance the page’s readability and scannability. I would not repeat the page title as your H1 tag because that looks over-optimized. I would also be wary of using more than one H1 tag on a page.

Here’s a way to gauge whether the search engines are likely to look askance at your use of heading tags: Imagine taking all your heading copy that is wrapped within heading tags on the page and creating an outline out of it — indenting the H2 headings underneath your H1 headings, your H3 headings under your H2 headings, and so forth.

Then imagine you are still in school and you have to hand it in as an assignment. If you’d expect to receive an “F” on your outline, then you haven’t done a good job for either your users or the search engines and you should start again. The search engine algorithms are smart enough to sense that your use of heading tags is contrived and unnatural, and they are likely to penalize you for it.

A general rule of thumb for SEO: Anything that looks unnatural or engineered will be noticed and scrutinized by the engines and could get you in trouble with them.

For example, creating a link network with other companies that you are friendly with — and sticking a big pile of links to all of them in your footer, which in turn all link back to you — will look a little too symmetrical and engineered to Google. And, consequently, it won’t give you the rankings benefit that you were after.

Similarly, the exact same anchor text in links to your Website from numerous sites doesn’t look like it has developed organically.

Stephan Spencer (sspencer@netconcepts.com) is founder/president of natural search marketing firm Netconcepts.

Where to start?

The most important elements for you to add to make your site more usable for human visitors and search engines alike are:

  • Unique title tags for each page that incorporate good keywords and are succinct and not repetitive

  • Succinct heading tags that further reinforce the keyword theme of the page

  • A well thought-out internal hierarchical linking structure that passes link juice to your most important pages

  • Anchor text containing good keywords, not throwaway phrases like “click here” or “read more”

  • “Alt“ tags that succinctly describe what the graphic is and what the button does

Creating these things will put you well on your way to high rankings and better usability.
— SS