How to combine UX and SEO without hurting your Google rankings

Chris Hickman.

Here, Chris Hickman, Founder and CEO at Adficient, and Founder of GetBackonGoogle.com (a platform that helps businesses and websites suspended in Adwords to get back onto Google), outlines how to combine UX (User Experience) and SEO (Search Engine Optimization) without adversely affecting your current Google rankings. Hickman has 15 years’ experience in search-engine marketing and conversion optimization.

SEO standards keep increasing. We can no longer just put keywords into a page and get a high ranking. Now there’s a complex meshing of factors – and they seem to keep shifting around. But if you look at it from afar, there’s really just one major SEO factor: What do searchers consider to be a quality result on a search engine result? This is why UX (User Experience) has become a ranking factor in SEO. You can have the best design from an SEO standpoint – but if people don’t like your design or can’t use it, then they’ll go elsewhere. Google will also notice this and start dropping your rank.

But some site designers are nervous about making UX improvements because they’re afraid it will ruin their search-engine rankings. These fears aren’t unfounded. No one except the search engines knows the specifics of the algorithms. Now that AI is powering improvements, they may not even know the full details any more. However, there are some UX improvements that search engines have said will be a net benefit to SEO. Some have been around for a long time but get ignored. Others are new on the SEO landscape and need the assistance of an SEO services company. Here are some issues to examine:

Site speed. If any page on your site loads slower than three seconds, that’s a serious issue. Slow sites aren’t just annoying. They’re indicative of large amounts of data getting downloaded. Mobile users hate slow sites and they hate sites that unnecessary use up data. So if you can make your site faster, then your users will be happier and they’ll come back more often.

Accessibility. Making your site accessible to people who have disabilities isn’t just a kind gesture. Sites with accessibility features often have better UX. Filling out ALT tags with descriptions of pictures has been around since the beginnings of the web, but there’s much more to it. Consider reading through the accessibility standards of the W3C and see if there are some improvements you could make.

Mobile-friendliness. Google has been warning for quite some time that they were going to push up sites that had mobile-friendly designs. They’ve made a whole separate search engine results page for mobile this year, and now they’re beating the drum of AMP to increase loading times and decrease data usage. The bottom line is that if your site doesn’t respond well on mobile devices, you’re doing your business a grave disservice.

STRATEGIES TO AVOID

There are also some things to avoid from the UX world that are harmful to SEO.  Just like going too far into SEO can make a site hard to use, going too far into fancy designs can confuse search engines. Some things to avoid include:

Consolidating Pages. UX designers love having everything in one place. But if you put everything in one place, that means there’s just one point of access between your site and the search engines. Instead of putting everything on one page, look at the queries people are using to reach you. Then ask yourself if the information in them gives the searcher everything they need to answer their questions.

Balancing text, video and other features. Some UX designers have made very fancy web pages with scrolling movies and all sorts of ‘whiz-bang’ features. But from an SEO perspective, if web crawlers can’t read your page, then your SEO will plummet. There must be a balance between creating engaging user experiences beyond text, while still giving the engines what they need to do to classify your site.

Reducing explicit linking. Yes, Apple’s products are extremely intuitive and you might want to try representing that. Or, you might have a crazy idea to put skeuomorphic (ornamental) icons for your navigation. That’s pushing it a little too far. It may look great, but it may not be readable to a computer. It may not even be readable to a human if your intuitions do not match up with the way your audience thinks. Those links are there for good navigational and SEO reasons. If you muck with them in the name of design, you’ll affect your SEO.

There are lots of sites that could create better user experiences through speed and accessibility increases. Even including UX improvements like breadcrumbs and clearer navigation are a good idea. At the same time, don’t let high-end design blind you to the fundamentals that search engines need in order to classify your site properly. One day, they may be able to catch up to the latest in design, but until then, you do need to keep your text and links!

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Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.