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User Experience and How it Creates Good SEO

I recently read an article written by usability expert Shari Thurow, who I’ve heard speak at conferences before and really admire, all about content and context, usability, findability and perceived download time.  What I like about Shari’s article is that it explores the human interaction as it relates to SEO.  So often the focus of SEO is on what the search engines want and on rankings (“do this to get ranked!”).  Her attitude is very much that user experience, when put in the greater context of usability, logically ties in with SEO.

For example, she talks about how user experience is a broader concept than just usability because it takes into account effectiveness, efficiency, learnability, memorability, error prevention, and user satisfaction.  Usability is simply part of the user experience.  You could have a very effective website that lacks in memorability (the ability to remember how to accomplish their goals on the site).  Have you ever been on a site you liked but couldn’t remember how to find the shopping cart once you added items? Or the site is incredibly informative but not effective at generating conversions, like a cart that requires you to login or other barriers to completing the sales process? Perhaps a site is very learnable but is riddled with errors, 404’s, broken links, and pages without content… or even worse… bad grammar!  These are all possible combinations and reasons you need to take into account all the factors of user experience, not just general usability.

She also enumerates the idea that findability is an important facet of user experience.  Too often we consider findability only an issue for the search engines, but ensuring that your users can find your content and find what they want on your site quickly and easily is a major contributor to the type of experience they have on your site.  Have you ever looked through an e-commerce site and struggled to find an item you were certain they had only because you couldn’t figure out their naming conventions or keyword parameters that would trigger the item? Have you ever read a great blog article only to struggle to find it again later? Have you ever been on a site and ready to purchase only to struggle to find contact information to complete the action?

Here’s a personal example – a local restaurant that serves arguably some of the best food in town has dreadful web presence. I’ve talked to them about it before and pointed out major errors and easy fixes and they’ve incorporated some of what I mentioned, but not all (web is not a priority of theirs, sadly). Well, I was trying to schedule a lunch meeting this weekend with a colleague at that restaurant (again, the food is really good!) and went to their website to check their hours to make sure they were serving lunch on Saturdays. I looked on every page of the site to no avail. I had to go to the search engines and scour both their Google+ local page (no luck there) and their Facebook page (finally found the info there… assuming it’s accurate) in order to determine their weekend hours. That was a terrible experience for me. I still love their food but now that findability issue has colored my perspective of their restaurant, and I’m less likely to schedule meetings there from now on, despite the awesome food. They care about food, which is probably the most important thing for a restaurant, but they don’t seem to care about their customers because their findability, their “labeling, organizing, formatting and connecting website content so that both humans and technology can easily access and understand that content” is, well, crap.

To go along with that idea, Shari enumerates the idea that perceived download time is more important than actual download time. This, for many of the engineers out there, doesn’t make sense. To them, time is time. It’s measurable, it’s finite, it’s quantitative. But I tell many of my clients this frequently: people are crazy. See why I’m not a salesperson? Ugh… sometimes my sales skills make me cringe. But, people are inherently unpredictable.  What’s expected isn’t always what results.

Imagine you’re sitting in a restaurant and you’re waiting a really long time for your food. The kitchen is backed up, they’re short staffed at the front of the house, and it’s a holiday.  But your server is doing his best – he’s keeping your beverages full, he’s constantly ensuring your bread is replenished, he’s kind and apologetic, perhaps even cracking jokes about the wait. I have young kids so waiting at restaurants without food SUCKS, so maybe he’s brought additional crayons to make up for the 10 crayons currently crushed under the table. Or he’s brought crackers out for my daughter to eat, throw, crumple up into tiny crumbs… whatever. Perhaps the manager comes over and apologizes or comps an appetizer or dessert. This creates a POSITIVE user experience. Sure, waiting forever at a restaurant is miserable, but when the response to this experience is positive, proactive, and beneficial, the perceived wait time is considerably less between when I sat down and when I received my food. Now imagine the same situation, but the servers, managers, and waitstaff are all somehow MIA. You can’t flag anyone down, you have no beverages or they’ve been sitting empty for 20 minutes. You aren’t informed about the reason for the delay or given any explanation, excuse or apology for the fact that you’re having a negative experience. Even if the wait time from when you sat down to when you received your food is LESS than the previous example, your perceived wait time is more. I’ve seen this in hotels, airports, anything related to travel, and yes, even websites. Shari states: “If users cannot find what they want on a website, they will regard the download time as slower than it actually might be. Conversely, if users do find what they want on a website quickly and easily, they perceive the download time as faster than it actually might be.” This makes perfectly logical sense… assuming you aren’t an engineer. Time is time until you factor in the human element.  Then, perception colors fact. On a website, an autoplay video that causes navigation to slow or enormous images impact their perception of the site… unless the site experience overall is wholly positive (great content, stellar images, super useful and easily navigable interface).  But, FYI, the autoplay video will always be a bad idea.

Understanding these concepts, while they seem completely logical, is often overlooked in web design and has a much higher degree of relevance to good SEO than is often credited.  To apply this to small businesses, use the ideas behind user experience when you analyze your website. Are you findable? Is the content on your site useful and easily navigable? Is your layout pleasant and easy to load? Is the process through the sales or lead funnel intuitive, logical, or memorable? All these contribute to good SEO, not just user experience.  Step back from your site and ask for feedback – real, honest, genuine feedback. Ask colleagues, co-workers, friends, acquaintances, old people and young people to respond to your site. Focus on your target demographic, but ask those outside your target to use the website. You might find some truly useful information as it relates the experiences that each individual has on your site. To read Shari’s full article, check it out at Marketing Land.