There are many frustrated SEO-ers out there. I see it everyday in the search engine forums, marketing blogs, and day-to-day chatter on Twitter. Many of us were trained long ago to optimize our websites to appease search engine algorithms, using a variety of tactics like meta keywords and quick link-building campaigns. Even the acronym “SEO” reflects this—that we need to optimize for search engines and search engines alone. Creating a great user experience was left to our design and marketing teams, whose strategies often clashed with SEO.
But things have changed. We now find the SEO profession gravitating toward users, and the principles of UX are now essential to what we do as SEOs. But why? And what does this mean for SEO in 2016?
Search engines now better understand users and behave like them too.
I used to always ask two separate questions: “What would search engines want?” and “What would users want?” The answers to these two questions are now, more often than not, the same. Search engines have evolved to where they behave like users rather than machines programmed to output results and they have also become ardent listeners.
Think about what we’ve seen over the past few years. Platforms such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Home now understand the context around searches like “closest restaurant near me.” This is an amazing leap forward, bridging the relationship between the user and the search engine.
And it’s not just the ways in which search engines and users communicate that has evolved. Google’s understanding of websites has changed dramatically as well. For instance, CSS files were often hidden from search engines because they would only get confused by them, but Google can now read these files easily. Today, blocking them will actually harm your website.
In addition, Google can now understand paginated content, which means the organization of content over multiple pages in a series (such as for a blog). Where previously we had to put in special HTML code telling Google that page 1 came before page 2, page 2 came before page 3, and so on, Google now lists doing nothing as an option. Google says, “Paginated content is very common, and Google does a good job returning the most relevant results to users, regardless of whether content is divided into multiple pages.”
Now more than ever, UX directly correlates with search visibility.
Consider two areas Google now tells webmasters to focus on: mobile UX and site speed. Both Google and Bing have rolled out algorithm updates giving more authority to sites that are mobile-friendly. Even site speed matters more than ever as search engines reward sites that present a fast experience for users. Research shows that users quickly abandon a slow-loading website or mobile site within 4-5 seconds and will likely never return. You can present the cleanest code to search engines, but if your website is slow, not mobile-friendly, and difficult to navigate, the less likely it will show up in search results.
For many years, the job of an SEO expert was all about the experience of the search engine, not the user. This is no longer the case. If your business is thinking about how to perform better in search, ask yourself what would be best for your users. After all, it’s what the search engines would want.