SEO without usability - an exercise in futility

Recently, I needed to purchase some specific promotional materials. No problem, I thought, I'll find a source online.

The industry is fairly competitive and the sites that I found in the search engines had employed someaggressive SEO techniques to get to the first page of the results.

The page titles had the exact keyword phrases I searched for, and the page copy repeated them many times. There were long links within the content that included the keywords as well. SEO had worked well for them - here I was, a qualified buyer with credit card in hand who had found their site through a search engine.

And yet I abandoned that site (and the nine others like it) in disgust. In fact, I was so irritated that I actually turned my computer off and pulled out the Yellow Pages to find a local supplier.

The sites were textbook-perfect examples of pure SEO. They weren't deceitful in any way, but they weredesigned completely for search engines, not for people. The goal was to reach the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) and that goal was accomplished with flying colours. Unfortunately, the goal was wrong. The site should have been pursuing buyers first, and then traffic.

SEO without usability

I was looking to place an order right away - so what stopped me? Here are a few of the pitfalls I encountered:

  • No prices on the pages. I was supposed to call for pricing or put something in my cart before the price was shown.
  • Incomplete or minimal descriptions. The name of the product was repeated over and over again but things like sizes, shipping weights, and available colours were not included.
  • No pictures or poor-quality pictures.
  • Inconsistent navigation. The one site I almost managed to purchase from changed the text in their links from page to page (targeting slightly different terms) and I got caught in a circle, unable to find the checkout!
  • Unusable shopping carts or insecure order forms.
  • Poor organization of products. I was unable to find related products or accessories.

In other words, time and money was spent to "optimise" these sites in a way that brought them traffic, and then drove it away!

Now those companies are most likely convinced that:

  1. The Internet is not a good market for their products and/or
  2. SEO is a waste of time and money

After all, they get tons of traffic and may even be paying for more bandwidth, but no one seems to buy anything. So once again SEO is given a bad reputation.

Incorporating "the big picture"

Should every SEO learn usability? Not any more than they need to learn design skills or database programming. However, in the same way that the average SEO can spot design or technical issues and recommend or work with a specialist, they should also be able to spot major usability issues and recommend or work with a usability analyst.

A usability analyst can walk through the site and spot obstacles that may prevent users from completing their goal. They typically address marketing, layout, technical, and design issues that can frustrate users or even drive them away. When site owners are presented with a usability study in addition to an SEOanalysis, they have a better picture of overall "health" of the site and a blueprint for greater profitability, not just more traffic.

Usability reports are a relatively inexpensive investment that return far more than their cost in increased sales, subscriptions, leads, etc. SEO and usability improvements implemented together can result in dramatic changes in traffic and conversions.

Do-it-yourself usability

Anyone who is looking to improve the usability of a site without investing in a professional report can easily find the current issues with a site by performing a quick-and-dirty usability study.

Find five to ten users who have never been to your site. These people should ideally be your target demographic: age, lifestyle, income, etc. Ask them to perform a set of tasks on the website - tasks that you'd expect your average visitor to accomplish. As you observe them carefully, ask them to talk out loud as they perform the tasks. Don't guide them or lead them in any way, and don't answer any of their questions. Make sure that you write down everything that you witness during this exercise.

You'll be amazed at what you can learn. An official report or theoretical discussion pales in comparison to watching a user get frustrated and click away from a site. Usability analysts are skilled at interpreting the results of these studies, but anyone can find out what is wrong with a website through this method.

The future of SEO and usability

Search engine optimisation is still in its infancy, and is a constantly changing discipline. As the search engines get better and better at rewarding the best/most complete sites, usability will become even more important.

Many long-time SEO are now looking at the big picture and working with usability analysts. This ensures that their sites are crawler- and user-friendly along with being ready for sales conversions. Sites that can be found and that are usable as well will also attract links. It just makes sense. The double impact of more traffic and higher conversions makes for happy clients and powerful testimonials, as well as satisfied searchers.

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