Search Engine Optimization is a bit of a misnomer, as optimizing your website for the search engines is only half the battle. It doesn’t matter how well your site ranks if folks aren’t sticking around once they click the link, so optimizing for your users should be an important component of your SEO strategy. In her article on Search Engine Land, Shari Thurow examines the fundamental building blocks of site usability and how they pertain to SEO.
Searchers need to be able to use your site effectively to achieve their objectives, whether they have a specific task to complete or they’re simply looking for information. If people are clicking away without getting what they came for, you need to determine what “roadblocks” they encountered, and whether these can be minimized or eliminated altogether.
“Navigational queries are very important to search usability professionals because the searcher goal is to go to a specific website,” writes Thurow. “And website owners should help searchers achieve that goal very easily.”
Once you’ve determined that visitors to your website can complete their tasks, your next step is to see just how quickly and efficiently they’re able to do so. There’s a tendency among SEO professionals to over-generalize when it comes to efficiency, and the 3-Click-Rule (which states that all content on a website should be available within three clicks) is still bandied about. However, this “rule” was thoroughly debunked by the folks at User Interface Engineering way back in 2003. Clear navigation, quick orientation, and task completion are far more important to searchers than the number of clicks.
A good measure of site usability is how long it takes first-time searchers to learn how to use it. Usability professionals evaluate a website’s learnability by reviewing its navigation, its visual affordance, and its content labels and descriptions. “[I]f searchers have to spend time learning how to use your website,” writes Turow, “they are spending less time on achieving their searcher goals. If a website is too hard to learn, then searchers hit the Back button.”
How easy is it for repeat visitors to your website to find the same information or accomplish the same task that they did last time? In a perfect word, a searcher who finds your website useful will bookmark the link (or memorize your URL) and jump right to it the next time he or she needs it. However, most web searchers exhibit what has been termed “re-finding” behaviors, where they simply attempt to remember the keyword phrase they typed into the search engine to find you in the first place. Once they see the familiar title, URL, or thumbnail on the results page, they click on it. By making sure your site is memorable, you can make it easier for web searchers to “re-find” it.
Error Prevention and Recovery
Try as you might, something will inevitably go wrong on your website. A search engine may display a page other than the one you had in mind, or a user might go wandering down an unintended browse path. Some errors (such as a 404 Page Not Found Error) are dealbreakers and need to be addressed immediately. Others are less severe, but should definitely be added to your To-Do list.
It’s important to monitor your website regularly to determine what types of errors searchers (and search engines) encounter, how frequently they encounter them, and how severe they are.
User satisfaction is directly tied to goal achievement. If visitors are able to do what they set out to do, quickly and efficiently, then they’ll rate their user experience as high. If they run into too many obstacles and don’t find what they were looking for, they’ll rate their user experience as low.
“Saying that you know SEO without understanding searcher goals and behaviors is like saying that you understand math without knowing how to add,” writes Thurow. And these searcher goals are directly tied to a website’s effectiveness, efficiency, memorability, learnability, error prevention, and user satisfaction.