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The Top 5 Ways That Usability and SEO Work Together

Happy New Year! And what better way to start it than a San Diego Chargers victory over the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the playoffs last Sunday. As one of the 65,000 some odd fans that attended the game, I can tell you it was an amazing day for the community of San Diego and the energy in the stadium was incredible. Now if we can just beat the Colts again….

I really think that 2008 is going to be the year that you see the study of Web site Usability move to the forefront of Search Engine Optimization. If your not familiar with Usability, here is a really good definition that we like to use here at BusinessOnLine:

“After all, usability really just means that making sure that something works well: that a person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can use the thing – whether it’s a Web site, a fighter jet, or a revolving door – for its intended purpose without getting hopelessly frustrated.” – Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think, 2000, p. 5

If you would like more information about Usability, I have two great resources for you. The first is a list of articles by usability guru Jakob Nielsen, who is considered one of the foremost authorities in the world on the subject. The second is to check out the blog of my co worker, Usability consultant Thanh Nguyen who is one of the most passionate people in the business. Fortunately for me, I have the opportunity to get her input on all our SEO solutions to make sure that we don’t sacrifice user experience for the sake of optimization. But aside from Usability concerns, which should almost always take precedence, it also makes a lot of sense from an SEO perspective to ensure that you always put the user first.

Search engine optimization encompasses many different variables. Search engines use things like links, content, meta data, server settings and other variables to try to determine how relevant a document is to a particular query. But as search engine technology advances, more and more variables that try to quantify positive user experience will be integrated into the search algorithms. Google wants to provide the best site to its users for any given search. Doing so ensures that the searcher will continue to use their search product. The word “best” is subjective and Google uses various signals like the variables mentioned earlier to help it determine which site really is “best” for a given user. And certainly part of the word “best” will encompass user experience. And therefore, having a site that provides a superior user experience will benefit a site’s search engine rankings. Whether it’s a time on site variable, positive references from social bookmarking and social sharing sites or just the propensity of quality sites to link to your site based on its excellent usability, there are a number of ways that usability already affects search rankings. And as technology advances, more metrics will be developed which will continue to make Usability a key ingrediant in the any successful SEO campaign.

In the meantime, I thought it would be a good idea to get together with Thanh and put together a top 5 list of ways that Usability and SEO can work together to not only enhance user experience, but increase search engine visibility as well. My thanks to Thanh for taking the time to help me put this list together:

1) #1 Don’t Use Flash or Java Script Based Site Navigation

– Users without this technology cannot navigate your Web site (although according to Adobe 99% of users have Flash).
– Slow loading times for users without broadband Internet connections.
– Flash disables back button functionality.
– Bad for accessibility.

– Search engines cannot see these links and therefore they will not contribute to your Internal Link Popularity, Page Reputation or Page Rank.

Instead use CSS or a No Script Tag for Java Script Based Navigation.
Use SWFObject for Flash Based Navigation

#2) Internet Architecture Should Be Keyword Focused

– Your Navigation and Content Categories should closely align with the keywords that people are most often using when searching for your products, services or information.
– This improves the ability of users to find the information they need which not only improves their trust in your Web site but also increases conversions.

– Increases the amount of keyword focused internal links.
– A link is considered a vote (even if its from your own site) that the page that is being linked to is important for the keywords that are contained within the link text.

#3) Images Should Have Keyword Focused Descriptive Alt Text

– Users with disabilities, screen readers or that use browser with images disabled, will still be able to navigate the site in the event your images are linked.
– Additionally this user group will benefit from Alt text on non linked images because often times images convey a lot of important information that is necessary for the user to fully understand the page content.

– Search engines use Alt text for Page Reputation (keyword relevancy) when the link is based on an image rather than text.
– Alt Text on images which are not links, helps with image optimization which is increasingly important with the advancement of universal search.

#4) Keyword Focused Breadcrumb Navigation

– Immediately orients users to their position within the Web site in the event that a sub page is their first point of entry.
– Provide one-click access to higher site levels

– Increases the amount of keyword focused internal links to deeper pages than the main site navigation (depending on the depth of content that the site has).
– A link is considered a vote (even if its from your own site) that the page that is being linked to is important for the keywords that are contained within the link text.

#5) Make PDF Documents Available in HTML Format

– Users without this technology cannot understand your content.
– Don’t make your users reliant on 3rd party software in order to use your Web site or consume your information.

– Search engines are inconsistent in their ability to understand the content within a PDF file.
– Search engines do not recognize link connectivity data within PDF Documents.
– More HTML pages equals more Page Rank.

New Year Bonus #6) Keyword Focused Title Tags

– Your Page Titles should closely align with the keywords that people are most often using when searching for your products, services or information.
– This improves the ability of users to understand that your Web site has the information that they are looking for and therefore also increases search engine result click through rates.

– Page Titles are still one of the most heavily weighted variables in the search engine algorithms for Google, Yahoo and MSN.

These six best practices are great for both SEO and Usability. And, if you do SEO for a living, being able to explain that these practices help Usability as well as SEO, increases the value of your services. Usability and SEO working together is an essential part of good SEO and the more SEO professionals familiarize themselves with the basic principles of Usability, the more effective their optimization skills will be.