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Users and Search Engines Want the Same Things

Carrie Hill
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Optimizing your site for users is just as important as optimizing your site for search engines. While those are two very different things, you can often serve both audiences by being smart with your Web site development. Each concept can be looked at separately, but that's like buying one tire at a time -- it takes extra time, it usually costs more, and your car doesn't drive right with mismatched tires.

As small business owners, we don't have time to buy one tire at a time. We need to optimize our time just like we need to approach optimizing our Web sites and "kill as many birds with one stone" as we can.

I recently read an article by Web analyst and Web site optimizer Rich Page, on Web site optimization vs. SEO. While I don't agree with the whole article, I started thinking about ways small businesses can optimize sites for rankings and visitors.

Let's focus on two major "points of light" to consider when you're building or overhauling your small-business Web site to be both search- and user-friendly.

Site Architecture

Site structure is a huge part of creating an amazing and worthwhile user experience. It's also a large part of SEO.

Style your URLs for users and search engines. Make sure the user knows where they are and where you want them to go. Consider creating user-friendly and search engine-friendly static URLS such as:

  • example.com/category/product/color/
  • example.com/neighborhood/rental-type/unit-number/

This creates a clear path. If a user isn't quite sure where they ended up, they can see clearly from the URL that they're on a product color page, or a rental unit page. Your rankings will also benefit from this simple URL structure.

Dynamic Web sites that create pages on the fly may have a time and place, but you're hurting users and search engines by showing them URLs like this:

  • example.com/?s=?cid=23&?pid=193902&?color=23

Although this URL may technically indicate the same thing as our previous URLs, bookmarking and navigating back to that page could cause a site error because the URL was created based on a query. It also leaves the user guessing about what to expect on that page, and where in the overall site structure it fits.

Make it easy on the users. Making them figure out what category, product, or color was represented by those numbers isn't going to happen; they're going to bounce. The search engines might crawl this page, but they can't (and likely wont) serve it up as a result. Honestly, you don't want them to, because anyone who clicks on that result will get a 404 page and leave your site. And you've lost a customer.

Some other structural things to keep in mind when you're optimizing for users and search engines:

  • Breadcrumb navigation is a great "placeholder" for users – they know where they are, and can back up again easily if they chose the wrong link or option on a page

Breadcrumb Navigation

  • Less is more when it comes to site-wide navigation. Having every page on the site link to every other page on the site via tons of navigation that drops down and flies out is a great way to irritate the user, and some navigation just can't be crawled by the search engines.

Irritating Navigation

Irritating Navigation

  • Put the most important pages as site-wide navigation and use secondary navigation and internal links to guide users and search engines into each "theme" or "section" of the site.

Content

Body content, meta content, and graphical content tells search engines and users about your service or product. How you deliver that content can influence both users and search engines.

Content is what sells your site. The text you put on each page is the "conversation" you have with your shoppers.

Think about how you read pages on the Internet as you shop. More than likely, you're scanning and looking for indicators that help you find what you need. These indicators can be headlines and sub-heads, bullet points, bold or italicized text, or graphics that point to or highlight pertinent information.

Burying the main idea of your product or service page in a paragraph of text is like hiding things on the shelves. People give up and leave because they can't find what they're looking for.

Consider the article you're reading right now. We've optimized this for you, our readers, to help you decide by skimming through if it's worth further reading. Look for the indicators:

  • Bold and italicized text
  • Bullet points
  • Strategic paragraph breaks and spacing
  • Headers when focus is changed
  • Underlined links

Meta content, in this case meta descriptions and page titles, may seem to be very small visual elements -- the meta description isn't even seen by the user once they hit the page -- but it's a very important piece of the process.

Search engines use page titles and meta descriptions as "indicators" of a specific Web page's content and relevance to a certain subject. Good keyword phrase insertions in your page titles is weighted as one of the most important ranking factors you can control.

Writing meta descriptions that support your page title is like writing a story to go along with your "main idea." Search engines may not weight the description highly as a ranking factor, but supporting content is always a good thing, so don't waste the opportunity. Search engines will often use the meta description as the "blurb" for the page when returning it as a search result, so it's another important contact point with a potential customer.

Queries made in search engines are answered with a set of results that the engine considers "relevant" to the query. Once a query is made, your job begins. Search engine results, whether paid or organic, are ad copy. I say this a lot – and it still isn't necessarily a widespread notion outside the SEM industry:

Page titles and meta descriptions are your ad copy in organic search results!

Check out the top three organic results for the query "Rafting Trip in Costa Rica:

Rafting Trip in Costa Rica Google Results

The number one result ranks well, but misses the boat with its ad copy. The meta description is boring and the page title is cut off, because they didn't keep in mind how much space they have to get their point across. You're limited to about 63 characters by Google, so use them wisely.

For these results I'd consider doing the following:

  • Use capital letter and punctuation to draw the eye.

  • Don't write outside your character limit so things aren't truncated.

  • Not one of these has a call to action. Phrases like "Book Online!" or "Call Us Today!" tells your potential site visitors what to do. Sometimes, that's all it takes.

Of those three results, the third one is the best, but there's definitely room for improvement.

Users and search engines are both important to your small businesses success. Search engines can bring the traffic, but if your site doesn't cater to users with content and architecture, they're going to get confused and leave.

Consider serving your users and your rankings at the same time. You'll save steps in the process. Saving time and money is always a great way for small business owners to get ahead of their competition.

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