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Optimizing for the User Experience

lynch-john
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"Instead of chasing after the search engines, chase after the user experience because the search engines are chasing after the user experience" -- Matt Cutts

To cynical SEOs, declarations such as the one above are ostensibly holistic mumbo jumbo -- they're the unrealistic musings from a group that has never had income completely dependant on search engine rankings.

I would heed caution to those tempted to label the Cutts mantra as propaganda intended to distract from the real factors that cause sites to rank (namely, link building). By no means is link building going away; it's the premier and most accurate factor in determining website relevance. However, it's fairly obvious that the importance of incoming links is becoming a bit marginalized by other, newer components.

Truth be told, search engines are moving toward chasing the user experience, which is mainly accomplished through triangulation of signals such as end-user data, social signals, and incoming links, with the super objective of accurately predicting and serving the highest quality content. Simply put, if the search engines are making significant changes to please users, shouldn't websites do the same thing?

Here are a few user guidelines that will be sure to please both search engines and users alike.

1. Improve Site Speed

Who wants to wait 15 seconds for a webpage to load? Google realizes this and has incorporated load times into the algorithm.

Does this mean webmasters should now come equipped with stopwatches looking to shave .2 seconds off their load times? Not at all. Instead, a good rule of thumb is to look for directories with slow load times.

Likely, there are a couple issues:

  • The image files are too large (use Photoshop's "save for web" option).

  • There is extraneous JavaScript or CSS on the page (move to external files).

2. Link to External Sites

To many webmasters, linking to other websites is the equivalent of asking them to swallow a revolver. To the search engines, this is an altruistic demonstration that you're focused on actually helping the user, not just interested in sucking them into your sales funnel.

3. Avoid Ad Invasion

Cash strapped organizations of all sizes tend to stuff ads into every nook and cranny of a webpage. Once they've gone and killed the user experience, their traffic decreases, and guess what? They need more revenue. The solution is to stuff the pages with even more ads, which is the web equivalent of "I eat because I'm unhappy. I'm unhappy because I eat," coined by the immortal Fat Bastard in "Austin Powers."

At a conference, I once asked a prominent figure of a leading news organization why they only served one ad per page. His response: "Our visitors don't come to our site to look at ads."

4. Keep a Good Uptime

Never great to have your website down when Mr. Googlebot comes crawling. Plenty of decent monitoring sites can ensure your website actually has the 99.99 percent uptime your host promises.

5. Reduce 404s

Avoid deleting pages within your website. Instead, forward them via a 301 redirect to other pages in your site that have semantic relevance.

Haphazardly deleting pages can cause sites to lose incoming links from external sites and the accompanying wonderful authority. Also, clicking on broken links significantly decreases the user experience. For large sites, 404s are inevitable, so be sure to have a custom 404 page.

6. Display Related Content/Make Links Relevant

Wikipedia dominates search engines because it sets the standard for internal linking. Information seekers crave specificity and often adjust informational wants as they progress through a query chain. Internal linking that can offer choice of depth is a fantastic way to satiate this demand for content while keeping the user on site. Win-win!

7. Layout

Proper layout could easily be an article on its own, but we'll just run down a few key points:

  • Keep content above the fold.

  • Keep logos from dominating the page.

  • Create a clear and well-balanced navigation.

  • Keep text out of graphics.

  • Keep less than 100 links per page unless extremely organized.

8. Localize

Local businesses often make the painful mistake of not placing their full and complete address on the web page. This is especially important for geo-targeted rankings and/or Google local search.

For users, there's nothing more frustrating than not being able to find the location of the business you're trying to visit. Embedding a Google Map is also great for the user experience.

Key Takeaways

Realistically, none of these steps will send a website screaming to the top of search engines (with the possible exception of number six). Instead, this list is designed to be a starting point to help webmasters re-prioritize day-to-day activities that will increase conversion rates, keep visitors around longer, and hopefully improve rankings.


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