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SEO and Usability: Use 'em or Lose 'em

Carrie Hill
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Making sure your small business Web site is user-friendly and search engine friendly is a challenge. You want your site to be found. A search engine is only as good as the results it delivers. Ultimately, though, you have the same goal. Search engines want to give users what they're looking for -- you want to sell users what they're looking for.

Many SEOs (define) and SEMs (define) don't subscribe to the necessity of usability consideration and testing on their pages -- but thankfully many (including yours truly) do. The foundation principle that ties usability and SEM together is this: as a small business owner, you can deliver two million clicks to your domain, but if the site is completely unfriendly to a normal Web site user, they're not going to buy, signup, or book, which means you've wasted time and energy driving traffic that won't convert.

If you're a small business owner and want to build a Web site that will not only rank, but convert, follow these simple steps to make sure your site is designed with the search engine and the user in mind.

Design For Your Audience

If you don't know who your audience is, don't design your Web site. Without a clear idea of who you are selling to, it's virtually impossible to build a Web site that will convert well. If you're not quite sure who your audience is, but you need to move forward, your best bet is to build a Web site that is easy to use and simple to navigate.

There has been talk around the usability sphere of creating user "personas" to guide design. This is a great idea, but it can be expensive. Initially, you may be able to design without this information -- as long as you know your audience and keep the end goal in mind.

One of the best ways to rank well organically is to make sure your site contain loads of information that is relevant to what you offer. If you sell movie posters and you have a page on your site for every poster you sell, with a great optimized image and some text, you're giving your user a very clear message about what you're selling -- and you're building a search- and user-friendly site. If you've added good unique page titles and meta descriptions, your pages will each be optimized for a target term such as "Fred Clause Movie Poster."

Put the Important Stuff Above the Fold

The "fold" of a page is a leftover newspaper term that defines where the bottom of the page is when it loads on your monitor. Placing the attention-grabbing information "above the fold" is necessary to ensure the visitor sees it without having to scroll and has a clearly defined action to take immediately.

Great paragraphs of text are lost on the fickle Web site user. Instead, offer bullet points that give concise reasons, using bold text, why the user should buy, book or sign up.

Keeping your important text above the fold is also great for search engines. If your site is built correctly, the text will appear towards the top of the code on the page, without a lot of formatting, slideshows, and other non-content related code in front of it.

This means the spider gets into the meat of the page immediately. When your content is placed far down the page, below the fold, it's harder for the search engine spider to find it, figure out what it's about and deliver that information as the result of a query.

We tell clients to have all of their "calls to action" above the fold -- and below the fold if the page is quite long. Phone numbers, book now buttons, shopping cart access, links to relevant pages -- this all should be in a prominent place on the page.

The Three-Click Rule

According to this rule, users stop using the site if the information they seek isn't apparent within three clicks. Actually, this is a bit generous. For the most part, users will leave a site if they don't at least find a breadcrumb on the homepage that will lead them to the information they seek. This theory does emphasize the need for logical navigation, structure, and site hierarchy.

Search engine spiders work much in the same way users do -- they follow links into the interior of a site and read the text to figure out what each page is about. A clear and concise CSS-based navigation is really important to getting your site indexed and having interior pages ranking well in the results.

Accessibility

Making sure anyone who uses the Internet can access your site is important -- although it can be expensive to implement an accessibility overhaul on an existing site. If your site is accessible from the beginning, you'll have an easier time adding new features. Here are some basics of accessibility to consider:

  • Place alt tags on your photos for text browsers and screen readers.

  • Those who use screen enlargement software rely on color contrasts and dark text on white or light solid backgrounds to better view the content.

  • Colorblind users need contrast between the background and the text in order to read the page. A light colored font on white background will just look like a blank page to a color-blind user.

  • In rare cases, flickering and photo-sensitivity can trigger epileptic seizures -- flashing slideshows or scrolling text that move to quickly are annoying and can even cause adverse reactions in those with photo-sensitivity problems.

Accessibility is a great thing to implement in your Web site design or redesign. Unless your target audience needs special consideration, don't run out and redesign a site that's converting just to accommodate a small segment of users.

Usability can be as simple or as complicated as you'd like it to be -- but ultimately it will help your Web site deliver better conversions. Consider your user when you're designing and writing for your site and you'll not only provide search-engine friendly content -- you're more likely to make the sale and increase the bottom line.

Resources for Usability information:

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