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Mark Jackson

Usability and SEO

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When talking about usability, most people will refer to "simple things" like making sure your phone number is in the top right corner of your Web pages so the visitor can easily convert for you.

Stuff like that is important (the point of driving people to a Web site is to grow your business). However, that's only one reason to focus on usability.

A post on the Official Google Blog recently had an interesting comment from Udi Manber:

"Another team in our group is responsible for evaluating how well we're doing. This is done in many different ways, but the goal is always the same: improve the user experience. This is not the main goal, it is the only goal."

The more that we, as SEOs, can understand what he means here, the better quality service we'll provide our clients (either in-house or agency clients). Manber is saying focus on the user, always.

What does this mean for you, as you try to market you business via organic search?

Usability and SEO

The search engine's job is to deliver the most relevant result against a given search query. In order to be seen as "relevant" to the search engines, you must first be relevant to a user of your Web site. There are no shortcuts here. You need quality content and pages upon pages of supporting content.

Too often, people redesign their Web sites to make them more "user friendly." They believe this is accomplished by having fewer pages with less verbiage and more graphics.

If you think about it, though, people use search to read and research when they're looking for your business. Your Web site visitors want to know more about the details of what you do, how you do it, how long you've been doing it, how great you are at doing it, the specialized fields in which you do it (vertical content), the people that you have on staff doing it, and their experience doing it, and so on.

How is your Web site constructed? Do you have enough content for users to thoroughly research your company? Do you use words that are commonly used by your target audience within the content of your Web site? Do you make this information easily accessible to your users, or do you have a lot of your best content buried and not properly linked from pages?

Internal Linking

Here's a great example of how you can enhance your Web site's usability and assist your SEO efforts. Too often, you may have created a lot of Web pages but they don't "speak" to each other. If a visitor is on my company's Interactive Marketing Services page, then they might also be interested in our SEM (PPC) services or our SEO services. So, we've added links to those pages on the Interactive Marketing Services page. Simple stuff.

Linking like this creates great internal linking, which is great for the user experience. These internal links provide an opportunity to use a keyword-rich anchor text link to that page.

Accessibility and Usability

Accessibility is very much aligned with usability. If your Web site isn't accessible through Safari on a Mac, you're missing an opportunity and creating a bad user experience for someone. If your site isn't accessible to blind people, you may be setting yourself up for a lawsuit -- as is the case with Target.com -- and missing an opportunity to serve a great audience.

Here's how Target.com can resolve the lawsuit:

A website can be coded to be accessible to blind people by complying with the Web Content Accessibility standards as set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium (found at http://w3c.org/wai) or by the standards promulgated by the Governmental Access Board, known as the Section 508 guidelines. These standards include: adding invisible alt-text to graphics so screen readers can recognize and vocalize them; ensuring that all functions can be done using a keyboard; ensuring that image maps are accessible; and adding headings so that blind people can easily navigate within the website.

Let me see if I've got this straight...

There are four things that Target.com needs to do to make its Web site is accessible to blind people (to check this for yourself, go to the HiSoftware Cynthia Says - Web Content Accessibility Report). Rather than doing this, they're fighting a lawsuit?

Let's take a look at these four items:

  1. Adding alt-text to images on the site so screen readers can recognize and vocalize them. That's a good thing for SEO and usability.

  2. Making sure that all functions can be done using a keyboard. While this has no impact on SEO, using "access keys" for the main navigation makes it easier for a user to navigate the web site using something like Ctrl+1, Ctrl+2, etc.

  3. Making sure that image maps are accessible. This is a quick fix without asking Target.com IT folks to do too much redesign work. Ideally (for accessibility and SEO purposes) image maps should be avoided unless it's purely for aesthetic purposes. The best thing would be to use styled text links on top of a background image set via CSS. This way, the links can be read by both the user and the search engine.

  4. Adding headings so that blind people can easily navigate within the Web site. This is another element that's great for SEO.

Again, if we (as Webmasters, SEOs, marketers, CEOs, whatever) focus only on the user experience, it will go a long way towards optimizing our Web sites.

For more information about usability, check out the Usability Professionals' Association.

Join us for SES San Jose, August 18-22 at the San Jose Convention Center.


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