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Hey Usability Professionals: Get With The SEO Program

Search engine optimization & website usability can support each other. Learn some SEO best practices that usability professionals often ruin.

SEO program image

For over 15 years, I have been trying to convince my clients, colleagues, friends, family, and my two cats that SEO and website usability are intricately related.

Additionally, I've had to chastise colleagues and clients for not considering users/searchers during the optimization process. 

I have seen many of my SEO colleagues work very hard to understand website usability. But I am not seeing many usability professionals trying to understand search engine optimization...dismissing many of us as "snake-oil salesmen "and some other colorful descriptions.

It is time for usability professionals to get with the SEO program. As usability guru Jakob Nielsen & information-architecture guru Peter Morville have said, people can't use what they can't find.

Here are two of my biggest beefs with many usability professionals.

In This Article

Keywords are important – so stop eliminating them!

When I read usability professionals’ reports, I often see a common mistake that many journalists and public relations (PR) professionals make: they take the keywords off of the page. After I put them in.

And believe me, keyword stuffing and hidden text have never been my optimization strategies.

In addition, I’m someone who actually conducts usability tests before presenting reports and recommendations to clients.

It is frustrating for me to see usability professionals take important keywords off of a page. I am sure many of my colleagues feel the same way.

SEO professionals “get” fundamental concepts that many usability professionals do not seem to grasp easily:

  • Keywords on landing page. When searchers click on a link from a search engine results page (SERP) to a website, they expect to see those keywords on the landing page.
  • Aboutness of content. The landing page content should appear somewhat focused on those very keywords. If not? Then searchers tend to abandon the web page.
  • Decreased findability. When usability professionals take important keywords off of a web page, they are making it more difficult for users to find their desired information via both retrieval and browsing.
  • Site search engines. After removing important keywords, many usability professionals moan and groan about how poor site search engine results are. Surely, the site search engine is not programmed well. How do you expect a site search engine to deliver accurate results when usability professionals keep taking keywords off of the web page?
  • Meta-tags. Meta-tag content is not the “magic” solution for findability. It hasn’t been the “magic” solution for many, many years for web search.

Searchers need to see important keywords on a web page. When users scan web pages, they (a) stop when they locate their desired keywords, and (b) read content in greater detail.

I am certainly not saying that lack of keyword focus is the only reason site search engine results are not accurate. But the lack of keyword focus is part of the problem.

Usability professionals, stop eliminating important keywords.

Using a common SEO and usability vocabulary

For both usability and SEO professionals to understand each other, we must use a common vocabulary. Both SEO and usability professionals are equally guilty of using industry jargon, in spite of our mantra to “use the users’ language.”

For example, in one of my recent articles, I commented on how SEO professionals’ interpretation of the phrase “information architecture” is nowhere near what a usability professional or an information architect might use.

Search engine optimizers tend to use the phrase "site architecture" or "technical architecture." They use these phrases as synonyms. Unfortunately, many SEO pros skip the information architecture phase of a website altogether.

Because of the different interpretations of this phrase, one can easily see why communication among these groups of professionals can be problematic. SEOs think information architecture is one thing. Information architects think it is another.

For example, during recent client consultation, I discovered a major source of miscommunication between a technical SEO and a website usability professional. The usability professional did not know how to code or program web pages. He kept referring to a title and a caption when he really should have said, 'An h1-formatted headline with a supporting subject tagline."

I understand that usability pros might not know the difference between a title tag and a heading. They might not know what a CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) layer is. The word “menu” has multiple meanings...depending on context.

SEOs and usability pros cannot expect to communicate effectively until we establish a common vocabulary and a common frame of reference.

Why don’t website usability professionals know the parts of a web page? I am certainly not saying that website usability professionals should know how to code and program an entire website. But I at least would expect them to understand the parts of a web page.

Heck, I even know some SEO professionals that do not know the parts of a web page.

That is not my point. We cannot expect to communicate with each other unless we establish a common vocabulary and a common frame of reference.

Both SEO and usability professionals have the same goal for a website—achieving business goals through a positive user experience. To me, it seems odd that we are all on the same team but are playing different games with different rules… expecting the website and users to win.

How can anyone win when no one knows the rules?

This is my plea to usability professionals. Quit writing search engine optimizers off as snake-oil salesmen. I will admit that some people in our industry are snake-oil salesmen. But not all of us are.

Many of us are genuinely trying to improve the user experience. Open your ears and your minds, usability professionals...and even academics. You will find that we are all playing for the same team.

This article originally appeared in Search Engine Land. It has been updated since its original publication.

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