Thomas Kloos runs an SEO agency in Vienna, Austria, with a heavy focus on international projects and a strong client base in the US. He’s been doing SEO for 15 years and is still as excited today as his first day. In this article, Thomas explains that with Google focusing more on UX, finding out what your users really want and giving it to them is the key to SEO success.
SEO and UX have the same goals: to make websites better. To make content accessible and a pleasure to consume. Ultimately, to make users happy.
This pretty much aligns with what Google is looking for when ranking pages. They too want their users to be happy with the search results. Think of Google as a dating service that wants to match users with the perfect results, have them click on it, and stay there. Few things are worse for Google than users clicking on a match and returning to the search results page within seconds via the browser’s back button.
Unlike with dating services, where we mostly look for one match and ideally stay with that match for some time, Google has a huge advantage. We don’t just have one question. So, we keep coming back to the best matchmaker in town.
How does UX affect SEO?
A good user experience is one of the most powerful ways to positively affect SEO rankings. Good UX will give us an edge over the competition.
Good content and strong backlinks are the prerequisites to get users onto page 1. Once there, UX kicks in and becomes a major factor.
Google closely monitors the way people interact with your website and how happy they are with your answer to their question. If your page satisfies the user intent, it will rise in position and can even outrank a potentially stronger competitor. On the other hand, if Google sees a lot of bounce-backs or other indicators of unsatisfied users, your page will very quickly lose rankings and can even be demoted to page 2.
Two areas where UX won’t impact rankings
As with all things, there are some exceptions:
- Good content still wins. Google won’t rank a page with great design and fantastic UX higher than a page that ultimately has the better content, even if it’s slow or has other usability issues.
- When it comes to brands, Google will still rank the correct brand, regardless of the UX on the brand’s website. When you search for a Tesla, Google won’t show you a BMW, just because their website has a higher UX score.
What does a good user experience look like?
In theory, the formula for good UX is quite simple:
- Give users the best—or at least a very good—answer to their question.
- Do so quickly (people don’t like to wait for stuff. Least of all for elements to appear in a browser window).
- And do it in a format that can be consumed on any screen.
Give the best answer: Content creation for SEO and UX
What is “good” content for SEO?
Google has come a long way from matching users’ queries to keywords on a page. They are now matching queries to answers, rather than just to words on a page.
In February 2021, Google rolled out an innovation that has made our focus on quality content even more important. It’s called Google Passage Ranking and really is a genius improvement. Through natural language processing, Google has become so good at understanding the content of a page that they don’t only rank the page; they rank the exact passage on the page that gives the best answer to the users’ question. In terms of SEO, this has huge implications on the way we produce content.
For SEO, a very effective strategy has always been to create a separate landing page for each set of search queries (or search intent). That way, we can put all our important keywords in the title tag, H1 headline, and other crucial positions. The content can be highly optimized for that very set of queries.
With Google Passage Ranking this strategy is no longer as valid as it used to be. Of course, it still works well in certain areas. But in general, it has become better to create comprehensive pieces of content, covering all possible angles and questions around a particular topic.
This approach gives us a clear advantage with rankings for general questions around the topic. For general queries, long-form content has always performed better than short, specific content. Now, however, we can combine this advantage with good rankings for specific questions. Google will find and rank the relevant sections of our content just as well as was the case with shorter and more specific pages in the past.
Choose the right format for your content
Once you’ve figured out the intent behind a search query, it’s time to create content that satisfies this intent. Often, this content will take the form of text. But we need to think beyond just text.
Sometimes the best answer to a question is a picture or infographic. Some questions—for example “how to” questions, like “how to clean a bicycle chain”—are best answered in the form of a short video. Other search queries, like “investment tips,” could be best satisfied with a podcast, through which you can deliver fresh information at regular intervals.
The packaging should never be more important than the actual content. But in the case of SEO, it does play a key role and should be carefully considered. You’ll find proof of that in the search results of Google. For many queries, Google will not just list 10 blue links with two lines of a text underneath each of them. Instead, Google has a very good understanding of what’s the most useful format for a particular search query and then ranks that on top of the search results.
If Google ranks a video snippet on top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) for the keywords you are aiming to rank for, it’s probably a good idea for you to consider creating video content.
Focus on the user, not on yourself
This point is really more for good UX than for good SEO. But as it should be clear by now, those two are intertwined. Avoid writing about yourself and how you provide the best product or service. Rather, focus on what the user needs and how your product or service is going to solve their problems, make them feel better, or improve their lives.
Make them see themselves. That’s much more important than making them see you.
Give the answer quickly: Page speed matters
Now that we’ve created killer content in just the right format, it’s time to deliver it to the users. While there are many things to consider here, one stands out as having a huge impact on user satisfaction: speed. Unless you have a website for a slow food restaurant and cater to people who like to wait for stuff, do whatever you can to deliver your content as quickly as possible.
What is the effect of page speed on UX?
Nobody likes to wait. Least of all for elements to load on a screen. The longer users must wait for a page to load, the more likely they are to abort the session and find information elsewhere.
Page speed also has a direct effect on the conversion rate. Many e-commerce sites from Amazon down perform large scale tests on how improving their page speed even minimally increases their conversion rate. Walmart found that for every 1 second improvement in page load time, conversions increased by 2%.
You don’t have to be Walmart for that to add up to quite a considerable revenue gain.
Why is page speed so important for SEO?
Google has officially integrated Core Web Vitals as a ranking factor into their algorithm. Page speed has been an important UX factor, and thus an important factor for SEO, for several years. However, “page speed” has been somewhat of a vague measure. Now, with the definition of the three Core Web Vitals, it has become well-defined and can thus be measured and improved by webmasters.
The Core Web Vitals consist of three metrics:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): This measures the time it takes for the largest content element on any given page to load. The LCP reflects the perceived page speed.
- First Input Delay (FID): This is a metric for the interactivity of a page and measures the time lag between an action taken by the user, such as clicking on a button, and the reaction of the page.
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): The CLS measures how many elements move while the page loads, and how far they shift. It’s an indicator of the visual stability of a page during the rendering process.
Thanks to the Core Web Vitals, we finally have information on what Google looks at when analyzing the speed of a page. The three best tools to see the score are Google Search Console, Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool, and Lighthouse in the Chrome DevTools.
Everyone with a website should look at these metrics and take any problems in this area very seriously.
Faster pages make more money. Slower pages lose money. It’s as simple as that.
Make sure everybody can consume your content: Responsive design
Now that we’ve delivered great content to our target audience at lightning speed, we have to cover one more base: make sure users can consume the content on any device they use. It’s not about how you want your website to be seen. It’s about how your customers actually see it. The technology they use dictates the design and build of your website.
Know your users and what devices they use
Not everybody uses the latest MacBook Pro when visiting your website. They may not get the same experience of colors, thin lines, shades, and crisp icons as you do. Any designer who gives a presentation of their design on a large external monitor, or even worse, on a beamer, will have a painful first-hand experience of this fact. The elegant-looking grey box you used to highlight important content elements will suddenly disappear into thin air.
The same holds true for screen size. Computers, tablets, and smartphones come in a multitude of shapes, dimensions, and resolutions.
Check your analytics data to see what devices your target audience use and then create a responsive design that caters to all of them.
UX design is not about winning a design award from a jury using MacBook Pros. It’s about delivering your content in a way that makes it easy to consume by a large majority of your users.
The percentage of mobile users varies according to the topic and the target audience, but it’s rarely below 50%. Often we see a mobile share of 60-70%. So naturally, catering to this large group is important.
However, there is another reason to take mobile very seriously: Google enabled mobile-first indexing back in 2019. Since then, Google primarily crawls and indexes the web with a smartphone agent. This means that if you hide elements or whole pieces of content for mobile users, you’re effectively hiding them from Google as well.
Ways to measure website engagement
You can’t optimize if you don’t have any data to base your decisions on. Here are a few things that you can look at in addition to the standard metrics shown in Google Analytics that will give you a good idea of how people engage with your site. Segment this by device and you’ll quickly see if, and where, there is a problem and room for improvement.
Scroll depth: Do people consume your content?
Measuring how far people scroll down on your pages is a good indicator for content engagement. Set individual triggers at 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% and save them as custom metrics in Google Analytics. That way you can look at the average scroll depth per device and find out if people are actually looking at your content. If not, you can analyze why and fix it.
Visibility trigger: Do people look at what you want them to see?
A simple page view doesn’t tell you anything. Somebody could have opened your site in a new browser tab and never got around to looking at it. A two-second visit followed by a click on the back button is a page view.
What we are interested in is not page views, but if people look at the important elements on our pages, like calls to actions (CTAs) or special offerings.
An elegant way to do that is by creating element visibility triggers in Google Tag Manager. You can, for example, count every time somebody sees a certain CTA and then work with that data in Google Analytics.
Engagement: See if people do what you want them to do
This is especially important if you have any kind of form on your website. You want to know how people engage with the form, which fields they fill out before abandoning the process, or which ones they click in and out of. Then you can find the reasons for this behavior and optimize towards better engagement. Maybe you’re asking for too much information? Or maybe the form doesn’t work well on every device?
Knowing as much as possible about the visitors to your website is very important. Acting on that information is even more important.
Design for your customers’ environment, so they see what you intended them to see.
Conclusion: Make your users happy
UX and SEO have become inseparable. That’s a good development. It’s never made much sense to implement measures purely for the sake of SEO. That’s not a good user experience. With Google focusing more on UX, this has—or the most part—become a thing of the past.
Finding out what your users really want and giving it to them is the key to success with SEO.
It sounds simple, but it involves a lot of research, analytical thinking, experience, creativity, and empathy to understand users’ needs and to create just the right kind of content for them. And it takes highly skilled professionals to package that content in a way that makes it a pleasure to consume.
But it’s worth it.
Make your users happy.
They will thank you for it. And so will Google.