Looking to boost your UX SEO efforts? Many think of UX and SEO as unrelated entities, mainly based on their objectives, but in fact, many of the factors on which pages are ranked are related to the user’s experience.
With the knowledge available to us in 2023, I’d go as far as saying sites that don’t give users a good UX will likely be punished for it in their search rankings.
I’ve written this article to explore how SEO and UX are linked. Let’s dive right in:
- What is SEO?
- How are Google search rankings calculated?
- Can UX impact search rankings?
- Five ways to use UX for SEO
- Key takeaways
1. What is SEO?
SEO stands for search engine optimization, and it’s the process of helping a website or individual piece of content appear higher in the Google search results.
SEO differs from paid advertising because it’s purely focused on “organic” rankings—this means rankings are achieved without paying Google.
The “optimization” part of SEO consists of the steps you take to make the website or piece of content rank higher. Typically, it includes things like:
- Publishing relevant, fresh, and quality content
- Research and select relevant keywords to include in the content
- Adding alt texts and HTML tags, headers, and descriptions
- Including links to relevant internal and external content
I’ll delve into each of the above and what they mean for UX later on, but you can probably already start to see how some or most of them could lead to an improved user experience.
It’s worth saying that a lot of SEO is exclusively or almost exclusively focused on Google search results. This is understandable because—as of July 2023—Google had a 92% share of the global search engine market:
For a more in-depth piece on SEO, read our SEO Basics: The Complete Beginner’s Guide.
But now that I’ve gone over the very basics of what SEO is, I’m going to explain a bit about how Google rankings are calculated before looking at how UX can impact them.
2. How are Google search rankings calculated?
Thankfully, Google has been very open about how they calculate their rankings.
Although there’s still some mystery around the exact workings of PageRank and the other algorithms they use, they have published plenty of content around the main factors and categories they evaluate.
(If you want to learn more about the different tools and algorithms Google uses for rankings, you’ll love their documentation page A Guide to Google Search Ranking Systems.)
Ranking Results – How Google Search Works—published on the Google Search homepage—is probably the best source of information about the general categories on which they evaluate websites and content for your search results.
They mention five related categories, or “key factors in your results”, to use their exact words. They are:
1. Meaning of your query: Google uses language models to understand what users are looking for, which is known as “the intent” behind the query. These language models, which took over 5 years to develop, are also used to match users with the most useful and relevant content for them.
2. Relevance of content: Google’s systems are adept at determining the relevance of the content of billions of web pages, so users don’t have to waste time filtering out irrelevant content. As well as matching keywords in the content to the search query, they also “use aggregated and anonymized interaction data to assess whether search results are relevant to queries”.
3. Quality of content: As well as evaluating the relevance of the content, Google’s systems look for signals that demonstrate which content shows the most “expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.” A well-known aspect of this is the links to a website from other prominent ones, and aggregate feedback from their Search quality evaluation process is also used.
4. Usability of web pages: Important for UXers, Google’s systems also factor in the usability of content. They clearly cite the importance of accessibility to their calculations: “When all things are relatively equal, content that people will find more accessible may perform better.” They talk about “page experience aspects”, which include factors like mobile responsiveness, amount of ads, and findability as a part of usability. If you want more on this topic, the documentation page Understanding Google Page Experience is a great place to start.
5. Context and settings: This includes things like the location of the user, their past Search history, and their Search settings. All of these and more are used to determine what content is going to be the most relevant and useful for the user at that exact moment. Google uses the example of the different results someone searching for “football” in Chicago would see (American football and the Chicago Bears) compared to someone in London (soccer and the Premier League).
From this, it’s probably already becoming clear to you how UX can impact search results. We’ll explore that in some more detail in the next sections.
3. Can UX impact search rankings?
If you hadn’t guessed it by now, the answer is “yes”.
UX can impact search rankings in several ways. Looking at the five factors Google describes as being key to how they evaluate and rank content, three really jump out as strongly linked to UX:
- Relevance of content
- Quality of content
- Usability of web pages
Each of these factors has several aspects—some of which are overlapping and many of which are related to UX.
And to add one more thing that highlights how UX can impact SEO, just take a look at SEO Expert Neil Patel’s four tips for creating content Google respects, which are:
1. “Understand user intent: You need to know what the reader wants to accomplish when they land on your page.
2. Develop a customer persona: You also need to know who your reader is, what they like, what they dislike, and why they’re there.
3. Break up the text: People have short attention spans, and writing giant walls of text doesn’t work anymore; you need to break it up with plenty of headers and images.
4. Make it actionable: There’s nothing worse than reading a piece of content and not getting everything you need to accomplish something. Your content should be thorough, but it must also answer the question, “What now?” Will the reader have everything they need when they finish your article?”
Although they’re lifted directly from a blog about SEO strategies, these four tips are so close to UX design that your inner UXer should have been shouting out “user personas”, “user needs”, “scannability”, “CTAs”, and “user journeys” as you read them.
Now that I’ve established how Google calculates its rankings and that UX can impact these let’s look at five ways you can use UX for better SEO.
4. Five ways to use UX for SEO
It’s worth saying at this point that these five ways you can use UX for SEO shouldn’t be your entire strategy. There are other ways you can boost SEO with UX, but taken together, these make for a good starting point.
1. Create user-centered content
Creating user-centered content is both crucial to a good user experience and a key part of SEO. To create user-centered content, you need to be an advocate for the user. You need to constantly bring it back to the user to make sure the content is what they need in that specific context and location. Questions like these can help you get started:
- Where has the user come from to get to this content?
- What are they trying to achieve? (Another way of looking at this is “What’s the user’s need or problem?”)
- Can they achieve that with this content?
- Can content that isn’t relevant and doesn’t help them achieve their goal be stripped out?
- Is there unnecessary technical terminology and/or internal jargon in the content?
Answering the above questions normally takes a collaborative effort from UX research, UX design, and UX writers. It requires a deep understanding of your users, their journeys, and their needs.
But a commitment to user-centered content can produce impressive SEO results in the medium and long term, as Google will recognize and reward good quality, relevant content.
2. Create well-structured content
Going back to the “usability of web pages” factor, you can see that accessibility is often the difference between content ranking highly or not.
Accessibility comprises many things—we’ll explore more of them later— and a major one is structure. Content that is structured to be scannable is going to be both more accessible to all users and more likely to score highly on usability.
(For a deep dive into scannability, check out Scannability: The Complete UX Writer’s Guide.)
Getting your structure right is dependent on understanding your users’ needs, as mentioned in point 1. Once you’ve understood them—and subsequently decided on the key messages that need to be in your content—you can start to structure it logically to help the user quickly find what they’re looking for.
A scannable structure means using things like:
- Headings: Using heading levels like H1 (only once per page), H2, H3, etc., not only help your content to be more accessible by clearly telling readers what it’s about, but it also helps with scannability and signals to Google what the content is about, so it can easily determine its relevance.
- Put key information in the first two paragraphs: This practice—which is also known as front-loading—means the key info is much more likely to be scanned by your users. You can give them what they need early on or at least show them if they’re in the right place to find what they need. You can apply this principle to the rest of your content by putting information-carrying words at the start of sentences and paragraphs to make it more accessible.
- Short paragraphs and short sentences: Whatever the context and content, these are always better options than walls of text. Short paragraphs and sentences help users digest your content and keep their cognitive load lower. They mean there’s more white space, which supports scannability and accessibility.
- Lists: Lists can be used to simplify complex content, making it more accessible and scannable. If the order of the items in the list is important, use numbers. Otherwise, a bulleted list is fine. And, to help the structure even more, keep the items on the list short and structure them consistently, i.e., all nouns or phrases that start with a verb.
- Visuals: Including visuals like tables, images, and custom graphics (when appropriate) can help with both SEO and accessibility by giving your content more structure and making it easier to digest for a wide audience.
3. Focus on findability
Focusing on findability links back to user-centered and well-structured content. There’s no point spending weeks on user-centered content that the user can’t find in the first place.
This is why Google encourages you to self-assess your content with the question, “How easily can visitors navigate to or locate the main content of your pages?” (Source: Understanding Google Page Experience | Google Search Central | Documentation).
I don’t have space to explore findability in detail here, but it’s safe to say that getting your information architecture and navigation right, having an easy-to-use search that returns meaningful results, and creating solid on-page navigation is a great foundation.
For those of you who want to learn more on the topic, our blog A Beginner’s Guide To Information Architecture is a great starting point.
4. Create a mobile-friendly UI
Another way in which UX and SEO overlap is in the importance of mobile-friendly UIs. Google clearly cites the importance of this factor in their documentation on the “Usability of web pages”. As well as reaping SEO benefits, responsiveness contributes to a strong UX and is a key part of accessibility.
If we again look into Google’s documentation about how they evaluate and rank content, we can find guidelines about “Mobile-first Indexing Best Practices”.
This is because, in Google’s own words, they “predominantly use(s) the mobile version of a site’s content, crawled with the smartphone agent, for indexing and ranking.”
But what does this mean for you as a UX designer? Three things jumped out from the documentation as important tasks for UX designers:
- Create a mobile-friendly site
- Make sure that Google can access and render your content
- Make sure that content is the same on desktop and mobile
And I highly recommend reading the linked content on Mobile-first Indexing Best Practices for more detailed insights on how a mobile-friendly UI can boost your SEO.
5. Have fast loading times
Google is very clear that site speed and loading times are a key part of the usability of web pages, which is a high-level category they evaluate websites and content on.
As a UX designer, site speed and loading times won’t be solely your responsibility of course, but you can definitely play a role in identifying and resolving any issues that come up (in most organizations, this will be a collaborative effort with engineering).
You can check your content’s loading times on Google’s tool PageSpeed Insights and get familiar with Google’s Core Web Vitals, which is a set of metrics to measure “real-world user experience” and includes loading times and visual stability.
Now that we’ve gone through five ways you can use UX for better SEO let’s wrap things up with a few key takeaways.
The relationship between UX and SEO is now stronger than ever, and being successful as a UX designer—or as an SEO specialist for that matter—requires a solid understanding of it.
Fortunately, Google itself is quite open about how it evaluates and ranks websites and content in its search results, and from this, we can see that a lot of the key factors they look at are related to good UX.
They even go as far as saying that—if everything else is roughly equal quality-wise—the most accessible content will be ranked higher.
So, if you haven’t spent time thinking about the five key ways you can use UX for SEO—creating user-centered content, creating well-structured content, focusing on findability, having a mobile-friendly UI, and having fast loading times—today’s probably the day you should.
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