The Interplay Between SEO and User Experience (UX)

Eryck Dzotsi, Head of SEO, Merkle

SEO and UX are typically handled by different teams and thought of as separate initiatives. At a surface level, it makes sense; one focuses on ensuring discoverability on search engines, while the other works to build a site that provides engaging, relevant content to users. However, thinking about SEO and UX efforts in silos is a critical misstep that can cause headaches for customers, SEOs, and UX professionals alike. SEO and UX are closely intertwined and collaboration across those teams is paramount in creating a seamless experience for customers throughout their purchasing journey.

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SEO and UX both play key roles in the customer experience

As a search-based channel, organic listings surfaced through SEO are part of the customer journey and oftentimes a user’s first interaction with a brand. The information communicated through an organic listing creates expectations for the searcher, and the experience on the resulting landing page must match those expectations to keep the customer engaged.

There is also significant overlap in the elements that impact SEO ranking and UX, and what’s optimal for one might not always be best for the other. A visually rich page loaded with high resolution photos or videos might provide an exciting user experience but drag down SEO rankings due to slow page load. Keyword-rich header tags, title tags, and image tags are critical for SEO, but might lack the wit or flourish to convey a brand’s identity. It is also important to mention the strong connection between how a page is designed for UX and how it’s optimized for SEO, making it critical for teams to work together to build a site that balances the needs of both. For example, a page may be built with a lot of images, a lot of java scripts, an rich media to have a visually exhilarating experience with very little text and tagging. This rich experience will struggle to perform in the search engines.

The risks of SEO and UX operating in silos

The ultimate risk of SEO and UX not working in harmony is loss of revenue and customers. You end up with a beautifully designed page that no one can find or a discoverable page that doesn’t resonate with users, neither of which is good for capturing new customers and driving sales.

In a business-as-usual state, SEO and UX teams should work together closely to ensure that SEO factors do not destroy the experience and vice versa. This can be especially challenging for elements that are visible on-site. The H1 tag, for example, is an area of divide between SEO and UX. It is prominent on every page and needs to serve both the engine crawler and the end user. How can marketers prioritize which piece is more important on a particular page? Marketing language can exist in tandem with an optimized H1.

Prioritization to resolve this type of conflict should be a data-driven decision based on performance and site traffic. What are the highest-trafficked pages, and where do those pages fit within a customer’s shopping journey? If a page is more informational and falls earlier in a customer’s journey, then a case can be made where site experience may take priority over SEO. If a page is more conversion-focused and later in the customer journey, SEO discoverability might be more important in some cases. Understanding the customer journey and goals for the SEO program allow the UX team to build the right experience.

It’s also critical for UX and SEO teams to collaborate closely during a site re-platform. Site re-platforms can cause double digit drops in SEO visits for several months if done in a bubble. Part of that drop is unavoidable as search engines re-learn the site, but part of it can be avoided by ensuring that the new platform’s content closely matches that of the old platform on the critically performing assets and that the newly added assets carry the right optimization as well as fit well in the overall website optimization and internal linking strategies. Before the site goes live, SEO teams can run a pre-launch audit which includes quality control measures to ensure all SEO best practices have been followed in addition to a content gap analysis to identify any areas of opportunity and expedite the recovery of SEO performance post-transition.

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Fundamental concepts SEOs should know about UX

While SEOs don’t need to be experts in UX, they should be well-versed in the fundamentals. As a demand-capture channel, engagement with organic listings is initiated by the user so creating a good experience is especially important. SEOs should understand several concepts, including:

  • The visual interpretation of some of the SEO recommendations. For example, the H1 tag which is one of the most relevant on-page tags, is also the strongest font visually on the page.
  • How to use text on the page that doesn’t disrupt the user experience but is strong enough to semantically sustain search efforts.
  • Site architecture allows UX to organize the content but it also drives content discoverability, crawlability, and internal linking in SEO.
  • How to strike a balance between text and other content elements to make sure the content leads to conversion and does not create a bounce.
  • Speed is not only a ranking factor, but Pagespeed is a critical part of the experience users encounter on a website. In fact, according to a research done by Portent, conversion rates drop by 4.42% for each additional second of page load time.

SEO and UX efforts must be planned and executed collaboratively in order to drive positive results. By striking a balance between discoverability and design, brands can reach users effectively, drive them to an engaging site, and build a positive experience for the customer’s entire journey.

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