The Symbiosis of SEO & UX

SEO has evolved over time, with a shift towards user-centricity and accessibility. SEO best practices, UX strategy and accessibility are interconnected and mutually beneficial. Website structure, content optimization, mobile-friendliness, page loading speed and accessibility features all impact SEO, UX and accessibility. Voice search, which accounts for approximately 50% of searches, is closely related to SEO and accessibility, requiring optimization for natural language queries.

Search engine optimization (SEO) has technically evolved a lot since its invention in the mid-1990’s. But the spirit of SEO has largely remained the same: helping people find the information that’s most relevant to what they’re looking for.

SEO has become a critical aspect of online marketing and web development, with businesses and website owners worldwide investing in SEO to improve their organic search rankings, drive traffic and increase online visibility.

As technologies advance and user behavior changes, search engines must continually update their algorithms and guidelines to ensure search results stay relevant. For professionals in the fields of SEO, digital content, website design, UX strategy and digital marketing, this means they must adapt how work is done to changes in the search algorithms.

What does User Experience (UX) have to do with SEO?

The concept of user-centricity has gradually become a more significant factor in search engine ranking algorithms over time. While search engines initially focused on factors such as keyword relevance and website authority, they have evolved to prioritize user experience and engagement as important signals for determining search rankings.

Here's a brief timeline of how user-centricity has been factored into search engine ranking algorithms:

  1. Late 1990s to early 2000s: Early search engines like Yahoo! and AltaVista relied primarily on keyword matching and website authority to rank web pages. There was little emphasis on user experience or engagement metrics.
  2. Early to mid-2000s: Google emerged as a dominant search engine with its PageRank algorithm, which considered the authority and popularity of websites based on the number and quality of incoming links. However, Google also started incorporating user-centric factors such as click-through rates (CTR), bounce rates and time spent on page as indicators of user engagement and relevance.
  3. Mid-2000s to early 2010s: Google introduced various algorithm updates such as "Panda" and "Penguin," which aimed to penalize low-quality content and spammy practices, and reward high-quality, user-friendly websites. These updates emphasized factors like website usability, content quality and engagement metrics as important signals for ranking.
  4. Late 2010s to present: Google's algorithm updates continued to focus on user-centricity, with a strong emphasis on factors like mobile-friendliness, site speed, and user experience on mobile devices. Google also introduced the "RankBrain" algorithm, which uses machine learning to better understand user intent and deliver more relevant search results.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) best practices, UX strategy and accessibility are interconnected and mutually beneficial. By following SEO best practices that prioritize user experience and accessibility, websites can not only improve their search engine rankings but also create inclusive and user-friendly experiences for all users.

Here are some ways in which SEO best practices intersect with UX strategy and accessibility:

  1. Website structure and navigation: SEO best practices often emphasize the importance of having a well-organized website structure and navigation that allows search engines to easily crawl and index content. This not only helps with SEO, but also enhances UX and accessibility by making it easy for users, including those with disabilities who may use screen readers, to navigate and find relevant information on the website.
  2. Content optimization: SEO best practices often involve optimizing website content with relevant keywords, meta tags, and headings. However, this optimization should also take into consideration UX and accessibility. Content should be written in a way that is easy to read and understand for users, including those with cognitive disabilities. Additionally, using alternative text (alt text) for images and providing transcripts for videos and audio content can improve accessibility for users who rely on screen readers.
  3. Mobile-friendliness: With the increasing use of mobile devices to access websites, mobile-friendliness has become a crucial factor in SEO. It is also essential for UX and accessibility. A responsive web design that adapts to different screen sizes and devices provides a seamless experience for users, regardless of the device they are using. This is particularly important for users with disabilities who may rely on mobile devices with accessibility features.
  4. Page loading speed: Page loading speed is an important SEO factor that also impacts UX and accessibility. Slow-loading pages can negatively affect SEO rankings and lead to a poor user experience, especially for users with slower internet connections or disabilities that may impact their browsing speed. Optimizing images, minimizing code and leveraging caching and content delivery networks (CDNs) are some techniques that can improve page loading speed and enhance UX and accessibility.
  5. Accessibility features: SEO best practices also align with accessibility guidelines such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Implementing accessibility features, such as using proper HTML markup, providing alternative text for images, using descriptive link text and ensuring proper color contrast not only improves accessibility for users with disabilities but also signals to search engines that the website is user-friendly and relevant.

How is voice search related to SEO?

Voice search gets its own section because, as of 2023, it was estimated to account for approximately 50% of all searches, with expected growth in coming years as more people adopt voice-enabled devices such as smartphones, smart speakers and virtual assistants. Due to its popularity, voice search is important for companies to consider when creating SEO and accessibility strategies.

What is voice search?

Voice search is a type of search where users speak their queries aloud instead of typing them into a search engine. Voice search is closely related to SEO and accessibility because it impacts how websites are optimized for search engines and how users with disabilities interact with search results.

Here's how voice search intersects with SEO and accessibility:

  1. Natural language queries: Voice search queries are typically longer and more conversational in nature compared to text-based queries. This means that websites need to optimize their content to align with the natural language used in voice queries. SEO best practices, such as using long-tail keywords and answering questions directly in content can help websites rank higher in voice search results and improve accessibility for users who rely on voice search due to disabilities that may affect their typing ability.
  2. Featured snippets: Voice search often relies on featured snippets, which are concise answers displayed at the top of search results. Websites that optimize their content to provide clear and concise answers to frequently asked questions are more likely to be featured in voice search results, improving their SEO and accessibility.
  3. Local search: Voice search is commonly used for local search queries such as finding nearby businesses or getting directions. Optimizing websites for local SEO, including having accurate business information and location data, can help websites rank higher in voice search.
  4. Accessibility considerations: Voice search can be an important accessibility tool for users with disabilities that affect their ability to type. By optimizing websites for voice search, websites can become more accessible to these users, allowing them to interact with search engines and access information more easily.

The silver bullet myth

Factors that impact SEO go all the way up and down the chain, contributing to a site's real world street cred over any silver bullet an ‘SEO guy’ can provide.

How companies can improve their SEO, in our opinion: The Silver Bullet myth

"We're going to have to get comfortable in a world where the ranking factors are indirectly influenceable, not directly influenceable," MOZ co-founder Rand Fishkin once said. He went on to say that organizations need to start thinking holistically when it comes to SEO and realize that other activities not influenceable by a SEO service provider impact user engagement.

And this is where we get philosophical about SEO.

While it is true that SEO can be a set of tasks you can do to improve a website’s ranking, it’s is so much more than that.

Every interaction a guest has with a company’s website contributes to that website’s ranking in some way. Every day, millions of customer experiences are taking place - in person, over the phone, by mail and online. From there, the guests make a series of decisions based on their previous interaction. Below are examples of some of the possible outcomes. Keep in mind, the outcomes are multiplied by potentially millions of people engaging in behaviors that the search engines perceive and use in their rankings:

  • Customer service experience: How was the customer service? If good, this customer may become a repeat shopper, repeat visitor and may write positive reviews in the UGC, contributing to positive ranking factors. If customer experience was poor, the customer may drop off, may not visit the website again and may write negative reviews, not contributing to ranking factors (or even contributing negatively).
  • Product offering/market appeal: What incentives are you offering the customer? Maybe customer service is great but the service offerings or products don’t meet the customer's needs. This is why it’s so important for CX teams to collaborate with those responsible for website content. Old-fashioned customer feedback, market research, focus groups and other methods of gathering customer feedback can reveal opportunities for customer satisfaction improvements.
  • Marketing activity: Marketing campaigns and programs like email and paid search ads are very effective ways to drive traffic to a website. After a campaign goes out and the guests start rolling in, search engines will see the increase in direct loads and use it in their algorithm. By increasing the number of direct loads, search rankings are likely to improve. Google’s algorithm prefers websites with more direct loads because it indicates a high level of brand awareness.

These are just a few examples of why we view SEO as a holistic, cross-functional strategy executive leaders should pay close attention to.

What does user experience have to do with SEO?

When viewed through the lens of SEO, the outcome of user experience quality is determined both technically (by search engines) and humanly (by people).

From the perspective of Google’s algorithm, how well the average user is able to navigate on a website is determined by how the website is built. Mobile-friendly websites that are responsive, content using semantic markup and the presence of certain meta data tags that support assistive technology (accessibility) are just a few examples of how search engine technology “judges” a website’s soundness as a legitimate option its users will want to visit.

In short, the same rules that apply to good business will also contribute to improved search ranking.

Can people still game the system?

Search engine algorithms are imperfect and will always be prone to SEO 'tricks'. For example, user generated content (ratings and reviews) is among Google's list of ranking factors. To gain from this, companies run campaigns to get 'likes’ and user engagement.  While most companies approach social sharing in a legitimate way, some have been shown to regularly employ fake ratings and reviews for the purpose of boosting their website authority.  According to an investigation by CBC News, as many as 15 percent of online reviews may be fake.  Now, Google will need to figure out a way to update its algorithms to weed out these fake reviews companies are paying people to write.

It is an ongoing struggle, which is why Google continues to release updates to its software to adapt to changes in how people use search.

What is SEO?

Other terms that are closely related to what we now think of as SEO include ‘Natural Search’ or ‘Organic Search’. Organic traffic or natural search traffic simply refers to all the website traffic that comes from people clicking on your listing after ‘Googling’ something.

Search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo and others use algorithms to judge content in three primary areas: relevance, substance and trustworthiness.

Whereas ‘black hat’ SEO used to be a lucrative way to attract customers, ‘white hat’ SEO has always been, and remains a valid way in which websites can increase visibility while retaining credibility.

SEO and bounce rate

Your web content must be relevant to visitors. One way to determine whether your website has what visitors are looking for is to look at the bounce rate. If the bounce rate for a page is above 40%, you may need to conduct some user testing and refresh the content to offer visitors what they’re looking for.

Key Takeaway

Any written content on your website is valuable if it speaks to your visitors and helps identify your site to search engines.  Optimized content works twice as hard at increasing site visitors because it has more power the longer it is there. Identifying target keywords and creating engaging new content will help increase your search rankings.  But web content alone will not get you to page one.