Does Website UX Matter for SEO?

In the past, in another life, I argued that SEO was simply just good UX (user experience). This was a massive oversimplification of what SEO really involves, and I admit I was naive and not very learned in the art of technical SEO.

Well, now I work for Karl Hindle, a world-class SEO, and I have a newfound appreciation for what goes into SEO. So, let’s reframe and update my earlier argument to make it more accurate…

SEO is more than just good UX, but good UX will help with your SEO efforts. I will explain but first I want to establish a baseline of what I mean by user experience or UX.

What Is User Experience or UX?

For years I have been using a UX definition given to me by my friend and UX guru (I don’t use this word lightly), Joe Natoli. I don’t continue to use it just because I like Joe, I use it because I think it effectively illustrates why UX is important to marketers and business owners.

OK, enough preamble, here’s his definition…

“UX isn’t just about users; it’s really a value loop in three parts:

    1. The person using the website has to perceive that it’s valuable to them.
    2. That perception has to be validated through use. Proof equals trust, which means they use and/or purchase.
    3. When both things happen, value comes back to the business/creator: increased market share, customer loyalty, money made, or money saved.”

For the purposes of this post, I am finally going to pick apart this definition, in a good way. It is the perfect setup for showing you where UX and SEO intersect.

Specifically, we are going to dig deeper into these elements from Joe’s definition…

  1. Perceived website value
  2. Proof equals trust
  3. Increased market share
  4. Customer loyalty

Perceived Website Value and Its Impact on SEO

What is perceived value? We could say that maybe the user “likes” the website but that doesn’t say much. Instead, I think what Joe is trying to say here is that the user sees the website and wants to use it.

Of course, this can get pretty subjective and that’s not the point of this post. Remember, we’re talking about SEO here, and what is the point of SEO? To rank well in the SERPs (search engine results pages).

Google has said time and time again through forums, in interviews, in their patents, in their search quality guidelines, etc. that the quality of your website affects its rankings.

What does that mean? Well, a quality website, according to Google means…

  1. The website is easy to use on all devices (responsive design mostly)
  2. It loads quickly
  3. It is coded properly such that Google is able to effectively ascertain the quality of the site, i.e. on-site SEO
  4. The website is easy to navigate, i.e. how long it takes for a user to find what they need
  5. It has to have useful content
  6. It has authority, and other websites with authority are linking to it

Of course, there are 1,000 other signals, but we don’t have that kind of time. The point I’m making here is that perceived value is about more than just a nice design and good content. It’s about the overall experience.

Google is increasingly trying to avoid directing its users to websites that suck because UX matters to them as well. So, not only do you need to show the user that the website has value, but you also need to prove this to Google.

You can do this by making sure your website uses responsive design, it loads quickly (like ludicrous speed), is easy to use in terms of finding information and taking action, has useful content (this could even mean entertaining if that’s what the user wants), and other websites with authority link to it.

Proof Equals Trust

Everyone needs validation, some require it daily, even hourly. Don’t believe me? Go talk to an Instagram influencer. “Guys, please like and share!” Sorry.

Anyway, website users need validation as well. They need proof that they are on the right website. They need proof that this website will give them what they’re looking for.

How do they get this proof? Proof comes in a few forms…

  1. The website has a pleasing design that is on-brand, appropriate for the audience, and reinforces the messaging and site purpose.
  2. Users are able to find what they need. If it’s an eCommerce website, for example, proof comes at the end of the buying experience. They find the product they wanted, were able to purchase it easily, and have a clear understanding of what happens post-purchase.
  3. The website provides answers to the questions that motivated them to go into Google and perform a search. These answers can come from blog posts, videos, white papers, etc.
  4. This all happens with as little friction as possible.

When your website achieves this for a user, that user begins to trust it. They begin to trust you because you’ve solved whatever problem they had that lead them to your website.

Proof and Trust for Google

So, again, how does this affect SEO? Well, Google wants proof too. Proof for Google will come from watching how the website is used and what certain external signals are telling them about the site.

Here’s what I mean…

  1. Google will look at things like time on site, bounce rate, and exit pages. They want to see what happens AFTER someone clicks on a link in the SERP. Did that user find what they needed? Was the website valuable to the user? Did they really USE it?
  2. Google also wants to know what other “people” think of your website. What are other sites saying about your website? Are there social recommendations for your site? What about reviews? Is the site/company/organization getting good reviews on Google and on other sources?

Google will rank a site based on these and other factors. So, if you focus on providing the proof to your users AND Google, you, in theory, will rank well.

This is a major point of demarcation from my previous argument. SEO efforts outside of onsite will go a long way towards giving Google the proof they need that your website is of value and deserves a favorable listing.

To all my SEO friends, I am sorry. 🙂

So, with all this proof, what are the benefits to you as the website owner?

Increased Market Share

Proof equals trust. Trust leads to increased market share. How? As users get proof that your website has value to them, they will trust that they can get value with each subsequent visit.

And we all know what happens when someone finds something of value that they trust. They talk about it. They feel compelled to share the experience. This can come in the form of a tweet, a review, a recommendation on Facebook, etc.

As your website proves to more and more people that they can trust that they’ll have a positive experience, it will get more attention. This attention builds traffic.

I love it when people say that word of mouth is “old school.” Sure, word of mouth is the oldest form of marketing, but it’s also the most effective. Why? Trust. People trust the recommendations from people they know over any other form of marketing.

Proof, Trust, Increased Market Share, and SEO

So, how do trust and increased market share affect your SEO? I think you’re seeing the pattern here, but let me make an analogy.

You need a plumber. So, you go on Facebook or whatever and ask for recommendations. You trust some of those recommendations because you trust the source. Why are those people making those recommendations? Because they’ve seen the proof themselves.

So, now Google is trying to figure out who to list when someone searches for “Plumbers in Frederick, MD” (that’s where I live). Google certainly isn’t going to go on Facebook and ask for recommendations. But…

They do look for digital recommendations. They look at reviews. The algorithms are constantly looking for signals of quality. These can be any or all of the following…

  • Backlinks from trusted websites
  • Reviews on Google Reviews and from other sources
  • Social signals

The more “proof” and “trust” your website earns, the more market share (rankings and qualified traffic) it will earn. Which leads us to…

Customer Loyalty

Customer loyalty is a simple concept. People keep coming back. They believe in you and support you. Their experience is validated continuously and they show their appreciation with loyalty.

But here’s the problem. Brands used to be able to rely heavily on “brand loyalty” in the past. You either drank Coke or you drank Pepsi. Nowadays consumers are constantly questioning a brand’s value.

We are all increasingly fickle. Marketing to the fickle is a pain in the…

So, we are constantly tasked with earning trust and maintaining customer loyalty. Some brands will do this politically by taking a firm stand on an issue. Think Nike.

Some brands will constantly work to improve the user experience like Disney. For a small business or organization, this isn’t as easy. But, if you focus on the UX, you have a much better chance of keeping the “value loop” that Joe Natoli talked about in motion.

The Value Loop in SEO

If you think people are fickle, try an algorithm. Google is constantly changing and making updates to their algorithms. One, to improve their own user experience, and two, to make sure fewer websites are able to game the system.

SEO used to be simple. You added in some tags and boom, you got listings. We are light years beyond this. An SEO (someone who handles SEO for a website) has to…

  • Optimize the site, but not over-optimize it
  • Build links, but not in any sort of shady way
  • Constantly be reviewing signals and updates from Google
  • Be ready to act on a moment’s notice if a Google change has affected the website

So, the value loop in SEO is basically a conversation between Google and your SEO provider. Google says “you must do this” and the SEO says, “it is done.” And then Google says “we’ll be the judge of that.”

The burden of proof is always on the website to show Google that it still offers value to users. Sound familiar? It’s UX. The burden of proof is also on the website to show the user that it still offers value.

That’s the SEO value loop.

UX and SEO

So, is SEO simply good UX? Not entirely. Does good UX help SEO? Usually.

Can SEO be looked at as a “value loop?” Absolutely.

  1. Perceived website value – the user AND Google need signals that the website offers value and a quality user experience.
  2. Proof equals trust – if that value is proven through use, the user AND Google will bestow upon the website a certain level of trust.
  3. Increased market share – trust leads to recommendations, positive use, and continued usage; these will signal to users AND Google that the site deserves more market share.
  4. Customer loyalty – a history of proof with the previous three equals customer loyalty as well as consistent rankings.

This is why any good SEO should be talking about UX as much as they talk about keywords. SEO is so much more than just good UX though. It’s an ongoing conversation with Google, with your customers, and with the community.

SEO requires a serious amount of work. So, I’ve learned something. Have you?

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Jon-Mikel Bailey is the Chief Development and Marketing Officer for Wellspring Digital, a full-service digital marketing firm specializing in SEO, PPC, Marketing Automation, and Content Marketing. He has been published in MarketingProfs, Business2Community, SpinSucks, {Grow}, Social Media Today, and more. He has spoken at the Digital Summit Series, MarketingProfs, ITE, Grant Thornton, and others.

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