Usability and SEO

Monday, July 23, 2007
Posted by Jim Hedger @ 4:24 pm

The topic of Usability and SEO has come up again, this time in an exchange between Usability expert Kim Krause Berg and the social content network Sphinn. A post titled, “Search Engine Marketing is Bogus for Sites that Simply Don’t Function“, prompted Sphinn to create a specific category for Usability related articles.

Kim has talked and written about Usability for years. She is one of a dozen or so recognized experts in the field and runs the popular discussion forum Cre8asite. While saying there was no place for her in a community made up primarily of her peers might seem a bit dramatic, Kim has consistently lobbied the search marketing sector to take usability issues as seriously as they take the latest fluctuations of Google PageRank values.

Usability, which is far more important than PageRank rarely generates the degree of discussion it deserves. It is certainly an important facet of overall website marketing and an enormous consideration for good SEOs.
SEO can be loosely defined as increasing a website’s position in organic search rankings by improving or adapting several critical elements elements of documents in and related to that site. That’s a basic definition anyway. For professional SEOs, that basic definition has evolved to include services meant to improve sales or conversions.

An old aphorism in the SEO world says, “Great placements are worthless without an attendant increase in ROI or measured conversions.” Anyone responsible for a making the most of an always meager marketing budget can agree with the wisdom behind that statement. To add another layer to it, another simple saying in the SEO world notes, “The better a site converts, the better its search engine rankings”.

There are great truths behind such sayings. Several important factors weighed by Google and Yahoo measure the credibility of individual documents by user behaviours such as time spent on site, navigational paths chosen by each visitor and the number of users performing similar, pattern-forming tasks. For instance, a document that produces a constant steam of credible traffic to products, services or information that are in-turn “used” by visitors is likely to be considered a stronger document than one that does not.

The concept of Usability has thus long been a part of the most professional of SEO services. By basic definition however, Usability services require a unique set of knowledge and skills. Understanding how spiders will best perceive a series of links and the information found therein is one thing. Knowing how to produce specific outcomes based on human behaviour is quite another. That’s why it gets to start with a capital letter, (an honourific amongst words). Usability.

Usability can be loosely defined as measuring the level of difficulty a site visitor experiences performing specific tasks on a web page or site. Sites that make it easier for visitors to get from an entry point to whatever purpose the site serves are considered more usable and generally see higher conversion rates. Sites that are harder to navigate through or to find information on are considered less usable. Again, this too is a basic definition.

Discussion about the differences between SEO and Usability come up periodically. This time however I suspect Kim has successfully lobbied a lot more respect for Usability as a unique discipline in the spectrum of services known as search engine marketing. Overall, that is a good thing for the SEO sector.


  1. Great article Jim. I agree with what Kim says about usability. Seo becomes irrelevant if a visitor does not know what to do when they arrive at a site. It is important for a site to have good search engine rankings but at the same time be user friendly. I think that is also another good word for usability, how user friendly is a site.
    Keep up the good work Jim, your one of the best writers in the topic of SEO in my opinion.

    Comment by Benjamin — Tuesday, July 24, 2007 @ 11:11 am

  2. :) thanks Benjamin

    Comment by Jim Hedger — Tuesday, July 24, 2007 @ 3:31 pm

  3. This is great Jim. I’m often being asked to justify the point of Usability as against (for example) SEO; I wasn’t aware of the ‘virtuous circle’ nature of the relationship, in the Usability helps rankings as well as conversions.

    I wrote an entry on my blog about it here:

    Comment by Marcel Kornblum — Wednesday, July 25, 2007 @ 11:56 pm

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