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Usability and Findability—Getting the Synergy Right

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Finding the balance between search engine optimization (SEO) and a successful user experience can be a challenge. The two strategies can conflict, and companies may mistakenly favor one over the other.

For example, one company may choose to "stuff" the same keywords into every "alt" tag in its navigation graphics. That, of course, detracts from the user experience, making the page slower to load and making the page difficult to interpret for the visually impaired who are using screen readers.

Then there are others who try to maximize usability without any concern for SEO. They choose to "Googleize" their homepage, stripping all non-essential elements out of the page and making it as simple and streamlined as Google.com's homepage.

That, unfortunately, offers very little for the search engines to sink their teeth into; that is, there are insufficient clues for the search engine to identify appropriate keyword themes for your page.

In most cases, it is your homepage that gets the most weight of all the pages on your site. So you won't want to squander that opportunity:

  • SEO, when done right, enhances the usability of the site for the user.
  • Conversely, usability, when done right, enhances the search engine findability of the site.


For example, breadcrumb navigation is a useful technique both for users and for search engines. The breadcrumb contains text links with (hopefully) relevant keywords in the anchor text:

Contrast that with using the words "click here" everywhere in the anchor text of your internal links, which is not easy for the user to interpret because the underlined words are not related to the linked pages' content. Also, search engines like Google, Yahoo, and MSN Search associate that anchor text with the page to which you are linking. So, when you use the words "click here," you are telling Google that the page to which you link is all about "click here."

When thinking through your internal hierarchical linking structure, you need to consider the impact both on users and on search engines. Your most important pages should be linked from the homepage, because that will pass a maximum amount of "link gain" (e.g., Google PageRank) to the pages, as well as drawing the user's attention to the page.

Link gain refers to the fact that major search engines treat links like votes. When you link to a page, in effect you are voting for it, vouching for it. A Web site that has no links pointing to it has no one vouching for it; consequently, it is relegated to the bottom of the search results heap.

But not all links are created equal. A link from CNN.com is worth a whole lot more than a link from Jim-Bob's personal homepage.

When linking to pages within your site, it is imperative to think through the implications of that link as far as search engines and users are concerned. If you want a page to rank well in the search engines, you should link to it from the homepage, or as far up in your site tree as feasible. Yet, a massive page of links would be a very unusable homepage. So you need to create a balance. The homepage needs to be usable, easy to scan (it should be easy to see what the logical path forward is) and yet provide links into your most important pages for the search engines—with text links that include relevant and important keywords that are popular with searchers.

Page titles are another place where a balance must be struck between usability and findability. The temptation is to insert as many of your sought-after keywords as possible into the title tag because it is given so much weight by the search engines. Indeed, it is the most important on-page factor there is. It is more important than the body copy, more important than "alt" tags, heading tags, meta tags, and so on.

A good title tag is focused on one, two, possibly three keyword themes—and no more. It is no more than 12-15 words long. The shorter it is, the more focused it is around the keywords that are included in the title. Lead with the important keywords rather than including them at the end of the title tag. The closer the word is to the start of the title tag, the more weight it is given.

Remember that the title tag is also displayed in the search results, so if it looks like keyword-rich gibberish it won't compel the searcher to click on your listing. That is where usability comes in. You need to ensure that the title tag is compelling, focused on the reader, value-added, succinct, and engaging.

Consider for example the title tag on the Visa.com homepage: "Visa—Credit Cards and Other Payment Solutions." That title includes the keyword phrases "credit cards" and "payment solutions," and it gives the reader an accurate summary of the content of the site. Discover Card, however, missed the boat on both counts, with its DiscoverCard.com homepage title tag "Discover Card: It Pays to Discover." No good keyword phrases in that title tag, nor any clues as to what the site offers.

Every page of your site, whether it dynamic or static, should have a unique title tag. That is because every page of your site has its own "song" to "sing"—both to the search engines and to the reader. You can't be everything to everybody on your homepage—search engines included. You can't possibly get your homepage ranking #1 for your 1,000 most important keywords. Therefore, you need to look to your other pages—namely, your secondary pages, tertiary-level pages, and even deeper—to deliver search engine traffic.

So, as part of getting each page to "sing" to the search engines, each page should have body copy, ideally at least several hundred words of it, that further reinforces the keyword themes that you are targeting on that page. If you are targeting a keyword that is mentioned in the title tag and nowhere else on that page, then you are going to be at a disadvantage.

But be careful not to engage in keyword stuffing. Crafting copy like the following is just asking for trouble: "Welcome to my Blue Widgets page. This page is all about Blue Widgets. We have plenty of Blue Widgets for you to purchase. Please read on and we will tell you more about our Blue Widgets." That sort of copy isn't just useless to the reader; it is also going to fail miserably at achieving a top ranking for "blue widgets," because it looks like search engine spam. In fact, features that read like this are often termed "doorway pages" because they are designed specifically and solely for search engine rankings—to get the user in and then, as quickly as possible, get them off that page and on to some other, more presentable entry into the Web site.

Doorway pages are a very bad idea—a very quick way to get a penalty from Google or, worse yet, a total site ban, something BMW experienced not too long ago because of its doorway pages. The entire bmw.de site was banned from Google until BMW removed the offending doorway pages from the Web site.

Heading tags ("H1," "H2," through to "H6") are another useful element for both usability and findability. A good heading tag both includes important keywords that relate to the section of copy below it and provides cues to the reader that enhance the readability and scannability of the page. I would not recommend repeating the page title as your H1 tag because that looks a little over-optimized. I would also be wary of using more than one H1 tag on a page.

Here is a useful exercise to help you gauge whether the search engines are likely to look askance at your use of heading tags: Imagine taking all your heading copy that is wrapped within heading tags on the page and creating an outline out of it—indenting the H2 headings underneath your H1 headings, your H3 headings under your H2 headings, and so forth. Then imagine you were still in grade school and you had to hand it in as an assignment. If you'd expect to receive an "F" on your outline, then you haven't done a good job for either your users or the search engines... and you should start again. The search engine algorithms are "smart" enough to sense that your use of heading tags are contrived and unnatural, and they are likely to penalize you for it.

In fact, a general rule of thumb for SEO is this: Anything that looks unnatural or engineered will be noticed and scrutinized by the engines and could get you in trouble with them. For example, creating a link network with other companies that you are friendly with and sticking a big pile of links to all of them in your footer, and with them in turn all linking back to you, will look a little too symmetrical and engineered to Google; consequently, it won't give you the rankings benefit that you were after. Similarly, the exact same anchor text in links to you from numerous sites doesn't look like it developed organically.

In summary, the most important things that you should do to make your site more usable to human visitors and search engines alike are these:

  • Unique title tags for each page that incorporate good keywords and are succinct and not repetitive
  • Succinct heading tags that further reinforce the keyword theme of the page
  • A well-thought-out internal hierarchical linking structure that passes link gain to your most important pages
  • Anchor text containing good keywords, not throwaway phrases like "click here" or "read more"
  • "Alt" tags that succinctly describe what a graphic is and what a button does

Do these things, and you are well on your way to both high rankings and better usability.  


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Stephan Spencer is the founder of Science of SEO and an SEO expert, author, and speaker.

LinkedIn: Stephan Spencer

Twitter: @sspencer

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  • by ali kinaze Tue Jan 20, 2009 via web

    When you say "In most cases, it is your homepage that gets the most weight of all the pages on your site", I think it’s important to highlight the fact that the point of having a strong hierarchical linking structure is to make every pages of a site a homepage. This is especially true with informative sites that get a lot of visits through search engines researches and where users never get to visit the real homepage.

    About the Visa.com homepage title (Visa—Credit Cards and Other Payment Solutions), I would like to add that not only this title includes the keyword phrases « credit cards » and « payment solutions » but also « Visa cards », « credit solutions » and so on. I think great search engines optimized titles are those that combine words linearly and non-linearly. Am I wrong?

    That being said, I find tag clouds to be extremely helpful at referencing a website. Question : Is there a limit of internal links we should place on a page template, giving the fact that it looks great, i.e. it is usable?

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