Whenever the phrase, “usability and SEO”, enter a conversation, there’s a very good chance it goes in one ear and out the other. Corporate management interprets it as “We need more money”, and middle management fixes their poker face until they’re free to run to Google to look up the term. Though there is improvement, traditionally the term, “usability and SEO” represent two distinct countries, each with their own culture and belief systems. SEO inhabitants live, eat, breathe and play in the realm of marketing, especially in search engines.
Their challenge is to monitor search algorithms and find new ways for getting their clients’ websites to appear at the very top of search results. What happens after that is not of their concern. Exposure, repeated exposure and increased inbound human traffic to sites are primary goals. The Usability tribe is more like an interbred family of blended bloodlines from different smaller tribes, such as user interface, findability, persuasive design, accessibility, software QA testing, information architecture and human factors. For some reason, Usability is like a sun and each area of expertise rotates around it, contributing to and fortifying it with new cultures and practices, such as the neurosciences and psychology.
As you have guessed, there is much in-fighting within the Usability culture, as each set of practices fights to be heard and signaled out as the very best practice of them all. Their unifying thread is each culture is devoted to people, not search engines. That said, within the human factors realm, information architecture and neurosciences, there are a vast number of case studies and research on how people use search engines and gather data.
Over the years, there have been attempts by a small number of search engine optimization professionals to include some pieces of usability into their marketing services. This nearly always leads to confusion because often, an SEO doesn’t truly understand usability and therefore is not exactly sure of what they’re asking for.
In the end, they settle for something that sounds like it should make their SEO efforts look more powerful or they obtain user interface services. Sometimes this is a bit fractured. An SEO may include usability standards regarding look and feel only to make sure a website with a poor appearance will hold onto a click coming in from a search engine result. They don’t typically add conversions oriented design despite that making more sense for marketing.
Unfortunately, the majority of search engine marketing companies ignore the people side of Web design entirely. There is no thought of functional testing to make sure application driven real estate, ecommerce and travel sites are not broken before pushing them up in rank.
Marketing people are not concerned with special needs users, which leave out large segments of certain target markets such as in the health and government industries. Standing on the banks of the river of Web design and marketing are all the practices that fall under the human factors camp. There continues to be misunderstandings within this extremely large group of people about what search engine marketing is for and how it works.
The good news is the latest generation of web development is comprised of people who are interested in both the technical practices of search optimization and marketing, and at least several areas of usability such as conversions (persuasive) design and finding ways to blend practices so that they work together rather than in opposition.
It used to be that usability people were the destroyers of marketing efforts and SEO ruined good user interface. We may want to move on past that. A Web design company that wishes to provide the absolute best opportunities for success for their web site clients hires individuals who are cross trained, or willing to be educated, in both search engine marketing and web site usability. This is not a fluff undertaking. Rather, a solid investigation of exactly what this blending means should take a while and more importantly, require an open mind.
Since there are rarely indivduals trained in or experienced in search marketing and human factors design practices, let yourself consider starting with some basic offerings. Several of the top search marketing companies in the UK include usability reviews which are specifically heuristic evaluations of at least 20 of the most needed usability standards for a usable design.
These can be an additional £300 – £500 for a simple review with suggestions for improvements that when implemented, increase conversions, traffic, brand reputation and in the long run, search engine rank. Sometimes one of these reviews reveals serious issues or defects. Your client can opt to get more in-depth assistance and even support for a redesign, while remaining with your company.
Find a usability professional with knowledge of search marketing (in my opinion, this is a must), to outsource this work to for your client. You remain the project manager and get part of the money quoted for the job. In this setup, your company proves it is truly client oriented and dedicated to the immediate and long term success of each client.
An even more robust approach to adapting and blending practices is to include optional areas such as mobile design and social media marketing. Of course, your clients’ project determines the need. Not every site is a fit for social networking and some will not require mobile usage.
However, the majority of websites today does, or will at some time in the future. You want to be prepared for this, either in-house or by sub-contracting an independent consultant. Sometimes two companies blend their services. This is a new approach, where a project manager handles the entire team for their client. The client may never know that two companies are working on their job.
All that matters to clients is that they’ve hired the very best experts. These days, those experts do not all sit inside cubicles at one company. A new term has gained some favor lately and it is “integrated marketing”. What this signals is a blended approach to web site design, support and marketing. A company using this approach has brought together different practices and applies the theory and methods of them all to their clients’ sites.
Not every integrated marketing type of company is the same however. Some include social media networking, while others don’t go there at all. Others dabble in user friendly design, SEO and limited social marketing, and don’t do any functional testing, accessibility standards design, conversions design and analytics, public relations, information architecture for both SEO and usability and more.
This is because there are simply not enough people in the world with work experience that integrates these areas. As a website owner, be sure to inquire as to the depth, expertise, quality and variety of services offered by companies you seek out for help. For example, social media marketing is vastly more complicated and involved then putting up a Twitter and Facebook account.
Usability and SEO techniques can be blended and complimentary to each other and also information architecture but it’s still difficult to find a company that offers that quality of service. When faced with a redesign, be sure to find a company that will prepare design and functional requirements that you not only see but have signed off on.
Also, just because a well-known corporation provides a website doesn’t automatically mean their sites are user friendly. Some of them don’t even have a usability design department, or if they do, their skills are sorely limited (i.e. no accessibility training).
In situations where websites are more or less one huge application requiring regular tweaking, weekly rollbacks and code freezes are commonplace. Add to this situation optimized pages that are changed based on analytics data and split testing for conversions design, and you have a nightmare.
Large companies have much to learn about understanding and organizing the pieces of the puzzle and hiring the best experts for the work. Whenever someone asks me what usability and SEO means, I opt for the easy way out by telling them that it’s my job: to make websites easy to find in search engines and easy for people to use.