Use Your Words, Part 1: Why SEO Matters to UX

In a digital world, most of us are trying to communicate with our customers through a one-way screen. We have to rely on the psychological technique of mirroring to build trust with our users: choosing words and pictures that our audience naturally uses and can relate to.

A successful user experience strategy requires clear and effective writing. If a potential customer can’t relate to you through the words you use, it’ll be difficult for them to have a good experience with your brand, site, or product. But unfortunately, writing isn’t always considered a top requirement for UX specialists, and it isn’t an intuitive skill for a lot of people.

If you need help making your content as natural and effective as possible for your readers, try talking to your team’s search engine optimization (SEO) expert. SEOs are primarily known for helping you find words friendly to search algorithms, but they are also great at helping you find the real words your users use. If you have a dedicated SEO on your team, you can tap them for help making your content more reader-friendly based on their keyword research skills.

SEOs help make your website “sticky”—full of useful information, well-linked and easy to navigate, and accessible to all. Collaborate with your SEO to optimize your site and make it more effective for your readers.

In order to effectively communicate with your SEO, though, you need to know a little about their goals and areas of focus.

Think Like an SEO

To understand how your SEO thinks, it’s helpful to understand the basics of SEO history first.

When Google first showed up in 1998, it simply looked at links and how many times a keyword appeared on webpages to determine importance and relevance. With such a simple algorithm, marketers took advantage of “black hat” methods for weighting web pages to appear more important and rank higher in search. Google was pretty quick to penalize black hat measures because they abused customer and searcher trust, and started working to improve the results a user would find.

Over the years, we’ve seen Google come to realize that what’s best for the user is also best for search—solidifying the importance of SEO and UX working together. The algorithmic updates the company makes (over 600 a year) are largely focused on improving search results for real people and penalizing sites still trying to take advantage of searchers’ trust. In fact, in their list of Ten Things We Know to Be True, Google’s number one fact is “focus on the user and all else will follow.

Much of what search engine optimization focuses on is self-evident: modifying or improving websites so they show up in search results for relevant keywords. While an SEO may have done that by focusing solely on keywords in the past, Google’s algorithms now require them to think more like a content strategist by trying to provide meaningful answers for the people using search engines.

Create Content Like an SEO

While it’s their primary job to ensure a high-ranking and relevant search result, an effective SEO knows that it’s not just the search result itself that convinces a person to click—or that keeps them on your page after clicking. The engagement factor comes from a consistent experience across everything your site and brand claims, including the following:

Screen capture of a Google Answer Box, explaining what the Answer Box is.

Each of these elements needs to be written with the end user’s entire experience in mind in order to capitalize on potential engagement. Your SEO can help you understand the nuances of Google’s Answer Box and what sort of natural language to use to best appeal to your users.

As mobile search becomes the next frontier, Google will likely pivot even more into UX territory. The company is already talking about micro-moments (PDF) and mobile-friendly sites, which means you and your SEO should be collaborating to create relevant mobile content.

Structure Words Like an SEO

Your SEO is best equipped to find the real words your users are using. They’re also the ones who help make a website “sticky”—full of useful information, well-linked and easy to navigate, and accessible to all.

SEOs can help you structure your words—and the site itself—to be more effective for your readers. Make the effort to collaborate with your SEO when optimizing any of these elements:

  • Alt tags (the words used to describe an image)
  • Title tags (the wayfinding words in your browser tabs)
  • Meta descriptions (the words that describe your web page in a search result)
  • Tracking/Tag Manager (tools that help identify what on-page elements are and are not being used)
  • Attribution (sometimes called “link juice”—the SEO value passed from one page to the next by a strong underlying hyperlink structure)
  • Load times (how long it takes a page to load content—it should be less than three seconds)
  • Image size and rendering (another piece of load times, but also super important on mobile)
  • Hierarchy (ordering and structuring content in a way that makes sense to readers)
  • Breadcrumbs/scent trail (wayfinding words on-page that help users navigate)
  • Indexability (pointing Google toward your site to crawl and catalogue it)
  • Accessibility (tagging for screen readers, designing for color-blind users or users with poor vision, setting up forms for keyboard-only use, and more)

Each of these pieces affects a person’s experience with your website: the faster a page loads, the quicker a user gets to the content they want. The more clearly you label, tag, and internally link to your content, the easier it is for a user to navigate your website to the piece they’re interested in. The more you build with consideration for those with disabilities, the more accessible your information is for every user.

Your SEO can help you find the words your users use, the content types that best answer their questions, and the quick opportunities to improve your site’s user experience for every person who encounters it. If you aren’t actively seeking out your SEO’s help, I can guarantee the feeling on your site reflects that disconnect.

In part two of this series, “Using SEO Tactics for User Research,” I cover how UX experts can use SEO tactics for more effective user research.

Jess Vice

Jess Vice advocates for users in website and application UX at Clearlink as a lead user experience specialist. She consults on best practices, runs the user testing team, and writes and speaks in her spare time. On the weekends, Jess escapes to the mountains where there are no end users to worry about.

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