Should we forget SEO and CRO, and just focus on user experience?

James Shakespeare
By James Shakespeare
5 Jun 2014

Successful eCommerce solutions have many facets. Solutions involve many disciplines and the industry has spawned a variety of specialists. With specialist expertise there always comes the danger of tunnel vision. 

Because SEO, CRO and user interface design experts have so much specialist knowledge and a love of what they do, there’s a risk that they look at sites in their own terms and with their own objectives at the forefront.  And I’m not sure this is always helpful.

What is always more productive is to focus on an overriding objective that touches all of these areas: namely providing the best possible user experience for people when they visit your site.

Is user experience more important than SEO?

I was fascinated by a recent interview by Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting with Duane Forrester of Microsoft. Duane is head of Microsoft’s internal SEO strategy. When asked to rank the 5 most important factors in improving search rankings he ranked user experience at number 3. 

Content was the clear leader and it was a close race between social media and user experience for second spot. Link building and ‘SEO’ were both ranked lower.

Online shoppers dont have much patience. A good product offer and competitive prices count for nothing if people struggle to work out how to use your site. They really wont put much effort into figuring it out.

To some extent these rankings are subjective and we could debate the order at some length. What it reveals is the view of SEO experts that user experience has a major influence on search rankings -something that many people would assume is machine-driven and programmatic. Remember that this was an interview with an SEO expert, on the site of a world-renowned SEO consultant, that showed that ‘SEO’ only came fifth in the order of influence on your page rankings.

How can this be?

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Are we really saying that if you want your site to rank more highly you should put more effort into improving the user experience rather than building links or traditional SEO? I believe so; partly because an excellent user experience will have a strong positive, but indirect, impact on links and SEO anyway.

A pretty obvious way that user experience influences search rankings will be if a large number of people hit the back button shortly after landing on your site. This type of ‘pogo-sticking’ will send a strong negative signal to Google.  Your eCommerce site doesn’t have to be outright hideous to have this effect; a bit confusing will do just as well.

Online shoppers don’t have much patience. A good product offer and competitive prices count for nothing if people struggle to work out how to use your site. They really won’t put much effort into figuring it out.

Go for the ‘long click’

Conversely, if people find using your site pleasurable and relevant, and they stick around for a while, this will be a positive signal. It’s what the SEO community calls the ‘long click’. It’s where people click on a search result without immediately clicking back to the search page to find something more appropriate.

Which takes us back to content. Part of the user experience is providing a range of engaging and relevant content that keeps people on your site for longer.

Navigation

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Another area where user experience and SEO overlap is with site navigation. Arrange the information on your site logically, with a clear hierarchy and meaningful page titles and headings. Make the navigation links relevant and helpful. This not only helps people find their way around the site it also helps Google’s spiders make sense of what you offer.

As Duane put it in the interview:

‘The real step here is for these same businesses and all businesses to take that type of thinking and apply it to the website itself. Test the content I’m producing, how I’m organizing content, how people are navigating around the site, and how they are interacting with the content.’

If Google can understand what your site’s about, it’s more likely to show up in relevant searches. If you get the right people on your site and they can easily find what they want, you will get more long clicks than bounces.

Google measures engagement

We know that search engines look closely at ‘engagement metrics’. Or in ordinary language: what people do when they visit your site.  This is important because Google can’t read and interpret what you publish in the way a person can. But it can observe how people interact with your content and it will use this interaction data to determine how to rank your site.

Ultimately it is evaluating the experience of your online shoppers by monitoring how they behave.

Is it still possible to offer a mediocre user experience and manipulate other SEO factors to get your eCommerce site to rank highly? Possibly. But why would you want to? And it’s getting harder.

I think we are getting close to the point predicted by SEO experts like David Amerland when it becomes easier to do the right thing than to game the system.  You really are better off putting your effort into offering the most rewarding online experience you can, then trying to find clever SEO tricks to get your site to rank more highly.

Look on SEO as a technical foundation that needs to be constructed properly but isn’t the overriding purpose of what you build. I think this is the broad definition of ‘SEO’ as it appeared in the factors discussed by Duane and Eric; you need to have it, but it will only get you so far.

Page load speeds

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We know that users hate pages that take ages to load. It seems Google isn’t too keen on them either. We’ve seen mobile page load speeds in particular have a significant influence on rankings. This is a major reason that you can’t afford to ignore responsive website design

I believe that increasingly Google won’t want to promote sites that expect users to strum their fingers while they wait for a mass of scripts, adverts, on-screen clutter and bloated graphics to load.

And Links?

Links are, of course, still hugely influential in SEO.  But they have to be good quality links and they have to look natural. A good user experience will naturally generate the sort of links that won’t get you into trouble the next time Google updates its algorithm.

Or as Rand Fishkin of Moz puts it:

‘Crafting a thoughtful, empathetic user experience can ensure that your site is perceived positively by those who visit, encouraging sharing, bookmarking, return visits and links - signals that trickle down to the search engines and contribute to high rankings.’

I prefer his slightly more pithy version: ‘No-one links to a crummy site’.

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Is content ‘user experience’ too?

In this context the user experience is partly about making it easy to find things and partly about providing content that answers questions. These are both attributes of any effective eCommerce site.

This underlines why content is so important, providing good content that answers all of your customers’ questions is also part and parcel of your user experience.

There is now a much more nuanced definition of what we understand as SEO. A couple of years ago there was a clear boundary and it was about keywords, on-page optimisation, meta data and links. Then, it was possible to pursue SEO strategies that ran counter to user experience - keyword stuffing being the most obvious example. Now it isn’t.

Whatever detracts from your user experience is also likely to damage your search rankings.

CRO

Is it feasible to disengage user experience from Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO)? In my book they are two sides of the same coin. Improving the user experience will always improve conversion rates.

Make it easy for people to find, filter, evaluate and select products and they are much more likely to proceed to the checkout.

Offer seamless progress through the checkout without unwanted barriers like compulsory registration and people will complete their purchase more often. And they’re more likely to return.

You can fine tune the content you show, and how you display it, to maximise conversions, but this will only ever work within the structure of a user experience that is already good.

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Where people get confused

I think there are a number of false dilemmas when people start looking at user experience, SEO and CRO.

There is a view that people demand short content as part of a good online experience; and people say that this is counter to Google’s need for richer content. Clearly, content needs to be succinct and to the point, but thinking that everything has to be summed up in 50 words or a few captions is dangerous.

What people want is content that is accessible. You need to break it up so you don’t display huge slabs of text and you need to use bullets and sub-headings.  But as we said before, a good eCommerce user experience aims to answer all of the questions a potential buyer might have. Skimping on your words might leave users unsatisfied.

What this shows is that everything, including content, is inextricably linked to user experience. Everything else is a detail. The main area of focus for every eCommerce digital agency should be user experience and most of the other issues will take care of themselves.