Joining the dots...SEO and usability

Posted by Lucy Collins on Apr 12, 2012 4:49:40 PM
Lucy Collins

SEO and usability are specialist areas and often treated as separate web management activities - SEO focusing on improving search engine rankings, and usability focusing on the user experience within a site. But there's no point in having great SEO performance and being high in search rankings and then throwing users into a site they can't use; or in having a great site that can't easily be found. Rather than being separate silos, SEO and usability should really be viewed as a continuum to increase website effectiveness: "Search engine optimizers and usability professionals focus on different aspects of usability. By applying a holistic approach and merging the skills and widening the focus of [both] you can increase traffic, leads, sales and happy customers" (Thurow and Musica 2009)

The scent of information

The common thread is the 'scent of information', a term coined by Pirolli (2007) when he was developing ideas about how people search for information (information foraging theory) and refers to the detection of cues that provide users with concise information about content that is not immediately available. [It] plays an important role in guiding users to information they seek, and it also plays a role in providing users with an overall sense of the content. A successful site will provide the right clues or 'scent' to users 'hunting' for products, services or information in order to help them achieve their goals successfully, quickly and easily.

Starting the hunt

Increasingly, users start their hunt as a query in a search engine - in recent research nearly two thirds of respondents had used search engines to help them when researching buying decisions (Econsultancy 2010a). Therefore, understanding and optimising the user experience from the search engine query, through the transition to a website page, and then within that site to the successful achievement of a goal, is essential to improving a site's effectiveness.

Sniffing around search engines

According to Broder (2002) there are three types of search engine queries:

  • Navigational: where the user wants a specific website and types all or some of the web address into the search engine
  • Informational - where the user is looking for information on a particular topic
  • Transactional - where the user wants to undertake an interaction e.g. buy a product, book a flight

The bulk of search engine queries are informational and transactional, where users will be looking for the result that best fits their query. To do this, all the search result elements need to give the users sufficient scent to get them to choose your site over your competitors. Users look for keywords in the search results and the more they see words relevant to their search query the more they will "feel more confident that they are seeing the best, most relevant listings" (Thurow and Musica). Having the 'right' keywords requires a good understanding of users, their goals and the words and language they use. The introduction of Google Instant Previews, which enables users to preview a page before clicking through from the SERP, will place even more emphasis on getting the relevance right'.

Optimising for search engines is essential, but the results need to be genuine: 'black hat' tactics such as keyword stuffing, hidden/invisible text and links, are likely be self defeating, they may help get the site search result up the rankings and get users to select your site but they are unlikely to stick around, revisit or recommend if they can't achieve their goals once on the site. These tactics can damage the brand, are unethical, and are unlikely to result in a good user experience or a satisfied user.

Following the scent trail

Having selected the search result that looks to be the 'best match' for their goal, users will then be thrown into a site, often deep linked. Users work out where they are by looking at titles, keywords, the url, breadcrumbs, text, navigation and images: all these elements need to give off the right scent to indicate that, either, they're at their goal destination, or to help them work out where to go to achieve the goal.

Users don't spend long on a page when they're navigating to goals, they:

  • Spend 80% of their time looking at content above the fold (Nielsen 2010a)
  • Spend 69% of their time viewing the left hand side of a page (Nielsen 2010b)
  • Read at most 28% of the words during an average visit (Nielsen 2008)

This means all the scent clues, top search terms and keywords need to be clearly visible in headings and bullet points, above the fold, and not swamped by large blocks of text. Flash videos can often hide the scent of information, because users have to wait for the graphic to stop and keywords may be pushed below the fold

If the landing page does not enable the user to achieve their goal, then they need to be able to find the 'right place' as quickly as possible. In a search engine, putting a search term in a search box is, obviously, the normal behaviour, but on a website search tends to be a secondary or last resort activity when there is no obvious scent in the navigation or text. This is probably because users tend to have low expectations of site search borne out of experience: one piece of research indicates that when users use site search their failure rate is c.70% (Spool 2010), another suggests that only 50% of site searches are successful (Econsultancy 2010b). Ultimately, if content is difficult to find or if it's the wrong content, users won't re-use or recommend the site.

Maximising the scent

So, within a site, the information architecture and navigation needs to be effective and the content needs to meet the users' goals and where relevant to be persuasive enough to encourage users to pursue calls to action e.g. by buying or registering. As with effective search engine results this needs a good understanding of users, their goals and the language they use, which can be developed by:

  • analysing site analytics, which will help identify where there are problems
  • reviewing site search logs, which will reveal the goals users were seeking and the language they use
  • undertaking usability testing which will surface why there are problems and how they might be fixed (recent research indicates that organisations that had improved conversion rates carried out roughly three times more user tests than those whose conversion had not improved - Econsultancy 2010c)

Combining these tools will result in greater insight than reviewing them separately: keyword data, combined with usability test data, can reveal a searchers' motivation. Field studies and exploratory usability tests often reveal searchers' informational goals above and beyond what can be inferred from web analytics data and keyword research tools (Thurow and Musica 2009)


We believe there is considerable synergy to clients in adopting a joined-up approach to thinking about SEO and usability - striving to develop a seamless user journey from initial search engine query through to a page that will enable the user to achieve their goal. It forces greater focus on the user, leverages greater value from web research activities, and results in a better user experience and a more effective site for the site owner.

It can also increase the effectiveness of paid advertising spend: Google Quality Score (QS) is based on an algorithm that scores the value of the user experience the advertiser delivers from clicking on the Google ad to the target page; it helps protect Google's reputation for relevance. A high QS means that keywords will trigger ads in a higher position and at a lower cost-per-click; conversely, advertisers delivering a bad user experience pay more. QS acts like a tax for those advertisers too lazy, too structurally rigid, or just too misinformed to deliver relevant answers to searchers' queries. The penalties are substantial; we've seen advertisers penalized more than 60% of their paid advertising budget (Eisenberg 2010).

Increasingly, we start usability testing at the search engine of the tester's choice: this helps develop qualitative insight into the effectiveness of the search results in attracting testers to select a link. We then assess the transition into a site, do testers feel they're in the right place, do they know where to go next? The analytics can help shape the usability testing focusing the research to probe and understand why there are problems such as significant drop offs in a transactional journey, and subsequently help measure if changes are successful.

The primary benefit to site visitors is that they are able to achieve their goals easily, efficiently and with a high degree of satisfaction. The primary benefits for businesses are increased traffic, qualified leads, closed sales, and happy customers. (Thurow and Musica).


Broder, A., (2002), A Taxonomy of Web Search, SIGIR Forum SIGIR Forum, Volume 36 Number 2,
Econsultancy (2010a), How we shop in 2010
Econsultancy (2010b), Site search report
Econsultancy (2010c) Conversion Report 2010
Nielsen, J. (2008), How Little do Users Read?
Nielsen, J. (2010a) Scrolling and Attention
Nielsen, J. (2010b) Horizontal Attention Leans Left
Pirolli, P. (2007) Information Foraging Theory, Adaptive Interation with Information, OUP
Spool, J. (2010), Spending Quality Time with Your Search Log)

Eisenberg, J. (2010) Google, User Experience, and Thinking beyond Conversion
Thurow, S. & Musica, N. (2009), When Search meets Web Usability, New Riders

Topics: Views and News, Usability Testing

Want to know more?

If you’d like to talk to someone about how you can optimise your digital media with user research and advice, please get in touch!

We would love to hear from you.

Contact us

Subscribe Here!

Recent Posts