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Search Engine Optimization vs. User Experience Optimization

Aug 6, 2012 / by Preston Van Dyke


The discussion of whether user experience optimization should take priority, or even in place of search engine optimization, is not necessarily a new one, but it is one of the most important conversations we could be engaging in right now. My goal here is to explain that both approaches—while they have crossover and tend to benefit one another—should be considered separately, as they serve their own purposes. That being said – as both are targeted in a strategic and beneficial manner, a website is likely to get far greater performance on both fronts than if you were to target just one.

So far the best post I’ve found discussing this topic is by Tom Schmitz. While I don’t hold as strong an opinion as him on the matter, I tend to agree that UX is not a means to an SEO end. While both can be married fairly easily, all UX efforts won’t necessarily translate to rankings for a website.

Value & Usability Take Priority….Kind Of

In a recent webinar and post of mine, I discussed the five most important fundamentals to consider when creating any content marketing strategy. There you will find the most important values to consider when developing the content plan and design/architecture of a website laid out:

No matter how many links you build, and how flashy your website looks—a website’s long-term success (traffic, conversion, sales etc.), and sustainability of that success, can only be secured if you first focus on the character of your website.

What this means is if you focus on your website’s internal content strategy by applying the below value-based principles to establish a well thought out strategy, the longevity of your website will be secured.

And if you were to sequence these in order of priority, I would lay them out as follows:

The character and value of your website should always take first priority.

Along with that, when focusing on the character and value a website personifies, you are in turn meeting many of the most important SEO needs to achieve a great organic performance. This equals user experience considerations and optimization.

Whether you’re a developer or an SEO, chances are you have run into the issue of a perfectly functional website that still has unforeseen technical issues that hurt its rankings.

To approach the development of a website with both SEO and UX in cohesion, I’d recommend the following process:

Cover Your Bases

While the value and usability of any website should be first and foremost—there are those technical elements of SEO that, when they are known and implemented from the beginning, makes the development process much smoother. Every development project should have a checklist of technical SEO implications before the project kicks off. To make this easy, feel free to use this quick but comprehensive checklist:

1. Main Navigation: The structuring and hierarchy of navigation are key to establishing relevance signals and overall search engine performance. To ensure your site navigation gets off on the right foot ensure the following are considered:

  • Ensure all priority (top, second, and third level pages) web pages are linked to and from the main navigation (meaning every page passes an internal link to each priority page). [source pg. 10]
  • Use absolute links, rather than relative (if at all possible). [source]
  • Utilize breadcrumbs. [source pg. 10]
  • Involve SEO team/agency in selecting for folders and categories (URL structure); because the labeling of categories and pages determines terms used in anchor text, URLs, breadcrumbs, and headings, it is essential the right terms are used here. [source]

2. Content Structure

  • Above the fold: Ensure useful information in the form of text is designed into each web page before the visitor must scroll down. [source]
  • Quantity: Within reason, ensure each web page contains ample, useful information in the form of text [source]. While the length itself should vary based on the topic and information—typically a minimum of 400 words of body text is a good standard. [source] Work to achieve text every place that any type of typography is used, rather than hiding that information from crawlers in an image.

3. Pagination: Pagination can cause a number of serious issues for website indexing and duplicate content. To resolve these issues before they begin, take the following recommendations into consideration:

  • If at all possible – do not use pagination. (May sound extreme – but users actually prefer a “view all” version when a choice is made available.)
  • If pagination is a must:
    • Use Rel=Next/Prev to indicate pagination. [source]
    • Or, use Rel=Canonical to point to the “view all” version.

4. 404 Handling: To keep visitors who have accidentally arrived at an invalid URL on the domain, as well as take advantage to target high priority landing pages, the following are recommended for a custom 404 page [source]:

  • Maintain site navigation.
  • Maintain site look and feel.
  • Integrate site search functionality.
  • Provide a list of links for recommended pages to visit (use list of priority landing pages).
  • Clearly indicate the visitor has arrived at an invalid URL with direction for how to proceed.

5. Alt Tags: Make sure to use alternate text (alt tags) for every image on the website. Alt tags should be [source]:

  • Succinct, no longer than a short sentence.
  • Descriptive to what the image itself is displaying.

6. Schema (Microdata): Placing specific labels in line with the HTML is one of the biggest innovations in search optimization as of late. Ensure all specific labeling opportunities on the website are identified and the correct Schema markup is implemented [source]. Consider the following common opportunities:

Search all schemas at Schema.org.

7. Social Integration: With social signal integration into search results, the necessity of building a strong social audience and encouraging social shares of individual web pages on the domain are essential. Ensure:

  • Each web page links to each major social profile for the business/organization.
  • Each page contains social sharing buttons.

8. Robots.txt: Ensure the correct implementation of page exclusions and inclusions. All pages considered public knowledge and beneficial to public users should be included for robots visitation, crawling and indexing. [source]

9. Sitemaps: The use of sitemaps creates benefit both to search engine performance as well as user experience. [source]

  • XML Sitemap: The XML sitemap is the most important of sitemaps that could be used for the website. Ensure this is created to include all live, valid URLs on the website and is regularly updated. [source]
  • User Sitemap: A user sitemap is delivered via HTML visually to the site visitor with anchor text links to each web page on the domain. Remain consistent to site navigation taxonomy and categorical structure.
  • Other: Should the website contain additional assets (like videos), a standard sitemap can be created to ensure these are created and placed correctly.

10. Duplicate Content

  • Content: It isn’t uncommon for the same page title, meta description, and meta keywords tag to be used across a large series of pages when developing a website. This is easy to get the site up and running, but it is definitely not recommended. As each page is created ensure the following [source]:
    • Unique page title, description and meta keywords are written and placed in <head>.
    • Body content is unique to each page.
  • Rel=Canonical: Where dynamic versions of a web page are created, implement a rel=canonical link pointing from the dynamic to the original source. [source]

11. Rel=Author: Utilizing author tagging can increase the performance of individually authored pages in search rankings and click through. Where particular content pieces and pages are individually authored, ensure the correct implementation of rel=author is in place. If, and where possible, automate author tagging into a CMS process. [source]

12. Site Search: Use robots.txt to prevent crawling of search results pages or other auto-generated pages that don’t add much value for users coming from search engines. [source]

13. Page Speed: Undergo all necessary measures to ensure page speed is optimal. [source] Consider the following:

  • Reducing image file size by optimizing
  • Minify your HTML, CSS and JavaScript.
  • Leverage browser caching.

14. Analytics Tracking: Get off on the right foot. Ensure the analytics package of choice is installed on absolutely every page of the website.

Make a Great Website

With all necessary technical implications of SEO common knowledge—from design to development teams—the most important work is free and clear to take reign: a valuable and usable website.

A website should be created first and foremost to add value to the internet and to achieve an end goal for each visitor. This overall purpose will always translate into creating a noteworthy web property. (Note: The more noteworthy your web property, the more likely it is to perform for SEO as well. Just one of the many ways that UEO really does benefit SEO).

Pursue the design of a website with the following considerations in mind:

  • How is our quality of code? Is our site up to standards? [source]
  • Do our graphics speak with the user purpose on each page? [source]
    • Particular attention here should apply to conversion as well. Does the design, graphics, and layout encourage conversion?
  • Does this website present unique characteristic not found anywhere else online?

Pursue the development of a website with the following considerations:

  • Does our website navigation make sense? [source]
  • Considerations for this should include:
    • Taxonomy – does the labeling and wording make sense to both our purpose and our intended audience? Are they the most common way of communicating this subject?
    • Is the placement of our navigation prime?
  • Do all website forms function correctly? [source]

Implement SEO

Once the website is built, to deliver a quality experience to each visitor, it is then time for SEOs to go in and optimize individual elements of target pages for keyword performance. Typically this “after the fact” optimization should include implementation in the following elements:

  • Page Titles
  • Meta Descriptions
  • Meta Keywords
  • Heading (H1, H2, H3…)
  • Keyword Use (in body content)
  • Anchor Text Use (in contextual and navigation links)
  • Image Alternate Text


Value and usability should be the foremost focus of the creation of a website and the content contained therein. Without doubt, the more user-friendly and high-quality your website is, the more likely it is to dominate its competitors in search engines. But, for functional and logistical purposes, it still makes sense to understand the separation of the two and build a process wherein both can be integrated in your website.

Additional Sources:

Topics: SEO Search Engine Optimization Blog User Experience Optimization Conversion

Preston Van Dyke

Written by Preston Van Dyke

Preston's addictions include SEO, Web Development, Diet Coke and Online TV.

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