Hide SEO Under the Cloak of Usability

Sometimes SEO is a tough sell. You wouldn't think so because the benefits are quite significant and easy to measure. In such cases, approaching SEO in a more stealthy err… subtle manner can bring about the desired effects. For example, if the person or team you're talking to has demonstrated trust in the field of usability, you can piggy-back off of that trust to get your optimization recommendations implemented.

Over at the UserEffect blog there's a great check list of usability tips. Someone has already done half the work. Your job is to take such lists and assess the SEO impact of each item. Then take the list and remove anything that, although may be great from a usability perspective, may distract from the SEO effort. Ideally, you can keep everything in, but if you've done SEO consulting for a while you know that the ideal is rare.

The following is UserEffect's list of 25 usability items. The headings are the same as the original list, but below each heading I've identified whether there is an SEO benefit and marked whether I'd keep it. For more detail about the usability task associated with each heading, check out the original list of 25 usability tips.

Section I. Accessibility

1. Site Load-time Is Reasonable
The reasons for extended load times would determine for me whether I'd harp on this one or not. Lengthy HTML code is worse than a lengthy Flash movie at the bottom of the page which likely won't impact rankings.

2. Adequate Text-to-Background Contrast
Unless we're talking about the old search engine spam technique of white text on a white background, this one is out.

3. Font Size/Spacing Is Easy to Read
If we're not talking about hiding content with really, really small text, this one is out.

4. Flash and Add-Ons Are Used Sparingly
Yes! Flash continues to be the bane of many SEO's existence. I'm got one client that wants to do everything in Flash. Entire sites are built in Flash so I've got just one URL to target keywords with. And of course, the Flash has all of the useful content in so it's largely devalued by search engines.

5. Images Have Appropriate ALT Tags
This is basic image optimization so keep this one. Toss in keyword-rich file names and captions to make the effort more worthwhile. Ann Smarty has a good post on image seo.

6. Site Has Custom Not-found/404 Page
This will help keep the search engine indexes clean. Not to mention that you can't register a site with Google Webmaster Tools without a proper 404 server code.

Section II. Identity

7. Company Logo Is Prominently Placed
Not a big deal on the SEO front.

8. Tagline Makes Company's Purpose Clear Answer “What do you do?”
I'd kick this one out for SEO although who in their right mind wouldn't see the value in this?

9. Home-page Is Digestible In 5 Seconds
Digestible, yes. But that doesn't mean it should be just two lines long. Keep the structure clean and use headings (good for SEO) to make it scannable.

10. Clear Path to Company Information
Not a big one for SEO.

11. Clear Path to Contact Information
Neither is this.

Section III. Navigation

12. Main Navigation Is Easily Identifiable
Identifiable and search engine friendly aren't necessarily the same here. So I guess the SEO value depends on what the recommendation is to make the navigation identifiable.

13. Navigation Labels Are Clear & Concise
If HTML text based, this is a good one for SEO. Clear and concise can also include keywords.

14. Number of Buttons/Links Is Reasonable Psychologists
If you're a PageRank sculptor you agree with this one. Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz covered PageRank sculpting not too long ago. His focus was with the nofollow attribute, but the logic applies when you're consider what links to include and exclude on a page.

15. Company Logo Is Linked to Home-page
If you do #7, you might as well make the logo a link.

16. Links Are Consistent and Easy to Identify
This might have some impact on reducing bounce rates which in turn might send a signal of quality to search engines so keep this one.

17. Site Search Is Easy to Access
Keyword research anyone? Aaron Wall over at SEOBook even suggests using this data for content creation ideas.

Section IV. Content

18. Major Headings Are Clear and Descriptive
SEOs love headings. Use the h tags and you're all set.

19. Critical Content Is Above The Fold
A keeper. You want search engines to “understand” a page too.

20. Styles and Colors Are Consistent
Search engines are color blind. Although I wonder if they're working on this. If they know a searcher is male is there more value in sending me to a site with a palette more appealing to males? Hmmm…

21. Emphasis (bold, etc.) Is Used Sparingly
I don't do a whole lot of bolding these days. I wouldn't dwell on this one.

22. Ads and Pop-ups Are Unobtrusive
Pop-ups can result in disabled ads with the AdWords program. Their impact on SEO is still an area where much speculation exists. The folks at SEOptimise posed this very question. At this point I wouldn't call pop-ups an SEO deal breaker, but trying to get rid of them could very well make some enemies with the marketing team.

23. Main Copy Is Concise and Explanatory
Explanatory is a big one. Tell the search engines what a page is about and they'll give you the appropriate visitors.

24. URLs Are Meaningful and User-friendly
Meaningful and friendly can easily mean keyword-rich so this is a good one. Another post by Ann Smarty, but this time on Search Engine Journal is a quick read about optimizing URLs.

25. HTML Page Titles Are Explanatory
It's funny that what many consider to be the single strongest on page element for SEO is at the bottom of a usability list. Definitely keep this one.

You've now become the usability's expert's best friend. After all, who else in the company are you 80% in agreement with!? If you're lucky you'll start getting e-mails asking for your opinion on usability recommendations which if they can be supported by SEO are more likely to get implemented. Similarly, you can take your SEO ideas and run them by the usability expert for help with repositioning them in a manner that will resonate with whoever holds the purse strings.

Want to do the same exercise with a bigger list? Jacob Neilson's Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed has 113 usability tips.

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  1. Just like meals - a healthy balance is always best. Good long list here, in-depth enough for most of us I do believe. I'm working as a php developer with requirements from both the seo staff and the web design staff. Having little tricks like this are definately useful for me. Thanks a Bunch Marios!

  2. Interesting post. I think that cross-disciplinary teams can be very mutually beneficial. But I wonder why you would throw out points that would not hurt SEO, but would help usability?

    • Ideally you wouldn't get rid of anything. My suggestion was more about if you know there are resource limitations and there'd be a chance of losing out on some SEO items in favor of pure usability items.

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