Excellent SEO: Satisfy your visitors, not just an algorithm

SEO is often veiled behind abstract concepts, web 2.0 lingo, and apparent structural complexity.

All of these are realities, but I think at the end of any conversation on SEO it is important to remind ourselves that there is a common thread behind every SEO tactic and every variable evaluated by Google algorithms: How credible and relevant is the content on your site and how easy is it for users to get what they want on it? 

I have heard many marketers use the complexity of SEO as a way of mystifying prospective clients, wooing them with big words and ideas.  Just do a Google search for “SEO strategy” and read any blog that comes up.  You’ll see what I mean I am sure.  But honest online marketers will you that SEO is not rocket science. 

It is possible to discuss and achieve an intuitive grasp of SEO theory and practice even if you have never looked at html in your life.

The apparent complexity of SEO is simplified by a very simple concept: user experience.  Excellent SEO requires marketers, together with developers and front-end designers, to think deeply and strategically about user experience

Algorithms don’t just look at H1 tags and alt tags anymore.  They are getting better and better at identifying themes across content on sites that they look for not only in isolated pages, but even in the site structure. 

Picture yourself in the shoes of a user who comes to an e-commerce site and looks straightaway at the site map.  Now what questions would you naturally start to ask yourself, however subconsciously?

What are the different product categories this site offers?  How are they arranged and presented within the site navigation and structure?

Looking at the site navigation and structure, how do these categories seem fit together under a common theme? Is this a consumer electronics site or more of a home appliance site? 

How does my experience of this site, as I dig deeper into it, help me move naturally and seamlessly throughout the site, so I don’t have to use the “back” button in my browser, bread crumbs, top menu nav or site map?  Am I able to scan a page and have naturally placed “landing spots” to catch my attention with something relevant and interesting if I get lost or lose interest?

On one level, these questions are obviously reducible to usability principles for web design.  Questions that every designer should be asking in the first place.  But these are also extremely relevant to internal link structure, a factor increasingly important for Google algorithms.

Many speak as if Google’s algorithms were completely incomprehensible divine mandates we must blindly follow – “You just put keywords near the top of the page cause that’s the way Google likes it.”  This is to completely overlook the purpose of Search Engine Optimization.  It is not just to get visitors to your site, it is to get the right users to your site.  It is not just about getting users to navigate around your site and spend time there, it is to give them a positive, seamless experience demonstrated in increased conversion rates and revenue

To get a grasp on SEO, it is crucial to leave behind the superstitious religion of our SEO forefathers and get in step with what Google is really doing – getting better and better at helping people use the internet.  Google is not interested in your business, they are interested in your customer.   If you can’t help the customer, sooner or later Google will probably notice and dock you for it.  This doesn’t just mean the “black hat” techniques designed to trick people into visiting a site, but also the clumsy, confusing and frustrating aspects of website content and navigation.

It is true, a web usability professional can evaluate user experience better than a web crawler… at this point in time.  But people are creating the algorithms, which means they will become increasingly keen to bad user experiences.

I’m not suggesting we don’t try to understand nuances involved in algorithms.  I’m just making the point that we can lose perspective if we make our focus the algorithms instead of the customer experience. There is common sense and intelligible purpose behind SEO.  User experience is the glue that ties together the diverse variables involved in SEO, and if you get user experience right, you are bound to take huge strides towards Search Engine Optimization.