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The impact of user experience on Google ranking

By Alexandra Gavril - September 29, 2015

It’s no longer enough to have a website live and online. And it’s no longer enough to optimise it for search engines. Sure, you have to make it easy for your potential customers to find you online, but once they land on your site you need to provide them with an experience that is responsive, intuitive and inviting.

If what they see when they arrive is an unattractive and difficult to navigate website, they will most likely leave your site. So even if you’ve properly optimised your website for search engines, if all you have to show off is a clumsily designed website that makes no concessions to the user’s experience, you will be playing a losing game.

Read on to learn why focusing on your visitors and considering their online experience first is critical to your SEO success.

Humans first, search engines second

Google has been telling us for years that we need to focus more on users and less on search engine optimisation (SEO): “Google’s goal is to provide users with the most relevant results and a great user experience.”

While your keywords, images and meta data are the foundation of your website and will always be an important part of your SEO strategy, this should no longer be your only priority. As the Internet and Google’s algorithms continue to evolve, user experience (UX) will be one of the top factors that drive engagement and ultimately sales. So, yes, make sure you have all those on-page components in place but then get back to your visitors and their experience on your site as a top priority.

How can you do that? By creating a great user experience on your site that your visitors perceive as positive, one that encourages return visits, sharing and bookmarking.

User experience and SEO: friends or enemies?

ux seo enemies

While traditional SEO factors still play a significant role in search engine results, usability and user experience have a huge impact on search engine ranking success. But here’s a question: is there a crucial connection between SEO or UX or should they be kept separate? Are UX and SEO friends or enemies?

Both SEO and UX deal with what a user sees and experiences on the web. SEO helps a site rank among the relevant results on search engine results pages while UX determines whether people are finding quality in those results.

According to a Moz guide on the relationship between user experience and SEO, it helps to think of usability and user experience as strong influences on search engine ranking success, while factors such as keywords, links, and site structure are highly significant influences as well.

“[User experience] provides an indirect but measurable benefit to a site’s external popularity, which the engines can then interpret as a signal of higher quality […]. Crafting a thoughtful, empathetic UX helps ensure that visitors to your site perceive it positively, encouraging sharing, bookmarking, return visits and inbound links–all signals that trickle down to the search engines and contribute to high rankings.”

Put simply, visitors have to be able to find you online but once they do they also need to be engaged and impressed. Both considerations are paramount to your website’s long-term survival, which is why it may be difficult to figure out which one is more important.

But here’s the thing: they’re equally as important. SEO and UX are actually so tied that you cannot separate them. The ability to get your site to perform well in search engines and to make it easy for your audience to find it online is just as important as providing a great user experience when visitors reach your site.

This means that you need more than keyword-optimised landing pages and a nice website design. You need to create an experience that draws people in, piques their interest, addresses their needs and concerns, and finally, compels them to convert. This means that SEO and UX need to work together, not separately.

I like how Rand Fishkin, Moz cofounder, explains it: “You can have fantastic UX and fantastic SEO working together. In fact, they’re almost always married.”

How UX and SEO complete each other

Good SEO meshes well with good UX. Concise, legible and informative copy that is also optimised using relevant, strong keywords serves the purposes of both UX and SEO. Not only that but properly structured sites are intuitive for search spiders and users alike. These are some of the things that both Google and users value.

Let’s take a look at a few changes Google has made in the past few years that emphasise the importance of UX.

Site speed

Google made it public that site speed is a ranking factor. It also explained why speed is so important:

“Speeding up websites is important — not just to site owners, but to all Internet users. Faster sites create happy users and we’ve seen in our internal studies that when a site responds slowly, visitors spend less time there.”

Ideally, for search purposes you want your site pages to load in less than ten seconds. That’s because most web users wait six to ten seconds for a page to load before they exit, according to a Kissmetrics survey.

If your site takes longer to load, users will leave your site and, as a result, your bounce rate will increase exponentially which will cause your rankings to decrease. Check out this infographic that explains why website page load time optimisation is a must for good UX.

Fewer ads

In February 2014, Google released a refresh of its Page Layout Algorithm called the “Top Heavy algorithm”, which downgrades the ranking of a web page with too many ads at the top or with ads that are deemed too distracting for users.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how great your content is. If your site is stuffed with so many ads that your visitors have a hard time finding your content, that translates into bad user experience. When users click on a result, don’t make them scroll down the page past a slew of ads. If you want them to stay, show them the content they’re looking for right away.

Panda changes

With the Panda update, Google’s aim was to try to show high-quality sites higher in search results and, at the same time, to demote sites with low quality and duplicate content. In other words, it works as a filter that’s supposed to prevent low quality sites from ranking.

But Panda isn’t just about creating unique and useful content. It’s also about readability and usability. You need to ensure that once visitors arrive on your site, they’ll find what they’re looking for. This means high quality content and a site that is easy to navigate through. Find out more about Google’s Panda update, what it is and what small businesses should focus on to ensure their site never gets hit by a future Panda update.

Responsive design

For a few years now, Google has been pushing for better user experience through responsive websites, which is why they are now rewarding these sites with a boost in ranking. In other words, a site optimised for mobile is more likely to rank well, while a site that isn’t optimised for mobile could find itself slipping down mobile search results.

When asked by Search Engine Land whether mobile UX might become a ranking signal, a Google spokesperson apparently responded:

“Because at Google we are aiming to provide a great user experience on any device, we’re making a big push to ensure the search results we deliver reflect this principle. We want users to be able to enjoy the web wherever they are.”

This means that if you want to keep your ranking high you need to make your site mobile-friendly. Read more about the importance of having a mobile friendly site and how you can get one.

Better content

Google rewards sites with quality, relevant, easily accessible content. But it’s not just about providing users with original and useful content that helps answers their questions. Your content also needs to be well-structured so people can easily go through it. Find out more about what Google consider “quality content” and how to create it.

Wrapping up

Focusing on your visitors and making their experience on your site a pleasant one is critical to your SEO success. If you provide a poor user experience, you obviously can’t expect to get rewarded by Google. On the contrary, you will most likely get penalised by the search engine giant.

So stop focusing only on SEO and start thinking more about ways to make your visitors’ experience on your site as easy and enjoyable as possible.