Should You Build Your Site for SEO or Usability?

In the struggle between search engine optimization (SEO) and usability, where do you draw the line?

SEO drives people to your site, but usability converts them when they get there. You need the traffic from SEO to get visitors that could convert, but if those visitors don’t do anything useful on your site, there’s no point in getting them there.

So, do you pile on the links and use lots of keyword-based text to drive organic search performance or streamline the flow for a better user experience?

You don’t need to choose.

Anyone who tells you that you need excessive text or links “for SEO” is living in the past. Modern SEO, like the modern search algorithms we work to interpret, is based not only on relevance (words and context) and authority (links and mentions), but also on searcher experience.

Google’s SEO Starter Guide shares this advice:

“You should build a website to benefit your users, and any optimization should be geared toward making the user experience better. One of those users is a search engine, which helps other users discover your content.”

SEO is about communicating relevance and authority signals to search engines in order to get the right searcher to the right page at the right time to complete a goal.

Providing a poor customer experience when the searcher lands on your site increases searcher pogo-sticking: land, look, leave. That’s different than bouncing, which is defined as any one-page visit. If a searcher lands, consumes valuable content, and leaves after fulfilling their goal on that one page, that would be a bounce.

Pogo-sticking, on the other hand, is landing and then quickly returning to the search engine to choose another search result or conduct a different search. Google interprets this action as a signal that the user experience on the page isn’t positive, and counts it as a negative ranking signal.

As a result, we can’t juxtapose SEO and usability as competing disciplines. They never truly were, but some SEO professionals have cared less about user experience in their SEO efforts than others. It’s one of the reasons that the acronym SEO conjures up visions of dense, grey text liberally sprinkled with blue, underlined links.

Modern SEO is more concerned with the context and intent of the page.

Is the visitor in a transaction mode? Give them the products they want and get them on their way with a minimum of well written text and only the essential, relevant links.

Conversely, if the visitor is in information mode, provide longer text with details, analysis, and links to other relevant information. That’s not a free pass to generate a grey wall of text. The site needs to provide some eye candy: relevant images, diagrams, bullets, or tables to break up the grey. Giving visitors visual relief on their journey through your content increases the likelihood that they’ll remain on your site.

Words and links will always be important to SEO; they’re the very foundation on which algorithmic signals are built. However, mindless keyword repetition and the more-is-more approach haven’t worked for years. In order to reach your organic search traffic and conversion goals, focus on SEO and usability – not one at the expense of the other.

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