Website and server traffic is often divided into two main groups: human users and search engine crawlers, also known as robots.
User experience, or UX, focuses on the first of those groups, making sure that your pages load quickly and reliably, and that it’s easy for humans to interact with your content in some way.
On commercial websites, the end goal of UX is to retain visitors for longer and guide them down your sales funnel to make a purchase, place an order or send an enquiry for your sales team to follow up.
But one thing missing from all of this is your search performance. While boosting sales is already good, does UX matter in SEO campaigns too?
Putting users first in search
Early SEO campaigns were straightforward. Put the right keywords in the right places on your page, and you could very easily become the top-ranked result for the target phrase.
There was a lot less competition from other pages and the search engine algorithms were a lot more basic, assuming that the most prominent and frequent words and phrases on a page would naturally be the most relevant.
Over the years, less ethical publishers took advantage of this to manipulate the search engines’ perceptions of their content — so the search engines became more sophisticated.
Nowadays, the focus is much more on publishing good quality content that provides genuine value to human users.
The distinction between human traffic and robots has become blurred, as the robots want to find content that human users will benefit from, rather than just indexing all content as if it offers equal value.
Ranking factors in UX
So if the search engines are starting to think like a human visitor to your website, what exactly are they looking for? Here are some of the main search ranking factors in UX in recent years.
Mobile-Friendly and Mobile-Responsive Design
Google now looks for websites that will display correctly on mobile devices. When a human searches from a mobile device, they’re more likely to get mobile-friendly websites at the top of their results.
Some ways to make your website mobile-friendly include:
- Text that displays clearly on small screens.
- Links that are easy to tap on small touchscreens.
- Responsive design that adjusts to smaller displays.
Mobile-responsive designs are based on the width of the ‘viewport’, the visible part of a web browser window, and they can also adjust what’s displayed if a user on a desktop computer resizes the browser instead of running it full-screen.
This way you can make sure valuable content remains visible rather than getting pushed out of view by logos and navigation menus.
EAT (Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness)
Google introduced the values of EAT a few years ago and they’re mostly about your content, rather than any technical issues that affect user experience.
However, it’s worth keeping them in mind. Your website should be trustworthy, authoritative and expert-level within your field.
One relevant issue here is the length of your pages. In-depth content can carry more weight in terms of EAT value, but it can also be slow to load, especially if it’s heavy on multimedia content.
Use a clearly structured page to make long articles easier to follow, and consider loading media content only when the user scrolls down (called ‘lazy’ loading) so that the initial page load is faster.
Core Web Vitals (loading, interactivity, visual stability)
Page load speed feeds into the more recent issue of Core Web Vitals, which Google is increasingly using to determine a web page’s rankings in Google Search results — as of May 2021 you may even see visible indicators of this in your search result pages.
Core Web Vitals are about how fast a page loads, how quickly the content becomes visible, and how quickly any interactive elements become usable by a human visitor.
This is one of the most directly UX-related developments in Google’s ranking algorithms in recent years, and it’s worth being aware of how to optimise your server, website and page content so that it performs well on Core Web Vitals measures.
If you want to test your Core Web Vitals performance, all of Google’s main web developer and webmaster tools now offer reports to do this.
This includes PageSpeed Insights, Chrome UX Report, Search Console, Chrome DevTools, Lighthouse and Web Vitals Extension — so whatever you use to monitor your Google-specific performance, there should be an option to check your Core Web Vitals.
If you want to know more about Core Web Vitals from a technical perspective, check out our in-depth article about using and visualising web vital data.
Best practice for on-page UX
While UX is influenced by server factors like loading speed, there are some best practices for on-page UX that you can adopt to give your content an advantage.
These are not a substitute for the Core Web Vitals mentioned above, but they can complement your technical SEO efforts for even better results overall.
In general, this is about structuring your page content so that it is easy to read and navigate.
Helping your human visitors in this way will naturally help the search robots to crawl your content too, which should help to get your pages indexed faster and better.
On-page SEO keywords are not the instant ranking boost they once were, but they’re still important.
Using specific words and phrases in prominent positions on the page can highlight the main themes and topics of the page for humans and robots alike.
The rule of thumb is that you must repeat something at least seven times if you want a person to remember it and act upon it.
Keyword repetition in prominent places like headings, subheadings, hyperlink anchor text and image captions can help you to reach this target.
A page can have multiple keywords or phrases, especially if they don’t include any of the same individual words as each other.
You can also keyword within specific sections of a longer page, to help readers understand the most important messages in that segment.
Subheadings break up longer pages into manageable chunks, and can serve as anchors for hyperlinks and in-page navigation.
A longer page with clearly defined content hierarchy is naturally better for user experience than a page that just contains solid blocks of paragraph text — even if those paragraphs have good cohesion and flow.
Use HTML tags for your subheadings. A page should have only one main <h1> heading, but can have nested subheadings from <h2> right down to <h6>.
Each of these can be formatted using CSS styles, so subheadings are also useful for visual adjustments to your site.
Internal links are good for UX within pages and across multiple pages on your site. Use descriptive link anchor text so people know what to expect when they click.
This will also pass SEO value to the destination page via those words and phrases.
On very long pages, use anchor links to skip to important content, similar (for example) to the table of contents at the top of a Wikipedia article.
When search robots crawl your website, they’ll tend to follow prominent internal links but will only crawl a maximum number of pages per visit, so having plenty of internal links pointing to high-value pages will help to make sure those pages are crawled and indexed every time.
UX First as a philosophy
The reason the search engines needed to evolve was because webmasters stopped making websites for people, and started making them primarily for the search crawlers.
As a result, content became thin, spammy and poor quality. Some pages contained blocks of SEO keywords with the text formatted to be the same colour as the page background, rendering invisible. Others copied and pasted content from other websites that already ranked well.
Over the years, successive crackdowns on this kind of behaviour have become major landmarks in the history of SEO — including events like the Google Penguin and Panda updates that penalised spammy SEO efforts.
The one practice that has continued to work throughout all those years is to put human users first, prioritise positive user experience, and produce good quality content that offers real value.
You shouldn’t look to achieve this retrospectively after publishing content originally written purely for SEO. Publishing for humans and optimising for search should go hand in hand, ideally from the very first draft of any new page.
Integrate UX and SEO into everything you produce or commission for your website, and you can avoid falling foul of poor performance on either measure.
Taking UX beyond SEO
Finally, let’s go back to the first observation we made in this article: that user experience is about humans, not robots.
Once you acknowledge this, it changes the way you think about SEO campaigns. Generating traffic is good, but it’s a means to an end — improving search rankings and increasing search traffic are not ends in themselves.
UX means when people find your website and then choose to visit it, you don’t leave them feeling lost at your front door.
Instead, they get fast, engaging content, interactivity without delay, good navigation, pages that look great on large and small screens alike, and clear ways to generate value by placing an order, registering for a newsletter, or completing some other defined goal.
The list of benefits of UX for SEO and beyond goes on and on. So if your past campaigns have focused on the search engines at the expense of your human traffic, it’s time to reassess your priorities and put people first again.