Today, the relationship between UX and SEO is mostly a friendly one, for reasons that we will get to later in this article. In fact, you will often find SEO specialists (at least those who know their stuff) emphasizing the importance of UX for SEO.
But it wasn’t always like that.
There used to be a time when, if you locked a user experience agency and an SEO specialist together in a room for more than an hour, chances were only one of them was coming out.
Usually in such situations, both sides are to take some of the blame. In this case, however, SEO people are really the ones to hang their heads in shame (and most of them do).
The Bad Old Days
In order to understand why the bad old days were so bad, it is essential to understand a bit about how Google works and how it determines which pages will rank best when users make a query.
Google uses an algorithm that combines a huge number of factors (at least 200 of them) to decide how relevant a certain page is for a certain search query. From its earliest days, Google was never too forthcoming about what factors play the most important role in order to keep people from artificially boosting search engine positions.
As a result, SEO people have traditionally spent a huge portion of their time using various trial and error tactics to try and figure it out.
In the bad old days, keywords were found to be one of the most important factors. Google’s algorithm was still in its early days and, together with inbound links, keywords were the most straightforward factor that could be easily checked and ranked automatically.
As a result, the SEO community, or at least a significant portion of it, indulged in practices which resulted in churned-out, empty content packed with tons of keywords to start with. Then, spectacularly spammy meta descriptions and titles, URL slugs, and image alt tags were added. The most “resourceful” SEO people even ‘cloaked’ keywords in non-text elements on web pages.
This went beyond just on-page content as SEO people built links on personal network blogs and other article-dumpsters, artificially boosting the values of their pages.
Of course, the UX people and everyone else with half a brain (including some SEO people) saw this as a bad thing. And it really was.
It was a mess of colossal proportions.
Google Getting Better
It didn’t take too long for the people from Google to notice this and start working on remedying it. In all probability, they had been aware of the vulnerability of their early algorithm and they probably expected that this might happen from the very start, but just didn’t have a cost-effective way of dealing with it.
As time went by, this changed and Google started penalizing this ridiculous behavior and the websites that indulged in it.
More importantly, Google started shifting its algorithm more towards the quality of content and actual user experience. Through the aforementioned process of trial and error, the SEO community noticed that Google has been assigning more and more value to factors that would be best described as UX factors:
- Bounce rate (the most obvious indicator of landing page experience)
- Page loading speed
- Mobile usability
- Page layout
- User-friendly navigation
All of this was accompanied by reducing the value of keyword-related factors, especially in the old-timey, exact-matchy, spammy way. In fact, focusing too much on keywords is more likely to land you in hot water.
This is an ongoing process but it is already clear that Google will continue to put visitors’ experience first and make sure people get value from the pages they are sent to from the search engine.
What SEO Looks like These Days
Due to these changes to the Google algorithm and a more vocal approach that Google’s people have been taking more recently, the majority of SEO people have adopted a new, more UX-friendly approach to their work.
In other words, the best SEO practices nowadays are far more interested in what they serve to the visitors of the website.
For a start, if you want to do smart SEO these days, you move away from overstuffing your content with keywords just for the sake of them. Natural, valuable content will (in the vast majority of cases) provide more than enough context for Google’s algorithm to understand what the content is about.
The content itself is nowadays king and we are talking about more than just the quality of writing here. We are talking page layout and content that is easy to skim through. We are talking tables of contents, images, and video (always optimized for faster loading). We are talking about mobile optimization so that the majority of users actually have a comfortable experience consuming your content.
All of this stuff is nowadays more valuable than cramming 3% (or whatever the current theory is) of keywords in your content.
The same goes for meta descriptions and title tags which have been dramatically devalued when compared to the bad old days. You will want to refrain from over-optimized tags and descriptions and keep your visitors in mind. In other words, the smart SEO practice is to use them for what they were meant to be used for — to give the visitor an idea of what the page is about.
If we are talking web site-wide smart SEO practices, you will once again find out that SEO is moving closer and closer to UX. Flat and clear website hierarchies, pages optimized for fast loading, smart pagination and canonicalization, to-the-point and valuable content — these are all smart SEO practices nowadays and it’s not that rare to hear SEO specialists talking about them.
There used to be a time when website designer San Francisco and SEO specialists couldn’t have been more in disagreement. As Google’s algorithm kept getting better, the get-rich-quick, non-UX-friendly practices went out of style, and nowadays, what is good for UX is good for SEO too.
There will always be some disagreement between the UX and the SEO people, but at least we can sit down and have a drink these days.