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Creating Usable, SEO-friendly websites

Shari Thurow’s recent article on Usability is a pretty good overview of usability concepts, but at the end she makes an either/or distinction between sites that are usable and sites that are findable. She states:

Nevertheless, usability and HCI professionals need to face reality: people search. People use the commercial web search engines for research, shopping, browsing, and entertainment. Just as SEO professionals should not ignore other types of search behavior, usability professionals should not ignore querying behavior.

I’m not sure what reality HCI folks need to face. As long as you adhere to certain coding fundamentals to your site’s technical design, any strategy that makes a site more usable should also improve its inherent organic findability. At the end of the day, Google’s primary goal–the goal of all search engines, really–is to create relevant, valuable results. Google outlines what they consider relevant in no uncertain terms; it is almost the same now as it was over a year ago. A usable site is generally well organized, clear, and uses text to guide users. Search engines LOVE sites like that. Usability spawns SEO, not just the other way around.

This isn’t to say that usability is an easy task…

First, there is often tension between SEO inputs, which are closely tied to markets, and usability, which is generally understood in the context of people. It is easy for marketing departments to visualize the generally cosmetic changes to copy that are required to increase organic visibility. In contrast a re-examination of the kind of person using products, or a change in emphasis on the site to a different, user-centered focus, can shake the assumptions of many companies. This is particularly true if the website represents real estate that is coveted by various departmental fiefdoms who equate visibility on the site with status in the organization.

Second, Usability work is conceptually easy, but it is often technically hard to implement. SEO for the most part involves adding copy to existing site copy. Usability almost always requires changes in layout, language and labeling, and site architecture. Often technology creates usability problems and must be addressed, which can be very expensive.

The way that we address this issue is to take on the challenges in order to “fixability”. Generally this goes something like this:

  1. Technical considerations
  2. Usability and HCI considerations
  3. SEO considerations

This falls well in line with modern best practices for software development, which argues that you hit the highest-risk problems first, followed by the hardest things, and finally complete the project with the easiest tasks. A site with poor technical implementation (i.e., completely flash) can cripple any SEO effort.

Usability, as we described above, can be very challenging organizationally and often requires a lot of effort to sell, so getting the mockups and designs into circulation so that they can be debated and absorbed is critical.

Finally, SEO is implemented because most SEO changes are subtle changes of existing text or expansions using current templates.

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