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Target Both Users and Search Engines When Designing Your Web Site

When you are designing a Web site, you may wonder who should you be targeting, the search engines or your human visitors? Which should take precedence in your site design, and how do you serve both? Luckily, balancing these complementary needs is not as complicated as it seems. Search engine optimization (SEO) and usability can work hand in hand. In fact, many of the things that are good for search engines benefit human visitors as well.

Some marketers are adamant that usability take priority over SEO, arguing that an unusable Web site can be at the top of the search engine results pages and still never make money. The reverse is pointed out as well — SEO has to come first because the most perfectly usable site in the world still has to have visitors who use it before it is worth anything.

The confusion arises because people commonly mistake what the goal of each approach really is and makes the assumption that the two are incompatible. In many people’s minds, SEO advocates a complicated set of rules to follow, games to play, pages to write, links to attract, and hoops to jump through. Usability has also grown to complex proportions, incorporating the use of personas, conversion funnels (the path that a visitor takes to get to a conversion, most commonly a purchase) and psychology degrees in human factors. But if you strip away all of the ways in which both are done, their goals are remarkably similar. SEO is the process of designing a Web strategy that gives search engine spiders the best picture of the Web site possible. Usability is the process of designing a Web strategy that gives visitors the most satisfactory experience possible.

You need to focus first on the things that SEO and usability have in common and then put the rest into balance. SEO is about more than simply ranking well in the search engines. The key is to rank well in the search engines for the keywords that are most relevant. If your site is the most expert and best for your human visitors, your SEO campaign should be working to demonstrate that to the search engines. The below table lists a few examples of how improving the usability of your site often benefits your SEO campaign, as well.

Usability Improvements Often Go Hand-In-Hand with SEO
Usability Improvement SEO Benefit
Do research to find out where your target users are looking for you Combines with keyword research
Develop each landing page so that it’s well suited to help particular users based on their search query Optimizes pages around specific keywords
Build a larger network of links coming from external Web pages so that more people can find your site Increases the perception to the search engines that your site is an expert and raises your link equity
Discern where your target audience “lives” online when they aren’t on your site Identifies where you need to be getting links because chances are, those sites are relevant
Make your site navigation clear and easy to travel for users Also allows search engine spiders to get around your site more easily
Write clean copy that states exactly what you offer visitors Helps search engines determine what each page is about
Use clarifying words so that your terms make sense in context Helps search engines understand what queries are relevant to your pages
Put your site on a fast, stable server to provide good site performance to users Speeds the search engine spiders along their way
Create user-friendly error screens that explain the problem and give users links to other options when a page can't be displayed Optimizes the 404 Page Can Not Be Displayed error page and redirected pages so that search engines can move through them easily to functioning pages on your site
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