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SXO: Search Experience Optimization. SEO experts love users too!

Note: this article has been slightly tweaked since it was first published. I am laughing because search engine specialists have found a way to rebrand a more user-friendly approach to SEO. You can now call that SXO or search experience optimization. 

Sometimes there’s a bit of a misunderstanding between SEO specialists and user experience advocates.

Well, to be frank, it’s more like getting a stink eye from UX designers when you say you love SEO. UX and SEO don’t always go hand in hand in people’s minds. But there are many ways one can improve a good user experience by thinking about UX and SEO together. So how do you make SEO work for you to create a great user experience?
First, let’s backtrack a bit and lay some foundations on the meaning of user experience and search:
  • In a broad sense, UX focuses on certain groups of people (the target audiences) and the industry’s trends.
  • SEO works by focusing on a website’s visibility in search engines.
In an ideal world, the things SEO experts want and what UX designers want overlap. Great user experience design should include thinking about search experience. Many users begin their journey in a search bar before landing on a website. Think about the experience your content offers when displayed in search engine page results. However, nothing is perfect and reality involves having to deal with people who use black hat SEO and others who use dark UX patterns. Why? Well because it’s the eternal battle of good vs evil or something like that. Oh yes, and human nature.

SEO, how does it work?! A retro-look at the vintage Google: 

Once upon a time, SEO was about fucking with algorithms in nasty ways just to be number one on some fuck-witted keyword.
And guess what? Once upon a time, SEO was the only way most websites would benefit from an actual thoughtfully formed information architecture and overall user experience. Why? Because we made money out of websites.

Let me try that again, this time with a bit more politically correct fairy dust in the air: 

Once upon a time, rankings were all that mattered. We’ve come a long way since then. Today, the people who are good at SEO are good at reaching, attracting and converting their target audience. As SEOs we got wise to ranking algorithms and search engines got wise to us messing with their algorithms. It’s been a mutually beneficial frennemy type relationship. We all evolved in a positive manner because of this. 
Our bottom line switched from bringing traffic to ensuring that qualified traffic arrived and turned into satisfied visitors. It’s what we would call the UX/SEO sweet spot because search engines, especially Google, made it clear in their Google User Experience Guidelines that users should be the center of attention:
Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.

SEO is critical to the overall user experience

Most SEOs can’t claim to have a full, in-depth expertise of UX optimization principles, however, we have an understanding of many of the basic website UX principles. Why? Well because over the years, we’ve learned to focus on the visitor. The bottom line is to get people to do things on the website, not just drive traffic. With that in mind, most of us are going to get wise to UX principles rather fast or drop out of the industry.
Search engines have some very advanced data mining operations. The data they collect helps them understand user behavior and allows them to tweak their ranking algorithms in accordance. Just look at some of the updates Google made over the years like Panda, Penguin, Rank Brain and you’ll see constant efforts to improve the quality of search results provided to users.
Anything an SEO expert does to satisfy search engines is means to satisfy the people using these tools to find stuff online. It pains us to see our hard work go down the drain. Driving traffic to a website, just to see it bounce is not something we aspire to. Which is why most of us are pretty rabid about improving UX and conversions. It gets harder and harder to measure our performance in simplistic terms of yore. Being ranked number 1 on a keyword doesn’t mean you have “good SEO”.

It starts with user intent not keywords

The base starting point for almost all online marketing is keyword research. This affects everything from web design to site messaging to navigation to the content of the site. Except that it’s no longer about keywords but about the intent behind the keywords. If I want an “easy vegan brownie recipe”, it probably says something about my lifestyle, or at the very least something about my current context when I search for a recipe. There is a whole art to keyword research, and I recommend you read up on it. We simply want to know what people are looking for online. And from a UX standpoint, two things help SEO experts understand which keywords are important: language and intent.
  • Searcher Language: Keywords give us extremely valuable insight on how searchers think about our products or services. Far too often, companies talk to themselves instead of talking to their customers. Many searchers don’t care what the “official” term is to describe what you do/sell/offer. Keyword research helps uncover the words your customers use along with the problems they have and the solutions they seek.
  • Searcher Intent: If I type “car” in Google…it doesn’t necessarily mean I want to buy a car. The more you get into long-tail queries, the more you can deliver content that matches search intent.

Meta titles and descriptions or the art of getting attention

Being first on Google doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t generate traffic. We want people to click on your result. The good news is that it’s entirely possible to get more clicks than a competitor who is ranking higher than you thanks to various elements that entice visitors to click your link. Capturing the visitor’s attention and ensuring them that your content is the one they seek is something SEOs are very sensitive to.
chocolate cake google search result
  • Title Tags: This is the link that can be clicked in the result. You have 70 characters or less to make your point. Use it wisely! The meta title must fit the search intent (with keywords) and provide relevant information to the user.
  • URLs / Breadcrumbs: The URL of the page or the breadcrumb trail follows the title tag. This provides an additional signal to the searcher regarding the relevance of the result.
  • Meta Descriptions: This tag doesn’t impact SEO ranking but it’s your 155 character elevator pitch to the user.
  • Rich snippets: Rich snippets are very useful in getting the user’s attention. They provide a small sample of your content and enhance your search listing by making them more enticing.

Great, we have your attention…what next?

Pogosticking is a term in our industry that describes the visitor behavior occurring when a website ranks highly but fails to satisfy the needs of visitors so they go back to Google to click another result or do another search. SEO experts aim to keep things clear, pertinent and fast in order to combat Pogosticking. We do it various ways :

On page SEO optimization tips for UX

SEO experts have some knowledge of UX best practices because we have to deal with crafting a great user experience every day. Ok, our main users happen to be crawlers but still…these guys aim to mimic human behavior as best as they can.
  • Site ID: Your logo and tagline is something we care about. It must be there. It also happens that we often require it to be part of the content hierarchy on the homepage to make things extra clear. We add the company name when we have space in our meta titles to reinforce the site ID right in the search result pages. That’s why you often see things like this:

Search result page in google

  • Content Hierarchy: Content hierarchy is how crawlers and accessibility tools figure out what they main theme of the page is and how it’s structured. This goes hand in hand with UX because oftentimes, visitors will scan content to find what they need. Heading tags are great beacons to help them ensure that the content is relevant.
  • Content Optimization and semantics: We look into visitor intent and how we can best structure content to fulfill user needs. This happens on-page and throughout the website. SEOs can help provide insights as to how content should be structured to help User Experience Design. We require each page to have a primary goal and everything on the page should guide the visitor toward the completion of that one primary goal. We need content to simply make sense for a user.
  • Navigation: Navigation is something SEO and UX can meet on. Using the right words, in the right setting can make a world of difference for search engines and users.
  • Links: Oftentimes, UX experts and SEO specialists will agree that internal links cannot be empty anchors. “click here” is our common enemy as it is devoid of context and brings no value to users and search engines alike. SEOs pay attention to a website’s internal linking to help users make navigate a website. Buried pages that are lost within a website is not something we enjoy as it is hard for us to ensure they rank well without proper linking.

Creating content to improve user experience

UX and SEO care about creating useful, pertinent, informative content that will satisfy users. We just look at it from different perspectives. We both seek the human element whether we design things or optimize them. The emphasis on answering the users’ needs help create a better user experience.
Some nifty tools you can check out:
  • answer the public
  • google trends


Content should be relevant, good quality and engaging content. That’s something UX and SEO experts both strive for because it is rewarded by search engines and visitors alike. Readability in SEO is the optimization of the content in order to be clear, relevant, and informative, covering a topic as much as possible, in order to increase the page’s authority and pertinence for search engines. In 2016, most of us don’t bother with keyword stuffing. We aim to answer user search intent to the best of our ability with well structured, clear and useful content.
Readability from a UX standpoint is all about pleasing users and making sure their first impression is a positive one. Readability means the content of a page is concise, clear, functional on all devices and browsers.

Improving load times for better UX & mobile SEO

Speed is a component of SEO optimization, regardless of platform (we care about desktop, table and phone). Slow load times mean limited exposure to searchers.
  • Image Compression: You don’t have to compromise image quality for speed. We look into the best image forms that provide the best quality for your image. (Heads up, we favor JPG formats first) and then we run compression tools to decrease the size without decreasing the quality. Or we have neat little tricks of requiring icons to be turned into fonts that load up very fast!
  • Streamlined Code: SEO experts fight code bloat and aim to keep things lean and clean to ensure good load times.
  • Fast Servers: Web hosting plays a critical role in speed issues. Favor a dedicated server to improve the speed. If you must deal with shared hosting, SEO experts are a great resource to find out how to improve the situation. We have tips, tricks, experience in dealing with improving server response times.

Always testing

Constant testing: that’s one behavior SEO and UX experts have in common. We are always looking to improve things because the Web is a cold, harsh, unforgiving terrain…and because users really ain’t got time for shitty websites or apps.

Website visitor metrics to help UX

Data is awesome. Data helps me bring insights to the design side of the team. Just to be clear, when I say design, I include information architecture, content production, aesthetic design, code, and analytics. All of these elements contribute to the final design of a website or app.
Sadly, since I am not an oracle, I have to get those insights from somewhere. Somewhere being Google Analytics, Google Search Console and other tools that help me track and measure things people do. With Google Analytics, I get to see what people do on the website and then dig around to start thinking about why they most likely do it. Basically, I go on a massive data gathering mission. Pretty soon, it turns into a giant horde (and it’s all mine! all mine! well, no. I actually share the crap out of it.)
Some of the metrics I look at:
  • Audience demographics
  • User journeys
  • Popular page content
  • Popular internal search queries
  • User engagement
  • Load time
  • Traffic sources
  • Nature of the traffic (owned, earned, etc.)
  • Device Types
  • Location
  • Language
To resume, when I look at the stuff people do on a website and on other, I aim to discover the kind of experience users want to pass it on to UX designers because they can translate these nuggets of information into tangible things that can be implemented.
Side note: SEO experts have this tendency to look way beyond their own little website. We look at the competition, trends, and any other source of data that we can get our hands on to light a path to a better understanding of our visitors.

Analyzing Google ranking positions to spot areas for UX improvement

Understanding where your content ranks on search engines is important, especially from a UX standpoint. Why? Well because if crappy content shows up in search results instead of informative, useful content….then we (the UX, the SEO and the user) have problems. Understanding where and why pages get organic visibility can help uncover issues related to content, competitors and technical issues. You can have the best website in the world….if people can’t find it, it doesn’t really matter.

Ongoing reporting and improvements

Despite the best UX efforts, users may experience some pains when using a new (or newly redesigned) website. SEOs look at user behavior on website and apps. We segment and filter the data because vanity metrics are not our thing. We look at broken links, speed issues, mobile friendly designs, engaging metadata and other types of things that can help us get an edge.
Thanks for reading!
Psst, head on here if you want to read more about search experience optimization 🙂