How the Quest for Good UX Can Lead to Great SEO
“SEO just doesn’t work in silo any more”
said White.Net’s Head of Marketing, Charlie Williams, at Search London earlier this week.
It’s something that I firmly believe, and his words have been floating around my head for most of this week. So I’ll say it again, so it can be stuck in your head too (you’re welcome!):
SEO just doesn’t work in a silo anymore.
As with all other digital marketing disciplines, SEO is a multi-faceted beast, and the increasing sophistication of search engine algorithms along with shifting user behaviour means that the scope of SEO continues to expand.
The resulting diversification of SEO strategy increasingly causes overlaps with social, PR, content, design, UX, etc. This, in turn, requires SEO teams to be extremely flexible, needing to adapt not just to stay ahead of the curve, but to survive. This often requires agencies to evolve their SEO offering based on the movement of the industry, whilst remaining tailored to their clients’ needs. And this requires us to be continuously curious.
To me, the areas where disciplines overlap present some of the most exciting opportunities. By encouraging expansive thinking and staying curious about both your client and other digital disciplines, you can craft a holistic view upon which you can build robust strategies. This will also allow you to spot opportunities that you might not have otherwise seen.
A recent example for me, where I’ve seen SEO flourishing when it’s not in a silo, is the employment of the humble website feedback button.
Unhappy User Feedback: A Pleasant Surprise
Browsing a client’s website one day in September, I spotted at the end of a page in bold, friendly letters the words “Was this page helpful?” It was followed by two familiar gladiatorial icons – a thumbs up and a thumbs down. Click one of the thumbs and another question emerges – “Did you find what you were looking for?” – with an open field, followed by an invitation to leave your email address if you wish to be contacted by the business.
These feedback buttons were site-wide, so I was obviously intrigued as to what my client was hoping to achieve with them. After a chat with the web development team, it transpired that the main objective was to tackle any bugs in the responsive design as it adapted to different screen sizes.
The site was already well optimised for the most popular devices, but the feedback buttons were viewed as a quick way to try and identify any issues at a time when dev resources were a bit stretched. We asked the client to keep us in the loop about the feedback, but they told us not to get too excited, as they weren’t expecting many responses.
But that didn’t prove to be the case – the feedback just kept coming! And we got a bit excited.
On a manufacturer site of some 230 pages that receive roughly 11,000 users per day (Google Analytics definition of “users”), we were getting on average 12 pieces of feedback per day. It might not sound like much but it was certainly more than anticipated. In the end, we had over 1,100 likes or dislikes and over 900 individual comments for the duration the buttons were live. Some comments were rather vague or inane but a significant proportion were very valuable.
What proved most interesting, though, was that only a few comments highlighted the bugs that our client was originally hoping to find. Instead, the overwhelming majority of comments were complaints from users (existing and potential customers) unable to find the information they had come to the site for. The clear frustration was evident from the tone of the feedback (and the frequent use of colourful language!)
It reminded me of this excellent Google Analytics video on the frustration users can feel when they can’t find what they are looking for:
Now, I should say that although the type and volume of feedback wasn’t what we were expecting, the content of the comments wasn’t really a surprise – for the client or for us – but it was extremely welcome and well timed.
SEO & UX: Joined-up thinking
From digging through all the feedback, it was clear that an overarching issue was both site content and information architecture.
Fortunately, this was something we had been looking at with an arched eyebrow for some time. As you might expect from an SEO team, site performance and organic visibility were longstanding topics of discussion between ourselves and the client’s dev and marketing team.
It had already been highlighted that the conversion and engagement rates on some strategically important pages could be stronger. There were plenty of opportunities for improvement, but one key issue was pretty clear for all to see, and that was the cluttered nature of content.
A bad habit had been forming for a while, whereby content was continuously added to existing pages with little consideration about the role of that page. With the launch of a new product or campaign or offer, there would inevitably be a bit of a reshuffle in design, so new messages had more prominence. But this just led to more and more content being added and, over time, this led to confused, lengthy pages crammed with images, videos and text pushing a combination of marketing, inspirational and informational content. This was, of course frustrating for users, but from an SEO perspective, it was also sending muddled messages to search engines about the theme of website content.
Further evidence that these core pages were missing the mark was the organic rank. Pages would often rank 3-4 on Google SERPs for brand-related queries, so unclear was the role and therefore the keyword targeting of the page.
Once we starting assessing the site in more detail, it became apparent that it wasn’t a simple case of splitting out content into multiple pages. The user feedback, the conversion and engagement rate and the organic rank were all essentially telling us the same thing: that we needed to improve the overall visitor experience. There was at least one piece of negative feedback on 212 of the 230 pages, so we would need to consider how to address this site-wide.
Which ties nicely into the point of this post, which is the value of collaboration and staying ever curious about the projects that your clients are working on. You never know what invaluable things might crop up:
If we break down this UX stack, the feedback buttons had originally set out to address the Design and Technology elements of UX, but we ended up with hard evidence about the performance of Content. We, the SEO team, had already been trying to evaluate Purpose and Audience, by gleaning insights from site performance, ranking data and audience insights to inform our thoughts on what content should be on the site.
The user feedback allowed us to see a clear disconnect between what the business thought people wanted to see on the site, compared to what users actually wanted. And this insight married together the individual efforts of both the SEO and dev team. We were both trying to establish what the best possible user experience looked like, we were just coming at it from different angles.
By combining our efforts, rather than working in silo, it meant we were able to start considering what is the best customer experience.
From UX to CX: Forward Thinking
Through being curious, what began as a rather humble investigation into UX across different devices has opened up the much richer and complex question of CX.
Although I may have fortuitously stumbled into this world, others more savvy than I have already spotted the potential of CX. Digital marketer James Gurd cites the rise of CX in his post for Econsultancy on trends for 2016:
“I think we’ll see a continued increase in the number of companies who build out CX teams rather than just UX to cover core digital design.
The customer experience is wider than UX and involves complimentary skills such as customer insight and qual/quant research. This needs someone with a strategic vision and understanding of customer insight and data-driven decision making.
I’m already seeing this in some of the larger retailers and expect this to extend.”
So what’s next?
There’s a lot more work to be done with our client on defining these changes and this has evolved into a much bigger and more complex challenge, but it is an exciting one. The end result should be a website that better serves their customers’ needs, where the feedback allowed us to remove all subjectivity. It has also helped the business to have a clearer understanding about what content should and (arguably more important) should not be on the website.
Forget what you think people want from your site – let them tell you what they want. And, this is where website feedback buttons are a simple but powerful mechanism for users to share that with you.
The next step is to decide what that means for your site, which is the next exciting chapter in the journey with my client! It’s certainly quite a big topic to address, but we now have buy-in from multiple client stakeholders, which will really facilitate progress in the long term.
Website feedback buttons are super valuable! But that’s stating the bleeding obvious isn’t it? So here are a few more considerations based on my experience:
Invest in client/agency relationships: If we hadn’t had a close relationship with the client’s dev team and didn’t ask curious questions, the user feedback might never had been shared with us and only the bugs would have been fixed. And we all would have toiled away in our little silos, striving to solve the same issues but probably not getting anywhere anytime soon.
Curiosity is the friend of progress: If you’re agency side, be nosy and curious about what your clients are working on at all times. Don’t just work within the defined boundaries that have been prescribed to you – be proactive and involved with your client and all other channels. Ask where else can you add value – is there anything else you can help with? Bearing in mind scope of work and resources, of course. Enthusiasm and curiosity are essential, but be measured. A key lesson I’ve learnt over the years is not to spread yourself too thin or get heavily involved with projects that don’t contribute to overall strategic objectives. It’s a fine balancing act!
Let go of assumptions: If you’re client side, be sure to consider who else might be interested in the projects you’re working on. Don’t make assumptions about what is relevant to who. And if you have user feedback, think about who else this data and its implications may be relevant to. Data doesn’t have any value if you don’t know how to use it, or if relevant parties don’t know it exists.