A high search engine ranking is invaluable for marketing a product or service. On average, results on the first page of Google earn 71% of clicks — sometimes more. Compare that to just 6% for results on the second page.
Consumers trust search engines to suggest the most relevant webpages as quickly as possible, so they’re not wasting time diving 10 pages deep. They’re tapping into the first few results and only looking at more if they absolutely need to.
So how do search engines determine your ranking? It’s not just about SEO anymore. These days, website usability matters too. Search engines are getting smarter every day, switching up their algorithms to give searchers the best solutions and the best user experiences. The best-ranked websites around take both website usability and SEO into account.
But when you’re just starting out, which one should you prioritize? Is it even possible to rank without great SEO or without great usability? Here’s what you need to know about the present and future of website usability vs. SEO.
What Is SEO?
Search engine optimization is all about content. It’s the process of improving your content so it ranks high on search engine results pages (SERPs) for specific keywords.
Say you’re writing a blog post to target the keyword “marketing agency.” To make it SEO-friendly, some tactics you may use include:
- Including the keyword in your title, headers, meta description, alt tags, and URL.
- Making the blog post readable by breaking up text and using visuals.
- Matching the search intent of people who look up the term (or, to put it more simply, answering their questions).
- Adding internal links to other pages on your site.
- Adding external links to trustworthy sites to back up your content.
Link building — or getting inbound links to your site from high-quality sources — is another example of a key SEO tactic.
When you focus on SEO, you’re using your content — and in the case of link-building, external content — to indicate to search engines that your webpage is the most relevant and trustworthy source.
What is Website Usability?
Website usability, on the other hand, is all about the experience users have while viewing your content. Usability looks at design and functionality above all else.
Once a visitor lands on your site, will they be able to easily view and navigate your content? Does your menu make sense? Are your images and videos loading fast?
While SEO was once the end-all, be-all factor for search engine rankings, website usability is increasingly important. Mobile-friendliness and website speed now have a direct impact on your placement on SERPs.
But beyond these two critical ranking factors, website usability has a powerful secondhand impact on your ranking, too.
The Hidden Impact of Website Usability
Some characteristics of a usable website may not directly impact your rank, but they do contribute to major ranking signals.
Take website design for instance. When you fail to use the right color schemes on your site, you can evoke the wrong moods, make your text and buttons hard to read, or generally put off your visitors. This can mean higher bounce rates, lower click-through rates, and shorter dwell times — all of which can negatively impact your page rank. Consider doing user story mapping before designing your site. By mapping visitors’ possible interaction(s) with your website, you can work around problems before they occur.
Similarly, committing to website accessibility — an element of usability that helps people with disabilities access your content — can help boost your ranking, too. Many key practices of accessibility overlap with key SEO practices.
For example, when you create transcripts for your videos or alt text for your images, you’re adding text that search engines can scan for keywords and context. Or, when you structure your content well, you make your website more compatible with Google’s algorithm and with screen readers.
As tech companies become more aware of accessibility needs and consumers increasingly value the great UX, website usability will become more critical to achieving much-coveted high search engine rankings.
SEO is Still King :These are all key to good mobile site design except?
Despite the growing trend toward usability, content is still the top factor for ranking. Without SEO, it’s hard to rank well at all.
Your content tells Google, Bing, and other search engines what your website is about in the first place, so you can show up for the search terms that matter most for your brand.
On the flip side, if you only had great UX, you may incidentally show up for some searches — but never for keywords that your competitors are vying for. With poor SEO, your competitors are guaranteed to outrank you, at least for the keywords with the highest search traffic.
Website Usability Separates You from the Competition
So is it possible to rank high on SERPs with bad UX? Technically, yes — but you shouldn’t consider it.
Let’s start with why it’s possible. When you have high-quality content that’s valuable, well-structured, and filled with target keywords, you can still be the most relevant resource for a given query.
If a user wants to know how to brew a cup of tea, but everyone else is writing about where to buy tea instead, search engines will likely point to you if you can meet search intent directly — even if you have poor UX.
But there’s the catch: You can only effectively rank high with bad UX if your competitors have poor or non targeted content.
Usability isn’t the ultimate deciding factor. But if competitors’ content is pretty on par with yours, it can be the difference between getting a top-ranked page and getting pushed to the second page.
In this day and age, when more companies are doing search engine marketing than ever, it’s hard to find any keywords with decent traffic that no one else is competing for.
Beyond ranking on Google, usability is also key to retention and conversion. Even if you gain an enormous amount of website visitors through SEO alone, many won’t stay — much less make a purchase — if your site isn’t easy to use. Bad usability can limit your ability to build trust, too.
Bad UX would ultimately negate the positive impact of increasing organic traffic.
Website Usability vs. SEO: Which Should You Focus On?
When you’re an entrepreneur, you probably don’t have a ton of spare time to dedicate to both usability and SEO. So which should you prioritize?
Though UX isn’t as critical of a ranking factor as SEO, prioritizing some of the most basic usability practices can make all the difference for your long-term ranking and retention. After all, you don’t want traffic unless your website looks professional.
Before diving into SEO, simply make your website functional, readable, and mobile-friendly. If you’re using a website template or website builder, this step should be fairly simple, if not automatic.
Once you’ve achieved usability fundamentals, start honing in on SEO to start gaining the traffic you need. Content is still king when it comes to boosting web traffic — but don’t forget to keep website usability in mind to maximize your conversions, too.