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Cage Match: UX vs. SEO

In the UX world we talk a lot of smack about SEO. It's not just us, though. It seems like everyone I talk to has something bad to say about it: it's a scam, it's sleazy, it's black-hat, it's just a buzzword. We all tend to think that our disciplines are morally superior to SEO, and not without reason. SEO seems like it's about gaming the system to give your site an advantage (see this recent NYTimes article on gaming the system if you need convincing). Lots of SEO practices like link farming and keyword stuffing are cheap tricks that inflate page rank at the expense of more deserving sites and end users, but even honest SEOs using legitimate techniques get our hackles up.

When you do a search for UX and SEO you get a lot of crap. And I mean A LOT of crap. But amongst the crap are a decent number of articles that argue that SEO and UX not only should get along, but when done correctly, get along without trying. So why does it seem like every time UX and SEO get together it sounds like your peace-activist sister arguing with your pro-business father over Thanksgiving dinner? I think it's a problem of perspective.

Different Perspectives

That UX and SEO approach sites differently is hardly a revelation, but it's strange that two camps with essentially the same end goal can disagree so vehemently about approach.

I think one of the most important reasons for the schism is how UX and SEO think about the audience. UX is concerned with users: individuals with psychology, personality, and goals. To connect users to what they're looking for, UX tries to understand users' motivations, perceptions, and feelings. For UX, the individual user tends to be at the center of decision making. On the other hand SEO puts search engines at the center of their decision making process. When SEO does consider people it looks at them as "traffic," a herd with tendencies that can be exploited to maximize revenue.

Before we go painting the dastardly mustache on SEO, though, we need to consider another key difference between UX and SEO perspectives: roles and responsibility. SEO is tasked with and held accountable for getting as many people to the site as possible. It's hard to deny that when looking at search results users as a species behave very predictably, they click on the results at the top of the list. Once those users land on the site, SEO's job is done and it becomes UX and design's responsibility to charm them, help them find what they want, and turn them into paying customers.

These differences are fundamental and lead to different design conclusions about design and content. UX wants to make users happy by setting the right mood, making things easy, and have great content. SEO wants to make robots happy by giving them the right parameters and tokens. The tone of a site that stimulates users isn't important to SEO but using the keywords that stimulate search engines is. For example, where UX might suggest one sentence to support an image to engage users' imagination, SEO wants a paragraph of text that refers to the same thing in half a dozen different ways to make the idea clear for an algorithm.

Common Ground

It's pretty obvious that we're coming from different places, but in spite of our different roles and ways of thinking about our users, there's quite a bit we share. Before UX can aid or persuade users, users need to find the site. If we listen to Donald Norman (and I do) finding a site is actually one part of your experience with it. To that end, good ranking in search results is critical to a good user experience. Fortunately, good UX, including information architecture, content strategy, and accessibility do a lot to make your site attractive to search engines. Here're a few SEO best practices that clearly fall under the good UX umbrella:

  • Descriptive, human readable URLS.
  • Limiting the use of flash, images as text, and content inserted by javascript.
  • Reducing the number of clicks required to get to a given page.
  • A good internal link structure.
  • Use language your users use (i.e. know what keywords your users will search for).
  • Use descriptive language.
  • Avoid duplicate content.

Basically, if UX creates a good information architecture, ensures accessibility, and defines a good content strategy, a lot of SEO recommendations are covered. In the UX world we refer to the outcome of these practices as findability, or the ease with which a user can find the information they're looking for. Findability, like an antidote to the framing behind SEO, is concerned with how easy it is to find information from within a site, but also from without (i.e. in searches). So what's left for SEO to do?

Why Suffer the Charlatans

I'd argue not much, but there are some things that SEO can teach us that we might otherwise ignore. For one, SEO takes a lot of care to include all of the relevant keywords in site copy. Good copy writing tells us to vary our vocabulary, but SEO tells us which variations are going to be most attractive to indexers. SEO also likes links embedded in-line and in context, something that modern UX seems to avoid. In addition to potentially improving your page rank, inline links can give a feeling of serendipity as a user moves around a site. I don't think SEO is a good enough reason to make decisions about your vocabulary or how you link to items on your site, but it is an important consideration as you explore alternatives.

SEO also reminds us to look at our site's position in the greater virtual community that surrounds it. This includes everything from social media presences to a Wikipedia page about your site or organization. If you want a prime spot in the search results it's really important that other site link to you. The best possible external links are from reputable sources like .gov, .edu sites or major news organizations. Getting these folks to take notice might not be in the UX job description, but a great experience is going to do more to convince others to link to you than anything short of a scandal.

A Reluctant Acceptance

I'm not convinced that SEO does anything that good IA, copy writing, graphic design, and development aren't already doing. When it's isolated, I continue to find the discipline misguided at best, and dishonest at worst, but I have to admit that the perspective SEO brings to the table is an important one. Without SEO lurking in the shadows I'm not sure Peter Morville would have found an audience as receptive to the concept of findability as it was. Great teams rely on the tension created by different perspectives and SEO pushes us to think about how we look from the outside. The fact is that if people can't find your site in the current web-ecosystem (that is, through a search engine) you don't have any users, and without users you can't have much of a user experience.


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