Why you should treasure good user experience as a ranking signal

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SEO Ranking Factors Series #4: User Experience.
In a series of posts, we look at some of the key factors that Google and the other search engines take into consideration when deciding on where to place a site in the organic results for a given search query. 

If user engagement and ranking together in the title made you wince, you might not be the only reader with that response. You might say “Well, user experience is not confirmed as a direct ranking factor”. I’d say you’re technically right, for now.

Hear me out.

user experience ranking signals

Engagement was voted last year as one of the top ten most influential ranking factors. Yet it isn’t a confirmed ranking factor, in fact Google’s own analyst John Mueller said in a sweeping statement that it isn’t a ranking signal in August 2015.

From Google themselves come the contradictions, which leaves some of us in confusion and misery. But it shouldn’t! Just because it isn’t an official signal now doesn’t mean it won’t be confirmed as one in the future.

We know that understanding user data is important to Google, even if they are vague on its impact to Search Engine Results Pages. I mean they even have a patent to use your phone’s camera to understand your feeling towards a particular search result (please smile if you are reading this on mobile). Note: Google does have a lot of patents and not all of them are for actual working mechanics.

It’s simple common sense that your website’s user engagement it’s important, but why so for SEO?

Why user engagement is important for SEO

Optimising a website for search engines necessitates optimising it for visitors. Without good user experience, SEO efforts will be frustrated, with disappointing levels of conversions, social shares and backlinks, whereas good UX benefits the entire website, as well as other aspects of your marketing.

We know that Google is trying to understand how users interact not just with content, but also with website structure in general. Content and structure must find a balance between what works well for SEO purposes and what benefits UX to avoid conflict between the two.

I think we can agree that the best user experiences are those that:

  • Engage and attract users
  • Offer consistent, positive brand-positioning
  • Boost sales and conversions
  • Reduce operational and resource costs

Those goals are aligned with the end goals of good SEO. So we’re working with the same metrics, why not combine the approach to achieving those goals.

Start planning for good UX in three steps:

  1. Get over the curse of knowledge

You’re too close to your site. There is nothing more valuable than a fresh set of eyes and a great free tool for that is peek – try it out here.

  1. Get to know your user engagement data

Read on below.

  1. Avoid common UX mistakes

Read this great post about user experience mistakes by our Head of Design at Found.

UX as a ranking factor

Learn the data and metrics of UX

Click-through Rate

It’s thought that organic click-through rate (CTR) – the number of visitors to a site who follow an organic search result hyperlink to get there – does still have some effect on search rankings, but Google remains frustratingly vague on the subject.

Of course CTR has the potential to be manipulated, leaving SERPs vulnerable to abuse but, particularly when combined with other metrics such as bounce rate and time on-site, it can also be very informative on how a site is performing on user satisfaction.

A high CTR is naturally beneficial to webmasters, providing they can then keep the visitors on-site. One example of how organic CTR can be increased is the inclusion of keyword-rich snippets with effective calls-to-action for the SERPS.

If your snippet, domain, title or some other aspect on the SERPs can potentially boost the CTR beyond what would normally be expected, then Google may look at that and think your site should be ranking higher.

Time on site

Search engines can easily track dwell time or how quickly someone comes back to them after clicking through to your site. In some cases, they will be looking for the answer to a simple query, so this is not an issue, but if for instance the page they click on to contains a lengthy blog post and they’re clicking away within a matter of seconds, then the search engine is naturally going to assume the page is not meeting expectations for that particular search query. This therefore impacts upon the value of your CTR as well.

Since time on-site is an increasingly important ranking factor, a positive UX is very helpful. Ensure your site is easy to navigate, with logical and relevant internal links.

If there is something that visitors find interesting, useful or informative then they will stay longer. It emphasises the need for high-quality content.

Internal links

An effective internal link structure will help your visitors to find their way around your website, and it also distributes link equity to where it is most needed, helping to meaningfully improve your rankings. Additionally, if someone is interested in content on a certain topic, linking to related content on the same domain that will also likely be of use will improve the UX.

  • Introduce plenty of content, containing natural, un-optimised anchor text
  • Link deep and naturally
  • Use follow links for link equity distribution
  • Use breadcrumb navigation so that visitors know where they are
  • Ensure the pages you want to be picked out by search engine spiders can be found easily and are not blocked off, such as by being embedded in Flash or internal search boxes

Presence of unordered lists

Unordered lists, for instance the one above arranged with bullet points, are a common feature of high-ranking pages. They make for a good way to condense a lot of information into an easily readable, user-friendly format. People appreciate being able to find what they want to know quickly.

Note that when you’re optimizing a website for mobile that it’s best to keep your unordered lists fairly short, thereby avoiding the need for repetitive scrolling.

Video integration

It has been estimated that video in all its forms, such as streaming movies, could account for up to 80-90% of all web traffic by 2019. Take-up, even by small websites, is growing rapidly. Video indicates the presence of rich content to search engines and will therefore play an important role in their algorithms.

Label your on-site video with keywords just as you would with images, to let the search engines know what the content is about, and consider including a transcript on the page to help further.

Remember that when you embed a video on a page, such as with YouTube, it weighs the page down. A single video can download substantial amounts of data and make multiple HTTP requests even before the user hits the play button. Optimise the video, such as by loading the video player to begin on-demand, to help reduce page-loading times.

importance of UX

Responsive design

Google is on record as saying that it prefers responsive design for websites, as opposed to adaptive design or separate sites for different devices. While the search giant has also been clear that the type of design is not a ranking factor, and that all things are equal, webmasters should note that there can be indirect effects of not using a responsive design that correlate with impaired search rankings.

Bad redirects, confused canonicalization, higher bounce rates due to poorly configured content and slower page-loading times can all have a detrimental effect on the user experience and will be affected by the type of design adopted.

Bounce Rate

Directly related to time spent on-site, a low bounce rate, at least for certain types of content such as video, will often signify a satisfactory user experience. It follows then that this can in turn help with external link-building, leading to better search rankings.

How to put this into effect? People like well-designed websites that have clear navigational structures, high-quality, relevant and useful content that resolves problems or offers benefits, and they strongly dislike negative features such as incessant or annoying pop-ups that block them from the information they want and slow down page-loading and scrolling.

Number of images

A picture can speak a thousand words, and as a consequence search engines consider them as a factor in greater user engagement. A website that is too text-heavy without enough images to break it up, or that has images which aren’t related to the content on the page, can result in lower user satisfaction and higher bounce rates.

When adding images to a site, ensure they are tagged correctly with appropriate file names and ensure that they are optimised so as to avoid slow-loading pages. File sizes can be adjusted in Photoshop or similar programs to assist with this.

Adsense / Adwords

Adsense, displaying related advertisements next to the content on your website in return for a commission from the advertiser every time one of your site visitors clicks through, does not in itself boost rankings. What you can be sure of though, is overloading your site with ads will distract people from the content and detract from the user experience.

Adwords, where a company bids to be placed on the SERPs for a particular query, similarly has no known direct effect on rankings – one can hardly expect Google to rank a website higher solely because it is earning money from it. Note that the majority of users still trust organic placement over paid ads, so even though you can expect more click-throughs, neither Adsense or Adwords are a substitute for SEO – they can however be a very useful addition to your marketing toolbox.

Font size

Many websites still get the basics wrong, one of which is font size. Too small a font, anything less than a 10, is going to prove difficult for many users to read, while font that is too large can also affect user experience by making it necessary to scroll down continually.

Ensure that text is clearly readable on all pages whatever the device being used, apply H1 tags for main headings so they stand out, and clearly highlight clickable links in the body text.

Final word

Optimising our pages for user experience is doing the SEO of the future for your site now.

UX SEO ranking factors