In the first two posts of our series on the relationship between user experience and SEO, we addressed the importance of balancing your site’s architecture, structure, and overall experience with the needs, goals, and expectations of both your human users and search engines. In part two of this series, we’ll discuss how you can improve your user experience metrics with a quality site design, an intuitive user experience, and an understanding of experience scent.
As we’ve discussed, there are various ways that search engines attempt to determine whether your site is a good match for a query, and therefore, whether to return your site to the user. Some of the ways search engines accomplish this is by:
- Using machine learning and natural language processing to help them understand their users’ intent
- Crawling and interpreting your domain’s structure, information architecture, and overall experience in order to identify the domain’s intent and audience
- Evaluating engagement metrics to get a picture of how effective, engaging, and user-friendly your experience is to most users
Targeting just one of these aspects is not enough to ensure organic value. An effective SEO strategy will account for a multitude of search engine methods and processes, but will also keep a close eye on user behavior.
The Organic Value Behind User Engagement Metrics
The main goal of a search engine is to quickly and accurately provide users with the results and content that they seek. That goal is the basis for how search engines process and evaluate sites and information, how they prioritize performance and experience factors in their algorithms, and how they rank and display results.
The machine learning systems, advanced algorithms, and fledgling artificial intelligence are allowing search engines to quickly become smarter and improve their ability to gauge users’ intent and meaning, but there are still gaps. People interact with websites in very different ways, so to help search engines better understand users and what their actions mean, groups like Google included user behavior metrics as a core component of their search algorithm.
There are many, many different user actions that make up Google’s understanding of user engagement (more than we could ever list here), but three of the most impactful are the averages of a domain’s bounce rate, pages per session, and session duration.
- The percentage of sessions in which the user didn’t interact with the page and left the domain to return to search results or the previous URL
Pages per Session
- The average of the number of pages visited by users arriving through search results or other channels
- The average amount of time users spend on a domain within a given timeframe
The overall goal of any website is to keep visitors on the site, which is why bounce rate, pages per session, and session duration are so useful for determining user engagement. Google can find and attach relevant value to a page based on its content or perceived intent, but without these search user metrics, the search engine will have a much harder time deciding whether or not the page it selected is the best choice.
For example: if many users visit a site, stay for just a few seconds, and immediately leave, then Google knows that the page might not be relevant for a particular query, or could have a low-quality user experience.
On the other hand, Google will know it’s likely found a quality search result if visitors remain on landing pages for longer periods of time and are actively interacting with other pages on the domain.
Using Experience Scent to Optimize Your Engagement Metrics
Since metrics like those above (as well as many others!) influence how well your site and content are ranked, it is important to ensure that your site provides your users with a well-designed, user-friendly experience that will encourage them to stay on your site and explore.
One key factor that affects both the user-friendliness of your site and your engagement metrics (and therefore, your ranking) is your experience scent. “Experience scent” refers to the extent to which a user can understand your site and their ability to quickly judge whether it matches their intent. Just as our sense of scent is a powerful driver of our behavior in our daily lives (like sniffing questionable milk to determine if it’s safe to drink or the smell of warm cookies making our stomach grumble), so, too, is the scent of a digital experience.
If a user picks up on your site’s scent and notices that it seems potentially risky, outdated, or doesn’t match their intent, then you are likely to see users bouncing right away. Conversely, if a user senses that your site is safe, compelling, and in alignment with their goal, then you will likely see better engagement metrics.
There are many specific ways that you can structure or design your site in order to positively impact your user experience and, in turn, your engagement metrics. There are many, many factors (technical and otherwise) that influence your experience scent and user engagement, but we’ve identified five useful tactics capable of improving the user experience while providing search engines with exactly what they want to see.
1: Limiting Noise on Your Pages
While your users need to be able to easily identify your site’s purpose and determine whether it matches their intent, they also need to be able to quickly process and evaluate your content. Having too many advertisements, too much animation, or too many distracting elements can make it challenging for users to do that, and will likely leave them feeling overwhelmed and dissatisfied. Pop-ups, modals, and interstitials can also drive users away, though there are ways to use them without negatively impacting search value.
Search engines and users want the same thing: to see interesting, credible, and engaging content with a clean and clear user experience. If that content exists on your site but is made less apparent by the presence of elements that divert their attention, then your users and metrics will suffer.
2: Ensure that Key Information is Visible and Easily Accessible
Making a positive first impression on your users is a good way to encourage them to further their engagement with your site. The easier it is for users to process your content and determine what their potential next steps means it’s more likely they will continue to interact with your content. However, if they are not able to get a good read on who you are, what you do, and what you have to offer them, they will likely return to Google to try again with a different site.
Like your users, search engines crawl from left to right and top to bottom, and they can get lost. Do your users need to scroll to get to important information or calls-to-action? Is key content buried within modals, accordions, tabbed content areas, etc.? Requiring your users (or search engines) to exert extra effort to get to what they’re looking for will drive them away with a poor impression of your site.
Beyond the extra effort they require of your users, information contained in accordions, tabbed structures, or similar elements may be in danger of being slightly devalued. Google doesn’t see this content as “immediately available.”
3: Provide Indications of Hierarchy
Users rely on elements like your navigation, URL structure, and breadcrumbs to understand the content and structure of your site. By ensuring that those elements are prominent, clear, and well-structured, your users will be able to not only tell where they landed on your site but what else you have to offer, which encourages exploration and engagement.
Breadcrumbs aren’t just there for users. Search engines also use them to better understand a site’s overall structure. They can even share breadcrumbs in search results, which might be useful for searchers reviewing your domain’s listing in the search results.
Breadcrumbs can be further enhanced with schema markup, such as WebPage or BreadcrumbList. Schema markup can help improve search appearance by creating more interactive elements for users while also helping search engines better understand the site’s hierarchy.
To learn more about constructing a site architecture that will benefit both your users and search engines, check out Part 1 of this series, SEO and Information Architecture: Making Them Work Together.
4: Emphasize Your E-A-T
E-A-T stands for expertise, accuracy, and trustworthiness, and Google has indicated that E-A-T is one of their top considerations in determining page quality. Like Google, your users want to see content that shows that you are credible, highly knowledgeable and regarded in your domain, and produce reputable content.
This doesn’t mean that you have to jam massive amounts of perfectly written, carefully curated content into every inch of your site. Google certainly values longform content for detailed queries, but as long as the page’s content matches the user’s intent and encourages high engagement metrics, then you’re emphasizing E-A-T.
5: Conduct User Testing
If you aren’t seeing the engagement metrics that you’d like, you should consider conducting user testing on some of your key pages or templates. User testing can help you determine whether users understand the purpose of your site, whether they perceive your information as credible and valuable, and will help you determine how you can improve your experience.
Maintaining the Interest of Users Helps Maintain the Interest of Search Engines
As we pointed out at the start of this article, search engines don’t see things exactly the way humans can, so they’re very focused on how users interact with a domain. No matter what industry you’re in or what kind of customers you serve, your website serves as a representation of your business. You want users to find exactly what they’re searching for, and you want search engines to see that users are actively and regularly engaging with your site.
By pairing a site structure that is easily understood with page designs and content that capture and hold a user’s attention, businesses can help search engines attach higher quality scores to their domain. All it takes is an understanding of your customers, an understanding of the importance of experience scent, and a little help from the developers and designers at CQL.
If you’d like to learn more about how experience scent and user metrics are impacting your domain’s value, then contact the experts at CQL. We can help evaluate your site’s interactivity and provide impactful recommendations to draw in more users and keep their attention.