The Secret Benefit Of Search Engine Optimisation: Increased Usability

A higher search ranking is what many website owners dream of. What they don't realise is that by optimising their site for the search engines, if done correctly, they can also optimise it for their site visitors.

Ultimately this means more people finding your website and increased sales and lead generation. But are search engine optimisation and usability compatible? Aren't there trade-offs that need to be made between giving search engines what they want and giving people what they want? Read on and find out (although I'm sure you can guess the answer!)...

1. Keyword research carried out

Before you even begin building your website, you should carry out keyword research to identify which keyword phrases your site should target. Using publicly available tools such as Wordtracker (http://www.wordtracker.com), you can discover which keywords are searched for the most frequently and then specifically target those phrases.

Doing keyword research is also crucial for your site's usability. By using the same keywords in your website that web users are searching for in search engines, you'll literally be speaking the same language as your site visitors.

For example, you might decide to target the phrase, "sell toys", as your website does in fact sell toys. Keyword research would undoubtedly show you that web users are actually searching for, "buy toys" (think about it - have you ever searched using the word, "sell", when you want to buy something?). By placing the phrase, "buy toys" on to the pages on your website, you'll be using the same words as your site visitors and they'll be able to find what they're looking for more easily.

2. 200 word minimum per page

Quite simply, search engines love content - the more content there is on a page the easier it is for search engines to work out what the page is actually about. Search engines may struggle to work out the point of a web page with less than 200 words, ultimately penalising that page in the search rankings.

In terms of usability, it's also good to avoid pages with very little content. A page with less than 200 words is unlikely to contain a large amount of information, so site visitors will undoubtedly need to click elsewhere to find more detailed information. Don't be afraid to put a reasonably large amount of information on to a page. Web users generally don't mind scrolling down anymore, and provided the page provides mechanisms to aid scanning (such as employing sub-headings - see point 6 below) it shouldn't be too difficult for site visitors to locate the information that they're after.

3. 100kb maximum HMTL size

If 200 words is the minimum page content size, then 100kb is the maximum, at least in terms of HMTL file size. Anything more than this and search engines may give up on the page as it's simply too big for them.

A 100kb HMTL file will take 20 seconds to download on a 56k dial up modem, used by three in four UK web users as of March 2004 (source: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/intc0504.pdf). Add on the time it takes for all the other parts of the page to download, such as images and JavaScript files, and you're looking at a highly un-user-friendly download time!

4. CSS used for layout

The website of Juicy Studios (http://www.juicystudio.com) saw a six-fold increase in site visitors after switching from a table-based layout to a CSS layout. Search prefer CSS-based sites and are likely to score them higher in the search rankings because:

- The code is cleaner and therefore more accessible to search engines

- Important content can be placed at the top of the HTML document

- There is a greater density of content compared to coding

Using CSS for layout is also highly advantageous for usability, as it leads to significantly faster download times.

5. Meaningful page title

If you know anything about search engine optimisation you'll know that search engines place more importance on the page title than any other attribute on the page. If the title adequately describes the content of that page then search engines will be able to more accurately guess what that page is about.

A meaningful page title also helps site visitors work out where they are, both within the site and the web as a whole. The page title is the first thing that loads up, often quite a few seconds before the content, so a descriptive, keyword-rich page title can be a real aid to help users orientate themselves.

6. Headings and sub-headings used

Search engines assume that the text contained in heading tags is more important than the rest of the document text, as headings (in theory at least) summarise the content immediately below them.

Headings are also incredibly useful for your human site visitors, as they greatly aid scanning. Generally speaking, we don't read on the web, we scan, looking for the information that we're after. By breaking up page sections with sub-headings that effectively describe the content beneath them, scanning becomes significantly easier.

Do be sure not to abuse heading tags though. The more text you have contained in heading tags within the page, the less importance search engines assign to them.

7. Opening paragraph describes page content

We've already established that search engines love content, but they especially love the first 25 words or so on each page. By providing an opening paragraph that adequately describes the content of the rest of the page (or the site if it's the homepage), you should be able to include your important keyword phrases in this crucial area.

As web users, whenever we arrive at a web page the first thing we need to know is whether this page has the information that we're after. A great way to find this out is to scan through the first paragraph, which, if it sufficiently describes the page content, should help us out.

8. Descriptive link text

Search engines place a lot of importance on link text. They assume that link text will be descriptive of its destination and as such examine link text for all links pointing to any page. If all the links pointing to a page about widgets say 'click here', search engines can't gain any information about that page without visiting it. If on the other hand, all the links say, 'widgets' then search engines can easily guess what that page is about.

One of the best examples of this in action is for the search term, 'miserable failure'. So many people have linked to George Bush's bio using this phrase as the link text, that now when miserable failure is searched for in Google, George Bush's bio appears top of the search rankings!

As web users, we don't generally read web pages word-for-word - we scan them looking for the information that we're after. When you scan through text you can't take any meaning from the word 'click here'. Link text that effectively describes its destination is far easier to scan and you can understand the destination of the link without having to read its surrounding words.

9. Frames avoided

Frames are quite an old-school technique, and although aren't as commonplace as they once were, do still rear up their ugly head from time to time. Using frames is one of the worst possible things you could do for your search engine ranking, as most search engines can't follow links between frames.

Even if a search engine does index your pages and web users find you through a search engine, they'll be taken to one of the pages within the frame. This page will probably be a content page with no navigation (navigation is normally contained in a separate frame) and therefore no way to navigate to any other page on the site!

Frames are also disadvantageous for usability as they can cause problems with the back button, printing, history and bookmarking. Put simply, say no to frames!

10. Quality content provided

This may seem like a strange characteristic of a search engine optimised website, but it's actually crucial. Search engines, in addition to looking at page content, look at the number of links pointing in to web pages. The more inbound links a website has, all other things being equal, the higher in the search rankings it will appear.

By providing creative, unique and regularly updated content on your website, webmasters will want to link to you as doing so will add value to their site visitors. You will also be adding value to your site visitors.

Conclusion

Optimising your website for both search engines and people needn't be a trade-off. With this much overlap between the two areas, you should easily be able to have a website that web users can find in the search engines, and when they do find it, they can find what they're looking for quickly and efficiently.

This article was written by Trenton Moss. He's crazy about web usability and accessibility - so crazy that he went and started his own web usability and accessibility consultancy ( Webcredible - http://www.webcredible.co.uk ) to help make the Internet a better place for everyone.

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