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The science of SEO and the art of interaction design

Despite their differences in nature they should try to get along.

Interaction Design is more of an art, while SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is more of a science. The two are not always on good terms with each other. Although good Interaction Design is a fruitful integration of art and science and good SEO rises above the dry numbers of keyword density, the fundamental differences in the way they work can cause some animosity between the two.

Artists and scientists

Art is in many ways like science. Both start with an idea of what might be created and they both work with simple trial and error. You try something, judge the result and when the result is not okay you try something different until you arrive at the result that you were looking for. The main difference between an artist and a scientist is the measure by which they judge what’s good and what is not good.

Logic

Science uses logic. It uses objectively measurable facts (temperature, time, weight etc.) to prove the hypothesis. This means you can keep a lab journal that records the precise yes-no weighings that brought you to your solution. Logic is objective and can be quantified in absolute values.

Reason

Art use reason. This means it measures from intuition, from feeling. The artist uses himself as the measure, whereas the scientist measures from an external logic. Reason seems to be more confused, more haphazard, party because of the scale of what it tries to deal with. Reason is subjective and it’s harder to measure.

Ceteris paribus

Science only works because it focusses on a small part of the world. Its results are only valid within its chosen scope, ceteris paribus. It doesn’t consider influences or facts outside its scope. It purposefully denies the complexities of the situation to arrive at a precise solution. Whereas artists deal with the complexities of the whole system to arrive at an open solution. Artists welcome all the things scientist exclude from their research and realize that not all questions can be answered logically. Artists are most interested in the things that fall outside the scope of the scientist’s view.

The science of SEO

If you look at the differences in nature between SEO and Interaction Design, the similarities in the comparison between science and art are striking.

SEO is the science. SEO also focusses only on a small, measurable part of a website (findability in Search). It can test its experiments with exact, objective measurements (provided by Google Analytics) and a lot of the performance criteria of the user (in this case the Search Engine) are known. It ignores other parts of a website like branding, storytelling, visual design, flow and user interface. Once the right user is on the site, the job of SEO is done. This is where the job of the Interaction Designer starts.

The art of Interaction Design

Interaction Design is the art. It uses intuition and feeling to make judgments on what works and what does not. Interaction Design has to consider the whole system in which the website works: brand, device, context, story, flow, persona’s, content organization, information design etc. Of course, you can try to make it more scientific by conducting user research and usability tests, but most decisions are made by the designer’s experience-fueled intuition. The whole ecosystem of a website is too complex for logic, also because all things are connected.

Common ground

SEO and Interaction Design both have the same objective: a good website. Luckily there is some common ground between the two. In fact, many Interaction Design best practices overlap with those of white-hat SEO. If you comply to web standards your site is optimized for browsing by humans and search spiders. This is where Interaction Design and SEO are closest to each other: a good website is high-quality content, logical structure, clear navigation, and good code.

But a good website from and Interaction Design point of view is not necessarily a good website from a SEO point of view and vice versa. They have a mutual base, but the target audience is different. SEO targets Search Engines and Interaction Design targets users. Google explicitly tells website owners to not design for Search Engines but for users and tries to make its algorithms as human as possible. But until Google’s Artificial Intelligence matches human intelligence, SEO’s goal is a great spider experience and Interaction Design’s goal is a great user experience.

Both work from a completely different worldview and as a result have a completely different work process. But a good website is both usable and findable, so SEO and Interaction Design should try to get along. This can be done if we focus on the shared base of web standards and understand and respect each other's worldview. Both are useless without the other. A great user experience that cannot be found is as pointless as a website that is found but has a bad user experience.

The idea of the difference between logic and reason as the fundamental difference between art and science comes from the chapter “art and science” from the book “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees” by Lawrence Weschler.

Originally published on 06.10.2013 on Artscientist.nl

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Digital design philosophy: essays on and experiments in the art and science of user experience design

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Dennis Hambeukers

Dennis Hambeukers

Strategist and project manager @ Zuiderlicht / Design Leadership Forum Member @InVision / Design Thinker / State Secretary of Integration @ Ministry of Design

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