How User Experience (UX) impacts SEO and Search Rankings

How would you feel if a trusted, long-time friend of yours referred you to a restaurant for dinner, promising you that you will have a good time, but when you got there you found that the food was horrible, the place was not clean and you had a very bad overall experience? Not a good feeling, right? The next time your friend refers you to a restaurant, you will probably think twice. And if the bad experience continues, you will probably stop trusting him and stop taking any inputs or advice from him.

That is exactly how online users feel when they visit a website and have a bad experience after being referred by Google, a search engine that they trust.

Bad user experience not only impacts the brand perception of the website they visited, but it also leaves a bad impression of the search engine in the user’s mind. Now you understand why search engines like Google give a lot of weightage to User Experience (popularly known as UX) as a key ranking factor for their search results.

It is a matter of trust. They want their users to trust them, knowing that every time they refer a website, the user will have a good experience. That is the sweet spot where every search engine wants to be. So, search engines put a lot of effort to track, measure and record the user experience of websites and use it as a ranking factor. When they know that a particular website consistently gives their users a good experience, they will start ranking them higher.

As an organisation, if you work on creating that great user experience every time your customers interact with you online, you will not only build a loyal audience for yourself, but you will also be a favourite with search engines like Google and they will make sure they rank you on top for the relevant keywords.

Understanding the Difference between Usability and User Experience (UX)

First, let us try to understand the 2 commonly used industry terms — ‘usability’ and ‘user experience’ or UX as it is popularly known. To help us understand, let us assume that you are an eCommerce website that sells children’s garments.

1. Usability = The ease with which a user is able to accomplish a task or a goal.

When a young mother comes to your eCommerce website looking for a specific type of t-shirt for her child, the usability of your website will be determined by how quickly she is able to accomplish that task.

  • Is your website well organised with different products listed based on type, age, size and colors so that she can quickly find what she wants?
  • How many clicks does it take for her to find the right t-shirt?
  • Is the process of going from page to page (navigation) easy or complicated?
  • What if she uses her mobile phone to do the transaction? Do you have a mobile enabled site or a mobile app that can help her shop with ease?

2. User Experience = The sum of all actual and perceived physical, mental and emotional experiences of the user while trying to accomplishing a task.

User Experience is much more than Usability. Something that is easy to use need not necessarily provide an overall good experience. For example, the user (the young mother) might find your website very easy to use and she might locate the perfect t-shirt for her child in just a few clicks, but if she comes across a lot of irrelevant banner ads all over the website or if she has a bad experience in the checkout process because of an inefficient payment gateway, then her overall experience starts turning sour.

In fact in this specific example, the user experience (UX) is something that you should keep track of even after the sale is complete — steps like the shipping and delivery of the t-shirt, the returns, the after-sale service, etc. should also provide a good experience. For example, even if you have the world’s most usable website or mobile app, if the shipping and delivery did not happen as promised or if the product does not meet the expectation of the customer after delivery, then the customer may not come back to you.

User Experience and its impacts on SEO & Search Rankings

Did you know that user experience is a factor that is deeply linked to the revenue model of all major search engines?

Let me explain.

The user experience of your website is not only important for your business growth, but also for the search engine’s business growth and survival. To help you understand this, here is a quick & simplified overview of how search engines work & their revenue model.

How search engines make money:

#1 — Search engines create a copy of all possible webpages on the internet (millions of them) and store it in their servers. Technically, this process is called crawling and indexing. Every change that is made to a web page is also recorded, stored and organised.

#2 — When users type a search term (keywords) on a search engine like Google, the engine searches millions of web pages that are stored in its records and retrieves a set of pages that may be relevant to that search term and lists those links for the user. This process is called retrieval and listing.

#3 — Users look at these listing and click on one (or more) links hoping that one of the web pages will meet their need, answer their question or solve their problem.

#4 — Once their need is met, the user is happy. And when they have this good experience every time they search, they become a loyal user of that search engine.

#5 — As time goes by, there is a good chance that a small percentage of these loyal users might end up clicking an ‘advertising’ link that is placed strategically alongside the free organic search results (see image below). Usually the advertisement is also related to the search term, so it’s usually a relevant page for the user. In this case, someone has paid to have that link appear on top of the search results.

#6 — The advertisers who placed that ad in that location are happy that they found a new customer and they are willing to pay the search engine to make this happen again and on a regular basis.

This is how search engines make money. All search engines have advertising products; Google’s advertising product is called Google Adwords.

You will see that point #2 is key for the success and growth of any search engine — listing websites that are not only relevant to the user, but also providing a good experience for them. This is why user experience is considered as an important search ranking factor by all search engines.

Start Improving your User Experience — 4 Actionable Steps

Now that you understand the importance of user-experience, here is a list of 4 actionable steps you can take right now to start improving the overall experience of your online audience.

1. Revisit your original plan of how you wanted to serve your audience

As an organisation, as time goes by, it is natural for any business or nonprofit to get carried away by the million tasks that need to be accomplished on a daily basis and forget the original purpose and plan that you had to serve your audience. Surprisingly, going back to the basics can provide a lot of clarity from a user-experience perspective.

Take some time to revisit your original purpose. A few questions to ask yourself:

  • Why was your original plan for serving your audience and meeting their needs?
  • Are you on track? Or do you need to course-correct?
  • If your current online & offline business set up optimised to help you serve, as per your original plan?
  • What changes do you need to make at an organisational and management level to get back to your original purpose?

List down gaps and create a plan to bridge those gaps.

2. Take stock of your online assets and their usability

Once you have clarity on your purpose, take stock of all your online assets — your website, all webpages, landing pages, advertising campaigns, mobile apps, etc., and review the following:

  • Create a list of probable tasks and goals that a user will perform when they interact with you online
  • Assess the usability and UX for each task, on each asset
  • Write down the list of improvements
  • Assign dates to each improvement and delegate it your team (or to yourself)

3. Review the online customer journey:

Look at your measurement tool (like Google Analytics) and analyse the current ‘customer journey’ or the path that they take within your online asset. (In the next point I will gives you a Flow Visualization Tool that can help you do that). Then list down an ‘ideal path’ that you would like your users to take. See where the gap is and try to bridge it. This process will help you remove road blocks or hindrances in their path and make the ‘customer journey’ smooth and a pleasurable experience.

You could also create imaginary personas and situations to test the various paths that a user might take.

  • For example: You could list down the probable goals of a user and then list the keywords associated with each goal.
  • For each keyword you could map the customer journey starting with the search process or social media discovery
  • You can list down all the pages that they would probably visit and the links that they would click on to accomplish that goal.

This will help you get clarity on the areas that need UX improvement.

4. Use the right tools to track and measure user experience:

What you do not measure, you cannot improve. There are a few things you can do to measure online user experience on a regular basis

  • You can get feedback from your website users using chat tools like Intercom. Chat tools can also help you answer user questions when they visit your site, making them stay longer on your web page without clicking on the back button, which might better your search ranking. Read more about long click technique.
  • You can track conversations, questions and reviews on your brand or product on social media & other channels using monitoring tools like Mention, Keyhole, BuzzSumo and Nuvi. These conversations or questions might give you clues on the ways in which you can improve the experience of your users.
  • You can use tools like ‘heat maps’ from SumoMe on your website that will help you track user activity and give you valuable insights into user behaviour.
  • You can use Google Analytics to visually track the entry point of the customer, the point of exit and the path they take when they are interacting with your website. This can give you crucial insights into user experience. Learn how to set up and use the Flow Visualization Report here.

If you have any questions or like to share your thoughts and experiences, do leave your comments below.

(Originally written for Open Minds Agency blog. Republished with permission)