What Can SEO Learn From UX?

User Experience plays an early, fundamental role in guiding basic decisions that shape websites and digital products, and is increasingly afforded a seat at the table, so to speak. The reason UX is such a juggernaut is because of the multiple disciplines it encompasses—design, information architecture, usability engineering, interface design, content strategy, and research. In…

User Experience plays an early, fundamental role in guiding basic decisions that shape websites and digital products, and is increasingly afforded a seat at the table, so to speak. The reason UX is such a juggernaut is because of the multiple disciplines it encompasses—design, information architecture, usability engineering, interface design, content strategy, and research. In spite of its relative youth, UX as a discipline has grown exponentially in stature over the last few years. SEO consultants are brought in later in the process and generally have a narrower scope of work, but their efforts can have a broader impact because of sheer numbers. So why does search engine optimization seem to have less traction with executive leadership? Maybe there is something to take away from the runaway success of UX. Both disciplines have built their reputations on making decisions backed by data—how can SEO specialists apply the success of UX to their roles?

A Brief History

People working in User Experience (UX) didn’t start out there. They were psychologists, journalists, UI designers, and information architects—people who listen well and can translate their findings into contextual recommendations. UX in its current form has existed since the mid-1990s. Before now, people like myself would be working in related fields like:

  • Psychology
  • Ergonomics
  • Human-Computer Interaction
  • Product Design
  • Library Science

SEO has existed since at least 1997, and has evolved in tandem with technology. Before that, the most obvious analogue would have been working in marketing. There are definite commonalities in the data that UX and SEO professionals work with, but people working in these fields have different backgrounds and priorities, which may contribute to the disconnect between the two. All of the clients I’ve worked with or pitched to have listed SEO as a major priority, but not more important than having a best-in-class website. Nobody wants to pay for a system that doesn’t exist in the eyes of search engines and would therefore impede growth. SEO is a mission-critical concern, but it is ultimately secondary to a great experience.

What UX Does

Implementing user-centered design processes has become a priority in many companies because it has a high return on investment, often directly resulting in increased customer satisfaction, business growth, and overall brand engagement. There is no singular definition of what UX process is, because practitioners bring their own unique combination of skills and knowledge to projects, and because recommendations vary depending on the context of the project. In the face of systemization essential to digital systems, UX focuses on adding personality and utility to an inherently emotionless medium. A good UX designer will:

  • empathize with users
  • help them achieve their goals
  • balance business objectives with the integrity of the user’s experience
  • ultimately, help people improve their lives through technology

The hallmark of a great UX consultant is facilitation—between stakeholder concerns, strategy, design, content, and engineering. UX consultants ideally act as change agents within companies.

SEO and UX Are Different

People don’t really think of UX and SEO as intersecting. At most, it’s like the baton handoff in a relay race—they don’t want to touch, they just want to hurry up and get on with it. Put simply, SEO gets people to a site by increasing the findability of information, and UX keeps them there by making that information engaging and usable. It’s not magic. The information-seeking behaviors people use to find what they’re looking for the first time are very different from the triggers that drive repeat traffic. Both disciplines are necessary to accommodate different types of information-seeking behaviors; the overarching goal should be balance—between search engine ranking and the integrity of the brand’s experience. Ultimately, the user’s long-running relationship is with the experience.

Give Me Something Actionable

We’ve already established that everyone is doing the necessary work to help digital products find their audience—how that is accomplished is THE point of differentiation. It boils down to everyone asking for the same thing: Give me something actionable. What do UX and SEO consider actionable, respectively? SEO considers web metrics actionable—quantitative data that is derived from measurements. When dealing with web traffic, minute gains can translate into huge numbers on large-scale websites. Because consultants are brought in later in the design cycle of a product—frequently after launch, in fact—there is an emphasis on incremental improvements over time. UX employs both qualitative and quantitative research methods in its search for balance between utility and delight. Depending on the project, you may need quantitative data, like web analytics. Other times you might use qualitative data like:

  • user interviews
  • heuristic analyses
  • field research

Both qualitative and quantitative sources of data are essential to identifying opportunities for change, large and small.


We Choose The Moon

A website with great UX and subpar SEO value would be WeChooseTheMoon.org, which was designed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar landing. It’s a beautiful site that uses compelling visuals combined with archival audio to synchronize with the user’s interactions. When I press “Launch,” it sounds and looks like the rocket ship is launching—an unexpectedly delightful and completely enthralling experience. The designer was clearly focused on creating a seamless experience. SEO was not a priority here. the entire site is built in Flash, lacks deep linking so search engines are blind to it, uses lots of photos, audio and video, and there is a definite lack of text… not that search engines would see it anyway, because the whole thing is in Flash. It may as well not exist, from an SEO standpoint.

Ling’s Cars

A site that is famous in the UX community for its unorthodox approach and high conversion rates is LingsCars.com. It belongs to a UK-based car dealership that has a… unique aesthetic. The important content is in live text, with supporting images, but there is a significant amount of indexable content. Because the design is so eccentric, there is also a larger opportunity for social sharing and building awareness organically. All of these things contribute to its SEO value. Paul Sherman wrote about this very site: “What do I mean when I say it works? It’s simple. The site fulfills the goals of the business…” Ling herself has banked on this risky approach because she has decided to appeal to customers’ desire for a less slick car buying experience. Cars are purchased infrequently and the decision-making process often boils down to an emotional choice—being able to provoke emotion, delight, or even hate, would serve the purpose. The site is so crazy that it is memorable, even if it lacks a certain sense of credibility one would expect from a Mercedes dealership.

Maersk Fleet

The Maersk Fleet site is one of my favorites—offering a surprisingly comprehensive website experience for a shipping line. The site balances the concerns of UX and SEO through a dramatic HTML5-supported design. Visitors can check out the positions of the fleet as they travel around the world and explore the different classes of ships, blueprints and all. It’s quite easy to lose track of time learning about the ships and playing with the vessel tours with an almost infographic-style design. There is a substantial amount of live text accompanying some really fascinating video footage of their ships in action—it looks like Flash, but because it was built in HTML5 is entirely indexable.

Content Strategy and Long-Term SEO

I would argue that in the long run, SEO should almost take care of itself with a good content strategy and a distinct brand voice—real content should theoretically lead to real gains in traffic. Engaging, unique content is essential to your strategy, of course. That strategy could involve growing a lifestyle brand, or establishing thought leadership in a particular field, or developing a service-oriented brand. Fresh content is also crucial if you’re focused on social sharing and backlinking, both of which increase a website’s reach and grow the user base. SEO techniques can detract from content strategy if applied too heavily. When gains are from over-optimization, in lieu of real, relevant content, the overall experience is diminished. The downside of this increased emphasis on content strategy is that SEOs may eventually no longer be needed in their current incarnation. Is there some way to add value and grow the role of SEO that isn’t at odds with the holistic customer experience?

Education as the Key to Elevating the Discipline

Is education the key to elevating the discipline and taking SEO roles to the next level? One thing UX has done very well in the past decade is promote itself. There is an active community on the internet dedicated to improving and legitimizing it, and helping the next generation of UXers grow into their roles. Design originally referred to visual appeal, but these creative efforts often rendered sites unusable. It expanded to include UX, which turned the attractive site into a cohesive system. The systems were functional and attractive, but not particularly engaging, thus the need for content strategy. What is the point of an attractive, functional, engaging system that no one can find? Thus, the need for SEO. It is a bit of a niche specialty that is sometimes treated as an afterthought by upper management. SEO is still sometimes associated with questionable tactics from back in the day that have, in the past, compromised the overall experience for small gains in search rankings. Tactics like:

  • keyword stuffing
  • obese footers filled with excessive links
  • fake or low-quality content

Empowering the next generation of designers and SEOs to make smart decisions and educate stakeholders accordingly is key to the growth of the discipline and to elevation of the executive-level perception of SEO. Jakob Nielsen recently made an excellent point about short-term SEO being primarily about good design. Our definition of ‘good’ design needs to include designing with SEO in mind, in addition to all the other things today’s designers have to balance. It would encourage younger designers to design systems that do not violate basic principles of findability, accessibility and credibility. By making designers aware of basic principles of SEO, they are empowered to improve the integrity of their designs. When people have a sense of ownership of the process, they are more inclined to value the added emphasis on SEO best practices. Consultants would then be free for more specialized work, or for finding new ways to contribute that expand the definition of their roles.

The Value of UX

There isn’t a finite amount of work, jobs, or revenue—the great thing about UX is that the better it is, the more that people are willing to pay for it. Reuben Steiger, a Principal at Method, talks about this in his article, Who’s the Chief Experience Officer?

‘In his 1971 book Future Shock, futurist Alvin Toffler talked about the upcoming “experiential industry,” in which people in the future would be willing to allocate high percentages of their salaries to live amazing experiences…

…Companies need to start thinking about the holistic relationship between their brands, products, and services. Crafting an experience requires design that considers these 3 elements of brand, product, and service in order to generate successful results.’

It makes sense that companies would sit up and pay attention to the opportunity at hand. Chief Experience Officers (CXOs) have even begun to make inroads into the tech industry’s executive structure—how many roles have done that recently? Lots of companies want to be Apple, a company renowned for the quality of their UX, but these wannabes are unwilling to put the work into their product design processes and supply chain to smooth out all the bumps. You can’t just ape the look and feel of a system, because the minute users start trying to do the things they want to do, the differences become clear. User Experience has a seat at the table because the value-add is clear. Efficient user-centered design processes result in increased customer satisfaction, business growth, and overall brand engagement. The contribution of UX to digital products ultimately helps people improve their lives through technology.

Can SEO earn a seat at the table?

SEO specialists may have to adapt in order to avoid the fate of marginalization. Content strategy has only begun to have its moment in the sun, and its continued popularity could ultimately reduce the necessity of search optimization for all but the largest of websites. Will SEO specialists have to learn new specialties in the future, or face increasingly stiff competition for jobs? Are there other opportunities beyond the usual paradigms to grow the role of SEO within organizations? UX has captured the zeitgeist of the moment because it has a robust community dedicated to growing, educating and legitimizing the field, and has proven its value to executive leadership. I would argue that SEO has a perception problem, going all the way up to the executive level. It may be time to consider re-educating stakeholders and team members about the value of SEO.

responses to “What Can SEO Learn From UX?”

  1. pjsherman says:

    Thanks for the insightful article, Jessica. And thanks for the callout to my post about Ling’s Cars.

    One suggestion: to your section about UX research methods, I would highly recommend adding “usability testing.” Whether done remote or in-person, moderated or unmoderated, synchronously or asynchronously (i.e., recorded and watched later), usability testing never fails to generate a ton of actionable information.

  2. Excellent stuff here — very insightful, especially the part of the need of the SEO dinosaur to evolve or die. I agree wholeheartedly in that respect; while I will not forget the successful aspects of SEO, I am growing my position to include a more complete view of what brings traffic, rankings, and success to the table.

    One thing I’ve wondered is how Panda and future updates will integrate themselves seamlessly with UX — will user engagement & retention reflect valuable content in the future, and consequently lead to higher rankings? In that regard, will UX be the new SEO? Time will tell…

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