Traditionally usability and SEO are seen as two separate concerns: SEO attracts visitors to your website in the first place, whereas usability tends to be about conversion, assisting users in completing a goal. Usability often isn’t considered part of SEO or what a digital marketing agency does. However, I believe that usability is a very important part of SEO, and in this post I’m going to explain why.

Let’s take a look at a recent study by Searchmetrics on SEO ranking factors and rank correlations. I’m not going to go into each and every factor on the list here, but want to take a closer look at the factors Searchmetrics calls ‘User Metrics’ — namely CTR, Bounce rate and Time on Site — the purple bits in the following graphic:

Image credit: Searchmetrics study.

First a few quick definitions. CTR stands for click-through rate and shows the ratio of clicks to impressions. CTR is the number of clicks that your (listing) receives divided by the number of times that your (listing) is shown expressed as a percentage (clicks ÷ impressions = CTR). You want your CTR to be as high as possible, because a high CTR is a good indication that users find your listing helpful and relevant.

Bounce Rate is the percentage of single-page sessions (i.e. sessions in which the person left your site from the entrance page without interacting with the page). Some websites naturally have a high bounce rate, e.g. when they are one-page sites. On the other hand though bounce rate can be a sign that your site has issues regarding usability and/or design and leaves users disappointed.

Time on site is self-explanatory — it indicates how much time visitors spend on your website.

Now, looking only at bounce rate or time on site individually is not going to show a websites quality accurately, but in combination they seem a good indicator of how engaged users are with your site. If your users spend time on your site and also interact with more of your site than just one page, you are most likely providing good content. Duane Forrester from Bing refers to a metric called dwell time when speaking about how they measure content quality, which is most likely a combination of bounce rate and time on site.

Let’s take a closer look at CTR and dwell time — how do they influence rankings and what can you do to improve?

CTR

The common notion over the past few years was that the #1 listing in Googles SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) is getting as much as 56% of clicks — therefore ranking #1 for your target keywords was critical. This is changing though! A recent study by Netbooster shows how CTR has decreased for websites ranking in 1st position and has increased for lower ranking results. This means that modern users are more willing to scroll down the search results page and also consider lower ranking pages.

Image credit: Netbooster study.

This means it is all the more important to optimise your appearance in SERPs for maximum CTR. How?

Use Schema Markup

Schema markup is code (semantic vocabulary) that you put on your website to help the search engines return more informative results for users. Schema Markup can draw attention to your search listing and make you stand out against competitors by showing review stars, videos and more. The use of it on your website can dramatically increase your CTR.

Image credit: Google.

Optimize Titles and Descriptions

It might seem a really small and trivial thing, but well written titles and descriptions can go a long way in drawing users in to click on your link! Here is an example — search results for the query ‘travel insurance’ in Australia:

How do you pick and choose which of these to click on? And how could they be improved? Here’s a few tips for optimizing titles and descriptions for your website:

1. Draw the user’s eye and stand out from the competition

Do a search for your target keyword to check what the competition is doing. Then optimise your titles and descriptions to stand out.

  • Include your target keywords — Google bolds the words a user was searching for in their query, so make sure you use them to appear relevant. Keywords used in the title influence rankings (especially when they are used at the beginning of the title). Keywords in the description don’t influence rankings directly but can be powerful in drawing users’ eyes to your listing and increasing CTR.
  • Use special characters and numbers to draw attention (see the Travel Insurance result with ticks at the top of the example)

2. Include a CTA/unique selling proposition

Looking at the example above, the mentions of ‘online claims’ and ‘from just $1.80 a day’ can win the searcher over and make them click on that result instead of the competition because these are unique statements that none of the other results have.

3. Set the users expectations right

This is how it ties in with usability — misleading or bad titles and descriptions can result in a bad user experience. If your titles and descriptions don’t match your site content, users won’t find what they’re looking for and will likely bounce off and leave your site, which is not a good signal in Googles eyes (more on that to follow).

There are a few case studies out there that show the impact of CTR on actual ranking positions. Rand Fishkin saw an increase in rankings after influencing clicks to his site by asking his followers on Twitter to search and click on it. Another recent case study by Bartosz Góralewicz shows the reverse — his rankings quickly plummeted when he lowered his CTR using a bot. All these case studies are strong indicators for Google actually using CTR as a ranking factor — and a pretty important one indeed.

If you can improve CTR to your website from Google’s SERPs your rankings are most likely going to improve as well, which can result in huge increases in traffic to your website.

Dwell Time

While there is no hard-and-fast evidence for dwell time impacting rankings, it would make a lot of sense if it did. As explained earlier, dwell time is used by search engines (or Bing at least) to measure the quality of your website. This is where usability comes in and where we shouldn’t forget to get the basics right! Always remember Google’s biggest mantra:

“Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.”

Google Webmaster Guidelines

Poor usability, understandably, frustrates users and results in poor engagement metrics. If users don’t find what they are looking for on your site, they quickly return to the SERPs to try a different page, and this will continue until the user has finally found what they were looking for — this process of moving back and forth between websites and SERPs is commonly referred to as pogo sticking.

Image credit: Cyrus Shepard from Moz.

Cyrus also quotes Stephen Levy from his book In the Plex, describing how Google improves its search results by looking at user behaviour:

“… Google could see how satisfied users were. … The best sign of their happiness was the “long click” — this occurred when someone went to a search result, ideally the top one, and did not return. That meant Google has successfully fulfilled the query. But unhappy users were unhappy in their own ways, most telling were the “short clicks” where a user followed a link and immediately returned to try again. “If people type something and then go and change their query, you could tell they aren’t happy,” says Patel. “If they go to the next page of results, it’s a sign they’re not happy.”

This means that improving your site to ensure users stay on it and engage with it is necessary to show Google that your site is high quality and is worth listing in their SERPs! And what can you do to increase engagement on your website?

Improve its usability! There are a few common issues that can be seen as usability issues, but also happen to be Google ranking factors and are important for SEO:

Site Speed

A faster site equals a better user experience and Google rewards you for it. Google even tells you in their PageSpeed Insights for mobile that user experience matters:

Content Structure & Above the fold content

Structuring content with correct heading tags, breaking up your text into short paragraphs and using bulleted lists all improve readability for users and also help Google crawl and effectively categorize the content on your site.

Screenshot: Moz. Note: These are not the actual tags used on their page, the screenshot is simply a visual example.

The example above shows the ideal way to structure your content using proper heading tags and text formatting. It might seem like a drag to configure all of this during development but it will significantly affect your SEO!

Content should also be the first thing that appears above the fold on your site so users can find the content they are looking for straight away without having to scroll. Google addressed this in their Page Layout Algorithm Improvement.

Broken Links

Obviously broken links are frustrating and bad for usability. Thinking back to pogo sticking, when a user lands on a 404 page, they feel disappointed and are likely to leave your site, sending negative user signals to Google.

A custom 404 error page can help here, pointing the user to a site search, or featuring the latest published content or added value, such as a free eBook download to mitigate the negative search experience.

Site Search

From a usability perspective, site search can be a big help for users trying to find something specific on your site. It doesn’t directly influence rankings nor benefit SEO, but the search terms users enter can be very powerful if you analyse them to find out what users are looking for on your site, presenting opportunities for content and keyword targeting.

Including Links

Internal and external links can help to improve user experience by offering further information on a topic mentioned within your content.

External links

These can result in other pages linking back to you — if they notice you linked out to them they might want to return the favour.

Outbound links also increase your authority in Google’s eyes, which can lead to higher ranks. This can be hard to sell to a client — after all, you don’t want to divert your traffic away from your site, right? Keeping the user in mind though, it provides more value for them to be sent somewhere else if it helps them with their query, and they might appreciate your helpfulness. Think back at pogo sticking! As Cyrus puts it:

Think of it this way: It’s far better for users to click away to another URL from your site than for those same users to return to Google to try again. In the first instance, you are the authority hub, in the latter, Google is the authority.

Be the authority.

Internal links

Of course the same is true for internal links. Including internal links at the beginning of your content can also decrease bounce rate because users are more likely to click on links that are placed early on in your content rather than at the end of a post. The more users move around on your site and spend time on it, the better the user signals Google receives!

Internal links also help pass valuable ‘link juice’ to your most important pages. In fact, they can be just as effective as links coming in from external sources, and really do strengthen your site!

In Conclusion

There are many ways to improve your site’s usability — these are just a few and the list could go on. While there is no concrete proof that user experience influences SEO, it would make a lot of sense for Google to consider not only CTR, but also other user metrics in its algorithm!

Empathizing with your target audience is key to creating and improving websites that provide a good user experience — which will ultimately result in better rankings.

Do you agree?