There has always been a connection between SEO, user experience, and how well a website ranks. That’s because Google is laser-focused on the user experience — specifically, what type of experience searchers have when they click through to a site.
User experience is now more important than ever as Google ramps up its ability to filter out sites with poor user experience. Now businesses need to ask: How can we improve our user experience to improve our chance of ranking?
How Google Search Evaluates User Experience
We’ll never know all of Google’s secrets, but let’s start by looking at what we do know about user experience and SEO. This Google ranking engineer’s presentation at SMX in 2016 provides good background:
That presentation is technical, so I’ll give the high-level overview of two ways Google is ensuring that its search results provide the best user experience possible.
Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines
Google uses its search quality rating program to better understand if the changes that it is making to Google Search algorithms yield quality results.
Human raters use the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines (SQEG) to analyze search results, determine their quality, and report back. Google engineers may then make tweaks to the algorithm and see if the results improve for a query.
If you’re wondering why Google is doing something, often the answer is to make it [the search results] look more like what the rater guidelines say.
–Paul Haahr, Google Ranking Engineer, SMX West 2016
Major ranking factors include how relevant a webpage is to a searcher’s intent and the quality of the page. (Both are user experience issues.)
The “needs met” section within the SQEG is worth noting. It goes into detail on how a search result can satisfy the user’s query.
“Fully Meets” is a special rating that Google says is for search results that are “fully satisfying for mobile users, requiring minimal effort for users to immediately get or use what they are looking for.”
This rating is for results that are the “complete and perfect response or answer so that no other results are necessary for all or almost all users to be fully satisfied.”
This is what you want to strive for.
RankBrain is Google’s machine-learning artificial intelligence system. In essence, it’s one way that Google Search achieves the goals set out in the SQEG. And it’s also one of the top three ranking signals in Google’s Algorithm.
In a nutshell: RankBrain is search results relevance on steroids. RankBrain applies machine learning to determine the best search results based on a variety of factors over time.
Click-throughs to your site could be a factor, as alluded to in the Paul Haahr presentation at SMX (above). And then there’s this quote from former Google engineer on Quora:
It’s pretty clear that any reasonable search engine would use click data on their own results to feed back into ranking to improve the quality of search results. Infrequently clicked results should drop toward the bottom because they’re less relevant, and frequently clicked results bubble toward the top. Building a feedback loop is a fairly obvious step forward in quality for both search and recommendation systems, and a smart search engine would incorporate the data. The actual mechanics of how click data is used is often proprietary, but Google makes it obvious that it uses click data with its patents on systems like “Rank-adjusted content items”.
WordStream research suggests that for long-tail search terms for a niche, if a page:
People speculate that RankBrain specifically looks at the query, the pages visited, the searcher’s intent (informational or transactional mostly) and the time spent engaging with that page (dwell time).
In theory, RankBrain is determining whether the webpage fulfills the intent of the query. Then future search results will be biased towards satisfying that imagined intent.
Think about this: How do people engage with your page when they click through? Do they quickly click back to the search results to look for a better answer?
This is a user experience issue. Over time, RankBrain can figure out that even if you are on Page 1, you may not be qualified to keep rankings based on searcher behavior.
In May 2020, Google announced that page experience will be considered a ranking factor some time in 2021. Page experience takes into account things like:
These signals will come together to improve the ranking of webpages that offer a good user experience.
Page experience ranking signals, “Evaluating page experience for a better web,” Google
Google discussed how this will factor into inclusion in the “top stories” carousel in the search results:
As part of this update, we’ll also incorporate the page experience metrics into our ranking criteria for the Top Stories feature in Search on mobile, and remove the AMP requirement from Top Stories eligibility. Google continues to support AMP, and will continue to link to AMP pages when available. We’ve also updated our developer tools to help site owners optimize their page experience.
Post-Click SEO: User Experience Strategies
Would you be surprised if I told you that the same SEO strategies that have always worked to help a site rank also improve user experience?
Yes, SEO is about driving traffic. But it’s also about user experience. How you engage with your traffic can make the difference between more traffic or less traffic in the future. This is more evident now with things like Google’s SQEG and RankBrain.
1. Get Quality Rankings in the Search Results
The foundation of a searcher’s user experience is the content you create. If you do not create content that satisfies both user intent and Google’s quality ratings, you may not rank.
But I’ll take this idea a step further. With 50% of searches today resulting in zero clicks, it’s important to target queries that have a better chance of click-throughs.
Know which of your target queries Google is answering right in the search results, so that a person never has to click through. Don’t target those.
Not only that, but create and optimize the type of content (e.g., video or other) that is most-often featured on the search engine results page (SERP) for your target query.
2. Create Enticing SERP Listings So People Will Click Through
If you’re on Page 1 of the SERP, congratulations. But you’re not done. You also need to entice the searcher to click through to your site.
While data has shown that the top results get the most clicks, we also have information that people quickly scan the search results page before deciding where they will click.
That means you need to stand out. How do you do that?
3. Have Quality Content That Satisfies Visitor Intent
Adhere to the principles outlined in Google’s SQEG. This will go a long way to ensuring content is up to par with Google’s standard of quality. This will enhance the user experience.
Also, there’s one SEO strategy that has always been at the center of user experience, and that’s siloing. Siloing (aka content architecture) is how you organize the content on your site for search engines and users.
Organizing content on your site is something Google has suggested for years. Here are two quotes from Google that prove this.
The first relates to content architecture as it applies to the user experience:
Make it as easy as possible for users to go from general content to the more specific content they want on your site. Add navigation pages when it makes sense and effectively work these into your internal link structure. Make sure all of the pages on your site are reachable through links, and that they don’t require an internal “search” functionality to be found. Link to related pages, where appropriate, to allow users to discover similar content.
The second quote is about content architecture as it relates to determining relevance. (Remember, relevance is a biggie when it comes to ranking and satisfying user intent.)
The navigation of a website is important in helping visitors quickly find the content they want. It can also help search engines understand what content the webmaster thinks is important. Although Google’s search results are provided at a page level, Google also likes to have a sense of what role a page plays in the bigger picture of the site.
–Google, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Starter Guide
4. Keep and Engage Traffic on Your Site
To keep people on your site, you want to create a good experience when people are interacting with your webpages. This is going to be especially important as new page-experience ranking signals go live in 2021.
Then you can a) build an audience and b) gain quality links when your content is shared.
It’s important to note that good content will still trump user experience signals like those outlined earlier in Google’s new ranking system. But UX is still important nonetheless.
From Google’s page experience help file:
While page experience is important, Google still seeks to rank pages with the best information overall, even if the page experience is subpar. Great page experience doesn’t override having great page content. However, in cases where there are many pages that may be similar in relevance, page experience can be much more important for visibility in Search.
Google gives specific details on how to optimize for page experience in its help file, including:
Google has always valued the user experience. Now Google is accelerating its algorithm to better filter out the sites that don’t share its values. The good news: Strategic SEO has always put user experience at the center.
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