The last few years, search engines such as Google, Bing, and even Apple, have been upgrading their algorithms and machine learning processes to account for the end-user’s experience. But, since their algorithms are built upon the work completed by automated crawling bots (pieces of software that manually scour the internet), it has always been difficult for them to truly simulate the actions of a flesh and blood user. And it’s not feasible for them to create an algorithm that’s based on the anecdotal feedback of an army of individual users that submit their findings.
Instead the search engines have started to write logic that, to their best estimation, is what a user experience should be on a website. Some of the criteria they are now measuring are site speed, mobile optimization, site structure, content, and dozens of other signals that should give the algorithm an idea of whether or not search engine users are getting what they expect from a website.
So, what does this mean for companies, marketers, and website owners when it comes to their SEO?
Basically what I, and dozens of other SEO industry experts, have been writing about for years has now come to fruition. We’ve exited the era of search engine optimization (SEO), and have now entered the new age of search experience optimization (also… SEO).
And this is great news for anyone that performs digital marketing correctly. It means that “gaming” the system has become less and less viable, and that groups who rely on black hat techniques are seeing their efforts become less effective.
So, how should websites be optimized for the search engines now that user experience plays such a big role?
Ask questions, provide answers.
Previously, marketers used to obsess over ideas like keyword density, meta descriptions, and link profiles. They had everything down to percentages and numbers and it all made sense when it was placed into an excel sheet. But how on earth was a website that was built from data on an excel sheet supposed to appeal to a human being?
That’s the problem the search engines set out to fix. And you need to accommodate the changes they’ve made.
Specifically, you need to think about your website visitors at every stage of your web design and marketing process. And this can be done easily with a series of question and answer audits you can ask yourself as you’re creating your marketing campaign.
For instance, if you’re designing a web page and you’re wondering how to make it appear in the Google search results, you should start by asking what your customers are typing into the search engine. This sounds rudimentary, but think it through for a moment. Previously marketers would optimize for terms such as “snow tires” or “weight loss products”. But search habits have become more semantic and people are no longer typing in general terms, but rather they’re asking questions.
Thus, the search term “snow tires” has evolved into, “what are the best snow tires for a 2008 Ford F150?”
And it’s the companies that are answering the questions for their customers that are starting to win in the search engine rankings. So, stop fretting over how many times you mention the keyword in the content you’re writing on the page, and instead start asking yourself what your customers need help with.
If you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 years, you may be shocked to hear that most people use smart phones and that smart phone searches now account for a more search volume than desktop searches. However, if you’ve been living in the world with the rest of us, this isn’t too surprising. So, if everyone is using mobile devices to browse the web, shouldn’t you likewise be optimizing your site for mobile traffic?
Last year, Google made waves in the SEO community by releasing a major algorithm update that specifically improved the search engine visibility of mobile optimized sites over their less optimized competitors. It was lovingly termed “mobilegeddon” by marketers. And while it wasn’t the end of the world, it did cause quite a stir with digital marketers.
Across the board, mobilegeddon caused the search results to shuffle about and it didn’t just impact small businesses. In fact, over 40% of Fortune 500 websites weren’t mobile optimized at the time of the update. Which is staggering when you think that this all just happened less than a year ago. So, some major brands took hits to their online presence.
And what this taught everyone, painfully in some cases, was that we needed to start prioritizing the needs of mobile internet users. You see, mobile users don’t have the same bandwidth as desktop users. They have data limits and often the speed of their internet is much lower than a desktop computer. So, if they’re trying to interact with a page that has a lot of data and animations to load, it’s going to take forever for them to actually see something on their mobile device. Which, as we’ve been discussing, is not ideal for user experience.
So, instead of building a website that is dramatic from a visual standpoint, but requires the equivalent effort of a million hamsters running on wheels to power up a switchboard to manage all of the data and bytes your site is throwing at the visitor, you should probably go with a more “minimalist” approach.
I recently sat down with Mitul Gandhi, an SEO expert and the co-founder of SEOClarity, a next-generation enterprise-level SEO platform.
“The search engines are no longer kidding around when it comes to mobile optimization,” says Mitul. “Google has released AMP Pages, their tool to allow web designers to quickly optimize their pages for mobile devices, and Apple is building their entire algorithm based on the actions of mobile users, based on their massive mobile phone market share.”
As Mitul mentioned, Google has recently released a product called AMP pages, which stands for accelerated mobile pages. This product is a great solution for website owners and marketers that don’t have web design degrees but understand they need to make significant changes to their website in order to accommodate mobile users.
Pay Attention To Your User Experience Metrics
Once you’ve optimized your website content and the mobile experience, the next steps are heavily data driven. You should now begin understanding what is happening when visitors are coming to your site and how they are interacting with it. To do this, you can utilize robust tools like the one Mitul’s group offers, or for those that don’t have the budget, you can analyze your Google Analytics data, which is free to use.
What you’ll want to look for are signals that tell you if you’re providing a positive user experience past mobile speed and onsite content. To do this, look at metrics like time on site, bounce rate, pages per visit, return visitor rates, and conversions. This data will give you insights as to whether your visitors are enjoying themselves once they are browsing your site. Once you identify problem pages or sections, work on optimizing those through A/B testing.
The reason you want to do this is the search engines are now leveraging the data that is mined from people using their internet browsers. Wait… Google, Bing, and Apple are tracking what you’re doing on your browser? Um, yes. Why else would they sink millions of dollars into a piece of software they give away for free. Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge (previously Internet Explorer), and Apple Safari are all spying on you and reporting data points back to their creators.
Now, I can’t pretend to know whether they’re using this data for nefarious reasons (I can almost bet they are), but we do know that they use this data to understand whether users are having a positive user experience on a website. And the metrics I just told you to measure, are the same ones these browsers are reporting back to the search engines.
Don’t Forget Social Media
Finally, you’ll want to ensure that you are not just giving lip service to the idea of social media. Regardless of how dry and boring your industry is, you need to be engaging on social media. We have dozens of B2B clients in some pretty dull industries that still actively participate on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
And they’re not using us because they think they’re going to get a bunch of customers from Facebook. But they understand that the search engines are taking major cues from social media signals as to whether a site offers a positive user experience or not.
After all, if you enjoy something online, what do you usually do? You talk about it. And where do a lot of people talk about things? On social media. So, it’s only logical that if you’re trying to measure whether a site is providing a great user experience, that there would also be a social footprint signaling this.
So, make sure that you’re sending links back to pages on your site when you are posting on social media. And don’t just link back to your homepage, but link to product pages, your company information page, and your location pages. These are all places that should be getting signals from the social networks.
And this is also why you should be blogging, as I’ve talked about ad nauseam in previous articles. Not only do blogs provide great content to your visitors (read: user experience) they also encourage social media sharing and interaction, which leads to social signals, which is what I’ve been talking about for the last few paragraphs!
So, if you’ve been wondering how to get your website to rank well in the search engines and have been wondering what the secret sauce is, you can forget about some mystical equation that perfectly balances links, keyword density, and unicorn dust. It doesn’t exist. And that’s a good thing. Because search experience optimization is a much more common sense endeavor and anyone can figure it out with a little bit of time and effort.