SEO versus Usability

We all hear a lot of buzz about search engine optimization. A quick Google search on "SEO" yields 110 million pages. If you want to know the "top 10 SEO Tips," there are over 43 million pages with the answers.

But too many people put too many eggs in their SEO basket. Site owners give SEO, particularly PageRank, far too much significance, thinking high PageRank alone will mean sales and fearing low PageRank will doom them to failure.

Neither is true.

The best SEO efforts, particularly in highly competitive areas, may still not offer top placement in organic search engine results pages (SERPs). SEO is only one of the ways to help people find your site; savvy marketers find lots of ways to spread their message.

You can lead a horse to water …

Perhaps the best reason not to focus entirely on SEO is that it doesn't sell anything. Even sponsored links don't result in sales if a site ignores the importance of the user's experience. Site owners should be spending at least an equal amount of time on site usability.

Recently, I went online intending to purchase soy candles. I'd heard great things about soy candles lasting longer, smelling better, and wanted to get some to see for myself. I was a motivated buyer with lots of curiosity and money burning a hole in my pocket.

My initial search for "soy candles" netted more than 1.4 million pages. All of the top 10 sites showed evidence of search engine optimization: good page titles, lots of keywords, etc. They seemed to have achieved success. After all, they were in the top 10 search results!

What went wrong?

As I worked my way through all top 10 results, I consistently found usability problems from moderate to severe. The better sites offered somewhat straight-forward navigation without too much distracting clutter. The worst sites were cluttered, confused and failed to provide any guidance.

First Prize for Bad Design

The prize for poor usability goes to Soy Candles by Phebes. The landing page (home) offered two images: one of a highway to the horizon and the other an arrangement of candles, with navigation consisting of two choices: fragrances and contact.

Clicking on "fragrances" took me to a page with a lovely photo of a tree at the top. Below the fold, was a product list with names of fragrances next to pictures illustrating … the fragrance. No product pictures other than that small arrangement on the home page. It turns out Phebes only sells one type and size of candle, but you have to look carefully for the one line of small type that tells you that.

(Note: This site has been updated. It's still horrible, but much better than the original.)

Second Prize

Another site had only a logo on the landing page and a "What's New" page with 41 thumbnail images. The problem is the images were all sized improperly. On a dial-up connection, each image would take approximately 11 seconds to load. You do the math. Would you wait for the page to load?

Third Prize

Another site's navigation contained two pages: the home page which took 143 page down clicks in my browser (on a large monitor) to get to the bottom, and a product list page not quite as long but nearly all duplicated content from the home page. The actual products for sale would have fit in the space of three screens.

Sponsored Links Make the Same Mistakes

Sponsored links are paid-for placement in SERPs. So it's only natural to think these site owners would put more effort into making the sale. And in fact, some of the sponsored links had better navigation and improved shopping carts, but many made the same usability errors: confusing links and not providing enough guidance and explanation of the product and options.

Furthermore, as I went through all these sites, it began to look like many were selling the same candles, but branding was so poor that I couldn't be sure. Some claimed to make their own candles, others were vague about it. Not one site I visited did even a mediocre job of distinguishing their site or their products from all the others.

The lesson: I was ready to buy.

All I needed was an easy to use interface that gave me some clear information; an interface that made it easy to learn about and select options; that gave me the information I needed to choose one over the other. Instead, I was left with a lowered opinion of the entire category of soy candles.

Good SEO is important, but what users find once they reach the site is at least as important; in my opinion, it is more important. A site that is easy to use, informative, well organized, offering an intuitive interface, and good branding, will rise in search engine results naturally because people will use it and link to it.