Search engine optimization (SEO) is about far more than keywords. Website usability and functionality are such important requirements for landing in search engine results pages (SERPs) that, put simply, uniting the strategies "is part of a good SEO approach," according to Etela Ivkovic, Director General/SEO Initiative Manager at New York-based Web marketing consultancy DragonSearch.
"Even if you rank well and users come to your site, if your site is not user-friendly and has poor functionality, those visitors will not only bounce and leave your site, but will also associate it with a bad experience," Ivkovic says. "They will make sure not to come back in the future. And, in today's social world, they are likely to share their bad experiences with their networks on- and offline. In addition, search engines are monitoring user behavior very closely, taking note of sites that get high bounce rates, and are likely to use these signals in their ranking algorithms."
Offering advice to help marketers prevent those eventualities are Ivkovic and:
- Joe Austin, president of Chantilly, Va.-based SEO-integrated content marketing software and services provider Ventana New Media;
- Matthias Bachor, marketing director of German-based search analytics company Searchmetrics;
- Rick Egan, vice president of group accounts at Santa Monica, Calif.-based online marketing firm The Search Agency, Inc.;
- Ben Finklea, CEO of Austin, Texas-based search marketing firm Volacci;
- Nick Stamoulis, president of Boston-based search engine and Web marketing firm Brick Marketing;
- Amanda G. Watlington, Ph.D., owner of Charlestown, Mass.-based search engine marketing consultancy Searching for Profit; and
- Lauren Whitson, spokeswoman for the German-based Internet company 1&1 Internet, Inc, which has North American headquarters in Chesterbrook, Pa.
1. Navigation needs to be intuitive, easy and logical. Never use flash here—always use HTML, Whitson says. Not only does she say flash is ugly, but also that search engines will ignore the content.
Keywords can be used here, but within navigation, "to better guide search engines and users," Egan says. "Often sites like to use branded terminology that does not always provide clear direction of what can be found if they click that link."
In other words, Ivkovic recommends, "keep your target audience in mind and structure it for them."
Egan says this means site pages accessible through navigation should relate to each other. Finklea elaborates: "Reduce the number of clicks it takes visitors to get from the top level (domain) to the bottom level of your website. Your architecture should be flat. This doesn't mean removing pages—it means restructuring your pages. The best way to do this is to organize your content hierarchically, from broad to specific (i.e. Domain > Men's > Suits & Sportcoats > Overcoats, and Domain > Women's > Plus Sizes > Dresses). The more pages the crawlers have to crawl to find out what your site is about, the worse it is for your site's overall SERP placement. The more pages a visitor has to navigate to get to the bottom, the more likely he or she is to leave before getting there."
For instance, Stamoulis says, client Somerset Industries—a bakery equipment manufacturer—provides consumers with "various ways to access the same product information: top-level navigation, side images, bottom footer and deep, relevant content links to interior pages. This helps visitors find product information for ordering, parts, etc., and is naturally built to help with conversions and SEO."
2. "Don't clutter your pages with too many call outs and items," Ivkovic says.
What's attractive to the human eye will be attractive to spiders, explains Whitson. "Give each idea a separate section for relaying details. For example, a business that offers different types of services, like a beauty salon, can use a separate page for each topic and link to another page with relevant information."
3. Put more thought into site content beyond the homepage. Whitson says search engines aren't taking a holistic look at sites—they're looking at individual pages. She adds, "Use keywords in page content that leads visitors to other areas of the site that has additional information on the same topic. It helps users navigate a website and it improves the amount of information search engines will index."
One way to do so, Egan suggests, is to "add on-site widgets [such as related content] to key landing pages to [aid] in navigation for top content pages, as well as create secondary links to those pages for search engines."
Finklea says linking the content internally helps spiders understand its meaning. But don't go nuts and link every page to every section, thereby making the copy illegible, Whitson cautions.
4. Only use keywords when they make sense in the context of the content, Finklea says. "The quality of your content should obviously be your first priority," he says, "so make sure the way you use keywords sounds natural and makes sense to the reader."
Then make sure to place anchor text (clickable links attached to words within content) on appropriate keywords within a page in a way that makes sense, he says.
5. When adding functionality, check to make sure the site still loads quickly, Watlington says. It's a ranking factor.
6. Functionality should flow from the objective, which is also where the content should originate, Bachor says. He adds: "'Selling' is the best strategy: If the aim of a website is to sell products or to achieve many newsletter registrations, the best SEO strategy is to realize these conversions. This keeps visitors on the site and leads them deeper into the website."
7. Mind the details. Austin says to include keywords in image descriptions. Whitson adds that "it will provide additional content for users, and is the only piece of information search engines will 'read' from your site."
"Make sure you don't have broken links and unnecessary redirects," Ivkovic says, and "design your site for cross-browser compatibility."
Speaking of links, Bachor says, "Backlinks are still one of the most important ranking factors. Obviously it's easier to find link partners for websites with good content and fancy functions."
8. Test. Bachor says, "Algorithms of search engines differ a lot regarding topic and size of a website. Therefore, it makes sense to install test scenarios for all changes and add-ons."
Watlington adds: "Site search offers many clues. It can show:
a) where navigation is failing to lead users to the correct page;
b) opportunities for additional keyword optimization; [and]
c) changing consumer terminology for products and services."