Search Engine Usability — Stop Thinking of SEO

Search engine optimization is not just about bringing traffic to your site. Fundamentally you are helping to solve a usability problem for the search engine. Most marketers think of SEO the wrong way. Spend 15 minutes at a Digital marketing conference and you can hear dozens of people talking about SEO from the perspective of a site they manage. If you work in marketing, you should focus on ROI for your client, but that can’t be the only thing you think about.

Google is not out to make you money. Google’s goal is to acquire robotics companies… Just kidding. My point is that Google has money–a lot of money. That’s because Google is also focused on ROI. For Google.

Search Engines, almost across the board, make money by selling advertising inventory. So, how much a search engine can earn is tied to how many users and how many searches they have. It’s no surprise that their business goal is to keep searchers happy by showing what they are looking for. Help Google with that goal and you will rank.

Stop viewing SEO as a matter of you appearing in search results. Ask the question, if someone searches this and finds me, am I what they are looking for? If you are, why aren’t you ranking? Think about why you’re not ranking the way a UX team at Google would.

Framing the Search UX problem

It’s the same problem any good UX team thinks about when they build a product. If someone goes to your website looking for a blog post you wrote called, “How to Build a Car for $1.99,” and can’t find it by searching, “How to Make a Car for $2.00,” they are not going to be happy. The same goes for any search engine, thereby making your marketing problem Google’s usability problem.

From a searcher’s perspective, all you want is relevant results. Unfortunately, there are a few limitations:

  • Too many websites to manually index and tag
  • Words that mean different things, i.e Oklahoma (State, City, Musical, Song, Movie)
  • Misspelled words
  • Synonyms
  • Never before seen searches
  • Bad human memory. (“I can’t find tickets to that ‘Sergeant USA’  movie.”)

The Google Solution

In a paper written by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, while they were still at Stanford, about how they built Google, they seem very focused on giving users the best experience possible.


… we want our notion of “relevant” to only include the very best documents since there may be tens of thousands of slightly relevant documents. This very high precision is important even at the expense of recall (the total number of relevant documents the system is able to return).

They focus on the idea of relevancy and tackle the problem with a primitive version of PageRank.

This automation quality and relevance scores determining the results are  the core of how a search works today. These principals are used by every major search engine.

Take Aways

Even though you should focus on what Search Engines care about, at the end of the day, you have to make a living. So what should you do? Well, following the same user experience approach as Google isn’t a bad idea. Focus on relevancy.

That’s what keyword research is really for anyway. Long before the Google keyword tool (may he rest in peace), copywriters did research. You want to make sure you use words people are familiar with and use. To learn more, check out Copy Blogger’s free keyword research and content marketing ebooks.

I would also focus on UX  beyond the quality of your content and the words used. A slow site, bad font, poor color scheme, auto-playing videos, and sound, etc…, can create a user nightmare. If images have no alt text, or irrelevant alt text, it’s not only bad for SEO. If a site visitor has a vision impairment, it’s an empty cavern left in the heart of your content.   

Although human experience is over half the battle, it’s not all. At the end of the day, search results are just a mathematical equation and you need to be usable for both humans and bots. There are lots of usability problems that can you may be causing for bots (including search engine spiders). Take a look at this technical SEO Check List made by Bruce Clay Ink.