One of the first phrases I learned in my SEO career was, “Content is king.” That simple phrase highlights the (ever-increasing) importance of content as the cornerstone of a valuable and authoritative site.
As an SEO professional, it feels to me as though it has taken years for web masters and site owners to fully understand the importance of visible, well-written content. Ultimately it’s been a hard-fought battle that has lead to tremendous strides in client understanding.
There’s a new battleground, however, for the hearts and minds of webmasters and site owners; one that’s just as important as the war for better content. This time, the fight is over usability.
I mean, sure, you could have the greatest content in the world. But if folks can’t find it or have trouble getting to it, then, who cares?
What is Usability/User Experience?
Usability — also called the User Experience* — involves the user friendliness of a website, and can be affected by several different factors. These can include navigational elements, site features, design elements and more.
Basically, think of usability as the roadway system used to get around a city or even a whole country. It needs infrastructural elements to work properly, such as the roads, signs, bridges and roundabouts to keep traffic flowing, and to get people from point A to B as easily as possible. Otherwise folks would get lost, stuck or worse. Why even leave home when that’s a possibility?
Think about a city or town you’ve been in where the roads are simply laid out, clearly marked, and easy to navigate. You’ll have a much better time roaming around that city than you would in, say, a city with crumbling roads, poor signage and closed streets. You’ll likely have a better memory of the more efficient city as well, and a place you’d want to return.
Likewise, you want your users to have as positive an experience as possible with your website. Usability is one surefire way to help make this happen, and to keep users returning to your site.
Why Should I Care About Usability?
For a long time now search engines, like Google, have used the amount of time users spend on a site as a metric to help determine how valuable or authoritative a website is. The higher a site’s value and authoritativeness, the higher that site will eventually appear in the search engine results pages (SERPs). While this is one of many metrics search engines like Google use to determine a site’s value, it’s one of the few that can be directly affected by the site owner or webmaster.
Because you have direct control over how usable your site is, it makes sense you should do your utmost to make it as user-friendly as possible. Many sites I run into on a regular basis don’t appear to pay attention to how user-friendly their site is. Poor navigation, lacking features and problematic design choices can all work against a website’s success. This is why you should care about usability: because it can directly affect the success or failure of a website and its associated business.
What Should I Be Looking For to Improve Usability?
While modern websites — most built on content management systems like WordPress, Magento and so on — do a serviceable job of providing basic usability right out of the virtual box, achieving excellent usability requires constant maintenance, thought and care.
There are a lot of elements you should consider when thinking about your own site’s usability. These include:
• Useful and Relevant Navigational Elements – I’m not talking just basic site menu systems, but also things like breadcrumbs (which are a personal favorite of mine), links to related products/content when looking at a specific product or piece of content, links to popular items/sections/articles and so on. By making the most relevant and popular stuff on your site just a click away, you’re making it much more enticing for users to stick around. • Clear Informational Hierarchy – This is a big one, one that’s more important than a lot of people think, and one that also directly ties into the last one. Let’s say you have a series of products within a specific product category. For example, you have blue widgets in the widget product category. You then want a URL that looks like http://www.example.com/widgets/blue-widgets/ or something along those lines. Not only that, but you want this mirrored in both the main navigation and, if your site has one, the breadcrumb as well. Then the breadcrumb for that URL could be Home > Widgets > Blue Widgets. This not only makes it abundantly clear what the user is looking at and how it relates to the rest of the site, but where the user can go from there. • Engaging Site Content Channels – Continuing with the example above, say you have a site that sells blue widgets. It’s not enough anymore to just have simple listings of widgets. You should also have an easily accessible blog about widgets, FAQs about widgets, testimonials about widgets, videos about widgets, product reviews about specific widgets and community forums about widgets. While this would require a lot of work and maintenance, the upside is that you would be building a community where fans can connect with you and each other, and ultimately a community they’ll want to return to. • Usable Site Features – While things like HTML sitemaps and engaging 404 error pages are top-tier SEO best practices, they’re also excellent usability best practices as well. These types of features make your site easier to work with should a user get lost or arrive on a broken page, for example. You can also have features such as site search fields, filters and other methods to help make the site easier to navigate.
Do I Really Need All This?
Well no, you don’t need to do all of these things (or whatever else you can think of to make your site a joy for users). You also don’t need to rank well, either. You don’t need to be a success, be seen as an authority or have a valuable site people share with their friends whenever your related topics come up in conversation.
Sure, you don’t really have to have any of that.
Overall what you want is a successful website that people share with their friends and return to when they want information on the latest topics covering your specific niche.
High usability is one of the best and most direct things you can do to achieve that.
This article is meant to be a starting point, to get webmasters and site owners thinking and talking about usability in regards to their own sites. Usability is the foundation upon which a house will be built. In future articles, I’ll go into more detail as to the facets of usability mentioned above along with other thoughts and ideas on usability and the user experience.
For now, take a look at your own site, and try to approach it from a user’s perspective in order to gain insight into any usability issues you might have. If you already do that, awesome, keep it up, as you’re already well-ahead of the curve.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look into the wonders of usability, and hopefully understand why someone like me — who diagnoses and audits websites regularly — is super passionate about this particular topic. Thanks for reading, and good luck!
*Ed note: Some people classify usability and user experience as "different, but related." If you have thoughts on this, please leave them in the comments!
Image credit: Splitshire & Canva