How & Why Usability Will Be the Future of SEO

Mordy Oberstein

Sep 09, 202112 min read
How & Why Usability Will Be the Future of SEO

What would happen if Google understood content perfectly? 

While the answer to such a scenario ranges from incredibly unlikely to impossible, there’s something to the underlying sentiment of the proposition. That’s clearly because Google has made great strides in understanding the words on a webpage. Moreover, with things like MUM, this seems like a trend that is only going to continue exponentially. 

It’s a trend that I think is going to reshape SEO to a substantial extent. 

Here’s why and how I think “usability” will come to dominate SEO as technology continues to advance. 
 

Why SEO Will Get Redefined 

The notion of Google fully comprehending content is a bit of an absurdity (at least in this author’s opinion) when taken as a result. However, when taken as a trend or as something which things are moving towards, it’s an incredibly practical question. So much so that even John Mueller took it up during a July 2021 hangout session

Indeed, if you read through John’s statements, they center around both Google’s content deciphering advancements and the evolution of the CMS as it pertains to handling things like H1s, etc.

Both the advancements of many of the CMSes and Google itself converge to create an environment conducive to real change. These changes will, without a doubt, directly impact SEO. 

In fact, I believe these changes to be so significant that they will redefine SEO in many ways (though not totally, of course). 

Before we get to the evolution of SEO, let’s better understand the convergence between CMS advancements along with Google’s improvements. 

Redefining SEO: The Role of Google’s Comprehension Advancement

There’s an equalization that occurs alongside Google’s increased abilities to parse content and its meaning. The ranking potential of content that has not been created or optimized by a marketing professional increases relative to Google’s ability to better understand the content. That does not mean that Google will or won’t rank such content but that it now can rank such content should it choose. What Google has related around Passage Ranking would be representative of this trend. (Again, for the record, I am not saying Google is there yet. Major advancements have been made, but there can certainly still be significant gaps). 

Simply put, Google’s ability to better understand content going forward would mean less emphasis is needed to ensure Google understands your content. It’s a pretty simple equation. The things on your page that exist for the sake of Google being better able to understand your content become less significant. Following its logical conclusion, this dynamic would change, in theory, what SEOs need to focus on. 

Redefining SEO: The Role of the CMS

Like it or not, the CMS is going to play an important role in “all of this.” CMSes are getting more and more sophisticated as they relate to SEO. Two clear examples of this are Shopify now allowing access to the robots.txt file, etc., and Wix offering a strong degree of URL customization.

However, the real advancements are the ones you don’t see. CMSes often provide automatic page caching, the implementation of lazy loading images, or converting images to WebP and far beyond. This is all the more relevant in regards to the underpinnings of a site that enable it to be crawled and indexed. For your typical SMB or SME’s site, the CMSes do a “pretty good job” to quote John Mueller himself. 

The result is a business owner who is able to create content that is not prevented from appearing on the SERP due to technical reasons. Clearly, you can see why there might be concern from some SEOs about the vitality of their role here. 

In other words, no matter how you slice it and no matter what corner of SEO you stand in (content, technical, etc.), things seem to be set for a major shift in the current paradigm. Google is better able to understand content, while site owners are afforded ways to focus on their content by having CMSes handle many of the technical aspects of SEO. (Again, I am NOT saying that technical SEO work is not needed; that’s not my point here.) 

Simply put, Google is better at understanding content and will get even better while the impediments around creating content that ranks are removed for many users at the same time. 

A convergence. 

So what’s next for SEO? How does this play out? What does SEO turn into? 

Why Usability Will Come into Increased Focus 

As a kid, I was a big fan of Mr. Rogers. So for the sake of my own nostalgia, let’s enter the “Land of Make-Believe.” Let’s pretend that Google can understand content perfectly. 

What would happen? 

For starters, Google wouldn’t need you (or anyone else) to help it understand the content on the page. It wouldn’t need H1s or title tags or schema or whatever to help it understand what’s on the page. Not that it couldn’t use it, but just as a reader wouldn’t necessarily need those elements, neither would Google in a “perfect world.” 

What, then, becomes of SEO?

In such a scenario, SEO from a content perspective is no longer about “optimizing” the page for the sake of search engines but becomes solely about focusing the page on the right users at the right time. 

In other words, all of the things we do to ensure Google understands our content — all of the best practices around keywords here and page structure there — will all be irrelevant. If Google can understand content perfectly, then it doesn’t need to rely on any crutches to get where it wants to go. Assuming the page adequately addresses a topic, Google would understand it. 

Let’s ask the question a bit differently. If Google were omniscient and could understand content perfectly, what would differentiate one piece of content from another, assuming both pages are topically relevant to equal extents?

The answer is the efficacy of the content. How effective and efficient a page is in disseminating the content is by definition the most advantageous for users and therefore search engines. In a world where the elements on the page don’t matter vis-à-vis Google’s understanding of the page, usability becomes the differentiating factor.

Coming back to reality, as Google gets better and better at understanding content more “intrinsically,” thereby relying less on various crutches for comprehension, usability comes increasingly into focus. As Google has to worry less about ensuring it accurately understands the content on the page, it can increasingly focus on how efficient and effective the page is in transmitting its message.

This is exactly what Google has indeed been doing with each and every core update since 2018. By freeing itself from having to expend X amount of energy trying to ensure it understands the page, Google can exponentially focus on ensuring the page is effective in terms of its usability.

What Might SEO Focused on Usability Look Like?

I’m going to channel my inner Barry Schwartz by saying Google’s move to a focus on usability is “not new.” It’s a trend, as I mentioned, that we’ve seen manifest itself strongly since at least 2018. You can call it E-A-T or whatever you want, but it is a move towards ensuring that the experience of the user is far more aligned to expectations and to content consumption efficiency. Google has long been trying to move the focus away from bots and onto users. What I am advocating here is that at a certain point, a quantity of changes becomes a qualitative change. At a certain point, the more water you add, a ripple becomes a tidal wave.

Google has focused on the usability and experience of the page/site. The best example is the Page Experience Update. This is Google taking a strong stance on the user’s overall experience. What I’m proposing is that this focus is going to get far more intense as time goes on.

The question is, what does this look like going forward?

Usability & the User Experience: Content & SEO

“SEO content” focused on usability brings a lot of the ideas that are becoming popular in SEO to the forefront. Most notably, the idea of “speaking to the user” would become even more significant than it currently is.

Fundamentally, a site or a page’s usability runs in equal parts to its ability to speak to a specific type of user. What’s “usable” for one demographic of users is completely unusable for another.

Take a medical journal for instance. It might indeed have the most nuanced, accurate, and authoritative content on a given health topic, but it is completely worthless to someone without a medical background.

Speaking to specific user profiles dictates, as a rule, how usable a page will be.

When the question of what is on the page and how reliable it is becomes less of an issue, the differentiating factor between two relevant pages becomes how effective the content is in reaching an audience.

The nature of the audience needs to be defined according to the nature of the query. Does the search query imply a more advanced user versus a layperson, etc. Usability is a relative. The ability of a page to efficiently relay information is relative to the intended audience.

This is to say, the nature of the audience and the ability of the content to target that audience will become a far greater “factor” by definition.

This can take any number of forms and be accompanied by a varying degree of complexity. That is, a page’s ability to be “usable” to a highly specific audience may come down to complex page elements or rather simple page elements (or any other number of variables).

To put this more concretely, take headers as an example. Two pages of different sites may contain the same information. Both may be accurate, authoritative, and the like. However, imagine one page used its headers to create an easy-to-follow flow of information whereas the other did not. While in such a scenario both pages are equally understood by Google, they differ greatly in how effective they are in transmitting information efficiently and effectively to the target audience. (For the record, the converse could also be true: An overreliance on-page structure may take away from the abstract nature of the content and may not align to a more sophisticated audience.)

Headers and other elements of “good” page structure are actually a great example. We often think of headers, tables, and even schema markup (especially schema markup) as fundamentally being a part of helping Google understand the content on the page. What I am advocating is that these elements will play less of a role in helping Google but will function as that which can differentiate one page from another vis-à-vis usability.

The practical difference, at least partially, will be the lack of uniformity these elements will play (and already do) in the “SEO” picture. Whereas page structure elements can be seen as objectively helping Google understand page content, they are, to a great extent, subjective from a usability point of view. Depending on the audience that content is relevant to, certain page structure elements will be more or less relevant.

Usability & the User Experience: Technical SEO

On the technical side of things, I think we’ve already seen what the future looks like. The Page Experience Update wasn’t called the “The 2021 Speed Update”; it was called the Page EXPERIENCE Update and for good reason.

One of the nice things about the update is that it synthesized technical SEO and the user. It wasn’t about improving speed to cater to Google. It was about ensuring your site is usable in the most optimal sense of the word.

This creates a bit of a more fluid environment. What might be a core vital in 2021 may not be in 2025, or there may be additional vitals added as time goes on. (I know that Google has indeed had discussions to include FCP as one of the vitals at one point.)

In either case, technical optimization in the context of user experience is not a fad. It’s only going to evolve and continue. What’s more, as both the web and users evolve, user-focused technical optimization is going to be a far more fluid affair. 

Optimization for Worth vs. Optimization for Understanding

At the risk of sounding repetitive, the paradigm shift that I think is upon us already and that will take on new meaning as time goes on can be defined as optimizing for worth instead of understanding. When I say understanding, I mean that of the search engine and not the user.

What’s happening and will continue to happen (to such an extent it that creates a qualitative shift) is less of a need to focus on how search engines will understand the page versus a focus on advocating the worth of a page to a target audience.

The Takeaway: Start Profiling Users to Far Greater Degrees 

Practically speaking, what does all of this mean? What does Google dedicating more of its resources towards determining the usability of a page versus simply understanding it mean for SEO on the practical level?

As mentioned, usability is a relative. The page structure and elements found on a page attempting to compare various stocks to the average person will be very different from the structure contained on a page that represents a financial journal.

I keep harping on page structure only because it's such an easy example, but it applies to everything from tone to media formats found on the page and well beyond.

The point is, what is highly usable to one user profile is vastly different from another. This means that your content, far more than it already is, should strongly target a specific user type and intent as this will be the point of differentiation between various pages to a far greater extent. 

Google is going to get better at differentiating what type of content presents the optimal user experience to one audience over another. That is, there will be a greater degree of nuance that separates the efficiency of a page for various audience types.

Simply, Google is set to get far more specific in determining what sort of content and experience is suited for which types of users for which types of queries.

All of that means refining your targeting. It means being very deliberate in the content you create. Who is it for? What level of expertise are you trying to target? What tone is most appropriate? What page elements best support the usability in this instance?

The list could go on endlessly. 

That’s really the point. You need to better understand your audience and what it means for them to advantageously consume information.

The trend is that if you look carefully, you can already see on the SERP. There are far more features that attempt to refine the user’s query today than ever before. From the more famous SERP features such as the PAA Box and Related Searches to the newer elements like top of the SERP bubble filters and the “More Specific Searches” feature... query refinement is dominant.

Google is actively trying to push the user towards far more specific content. That, of course, is quite logical as the more specific the content, the greater chance for user satisfaction.

Combining the overabundance of query refinement features with an algorithmic focus on differentiating pages based on usability will be a powerful combination that should not be ignored by SEOs and content creators alike.

Stop Chasing Goalposts

All of the points I’ve made here speak to one larger issue: the ineffectiveness of chasing moving goalposts. It’s easy to focus on optimizing sites based on the concrete facts that exist before us now. However, it’s hard to drive long-term success by chasing moving goalposts.

What I am advocating here is to understand where Google is heading, by necessity, and strategically align to its goals. Does that mean abandoning certain constructs of SEO that work now but soon might not? No. What it does mean is being aware of these spaces within the world of optimization and treading carefully not to become too reliant on them.

Rather, a far more substantial approach would be to align with Google directionally to the fullest extent possible. 

Author Photo
Mordy ObersteinMordy is the Head of Communications at Semrush. He also sits behind the mic as both the host of and a contributor to multiple SEO podcasts. He‘s also one of the organizers of #SEOchat and a popular industry author writing for Search Engine Land, Search Engine Journal, etc.
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