User Experience: It’s Not What You Think

Marianne Sweeny

Aug 26, 20156 min read
User Experience

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” I particularly like the running gag where Vizzini persistently misuses “inconceivable.” At one point, Inigo Montoya tells him: "You keep using that word. I do not think that you know what it means" just before Vizzini’s entirely conceivable death from poison. I know how Inigo feels every time an SEO talks about user experience.

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Not long ago, SEO thought-leader, Eric Enge did a Moz White Board Friday (WBF) on User Experience (UX). Eric’s guidance was more along the lines of Spark-notes-UX, not incorrect and yet not complete. It started out talking about links, cautioned against overusing keywords and finished with content as the big picture. My “inconceivable” moment came with this exchange on Twitter:

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Wait a minute? MOZ has Christian Manzella as VP of User Experience? Christian is a UX professional with deep knowledge of that space and one of the creators of the Giant conference series, a preeminent user experience conferences that is right up there with MOZcon. Why isn’t he doing the WBF about UX and SEO?

This is inconceivable to me and validates my suspicions on why the search engines are now using UX and content quality as a dominant ranking factors. The SEO and UX and Content Strategy communities remain on parallel tracks instead of collaborating with or educating each other.

It seems that the SEO community just want to know enough UX to reverse-engineer how it works on rankings. The problem here is that the search engine playbook has changed while the SEO playbook remains the same. MOZcon 2015 had 27 sessions and not one devoted to UX that was delivered by someone in the field, not even a lignite talk. Searchlove Boston 2015 had 14 sessions with one devoted to “customer experience” delivered by a marketing professional.

The other brilliance behind the search engine strategy is that it capitalizes on the ambivalence the UX and content communities have towards search ranking. We know that it matters and they could care less. The UX and content strategy conferences have the same narrow focuses because these communities do not want to know about SEO. What we have here is a failure to communicate and not for lack of trying.

So, here are my 5 (did you know that users respond better to headlines that have numbers) Guidelines for understanding User Experience (UX):

1) Google Cares about User Experience (just in the wrong way) Even If SEO, Content and UX Do Not

Panda continues its relentless march toward algorithmic assigned penalties based on mysterious metrics selected to represent what constitutes a good user experience. There are some metric canaries in the coal mine. Bounce Rate: do users take any action on the page? Should they? Average Time on Page: Do users scan the content or take some other engagement action (e.g. scrolling)? Average Pages per Visit: Do they explore the topic by moving further into the site? Is the page a dead end or a passage to more information? Freshness: Is that 2011 holiday blog post still relevant? Really?

With the first swat from the Panda’s paw, SEO went from a short game to long game and that's the difference between strategy and tactics. UX is a strategy supported by tactics. SEO is comprised of tactics that prop up a strategy.

Remember the good old days when the site was finished and all that was needed was "a little SEO" before launch? They are gone. There is no such thing as sprinkling a little UX on a site before launch. Link building, keyword repetition and other tricks of the trade are showing diminishing returns. UX, and now SEO, starts from the minute the ink is dry on the statement of work with answers: Who are the users?What does the client want from them? How do users articulate what the client has? How do search engines represent what the client has?

2) User Experience comes in many flavors

SEO has two flavors, white and black (no one really admits to gray). UX encompasses focus on mobile device usage, user research, the Internet of Things, color theory, design thinking, navigation, and task analysis, psychology of choice and persuasion, user journey mapping, persona architypes. And, no, you don’t have to know them all. That’s what a UX professional is for. Some are useful, many are out-of-reach for the most of the projects that we work on.

Want to know more, visit  UX Matters and  UX Magazine.

3) User Experience is grounded in rigorous research

We have our MOZ and Searchmetrics correlation studies that supposedly provide some science to the SEO magic and these are something in the vast wasteland of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) that the search engines propagate. However, this research is far from rigorous as noted in more scholarly examination of Information retrieval, e.g. On Statistical Significance and SEO Statistical “Studies.”

A search on Google Scholar using “user experience” turns up 300,000 scholarly studies with 19,000+ if the time frame is scoped to 2015. This research is primarily done at educational institutions using rigorous research and reporting methodologies. UX research is not limited to the ivory towers. Google has an extensive list of papers devoted to human-computer interaction.

Want to know why Google doesn’t like big pictures above, check out its paper on Visual Complexity and Prototypicality that employs 2 user experience best practices, the cognitive load of conveying messaging through images and mental models.

For ongoing developments, bookmark to revisit:  User Interface Engineering and Nielsen Norman Group.

4) Users Cannot Be Reverse-Engineered

Since its arrival on the scene, SEO has been about following the tail lights of search engines through reverse engineering. Early search engines rely on term density, placement and formatting and the SEO community responds with keyword optimization in the form of text stuffing, hidden text on the page and keyword metadata spam. PageRank ushers in a ranking factor in the number of links a page receives and the SEO community starts buying links and trading links. Hilltop brings the ability to associate topicality between linked pages and the SEO community responds with affiliate rings and topic-based directories.

Note to Us: People don't use keywords; they form queries to find information that they need. Keywords are finite. Queries are emerging design as the user struggles to articulate what they want to know. Keywords represent things. Queries represent intangible information needs: Where do I? How do I? What is? A user’s experience is personal, temporal and iterative. UX is what it is, not what we want it to be. We can study the existing behavior to distill patterns and devise ways to influence the behavior to achieve client objectives.

There is only one link building fundamental - don't bother because users see and use links differently that we want them to and the search engines have become very discriminating about which ones count and how much. It is hard to give up the familiar especially since links have been very, very good to SEO over the last many years. This isn't to say that links do not have a purpose any longer. They do. Google is using them to retroactively punish site owners who abused them in the past to achieve undeserved rank in SERP. There is no statute of limitations on link spam.

Post Panda PageRank bears no earthly resemblance to what the SEO community wants. It is not about the link, it is about the entity, the concept, the noun and you cannot outsource these to a 3rd world country. "If a team of Google researchers has their way, link profiling may become a thing of the past, replaced by a centralized, Google directed, proto-artificially intelligent algorithm that taps into the company’s vast (and growing) Knowledge Vault to rank websites based primarily on relevance and factual information instead of the number and quality of incoming links"  Google and the Seismic Shift That’s Happening in Search.

The Enemy of My Enemy

I am still waiting for Christian or another UX professional to tell the SEO community more about user experience. I will continue to work to educate my two favorite communities, UX and SEO, about each other here and at conferences. This is how we bring the determination of search relevance back to humans. This is how we lead the way instead of chasing algorithm rainbows and Google’s tail lights.

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Marianne Sweeny is VP of Internet Marketing for Strategic Edge Partners, a medical marketing agency. She is passionate about optimizing the user search experience on the Web or inside the enterprise firewall. Marianne’s most recent article for Semrush was entitled: "SEOs, Guns & Religion."