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Technical vs UI/UX




Viola: This webinar is called Engineers versus Marketers because I think we are all somewhere on this spectrum if we're in digital marketing. I think we never really get around some structure and some spreadsheets and some thinking about how algorithms work. 

And on the other hand, we're thinking about our users, we're thinking about our customers and the psychology of marketing and how can we reach people? What is our brand? 

This one is a particularly exciting topic, and I think a somewhat age-old discussion of the internet, which is basically technical SEO versus user experience; what do we really optimize for? Do we care mainly about what Google and the algorithm wants? Do we care about what users and human wants? Is there a common ground? 

Let me kick this off by introducing our panelists for today. I'll start in a reverse alphabet, so I want to kick this off with Quinn. Quinn has joined today, and she's the CEO and founder of Conversion Crimes, a usability testing platform striving to bridge knowledge gaps for easy and affordable CRO for all types of business owners. She actually has already 15 years of experience in UI/UX design, running a CRO-focused agency called Zeda Labs. 

Secondly, also on the UX side of things, we have Jess. Jess Vice is a UX researcher based in Salt Lake City. She has over 12 years’ experience in SaaS, marketing, CRO, and content strategy. But the thread that pulled through was the role of people. She acts as a human advocate in software and tech, and she relies on observation, active listening, psychology, empathy and storytelling to build systems that empower people and improve their lives. 

Then from the SEO side of things, which is my side of things, we have Bastian today on the call, who is the CEO and co-founder of Peak Ace, a renowned expert in large scale international SEO managing sites of almost any size in highly competitive industries. 

My name is Viola. I'm an SEO and I run an agency called Flow SEO and have been doing the last three webinars on Marketers versus Engineers. I'm excited to have you all here. 

With that, we're going to kick this off by Bastian giving us some inputs, some food for thought on this entire discussion, Technical versus UX. Then we're going to go into the panel and I highly encourage you to type your questions in the chat bar as we go along, because that's going to be the fun part when we can answer your specific questions. Bastian, over to you.

Search Engines in the Old Days: When UX Wasn’t Important

Bastian: What you said, I think I would agree, is a very, very, very long-standing debate, let's call it that way. I want to start with a bit of a confession, actually; and that is that I'm actually really, really old. No kidding. 

When I started, Google looked like this. That was the end of the '90s. Very weird. I'm not sure if you recall, but at that time around 2006, 2007, we had this funny left-hand navigation even. 

There was this massive outcry, I still recall it, when Google actually decided to take it away and everyone was like, "What the hell happened? Where's my navigation? How I'm I supposed to use these strange search results now?" Now, we have them back, somewhat at least with COVID and some of the changes in the search results. Somewhat we have, again, this added on the left-hand navigation side, which I found quite amusing.

This is actually taken from the slide deck that I used to present in the mid-2000s again, when I had to explain SEO to C-Suite. It came down to three things, basically. It was, you had to build a site that really was somehow crawlable, plain old vanilla HTML. You needed to have had some content there as well, obviously, but quality at that point in time didn't really matter. And there were links; it was all about links. 

Honestly, at that point in time, I was like, I could not have cared less, I have to admit, about delivering any decent experience...because it just worked. Seriously, if you would have done SEO at that point in time, it just wouldn't have mattered. 

The Change in the Importance of UX and Website Performance

However, things change. And they have changed quite, quite, quite rapidly. A bit later, fast forward nine, 10 years...things like readability and other things like clickability, or click-friendliness, whatever you want to call it, at that point start to get more important from an SEO perspective as well. 

We had seen some algorithm roll-outs and some changes in the search results and some changes in regards to how Google would actually evaluate content. One thing became, at least at that point in time, a bit more obvious, is that they were not necessarily trying to rank sites that had done best SEO, but rather that deliver a decent or at least an experience people were happy with.

Some trends really make me mad. And one of those was this. We had a client, it's a German bank, and they thought they were trendy and they used this burger navigation thing on the left-hand side for their desktop site. Guess what happened? Everything went downhill from the point of when they rolled it out. 

Also from an SEO perspective, it was a disaster. They stripped out the links. Nothing was ranking anymore. And I was like, well, "Just blindly following trends without questioning them is maybe also not the answer either." 

I think the other thing, my other somewhat flaw, if you so will, is that I'm really impatient. I hate to wait. I think there's nothing or much worse than having to wait for a website to finish loading.

I guess it's relatively clear, and there's a bunch of studies...where they relatively clearly state that you will lose roughly half of people if you'll not manage to load a site within two seconds. I think it's quite severe and actually quite clear that you do not have that much time. 

For me, at least from an SEO perspective, and I've been talking about web performance specifically a lot, I think this is a huge chunk of a good, I would say experience, on any website. I think if we just recap that, because those are actually quite old, in 2010, Google at first going on record saying, "Well, we use speed in rankings.” This is not a secret. 

Google is trying to push what's called web vitals and web vitals being their idea to evaluate a perceived UX, but also page experience. I think now we somewhat have this, I would say official confirmation that at least next year, I think it's March, 2021, they will be looking at UX in a way that is supposed to become part of a ranking factor. 

I think from an SEO perspective is that we sometimes do strange things and things for search engines, but they (search engines) usually require those things because what they have learned with machine learning and other things is that this is actually what their users really want. I think that would be my take on it.

What Does a Good User Experience Actually Mean?

Viola: Perfect. Thank you so much, Bastian. When we talk about user experience, actually I think I might pass it over to Quinn first. When you hear the word user experience, what do you actually mean, and what are the things that you pay attention to? Do you pay attention to these same factors and that Bastian just outlined, or are you looking at a completely different thing to assess whether someone has a good user experience or not?

Quinn: When someone has a good user experience on your site, it's basically every single touchpoint, is it readable? Do they understand where it's at? Can they navigate to the parts of the site that they want to? Do they resonate with the branding? It's really a lot of different factors. 

Bastian did bring up some stuff about page speed, and that is user experience. If they're sitting there waiting, they're frustrated. And if they can't navigate to the part of the website that they want to because it's hidden by a hamburger at the desktop, that's part of user experience as well. For me, it's really every single touchpoint that they come into, it's not just about some of the technical parts.

Viola: Sweet. And then with that, maybe also Jess, what are some things that you would say make out a good website and a website that maybe both Google, but more importantly people love?

Jess: I would say from a technical perspective, the speed and the interactivity are secondary experiences and a lot of what people are looking for, we've talked about it with Hummingbird, is “does this website answer my questions?” 

Usability is a thing, but more of what Quinn said, resonating with the brand, do I feel like they are serving me or are they trying to pitch me something? I always look at, what's the first piece of content does one see on a website? Is it a sales pitch or is it something that a user is going to feel personally? 

That's what I don't see in this algorithm update, is the feeling side of things. How do you measure feelings? How do you measure a human emotional reaction to a website? We can measure how quickly the site loads, we can measure how fast they can get through to the pieces they're interested in and how the navigation works. 

But I think it is going to come down to, there's an element missing of, will machines ever be able to measure this, how does it make me feel when I land on that page? Do I feel like I trust them or do I feel like, "This isn't the site that I was looking for, I'm going to bounce and try something else?"

The Intersection and Conflicts Between UX and SEO

There's an interesting balance where UX starts to play in with SEO. And this is what I've pushed for a lot when I'm consulting is yes, you have to have the content on the page. No, it doesn't necessarily need to be the first thing that people see. I think hierarchy and logical reading order is super vital, especially from a user's perspective. 

All this filler content that you probably need to rank, but you're going to put it at the top or you can think of creative ways to put it in the background or to the side or something like help me focus my attention on the pieces that I'm looking for. I think we've been learning that skill over the last eight or 10 years. 

But I remembered 10 years ago, it didn't matter. We had the keyword first and then second keyword and then tertiary keyword and users would just look at this and be like, "I don't understand why this copy is on this page." Well, we have to do it for Google and they're like, "Yeah, but I'm buying the thing."I love seeing how this is converging into SEO is starting to support users and users are giving feedback of what's working well, so that's influencing SEO and the search engines better.

Viola: Yeah, I agree. I think you guys touched on this, but this is actually the specific question that we also have from the audience, which I think again is specifically the fight that you just discussed, is copy versus how much people actually need to read. Our audience doesn't want to read so much, but we need the words for Google. 

Do you have some creative ideas on how you solve the problems of slapping the content on the category pages? What are some things that people can do if they have one of those pages that just desperately need content, but they want it to look better?

I think there's a couple of pages that are “issue pages”: probably homepage, sales pages, category pages. Like if you want to have a chance for ranking, but you still want to convert, maybe you don't want to have your wall of text on there. 

Quinn: For me, it's about progressively revealing information. What's the first thing they need to know when they're on your homepage or that site or that landing page? What's the second thing they need to know? What's the third thing they need to know? And giving hierarchy to that. 

With Google, that can be your H1, H2, H3. It's giving structure to that for Google and an importance to that. And when I'm trying to put in additional information or stuff like that, a lot of times I put it in the FAQs. I can make them small, but they're still on the page. When people click them, they can get a lot more information. That way, I can put all those words, all those texts, all those explanations, but it's not going to overwhelm them with that information when they come to the page. 

Jess: This is the point where I always go back to the SEO and say, "Do you have to have all of this content? Do we need 300 words or could we just have 150? And if we had 150, go do your research and help me understand what search intent is bringing people to our site. 

I have always developed a weird back and forth relationship with SEOs where I elbow them and like, "I think you could do your job better. Go do research. You've got all the tools. You can look at what people are doing. You can look at how Google is working, tell me what we need to do, and then let me check it with humans and see if we're hitting the order and the structure." 

And this might be a really controversial take, but I hate FAQs. I don't know how users respond to them. I have not actually tested it. It's not a thing. But I feel like if you can't build this, the content into your site in a natural way, and you have to shove it into a big file folder of like, "Here's some stuff we thought of secondary that you might want to know," then maybe you need to reconsider how the site's built. That's my hot take. 

Viola: Bastian, do you have any thoughts on read more boxes, FAQ, et cetera, from an SEO perspective?

Bastian: I guess it goes back to what Jess was saying. I think just putting content for the sake of content, if you've been doing that, you've been doing SEO wrong anyways. I think this is not really the answer to it. 

I think the downside is if you don't have it entirely, at least for now, again goes back to what can you afford to have and not have? If you want to grab the question traffic and that's part of your strategy and that's traffic that you can convert, then you need to have the question somewhere. Question is, is it a separate section? Is it the same page? Probably a different story.

Jess: If you come at it from a CRO perspective, Bastian, your point was really good, can you convert that traffic? I think, and I don't have enough studies to back this up, but I think most FAQ traffic is a dead end and either people aren't using it well enough to say, "Okay, now that you have your answer, here's an action to take off of this FAQ".

We need to do more user research to understand where the questions are about our product or our service. And then we can provide all the questions that then we could say, "Here's the next action. We can follow that click flow through and see that people are actually going to our purchase page or they're taking action on this and we're meeting metrics instead of just these dead-end heat maps. 

What I'm remembering is looking at FAQs and heat maps. They was just like, "Open, close. Open, close. Open, close." I'm like, okay, so they're using them, but that doesn't tell me if they're gaining value, if users are gaining value, if humans are gaining value out of these questions or if it's just filler content that's working for Google, but we're not sure it's working for us. 

That balance is I want the website to work for me and I want it to work for Google and I also want it to work for people. Who do we put first and how do we play this game? If I'm just working for Google, I may not make money off of that and people might not like it.

Bastian: Or maybe if you're very blunt, it's just a desperate SEO's play. I think this is the other side of the story. Let's be honest, maybe it's just the chase for more traffic because I either can't make it for the right terms, that could be one, or I'm just trying to see what I can get. Oftentimes, it's just for the sake of ranking there and then you just don't get anything.

Building Pages Mobile-First or Desktop-First?

Viola: Actually, let me bring something up...about the mobile-first index. I'd be curious in your experience and your practice, where do you start? When you design a page, either as an SEO or as a UX designer, do you start with the mobile version or do you start with the desktop version and how do you make that decision?

Quinn: For us, we always start with the desktop version. I know that the mobile version, there was this big trend years ago to go mobile-first. But for us, it's about designing an experience and figuring out whether you're doing mobile or desktop, it's like, what's the most important thing for them to know? It's about really, really knowing your user. And mobile versus desktop really doesn't matter: It's however they're going to view that content. 

Jess: For me, I always start mobile-first, just because it's 50% of the raw traffic is on mobile devices and it's the fastest, most condensed version of the site that you're going to make. It's context. I'm on a phone, I have maybe three minutes, I need to know vital pieces and then I can scale it back out. 

For me, it helps build a hierarchy and a structure for the whole site to start with, here are the five basic things. I like to use restaurants as an example. I need to know their phone number, their address, when the bar closes and their hours. Something really small on my phone super fast. And then as I get closer, I might see what's on the menu tonight. And then as I'm there, I might read about the chef. 

I embraced mobile-first because desktop first was really hard to get this huge spread of stuff and try to figure out how it works and then you have to reduce it down into this mobile version. 

Viola: Bastian, how do you go about this?

Bastian: I think it's the same, at least now from an SEO standpoint. As Jess was saying very much correctly, you have a very limited screen reader state. I think if you can deliver for that and then enrich towards the desktop, I think that's a flow that you can do. 

However, I can also see Quinn's way of doing it because at the end of the day, there's oftentimes way much more that you can do with a desktop in comparison to what you can do on a mobile phone, and potentially the use cases are also very, very much different. It heavily depends on the site and on the product or service or whatever you want to sell.

Technically from an SEO perspective, I think it very much depends on the tech set up, is it responsive? Is some part of the experience been done through a progressive web app or whatever stuff is involved in this entire experience? At least what made it a bit easier from my perspective is that we now at least have a smaller version, if that makes sense, the mobile version as the primary one. 

I think this is fair enough because what we had in the past is you were ranking for stuff that your desktop site had, but it wasn't even on the mobile phone. You landed on that mobile experience, you couldn't find the stuff.

Quinn: It also depends for the actual site, what they're trying to achieve, because there's one site that we're working on where it's 90% mobile traffic, so we don't care about desktop at all, we're just designing what's on that mobile site.

There's also different intents. Some people may go to a website when they are on their mobile phone, like taking the train to work or what have you, but they're not actually going to buy. They're really looking for information about whatever it is, and then they actually come back later through retargeting or whatever to the desktop version and then that's where they're actually purchasing. A lot of times the mobile and desktop experiences need to be completely different depending on what's happening.

Staying Unique and Creative When Website Design and SEO Are So Accessible

Viola: Something that we touched upon in the last webinar is website building and CMS’ have become really, really good. When we think about WordPress and then the themes and plugins that are there, we have Spotify, webshops that look quite good, we have Wix, Squarespace, whatever we have. 

If we think about the Google screenshot for Bastian from before, websites looked similar, they didn't really look that good. The CMS and the plugins today allow us to make a site look good. Pretty cheap, pretty easy, there's a lot of phenomenal templates that out of the gate make the site pretty well organized. 

On top of that, we started to understand that we all want our logo in the top left to come back to the homepage, we want our header a certain way. And then on top of this, there's an SEO coming in and he says, or she says, "You're in this niche. This is what your head should be. These are the articles that your competitors are ranking for. This is the blog post that everyone is having, so you should be having them too." 

I'm just wondering, are we getting into a universe where everyone becomes a clone of a clone of a clone of following the best practice of the perfect template that they got out of the CMS, following the exact content that everyone on page one is having? How do we actually stay creative and unique and how do we make sure that people actually remember our site and we don't get lost in a sea of good-looking pages with the perfect blog post that everyone else has too?

Bastian: From an SEO perspective, I can see why this happens. What you do is you would go and you would look at what is currently ranking in the top 10 or top 20 or whatever. And if you're not there, of course, it's the current moment, but what's ranking is obviously, at least in Google's eyes, if you just look at that from a core SEO standpoint, that seems to be the best result.

And that's a mistake I see a lot of SEOs making, “if there's an established top 10, then I just do what everyone else is doing at top 10.” Why should Google even put me there? There's only so much space in real estate and search results is getting smaller, we see less and less results, especially for higher volume keywords for branded keyword queries and whatnot.

I do not think that just doing that is good enough, but I can see why you would at least have a look and use that potentially as an orientation as to what is currently necessary. But again, this is only the SEO angle. I think what's missing is probably even way earlier in the journey something like what are the personas, what's the target audience? What Quinn said earlier, what is the product? What is the potential in terms of traffic and who is using that and how?

Viola: Agreed. Quinn, I'd be curious to see what you say in terms of creating something unique. 

Quinn: I think when everybody is getting started, they use templates and they put that out there. There's a lot of really good templates out there. And you're right, a lot of the sites do look the same, but they can still work and you can still rank really well on them, but when you're really trying to get to that next level, I think that's where branding and a lot of that customization really comes into play. 

Bastian: I would completely agree. I think branding or even one step further becoming the synonym for something that you're trying to achieve is probably the highest goal. You'll see longer-lasting effects of increased brand search volume and that all over the board helps you as a brand to differentiate from the rest of that somewhat boosts up your rankings as well. I think branding makes a whole bunch of sense for a lot of reasons, as you said very much correctly.

Can Good Design Alone Win Backlinks?

Viola: I love that. A pretty common backlink strategy is this idea that you build some sort of ultimate guide about a topic. People call it guide, skyscraper technique, et cetera. And then either you reach out to people you ask in the articles to link to that resource, or you reach out to people who've linked to your competitors and you're asked to link to your guide instead.

Obviously, we've been talking about the guide needs to be long and all of these things. Longer articles seem to be collecting more links. Lately...if you make a really good looking guide, a guide that has a beautiful header, a guide that has nice custom graphics in it, maybe some statistics that you revamped in your look...they seem to be getting a lot more links.

And so I've been wondering with the proper SEO nerds, what happens if we actually make a guide that is only design? What if a guide actually is Lorem Ipsum content more or less, dummy content, but only good-looking, would people link to it? And our assumption is that the game of links might've shifted in such a way that because people only glance at the stuff so briefly, that it might actually work.

I do think in terms of link-building, visibility, actually having a chance of being shared on social media I think that design is probably more crucial than the actual writing, just because we're all skimming and scrolling so fast, we're not really reading well. 

Quinn: The point of design is to amplify the words. If you have words that are meaningless and you add design to it, it's not really going to get the results that you want. At the core of why someone buys something or why someone gets value of it, it's because of the words that they're connecting with. 

The design just adds to that and helps amplify that message. There's a thing called the halo effect and it's basically a cognitive bias, which means if this one thing is good, then this other thing must be good. 

If they go to this article that's beautifully designed and they read the words and they're like, "That's amazing," and it's also designed well, they're like, "This is really valuable." It just amplifies that emotion that they're having. I think if you put Lorem Ipsum with a pretty design, I don't think it would get the results that you're looking for. I just want to say that.

Bastian: I agree. Everyone and their mother is doing the ultimate guide to X, Y, Z, and I'm tired of it. It's annoying by now. I don't believe you anyways, because you're not the authority, you're not the brand, so you're not positioned to even publish that guide no matter if it's beautiful or not.

But from what we've seen, and we've been playing the link game for quite a while, we have earned a bit of recognition for that, I think, and I think it's more that you need to produce outstanding work. And that needs to be different from what's there. In a sense of not necessarily long, but just if you don't put effort in it, why should actually someone recommend it? 

I think it's not only about design, but I think it plays a significant role in what Quinn was saying, if you want to transport something, it looks shit, then it might also not really convert well. It's a bit of in between, that's at least my take from a content link-building perspective.

Viola: I think it also fits with sometimes the stuff that ranks is not the long-form article about it, it's actually the thing. If you type in, "Stopwatch," you want to have a stopwatch, you don't want to have a 2000-word article on why the stopwatch is great to you. 

Creating Linkable Assets Versus Assets That Rank

If you do these kinds of creative campaigns, do you do them predominantly to create a linkable asset and make that a backlink target, or do you also associate some keywords with it that you're trying to rank for? 

Bastian: I think it's a broader discussion. We are not a branding agency, that's for sure because content marketing can be everything and anything. I think when we build content assets, it's first and foremost for interaction, either in social or in terms of links. But clearly, if it's the latter, then it has to have some certain metrics to it and that can be rankings.

However, I'm not the biggest fan of measuring things with rankings because it fluctuates so much, so it's probably more engagement on that piece, impressions on that piece which you can easily do if it's i-frame content, for example. Subsequently, there's of course also targets in terms of branding or views or whatever that are somewhat tied into it. 

Future-Proofing Websites for UX and SEO

Viola: How do we future proof our website? How do we make sure that our design and user experiences are going in the right direction? How do we make sure we're not leaving money on the table on the SEO side of things because our OS side is slow and ugly? What are some tips that you would give people from your area of expertise if they want to future proof their website in that way?

Quinn: One of the things that we've done on our client's sites is we do a lot of usability testing. Really, it's just watching a human code your website and use it and try to accomplish a task. And can they do it, or can they not? 

Then making changes to that because if they can't find something, if they're leaving, then that's going to affect your bounce rate, which Google's algorithm, like we talked about earlier, they can't really talk about the feeling, the algorithm can't understand the feeling, but they can see that you went somewhere, you couldn't find and you left. It's understanding how people are using your website and making sure it's as frictionless as possible.

Bastian: And it ties in nicely with a lot of the things that SEOs want to accomplish as well. I think most of the sites that we are seeing right now, it's not the crazy advanced things, it's more the basics where it's already broken. That can be performance, that can be, as we had earlier, just entirely wrong contents for the sake of just targeting something, trying to rank for something, but just can't convert that. I would honestly start with the basics. 

Sit together with the UX guys, try to see what they come up with in terms of what users actually need. And that usually works for SEO as well, at least by now. I think it should be much more hand in hand on some of the most successful products we've done recently, just like when we tried to take budgets from both ends and just bring it together.

Viola: Sweet. I love that. We're kind of reaching the end of this. We sadly lost Jess to what seemed like a connectivity issue. We haven't set the date yet, but we're definitely going to have a new episode of Engineers versus Marketers coming up and it's going to be about local and international search, how do we balance the needs? 

Thank you both for your time. Thank you for everyone tuning in, asking questions, putting in comments, and we're looking forward to having you back on the next webinar.

Bastian: Thank you. Bye.

Quinn: Thank you.

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