SEO vs. Conversion: How to Balance Rankings Versus User Experience

July 17, 2012

Andrew Chen has a great Quora-comment-turned-blog post. Andrew breaks discusses the eternal struggle for every marketer: how to balance user satisfaction versus virality. This is something every marketer faces, as she must decide whether to create a campaign that focuses on value exchange or one that focuses on growth. Both arguments have their merits.

An experience geared toward value exchange tends to be a much better one; thus, your customers will be much happier, ensuring a high retention rate and more word-of-mouth referrals. Moreover, marketing that focuses on the customer experience tends to promote quality above all else, and leads to a more positive corporate culture.

Marketing focused on growth and virality needs little explanation. Without a heavy flow of traffic to your website and sales growth, your business will never get to the next level. However, by focusing on growth, you run the risk of driving new visitors to your website, but doing little to create a great user experience once they’re on your site. And if there’s a mediocre user experience, forget about brand loyalty, repeat business and a strong word-of-mouth.

This age-old marketing conflict is quite relevant to the world of SEO. In SEO, you’re trying to optimize your website so you rank high in the search results and drive thousands of new visitors to your website every month. If you can’t significantly increase website traffic, your company’s growth will be stunted. At the end of the day, optimizing your website for search is crucial to your long-term success. That’s way SEO is such a profitable and saturated market. Optimizing your website for search would be akin to building a marketing campaign focused on virality and growth.

Optimizing your website for search can potentially lead to problems for your customers, however. Search engine crawlers don’t read your website just like a human would. In Google’s latest search algo updates (Panda and Penguin) the search engine giant is attempting to close the gap between how a crawlers sees a site and how a user sees a site, but we’re not yet at a point in which computers can accurately simulate the user experience. As a result, over-optimizing your website for search could lead to a website that is poorly designed, a bit clunky and cluttered. Ugly, clunk and cluttered: these are not qualities that endear your website to your customers.

So let’s reframe Andrew Chen’s question within the context of SEO. How do you balance SEO and rankings versus a positive user experience? It’s not easy. Creating a website that ranks high on Google yet is also elegant and user-friendly takes smart design, strong technical work and quality content and social engagement.

Here are the best ways to balance virality and UX in your SEO campaign.

1. Use your keyword research not only as an SEO guide, but a window into your customers’ minds. Don’t just use keywords in your meta content and web content for search engine rankings. Carefully study these keywords and use them as a guide in creating the kind of content your customers will value.

2. Quality onsite work is appreciated by the crawlers and the users. If you clean up all the technical errors on your site (301s, 404s, canonicals, proper microformatting, correct breadcrumb navigation, etc.) you will create a site that is easy to navigate, loads quickly and performs well. This will help you build a site that gets found in the search results and converts more easily. Onsite optimization is great grooming for online marketers.

3. When it comes to website content, focus on quality rather than quantity. Thanks to Panda and Penguin, your website’s rankings will suffer if you have think content that’s poorly written and keyword-spammy. That means you should focus on quality content on top level pages and product pages. Use a variety of keywords as opposed to the same one or two words. This is the kind of killer content that will produce higher rankings. Moreover, users prefer a simplistic yet elegant approach. Your users don’t want to be overwhelmed; they want to be guided through the sales process as painlessly as possible. So less content that is well written will lead to more sales.

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