Why User Engagement and Usability Matter for SEO

It's 2015, and the SEO landscape has changed significantly.

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If your site was a restaurant, would it be a take-away joint or a place people sit down to chill at?

Google has fast been moving towards fully automated machine learning search algorithm for a long time. One of the by-products of this is the importance of engagement metrics. If a user arrives at your site via Google, and immediately clicks the back button to return to the search results, then Google figures that your site just might suck. Enough people do this, and it figures your site definitely does suck, and you get moved down the list. The dynamics of the how and why of this is a rather large topic, so if you want to learn more about the specifics of engagement metrics and “Dwell Time”, this article is a good start.

The takeaway for us however, is that this is yet another reason to invest on the user experience. According to Nielson, you have only 10-20 seconds to convince a user to stay on your site. To add to this, Nielson also says that the fold is still alive and well. If your above-the-fold content does not manage to grab the user within the first 20 seconds, say bye bye to the user, and to your SEO.

So what’s a digital marketer to do? There are a few key items we need to look at. We’ll provide a brief intro here and then dive deeper in the coming days (or weeks, cos our blogging is not very regular).

Page Load Time

Page load time is an often ignored, but increasingly important metric. It’s been known for a few years that Google includes page speed as a ranking factor in it’s algorithms. To quote the Big G himself:

Speeding up websites is important — not just to site owners, but to all Internet users. Faster sites create happy users and we’ve seen in our internal studies that when a site responds slowly, visitors spend less time there. But faster sites don’t just improve user experience; recent data shows that improving site speed also reduces operating costs.
Google Webmaster Central Blog

Designers and developers, as they often do, assume that everyone has the same fast computers and internet connections as them. Even if a target demographic is likely to use fast computers, we wouldn’t know what programs they’re running and how many browser tabs they’ve got open when they visit the site, all of which affect site performance. Non-concatenated resource files, big unoptimized images and sluggy performance heavy animations are some of the biggest culprits.

If a user has to wait more than a few seconds to start seeing your page, say bye bye.

Design / Information Architecture

Less is more, and minimalism is king (sort of, but we’ll get to that part later).

When a visitor lands on a page, if they are inundated with too much information they are very likely to hit the back button. A visitor coming from a SERP is looking for something very specific. If they have to wade through a sea of links, banners and other undesirable items, say bye bye.

When employed correctly, the goal of minimalist web design should be to present content and features in a simple, direct way by providing as little distraction from the core content as possible. This strategy often involves removing content or features that don’t support the primary goals of the interface or its users.
The Roots of Minimalism in Web Design – Kate Meyer

In the last couple of years we’ve seen a resurgence of long-form articles on the web. A reason for this could be the content-centric designs that were pioneered by sites like Medium. Short attention spans are fostered when there are too many things fighting for said attention.

There is of course such a thing as being too minimal. Finding the right balance requires research, testing and plain old common sense

Video (and other such elements)

Enough said. A compelling video on embedded a page will keep a user on the page for longer. The same goes for other visual elements like infographics, games, interactive charts, etc. This probably needs little explanation, but we’ll still dig deeper into this subject in a future article.

Conclusion / TL;DR

Engagement metrics are a key part of Google’s machine learning search algorithms. If a user quickly bounces off your site back onto a SERP, Google takes note and penalizes you for it. Giving careful thought into the user experience a site provides therefore, is of paramount importance not just from a usability perspective, but for SEO purposes as well.