SEO vs Usability: Is One More Important Than The Other?

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Jakob Nielsen


In Internet marketing, usability and SEO aren't always synonymous. In fact, there s an entire school of thought that tries to separate "usability" from "SEO." It's thought that SEO is something done to a website to give it greater visibility in the search engines, while usability is how visitors interact with a website.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen examined how users interact with websites, and how they consume online content, back in 2003. Looking forward, it's amazing that user behavior doesn't seem to have changed much since then. In fact, Nielsen's statements back then were accurate predictions of what happens today and might be excellent predictions for the future.

Your site's users don't stay on your site very long. When they do, they have a clear purpose for being there. When that purpose is fulfilled, they move on. This is the basic premise behind "information foraging," and there's actual research behind this idea.

In the old days of the Internet, before Google, people went to websites to find information and generally "hung out" in one spot because 1) they had dial-up connections which committed them to blocks of time for reading and doing things online and; 2) there were no real search engines like we know today so information was much harder to find. When a user found a good website (which was hard in and of itself), he was more motivated to stay put.

Today, it's much easier for people to move around on the web. We have "always on" Internet and a plethora of search engines that organize and categorize the web's data. Because of this, you need to organize your site in such a way that it's both "SEO'ed" and optimized for usability.


You should follow best practices when optimizing your website. Normally, this means doing what you can to ensure your site (and blog articles) show up in major search engines. A lot of webmasters, unfortunately, turn to the dark side when optimizing their site. They choose to engage in practices that basically make their site look good to search engines but fail to engage potential visitors.

The odd thing is that visitors count. It's odd that webmasters would worry so much about search engine visibility and downplay the importance of real eyeballs. Nielsen's research shows, over and over again, that users aren't afraid to use the back button. Users tend to look for information by scanning or "snacking" for content. If it's too hard to find what they need, or the title listed in the search engine doesn't match the content on the page, users bail on the site.

This is incredible when you think about it. Nielsen basically shows that users are, for a lack of a better word, lazy. They don't want to work too hard for information. Yes, they might spell things incorrectly in the search engine, but they want to see relevant and accurate information once they hit the page. Unfortunately, slick marketers think that optimizing for misspellings, nonsensical search phrases, and obscure keyword phrases is good for site traffic. The reality is that it might be good for placement, but it's not going to result in conversions.


Usability is all about conversions - and conversions are what keep your website up and running since visitors' money is what pays the electric bill. Your site needs to be intuitive, easy to follow, and give users a clear idea of what the site is about without a lot of guesswork. For example, your landing page should give users the information they want within mere seconds, based on what they used to get to your site.

For example, if a user used a search engine, typed in "bandog training tips," the very best title of your landing page would include the phrase "bandog training tips." It might include more words in the title, and the best title would be "bandog training tips," but users expect to see that title. Moreover, users expect easy to digest information about bandogs and how to train them. Users like pictures, videos, and a clean layout that doesn't annoy them with advertisements or a lot of distractions.

They want a "fast-food experience." You know how you can drive through a fast-food join, pick your item off the menu, and then roll up to the service window, pay immediately and then get your food? The whole process usually takes but a few minutes. That's what users want from your site. You can try every possible tactic to keep them on your blog, and the longer you keep them there the better. However, design your site so that people can come and go. If they stay, great. If they don't, make it easy to come back by making the experience wonderful. People don't sit in the McDonalds drive-through for very long, but they come back frequently and often for another fix. So will your visitors if you follow good usability guidelines.


The best sites blend SEO with usability. These days, major search engines frown on cheap tricks designed to trick users into visiting sites. Likewise, users are getting wise to cheap tricks, annoyed by ads, and are not afraid to use the "back" button on browsers. Because of social networking sites, they're also not afraid to badmouth annoying companies. If you want repeat visitors, follow Nielsen's guidelines. They were right in 2003. They're right today.

About the author
David Lewis
David Lewis
David C. Lewis, RFC is the owner of Twin Tier Financial. He writes extensively about personal and business finance, purpose and goal-setting, and both online and offline business marketing. Touch base with David by visiting - Read more stories from .
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