UX is a wide umbrella that extends across the digital world. But how does it overlap with SEO?
That's what we're going to be discussing today with one of the few ex-Google Search Quality team members currently working in SEO. He holds deep knowledge of Google search. He has solid experience in the search industry across South America and Europe. While at Google, he not only worked in fighting spam across five-plus languages, but also in tool development, debugging search ranking issues, and Webmaster outreach. Welcome to the In Search SEO podcast, the head of organic growth at Autovia, Pedro Dias.
In this episode, Pedro shares five ways that UX overlaps with SEO, including:
Website architecture and internal linking
Organize internal linking and breadcrumbs
PageSpeed and Core Web Vitals
Pedro: Thanks for having me, David. It's a pleasure to be here.
D: Thanks so much for coming on Pedro. You can find Pedro over at pedrodias.net. So Pedro, what's more important, UX or SEO?
P: That's a tricky question. If you consider that SEO would fall mostly in UX. SEO wouldn't exist with a lot of disciplines from UX. I'd say UX is more important as it is the cornerstone that SEO sits on. But then again, you have to think about people and robots nowadays so you cannot discard the importance of SEO either. So it leaves us at this bifurcation.
D: So UX is the father and SEO is the son?
P: More or less. SEO is like the improvement over UX or something like that.
D: So today you're sharing five ways that UX overlaps with SEO. Starting off with number one, website architecture and internal linking.
1. Website Architecture and Internal Linking
P: So let's talk a bit about what UX is to give some context. UX stands for user experience. And it goes way well beyond the digital world. It's about how people experience brands or objects or anything. A buyer's journey is part of UX. But in this aspect, we are talking about websites, the experience a user has while using a website. In that aspect, UX taps into one of its child disciplines, which is information architecture. It’s an area that started back in the 70s, or 80s. Information architecture looks at humans, and it decides how we organize things, and how we find things within our ecosystem. And website architecture is no different. We are used to looking at certain ways of consuming information. We read from left to right and from top to bottom. And we cannot counteract that except in other languages or cultures. Information architecture looks at the ways that people organize information, and then how we build a new system based on that so it doesn't look completely alien from what you have seen before. Somehow you have a level of intuitiveness when you use the system.
So information architecture and website architecture go hand in hand. You have the homepage, and then you have the child categories, and then you have the products or subcategories. And you have a search field and a menu. This is all part of how information architecture puts things together. And there are principles and heuristics on how to decide those things. It all comes from information architecture. Yes, we tweaked some things to appease search engines, i.e., to make it easier for search engines to look at information and extract it. But that's where it comes from.
D: It's amazing to hear that it started off in the 70s because when you think of modern search and finding things you think of the early 90s with the advent of the web and hyperlinks. But it's obvious now that there were things going on beforehand as well. And number two is a friendly URL. Is that something that has only existed since the web?
2. A Friendly URL
P: Not really. But again, it's something that goes with usability. For example, I think it was in the 90s, that Jakob Nielsen, who is one of the pioneers of usability, wrote an article saying that URL is UI, which means that your URL is user interface. This means that when you look at the URL if you understand how it's broken in paths, directories, or subfolders you understand in which context you are going to be landing in if it's not a very cryptographic URL that is full of cryptographic parameters.
In the old days, when you would send a URL in a text, not all systems would extract the metadata and would not pull part of the content like nowadays with WhatsApp or other modern chat message apps. So you would just get the raw URL and some people would just read the URL and they would know immediately where they are going to land. I can tell I’m landing in the pottery section of this ceramics store. You could tell right away where you’re going because the URL gave you context. It's part of the user interface. That's where it comes from and usability is there to take care of this. So when we decide that URLs are going to be friendly, it's both for search engines to be able to extract this information from URLs, but it's also for people. We sometimes read news just by looking at the URL, and we will know where we are going to land.
D: I've got two quick questions about URLs. One is in relation to what you're saying. You're saying that many people look at URLs and might make a judgment on whether or not to visit a web page based upon the URL. I would have thought that just SEOs and technical people may look at that and judge a page according to that before visiting it. Are you saying that a significant percentage of people who aren't technical will also do that? Secondly, is there an ideal format, including folder structure for URLs?
P: I'm not saying that a lot of people look at that. But the ones that do will probably find it useful. We are definitely making it easier even for people that are not technically savvy and don't care about SEO. Because you have all the human-readable elements in there and you are putting information into a hierarchy that people are able to consume. So whether someone is tech savvy or an SEO or not that helps them in some way.
The best nomenclature, or the way to craft, is always within the context of your website. Are you in a very niche website that doesn't sell many things? For example, you are a balloon store that just sells balloons. There is not much diversification on the types of products that you sell. You probably don't need such a complex categorization of products. You don't need URLs with two or three subfolders, because you need categories to have them in. Whereas if you are a store that sells everything, you'll probably need to have a more complex categorization system. Your URLs will become a bit more complex so to say. So the best way to categorize a URL or to decide how URLs are going to be presented is based on how wide or narrow your business is and how much of a range of products you want to sell and if you need to split a broad range of URLs across a website or not.
D: And the third way that UX overlaps with SEO is alternative text.
3. Alt Text
P: Alt text is an old one. Alt text comes from an area of web accessibility, and it's an area that cares about making information accessible to everyone universally, which is in Google's mission statement. Make information accessible to everyone. Web accessibility says that if there is an element that cannot be consumed in more than one way… we have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. And the more narrow you are in terms of making information accessible, the worse it is. So in this aspect, alt text is an element of web accessibility, which tries to make images available to people that cannot see them. Because there are many people that have vision problems and all these web accessibility features try to cater for any shortcomings people may have in life.
And search engines are like a blind person because they can’t see what's inside an image. Although that's arguable nowadays because with artificial intelligence you can render an image and see what's in it, in the old days, they would just see a black square. And they would only be able to tap into the file name that you'd give to the image or the alt text that you would put in the HTML describing the image. So search engines have started using these accessibility features because it helps them extract information from objects on the web that they cannot render, or cannot access information. So hence, alt text came from web accessibility, which is also part of the user experience.
D: Like all good conversations on this podcast series, I want to dive deeper and ask further questions about each individual topic that comes up. But I'm just going to continue to number four, organize internal linking and breadcrumbs.
4. Organize Internal Linking and Breadcrumbs
P: Again, this is where SEO started to have a hand on itself, rather than being something that's pulled in a row away from one of these areas. So we took the organizational and hierarchical elements from information architecture and we took the part of making information usable, something that guides the user, and we married these two things, usability and information architecture. And you put it together saying, "If we have these topical linkings that are always present when you visit the website, it actually helps you go through pages.” Or if you have breadcrumbs on a website, if a user comes from a search engine and suddenly lands in the middle of your website, because not all users enter on the homepage on your website when you are indexed in Google or search engines. Users will be able to localize them or look at themselves immediately when they are on your website. These are two areas that SEO tapped into and said, "Okay, this is something that we can make work in a way that benefits users and search engines.” So this comes from these two areas.
D: Given the smaller screen size, is it still important to have breadcrumbs on the mobile version of a website?
P: I would say it is, especially on mobile, because you have a reduced screen size. There are elegant ways to have breadcrumbs without needing the whole path/location of where the user is. The smaller the screen, the more overwhelmed you feel with all the information that is presented in it. You need to set up methods that will help navigate or escape from that place that you fell in and you didn't mean to go to. Or sometimes you land in an article and you want to quickly go to the broader category of that website to see more. Breadcrumbs are an easy way to help users do this. And on the mobile device with a small screen, this is even more important. So yes, we have to be more careful with not overcrowding the screen with information.
D: And number five, PageSpeed and Core Web Vitals.
5. PageSpeed and Core Web Vitals
P: PageSpeed is something that is older. It's a metric that many SEOs started to pay attention to back in the day when Google launched the PageSpeed tool. That started because websites started to want to make money on the internet. And this comes from promoting stuff from other websites. So either you put a widget on your website that leads to another website, or you put banners or ads on your site. And all of this amounts to making pages heavier because there is more stuff to load. And the internet speeds, especially on mobile, were famous for being slow. So Google started to be wary of loading speed. Again, if the information doesn't load, it's not accessible. Also again, it's a concern of web accessibility. But then, since it was something that was merely technical, and even though you can make your server respond really quickly and your page load really fast, it doesn't mean that you get a good experience. Because a page can load fast, everything on the page is jumping around while you are visiting it.
So Google came up with another metric called Core Web Vitals where they try to address both performance, the immediacy that elements are pulled from the viewing field (because stuff can load and you will not see it), and that stuff is not dancing around that much while the elements are loading. All these things together is an attempt by Google to transform all these technical elements and try to make them work together towards something that gives a better experience to users. All of this is stuff that comes from web accessibility. But it tries to appease and build itself into a better user experience.
The Pareto Pickle - Get All Your SEO Basics Right
D: Let's finish off with the Pareto Pickle. Pareto says that you can get 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts. What's one SEO activity that you would recommend that provides incredible results for moderate levels of effort?
P: That's a tricky one. That's going to depend on what you need the most. You might have done a good job at your website architecture or improving your page titles and fall short on everything else. I'd say that usually, people leave on the table all the SEO basics. We might start right away looking into Core Web Vitals or doing complex mathematical formulas to discover the best internal linking, but they forget the rest of the basics. My go-to scenario when I start working at any company is looking at the basics, the architecture, the on-page elements, the hierarchical elements, and all of this together. Is it in good condition? If not, then I'm going to reserve some time to work on those before we go into more advanced fields. If you get your basics right like the homepage, internal linking, page titles, and things that are easy to look at, then you will get a strong foundation for your upcoming work.
D: Great common sense thoughts. Well, I've been your host, David Bain. You can find Pedro over at pedrodias.net. Pedro, thanks so much for being on the In Search SEO podcast.
P: Thanks for having me, David. It was a pleasure.