Disclaimer: I want to begin this post by emphatically stating that I am not a UX expert, and in fact have only been exposed to true user testing with controlled variables, measurable outcomes and the like on a few occasions (very cool stuff). That being said, I do have a good sense for what metrics to look at (bounce rate, time on site, pages per visit, etc.) and I also think that my own personal 'sniff tests' and opinions for web design and UX generally produce quality outcomes.
With that little bit out of the way, let's run through a quick case study that shows how in some cases the best thing for SEO performance is a site that works how users expect it to.
Scenario: Approximately nine months ago I began working on a project that had high expectations - both on the SEER side and on the client side. The expectations were high because each team knew that there was an opportunity to vastly improve the site's performance. We were tasked with improving the rankings, traffic and pageviews for a reviews site. There was enormous potential because the client was an authority in the space and had amassed over 100k reviews during their years in the industry.
This was all fantastic - a client site with gobs of unique, quality content and a strong domain to work with - but there were two major issues.
1 - Search engines could not access any of the reviews.
2 - Unless you were a frequent user, using the search functions and limited navigation was a difficult task to say the least.
So what did we do? How did we harness the potential into actual results?
Simply put, we focused on improving the user experience of the site, which in the end helped us implement SEO best practices. Some real examples below:
UX Challenge 1: When we began the project, the reviews were only accessible by using the search function, and they were served on the search results page. The system was confusing and the bounce rate was high. While the reviews did have their own static URLs, they were not search engine friendly (i.e. www.clientsite.com/item/96874123), did not have unique meta info and there was no way to access the pages as a user or a bot.
SEO Friendly UX Solution: We created keyword rich URLs (www.clientsite.com/category/subcategory/item) and 301'ed the old versions. We also created hubs so that a user could navigate to /category or /subcategory to see more refined results. With an easy to use concatenation schema created in excel, we were able to populate the new review pages and hubs with unique, keyword rich meta data and page headings.
Outcome: Now the site ranks extremely well for long-tail queries for specific items and is also generating traffic through the hubs, which rank for 'category reviews' and 'sub category ratings' type keywords. These rankings are driving quality traffic to the site, particularly for long-tail review keywords. Long-term we are also finding that the search-friendly URLs are helping to increase inbound links to the deeper pages, a great tertiary benefit :)
UX Challenge 2: No navigation. None. Just the homepage.
SEO Friendly UX Solution: Dropdowns! We took the hubs referenced above and created DHTML dropdowns to feature the categories with the most relative search volume. Now when you are on the site you can quickly find what you are looking for through the navigation - and since the nav is on every page, if you go to Sub Cat 2 and realize you really wanted Sub Cat 5, you can find it quickly and easily.
Outcome: Our tagging shows that the dropdowns are some of the most used features of the site today. The navigation is also spiderable, passing link value to all of those high-value hubs, which helps improve rankings and link flow throughout the entire site.
UX Challenge 3: No related content featured on the site.
SEO Friendly UX Solution: We created new sections on the reviews and hub pages that linked to related content. Now if you're on the hub for Category A, we are also showing you the most reviewed sub categories (a1, a2, a3) and the most relevant main categories (B, C, D).
Outcome: Again, these links are being used A LOT by users. The client's industry has a good bit to do with this (very nuanced differences), but in the end this little bit of user experience improvement increased link flow, and helped us find creative ways to link with exact match anchor text internally, without making editorial sacrifices.
Over the course of the project we have made dozens of smaller tweaks as well, including content creation (good for users, good for engines), URL cleanup (again, good for users and good for the engines) and the creation of an HTML sitemap (you get the idea).
The results speak for themselves (new version has been live for 3 months). Again, this is a powerful domain with a good bit of brand recognition, but what is most amazing is that the biggest lift has come from the long-tail queries where users are landing on the new, optimized review pages. Note: All stats are for organic, non-branded search traffic:
Pages per Visit: +22%
Time on site: +61%
Homepage Bounce Rate: -50%
So will adding dropdowns increase your site's pageviews by 700%? Almost certainly not. But what you can take from those figures is that often times simple UX and site architecture improvements (with a solid SEO foundation) can make a significant impact. Combine good UX and architecture with a solid link strategy (now we have exponentially more pages to pitch/feature/promote) and you should be in good shape to take on the competition.
If you have implemented a UX change that created SEO opportunity/success, please share in the comments, or connect with me on Twitter.