Interdependence of SEO, content quality and website usability

Sometimes clients with a fairly decent understanding of SEO, and the wherewithal to invest in it, demonstrate the same naivete that characterises clients for whom SEO is all about scattering keywords across a page (trust me, it still happens!). Some of these myths about SEO are so well-entrenched that even myth-shattering numbers as evidence take a while getting accepted!

The myth about SEO friendly content and readability
Sometime back, we received this content requirement from a client for their upcoming project: “We need genuine, high-quality articles, not SEO articles“. I nearly took offense at the underlying suggestion that any articles written to be search-friendly have to be inherently of inferior quality. However, I recognised that this was not really a new issue and another example of the poor reputation that SEO services have acquired over the years, in part due to their commoditization that agencies like ours providing offshore delivery are responsible for. So, I just assured the client that he will get high quality content that does not compromise on readability.

Writing content that is useful, readable and enjoyable by users while ranking high in search engine relevance stakes for targeted queries is a great skill. In addition to the ability to use the right words at the right place, writers require a good understanding of both the subject matter (even though they may not have the requisite domain expertise) as well as the target audience. Seekers of quality content have to simply look beyond their prejudices and be willing to accept that this specialised skill comes with a price.

The myth about on-page SEO and website usability
We have another valuable client, who I think ‘gets SEO’ much better than a lot of people we deal with; however, he still sticks to this notion that any changes done on a page for SEO purposes must be ‘below the fold’. The brief is to make these changes inconspicuous so that it is not ‘in your face’ of human visitors, simply because he feels that the additional content or on-page links being added will be ‘dumbing it’ down for visitors to the site and make it user un-friendly. He seems to have created an almost impregnable mental barrier between SEO and website usability.

Our contention is that there has to be a convergence between SEO and website usability. The purpose of SEO is to attract the right users to the right content and enable him to take appropriate action, be it merely consuming the content or buying something online. Anything that facilitates this and makes it easier for the user is an indication of good usability. The notion that website usability is negatively affected by on-page SEO is either the result of strong pre-conceived and erroneous notions on user behavior or, occasionally, an overestimation of how smart and web-savvy all users are. What we have seen and learnt from innumerable projects is that given a choice between a seemingly “smart” / nifty feature and a plain vanilla but easy-to-understand feature, an overwhelming majority of users opt for the latter.

SEO- only a means to an end
Finally, it needs to be remembered that effective SEO is only a means to the end. There is no point in users coming to a website and leaving without either reading the content or taking action. Conversion and retention of users demand content readability/ usefulness and overall usability of the website. Of course, some publishers operating purely on an impressions-based revenue model may not care as much. Howevier, not paying enough attention on user conversion and retention will leave them vulnerable, especially with changing search engine algorithms that make SEO traffic ever so unpredictable. Therefore, it is extremely important to not view SEO, content quality (readability) and website usability as three different and unrelated aspects, but rather as closely inter-related and equally important factors critical for the success of a company’s search engine marketing.

- By Manoj Aravindakshan
Manoj Aravindakshan is a Singapore-based online marketing consultant and Managing Director of On Target Marketing Solutions, the Mumbai digital marketing company with significant focus on its SEO service. Connect with him on LinkedIn / follow him on Google+. An avid cricket buff with a nose for satire/sarcasm, he shares his personal musings here.

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