How User Experience Leads to Better Search Rankings in 2016, Three SEO Experts Agree

by | Jun 12, 2016

I’m sure you’d agree that it often seems like there are no clear answers about how to rank well on search engines. If you ask three search engine optimization (SEO) experts a question, you get a half dozen answers.

But three important thought leaders in the industry agree that user experience (UX) is an increasingly important ranking factor. And it has become a major theme for SEO in 2016.

These experts cite UX factors that are closely tied to improving online engagement and conversion rate optimization (CRO). Online engagement is a website’s ability to hold visitors’ attention and get them to interact with the website. CRO is the process of improving a website to increase the rate at which visitors take a desired action.

Let’s start with Brian Dean. He’s the founder of SEO thought leadership site backlinko.com and author of The Skyscraper Technique. He published the YouTube video “The SEO ranking factor you MUST master in 2016 (and beyond)” on May 17. In it, he says “There’s a new Google ranking factor that’s huge right now. And when you take advantage of it, you can find yourself with better rankings and more traffic. And if you ignore it, well, let’s just say that you’re missing out on a ton of high-quality traffic.”

He’s talking about user experience.

He tells the story of the blog post “How to Get High Quality Backlinks (Without Guest Posting)” that ranked well for both “high quality backlinks” and “how to get high.” He found his average session duration for the post was exceptionally low. Visitors who came from search engine results pages (SERP) for the phrase “how to get high” didn’t find what they were looking for and returned to the SERP.

Based on this behavior, Google ranked the post lower for “how to get high” without penalizing it for “high quality backlinks.” In fact, the post continued to climb the rankings for “high quality backlinks.” Google sent more well-qualified traffic and less poorly qualified traffic to the post. As a result, the post’s session duration and bounce rate improved.  

The key is that Google was able to see the difference in behavior between visitors for two different keywords and rank the site accordingly. Dean says, “Even though backlinks continue to be the corner of Google’s algorithm, it’s clear that user experience (UX) signals influence search engine rankings today.”

That’s not surprising if Google-stalking SEO expert Josh Bachynski is right.

He published the YouTube video “The COMPLETE ** 2016 ** SEO Guide – Basic to Advanced Course FREE” on January 15.  In it, he says, “SEO is about conversion optimization these days more than anything else” at 13:20.

Later, at 34:50, he says, “Google has said that the third biggest factor is RankBrain, and it’s based all on user clicks.” RankBrain is an artificial intelligence system that helps Google to process search results and provide search results.

Bachynski says the factors Google uses are:  

  • SERP Bounce: Do visitors return to SERP pages without having found a satisfactory page for their query on your page?
  • Internal Bounce: Do visitors click to a page and return to the page from which they came on your site?
  • Returning Visitors: Do visitors return to the site?
  • Conversion: Is your page accomplishing its objectives by getting visitors to take your desired action?

These are clear, measurable, quantifiable factors. But what drives those factors is a variety of UX issues that are harder to measure.

Optimizing Trust and Engagement for SEO

Rand Fishkin, founder of SEO analytics software company Moz.com, lists “Creating trust and engagement through UI, UX, and Branding” #3 in his On-Page SEO in 2016: The 8 Principles for Success – Whiteboard Friday post published on May 13.

Note the themes here:

  • Creating Trust: This is a major factor in conversion optimization. Ultimately, visitors will not convert if they don’t first trust the brand, site, page, etc.  
  • Engagement: This is directly measured by whether customers bounce, how much time they spend on page, and whether they later return.

In his video, he says some UX characteristics that will create trust and engagement are:  

  • Multi-device Friendliness: Does your site perform well on all devices?
  • Branding: Are visitors familiar with your domain name? Do the know, like, and trust your brand.
  • User Experience Design: Does your site’s design and presentation look trustworthy? Is your site designed to be intuitive to access?
  • External Validation Signals: Does your site appear to be credible through third-party validation such as testimonials, references and citations, and links out to other reliable content?

But for a company with the deep resources of Google, some of these factors may not be so hard to measure.

How Google May Directly Measure User Experience

Josh Bachynski published the YouTube video “Are You Ranking Yet? How NOT to do SEO in 2016” on April 3 (Warning: Contains offensive language— a truly unfortunate choice of words.). In it, he drops a bomb by saying, “Yes, web design is part of SEO. It is a direct part of SEO. Design is as important—if not more important—than links for SEO.”

According to Bachynski, Google renders your design during indexing—just like a web browser reads a web page’s code and then lays out the page accordingly.

You may be able to see clear evidence of this in your own Google Search Console. When you visit “Mobile Usability,” you may find Google has provided mobile site design advice. When Google provides this kind of advice, you should consider it may be an important ranking factor.

Bachynski goes on to say, “You might have to change your design if it’s not good enough. Quite frankly, why did you ever think otherwise?”

He says having more links won’t trump a good site design anymore. And improving your site design will result in improved sales, prestige, and branding in addition to rankings, so there is little downside. He caps off his rant with, “So when I tell you you need to upgrade your design, yes, you need to effing upgrade your design.”

Rand Fishkin agrees that user experience “touches on a lot of things that have historically been outside the control of search engine optimization professionals. Thankfully, as SEO becomes more multidisciplinary inside a marketing team, hopefully we have more ability to influence these things.”

It’s likely UX has always been an indirect ranking factor to some degree since Google’s inception. But the SEO community appears convinced it has become more important. User experience is moving to the forefront as a ranking factor as Google continues to improve the search results.

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