Traffic from search engines remains crucial to most ecommerce merchants, in spite of the prominence of social media networks. But focusing too much on search engine optimization, to the detriment of shoppers, can actually harm a merchant's business. Balancing SEO with usability was the topic when we recently spoke with Hamlet Batista. He is a pioneering SEO innovator and the founder of Hamlet Batista Group, an SEO consultancy.
Practical eCommerce: How can search-engine-optimization tactics adversely affect usability?
Hamlet Batista: "The biggest issue for SEO and usability is you can make changes that are visible to your users and changes that are invisible. And the challenge comes when you make the changes that are visible to users. Examples of changes that are invisible are optimizing the page speed of the site, modifying the title tag or the meta descriptions — although those are visible in the search results.
"But when users click on a page, they don’t pay attention to the title of the page, or the meta descriptions on the source code. So when we are talking about usability issues, it’s when you’re making changes to the visible content area of the page. Navigation is one of the biggest issues that can affect both SEO and usability, such as faster navigation and sorting functionality in the categories of a product. When you make SEO changes there, that’s where you can potentially create issues for users."
PEC: So it’s tempting to make changes in the navigation that could potentially help SEO, but you’re affecting the ability of users to get around in the site, in that example.
Batista: "Exactly. Because when you are talking about SEO, essentially you’re trying to modify the website for the search bots, so that the bot can efficiently find all the pages on the site. Sometimes people optimize pages using the keywords exactly the way they are in the keyword tools. But sometimes those keywords don’t read sensibly. So then you'd have navigation, you have a breadcrumb, that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It makes you look like you didn't do a good job in terms of writing your content."
PEC: So in that example, a merchant can go to a keyword tool, such as Google's AdWords Keyword Tool, to look at keywords that potential customers actually search on. The merchant then renames a product or a navigation element to exactly match that keyword or keyword terms. But, in the context of the site it doesn’t really make a lot of sense for their potential customers. Is that it?
Batista: "Yes. The key principle is to first make sure the site, the content, the layout, and the instruction and navigation makes sense for the users because — as I tell my clients — the Google bot is not going to buy from you. It is not going to purchase your products. It is important that the bots can find all the content of the pages and that the pages make sense. But you are not optimizing the site for the search engine bots to make a purchase. You have to optimize it for the user.
"Once it is great for the user, then you first try to make SEO changes that are invisible to the user. Start optimizing inside the page and start making sure you are using the proper headings and emphasizing the right keywords and proper meta description so that it shows well in the search results, using great page titles and keywords that are popular and that people are actually going to be looking for. But also make sure that those keywords, when they are read in the context, make sense.
"For example, I have a client in the clothing industry. When I first saw the site, I had what I call a 'face palm' moment. I’m doing the initial audit on the site and I go to the product page. I’m looking at the breadcrumb navigation and there are just random keywords — like 'cheap dresses' and 'cheap prom dresses'.
"But the users of breadcrumb navigation, of course, have a specific purpose. Users expect breadcrumbs to help them navigate on the site. They land on the product page and they want to go back to a category and see if they are interested in a different product. His breadcrumbs didn’t work like that. He was just putting in different keywords because he wanted those pages to optimize for those keywords. But he was forgetting what the breadcrumb users were using the navigation for. So that is one example."
PEC: Could that example actually hurt a merchant from an SEO standpoint?
Batista: "Yes. In fact, that is why he hired my firm. He said that this used to work for his site. For years he was doing this — before the Google Panda algorithm update. When Panda came, everything changed. I think he lost about 40 to 60 percent of his traffic. Before Panda you could get away with stuff like this, even though it can potentially affect users. But now, post Panda, Google is looking at whether users are happy or if they are getting confused and try to go back to the search results and finding another website. They have different ways to measure that. The bottom line is, for this clothing client, it almost tanked his website. He lost a huge portion of the traffic.
"He was really overzealous in terms of overdoing a lot of the SEO stuff. There are smarter ways to achieve the same goals. And one of the problems I see with merchants who try to teach themselves SEO is that there is so much information about SEO. You see a new 'flavor of the month' tactic and you want to try to have that on your site. That is not really good. You want to be really careful with what you do and you want to be more selective in the SEO stuff you put on your website and try to make sure that, first, it makes sense to the user."