Traffic from search engines remains crucial to most ecommerce merchants. 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 I recently spoke with Hamlet Batista. He is a pioneering SEO innovator and the founder of Hamlet Batista Group, an SEO consultancy.
Kerry Murdock: How can SEO tactics adversely affect usability?
Hamlet Batista: The biggest issue for SEO and usability is you can make changes that are visible and invisible to your users. Invisible changes include optimizing the site’s page speed and modifying the title tag and meta descriptions, although those are visible in the search results.
But when users click on a page, they don’t pay attention to the page’s title or the meta descriptions. So when we are talking about usability issues, it’s when you’re making changes to the page’s visible content area. 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.
Murdock: So it’s tempting to make changes in the navigation that could help SEO, but you’re affecting users’ ability to get around in the site.
Batista: Exactly. When you are talking about SEO, you’re trying to modify the website for the search bots to find all the pages on the site efficiently. Sometimes people optimize pages using the keywords exactly the way they are in the keyword tools. But those keywords don’t always read sensibly. So then you’d have navigation, such as a breadcrumb, that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It makes you look like you didn’t do a good job of writing your content.
Murdock: 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 match that keyword or keyword terms exactly. 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 make sure the site, the content, the layout, and the instruction and navigation make 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 pages’ content 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 the site is great for usability, then you make SEO changes that are invisible to the user. Start optimizing inside the page, making sure you are using the proper headings and emphasizing the right keywords and proper meta description. That will ensure the page shows well in the search results — using titles and keywords that people are 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 have a specific purpose. Users expect breadcrumbs to help them navigate 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 putting in different keywords because he wanted those pages to optimize for those keywords. But he was forgetting what the users were using the navigation for.
Murdock: Could that example hurt a merchant’s organic search rankings?
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 returning 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 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 a good practice. You want to be careful with what you do. Be more selective in the SEO stuff you put on your website. Try to make sure that it makes sense to the user.
Murdock: You mentioned the Panda algorithm update. Is there a method or a tool for merchants to determine how Panda affects their sites?
Batista: I wish we had such a tool. I wish that search engines were more forthcoming on how they do things. But they don’t provide that kind of information. We have general guidelines, and we understand the goal of search engines.
Search engines want to provide a good experience to the users. Let’s say you create a great website for the user, but Google is not rewarding you as it is rewarding your competitor. Google is the one who is doing a poor job, not you. But Google will eventually fix it, in my experience. They will make sure that your site will rank better than your competitor because that is the ultimate goal.
So try not to take advantage of specific holes in the search engines. It might work short-term, but long-term it’s not the greatest strategy. You want to align SEO with everything else in your business so that it makes sense. That’s the best strategy in the long run. Google doesn’t want to be serving irrelevant content. They don’t want to be providing users with a bad experience. Otherwise, people are going to stop searching there.
Murdock: Let’s discuss social media. Merchants are inundated with social media advice. But the merchants that we dialog with remain dependent on traffic from search engines. What are your thoughts there?
Batista: The problem is that social media traffic lacks purchasing intent. When you are on a social site you are not expecting product pictures; you are not going to social sites to buy something. You are there to socialize.
It is like going to a bar. When you go to a bar, you want to have a good time. It is not the same thing when you go to the shopping mall. So that’s the big difference between search traffic and social traffic.
But there are two ways that social media can be complementary to both search and the overall business goals. First, social networks are perfect for promoting your content. The main driver in SEO is the content. And content that is not promoted doesn’t produce results. So you have to get good content and be good at promoting it, such as getting likes and getting votes. So, social networks are the perfect medium to promote that content.
The second way is to use social media traffic as lead generators. I don’t see merchants exploiting traffic from social networks properly. Merchants sometimes say, “I get traffic, but it doesn’t really convert into sales. I get a lot of likes, but I don’t get sales.” This is because they should use social networks — a Twitter account and a Facebook fan page — to build their newsletters.
Promoting your content and building your newsletter are the two main things that I see social traffic complementing the overall business goals of an ecommerce merchant.
Murdock: Tell us about your professional background and your firm, Hamlet Batista Group.
Batista: April 2012 will be 10 years since I started practicing SEO from my bedroom as an affiliate marketer. It was back in 2002. I spent a few years doing affiliate marketing, and I did pretty well. Then I built SEO software tools. Lately, I’ve been focusing primarily on the ecommerce space. You can go to my blog, HamletBatista.com, to see who I am.
Murdock: Anything else?
Batista: Yes. We’ve talked about SEO and usability mistakes. I want to talk briefly about SEO tactics that actually can help usability. First, use keyword tools to research equivalent words and terms that are both popular to your audience and make sense in the context of your site. That is a great way to increase usability and SEO.
Also, make sure that the reviews are embedded inline in the content of the page. It means that the bots have to attribute the content on the reviews to the specific product page instead of a subdomain of the review provider, which is typically the case.
Most review providers will use an iframe on the page. That really doesn’t help you. It helps them. So you want to make sure that the content of the review is directly inside of the page.