For more than a decade I’ve optimized organic search performance for big and small companies. They often come to my team with greatly diminished search performance stemming from decisions based solely on user experience and design. The decisions resulted in changes to internal linking structures and reduced textual content, which affected the authority and relevance signals that search engines rely on to rank pages.
Granted, SEO is not the only consideration when making changes to the way the site looks and feels. But it is critical if a company relies on organic search traffic.
Declines in natural search performance based on seemingly unrelated choices can be avoided if search engine optimization teams are involved in the decisions early on, or at least consulted on them. In many organizations, there is little connection between SEO and user experience and design. Or the connection is misunderstood. The result can be unforeseen drops in natural search performance.
Here are eight common user-experience and design decisions that, in my experience, often harm organic search traffic unintentionally.
8 UX and Design Mistakes
Too focused on engagement. Conversions, signups, saves, and other engagement metrics are critically important to ecommerce. However, natural search’s strength lies in filling the top of the marketing funnel — for creating awareness and interest. Strategy teams judging content value purely by engagement metrics may be tempted to lop off sections that are important to natural search.
For example, a site that sells cooking implements and pantry items might offer recipes to draw shoppers in. Those recipes may not result in a sale or registration that day, but they may be the first interaction that shopper has with the brand. Without that content to lure new shoppers from search, the site will be more reliant on selling to its already-established customer base.
Reliance on images. Visuals communicate instantly to shoppers what it takes seconds longer to communicate via text. However, search engines are still not adept at deciphering meaning from images. Even when the content of the image is words, those words are not available to search engines to index and consider when ranking a page.
Embedding text within an image is particularly troublesome. Most text-based images are headings, and headings are important areas to optimize for on-page SEO. Instead, float the text over a background image to achieve the same look while keeping the text available to search engines.
Excessive headings. When all text is a heading, no text is important. If the page is designed so that every scrap of text on the page is coded as a heading, then everything is relegated to the same level. That’s the same result as having no heading tags at all. Sometimes the same effect occurs when there’s not enough body text on a page to support the headings. In that case, include at least a little descriptive content.
No text. Designers as a group are certain that text is not sexy. Many are loath to include text on a page. Maybe text isn’t sexy, but it’s definitely necessary. Well written, concise body content gives the search engines something to anchor the relevance of the page on, especially when headings have to be short.
For example, a site selling athletic gear may only be able to display the heading “Women’s Apparel.” While that label might make sense in the context of a site that sells primarily exercise equipment or athletic shoes, it’s far too broad a topic to expect to rank for. The supporting body content could make clear to search engines and to searchers coming to the site for the very first time what is actually on offer: workout clothes for women.
This is acceptable if the content in the tabbed element is a size chart image that can be found on every product page, but it’s not desirable if the content in the element is unique and valuable to search engines, such as category descriptions, product reviews or product information.
Minimal navigation. Fewer choices are easier to understand. But offering minimizing navigational elements has the negative impact of limiting the amount of valuable link authority that flows through the site. That link authority enables pages to rank more strongly. Think of link authority like a popularity contest. Every page that links to another is a vote. The more votes a page gets, the more popular it is. The more popular a page is, the more likely it is to rank.
When a page is linked to in the header or footer elements that are displayed on every page in the site, every page on the site that uses those navigational elements is voting for the popularity of that linked page. Minimizing the navigation reduces the number of pages that receive votes, which in turn reduces the ability of more pages across the site to rank more strongly in natural search results.
Missing category landing pages. Category landing pages are the top-most navigational layer of the site. If your site sells office gear, the category pages might be “Office Supplies,” “Cleaning,” and “Furniture.” Some sites forego landing pages for these top-level categories, using the click instead to open a secondary menu in the header. Unless there’s a “Shop All” subcategory within each category, failing to include category landing pages misses the opportunity to have a landing page to optimize for the very valuable keyword phrases that that category represents, such as “office supplies,” “office cleaning supplies,” and “office furniture.”
Changing taxonomy. Changes to the taxonomy of the site, whether it’s merging categories or renaming labels, can cause multiple SEO issues, from authority to relevance to basic URL structure. Even a simple label change from “brake pad” to “brake pads” will likely change the URL for the page, which could cause the page that had been ranking to be removed, thus producing an error page and forcing search engines to start over with a new URL that has no historical authority to enable it to rank. The result is that rankings will fall, traffic will slow, and sales will decrease — probably in the short term if your site enjoys high levels of brand recognition and authority, but potentially for the long term if your site has a smaller presence.
And that’s just one page. Imagine a larger-scale change where hundreds or thousands of pages change — the impact could be extremely negative if not planned with the SEO team.