UX and SEO: how they work together to make better experiences

What is Google’s relationship with UX as a search ranking signal?

How does UX affect SEO? What usability signals does Google use to rank your website? How do two disciplines alike in user-friendliness, avoid becoming star-crossed lovers? Other baffling Romeo and Juliet references to follow…

I’ll level with you. There was a substantial period of time where I was only writing about SEO. But now look at me! I’m a cool UX guy and my focus is on the human at the end of the experience rather than the fickle whims of a merciless, cruel algorithm.

BUT WAIT! Maybe I’ve got that wrong. Maybe this is an old-fashioned, out-moded view of SEO.

Yes the technical on-page techniques to keep your site crawable and discoverable by search engines will likely always be an important factor – but at some point in the recent past, Google drew a line in the sand and said, “NO, ranking in search is no longer just about shoving links where they don’t belong and keyword stuffing your meta descriptions. Ranking will be about providing the highest quality content and experience to real-life users.”

This isn’t an actual genuine quote, but there is evidence that points to this change of tack…

How has Google’s relationship with UX as a ranking signal changed?

Andrew Martin, SEO Manager and my favourite search expert to lean on for information, believes that Google’s view on UX changed when they observed that desktop search users were no longer in the majority.

“I think the mobile-majority moment was the catalyst. That moment focused their attention on the quality of their mobile results (as part of the so-called ‘mobilegeddon’update), the importance of delivering the best result, the best mobile result, and therefore the best experience.”

Mobilegeddon, for those who tend not to pay attention to SEO news panic, was the moment in April 2015 Google added ‘mobile friendliness’ to its list of ranking factors. Basically if your desktop website isn’t optimised for a smaller mobile screen (either via responsive or adaptive design, or by a standalone mobile site) then your site may not rank as highly as your mobile friendly competition.

A stock photo of someone using a mobile phone. You’ll just have to assume they are enjoying a mobile optimised website

Why the hot panic?

Because in 2015, mobile searches on Google overtook desktop searches (Google doesn’t provide the hard figures, so you can assume that the percentage of mobile traffic is somewhere between 50.1 – 99.9%).

Then in 2016 general mobile web browsing overtook desktop browsing (51.3% for mobile vs. 48.7% for desktop). You’ll know this because you haven’t walked more than 20 yards down the street without someone accidentally bumping into you for a couple of years.

What UX signals does Google look for when ranking websites?

We define user experience as “everything that happens to your users when they interact with your business or organisation via your website, application or online communications. It includes everything they see, hear and do as well as their emotional reactions.”

It’s an easy concept for everyone to grasp, but for an algorithm how the heck do you quantify the nebulous and emotionally driven concept of user experience? 

Let’s see…

Mobile friendliness

As mentioned above, mobile optimisation is a good example of a practical ranking signal that’s officially used by the search engine. Googlebots can crawl a website and check quickly whether it’s optimised for mobile – and you can run the same crawl on your own site using Google’s own mobile friendly testing tool.

Other UX signals used by Google include…

Quality content 

Yes this is a nebulous, intangible concept too. One person’s quality content is another person’s pointless Wuzzles episode guide, but there are solid pointers to remember to improve the readability of your content, all of which are considered by Google when indexing.

  • Write for human readers, not search engines i.e. no keyword stuffed text that nobody will be able to get through that say ‘number one SEO expert’ in every sentence.
  • Formatting is very important. Remember that white space is the friend of internet readers, particularly ones on mobile. Use lots of subheadings, bullet-points and numbered lists. Just like I am doing right now!
  • Grammar and spelling. If you’re not adhering to basic spelling, punctuation and grammar rules, then this can majorly affect how much a reader trusts your content.
  • Keep your paragraphs short and try to ensure that most of your sentences contain no more than 20 words.
  • Use an active voice. Just like I am doing right now! Can’t help but feel I’m setting myself up for a fall.

Page speed

According to Kissmetrics, if a webpage takes 4 seconds to load then 25% of visitors will abandon it. This percentage increases the longer the wait – with Google claiming you could lose half your potential audience as your website loads.

Therefore Google includes page-loading time in its ranking factor for desktop websites. Mobile will follow at the end of the year, along with its separate mobile index.

This is also why Google has launched the Accelerated Mobile Pages initiative (AMP), where stripped-down, super-fast versions of web-pages are served direct from search results. However having AMP enabled on your own site isn’t a ranking signal… for now.


Your site’s architecture and navigation, which you should of course be user testing through card sorting and tree testing workshops, are an integral part of the experience for your visitors. If you don’t provide a clear and logical map for where to find any information a user might need, then they’ll be lost and soon abandon ship.*

  • Your homepage should be accessible from the same position at all times (it will likely be the place a new visitor goes to second after finding your content through search).
  • Categories should be clearly labeled, with subcategories following in a logical manner. All of which should be accessible from a main menu.
  • A search box should also be available and easily accessible, as visitors won’t necessarily know under which category a certain piece of information is located.

*The trouble with mixing up this metaphor is that, even if your ship is lost, you really don’t want to be jumping off the side of it.

Young boy’s dreams of stock photo being used for an adventure website are quietly dashed

Lack of consideration for users in pursuit of pageviews

There are plenty of tricksy ways that websites can drum-up ‘unearned’ pageviews while ruining the user experience. One of my least favourite examples of this is pagination, where you might click on a link called ’100 best rap albums of the 21st century’ and instead of a list, you have to click through 100 separate images or pages before you find out the top result.

Search Engine Land cites a couple more examples of sneaky habits of desperate websites…

  • Tabbed content: where consumers land on the page relevant to their search, but the information they sought is hidden within a tab. It should be clarified that as of 2017, tabbed content is now indexed by Google without penalty.
  • Infinite scroll pages: where multiple subtopics reside on a single URL, with no method to land the consumer on the section relevant to their search.

I would also add infinite scrolling pages where a different URL is triggered once at the bottom of an article. See Pitchfork’s music news category.

Site downtime

If your website is down, nobody can use it. If it happens often, Google will start to notice and penalise you for it. Make sure you have a reliable hosting platform and you have someone competent and trustworthy fiddling around with your backend.

Image alt-text

As we discussed in our guide to designing websites for blind and visually impaired people, making your website user friendly means making it accessible for ALL people. And there are simple ways you can ensure accessibility which also go hand-in-hand with improving your SEO.

For instance, by writing clear, readable and detailed descriptions for your images in the alt-text field, you’ll be helping search engines to index your content accurately and improve the experience for people using screen readers.

Does Google actually practice what it preaches?

Google actually maintains that non-mobile friendly webpages can still rank as long as the content is the most relevant to the individual searcher’s needs. Even if Wikipedia wasn’t mobile friendly, it would probably still rank number one for ‘complete list of Wuzzles’ because, well, who else cares?

It comes down to what serves the user best… providing the information they need, despite having to pinch and zoom vs. providing irrelevant information but on a super-fast, mobile optimised webpage.

As for site speed, Google has pretty much said not to worry too much about it. Just make it as fast as you reasonably can, and as long as it’s not unbearably slow, your speed won’t necessarily be used to rank you higher or lower than a similar website. Which contradicts many of their recommendations.

Just remember that if a good proportion of your audience is abandoning the site due to poor loading times, this is a user experience issue that needs improving.

The great UX vs. SEO debate

In a utopian world where Google just knows that a site is lovely to use because people sigh with delight every time they click on it, then the role of an SEO manager is essentially that of a UX designer.

However, we’re not there yet. Perhaps mercifully, because the above scenario sounds a little creepy.

Might enjoy it more if you switch it on

I asked Andrew Martin about the divide in the type of work SEOs have to do in order to appease both human users and search engine. Or technically, does one take care of the other?

“Google wants users to quickly get to the best search result, and I think ‘best’ includes UX here, as well as genuinely great content that answers the users query.” Andrew goes on to suggest that yes, employing SEO techniques can have a natural user experience pay off. “Things like addressing navigation issues is great for users, but it can also be a great opportunity to improve the efficiency of your site’s crawl, and improve the hierarchical structure/context of pages.”

I asked Andrew how he prioritises the user’s needs against SEO considerations: “In my experience, UX generally supports a search engine’s needs. I do think the boundary between UX and SEO is getting increasingly blurred, which is great – as search, like UX research, continually strives to ‘get’ humans. Having search as a persona just helps to keep the technical needs of SEO on the table.”

Ultimately whatever you’re doing, if you have the user as the main focus, they’re more likely to enjoy, share and come back to your website. Which is in itself a major ranking signal. So if you need a takeaway, let it be this… SEO and UX: they get on quite well. Like Romeo and Juliet, only less dramatic and SO FAR nobody’s been poisoned.

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