With SEO, Usability Equals Visibility

Submitted by Brandon Cornett | Category: Search Engine Optimization | Published on Nov 19, 2006
Usability improvements also improve search engine visibility by making it easier for search engines to crawl through the site. Here are seven ways to make your website more usable for people and more visible to search engines.

By increasing your website's usability, you're making the reader's job easier. This can dramatically improve your conversion rates. But that's not the only thing usability contributes to your site. Most usability improvements also improve search engine visibility by making it easier for search engine spiders to crawl through the site.

In other words, usability equals visibility. So here are seven ways to make your website more usable for people and more visible to search engines.

1. Limit the use of Flash.
Client-side plugins like Flash tend to reduce both usability and visibility, albeit for different reasons. When used carelessly, Flash can frustrate users and send them packing. Overuse of Flash also reduces search engine visibility, because search engines can't decipher your Flash movies. Actually, Google can index Flash files and offer a text representation of them, but you won't like the way it looks!

I'm not saying "All Flash is bad." I'm saying that many of the Flash implementations I see reduce both usability and visibility. If you're going to use Flash (and you care about SEO), contain your Flash within its own space, and offer textual content in addition to the Flash movie. For examples, check out Adobe.com, WebTrends.com or ClickTracks.com.

2. Have at least one basic text menu.
I've seen it time and time again -- dynamic menus preventing internal pages from developing the visibility or ranking they deserve. I've worked with a lot of sites that only have dynamic, Javascript-heavy navigation menus, and they all have one thing in common. The home page will be indexed, frequently crawled and well-ranked. But the internal pages will be virtually invisible.

When you have a Google PageRank of five on your home page but zeroes across all of your internal pages, something is wrong.

I'm not saying to stop using Javascript-based menus completely. But you should know that they're hard for search engines to navigate. Some search engines, like Google, are getting better at crawling dynamic menus. But they still tend to choke on them.

There's an easy fix to all this. Simply create an alternate, text-based menu at the bottom of your site. It won't change the look and feel of your site, but it will improve your site's usability and visibility.

Keep the "fancy" menu to impress your visitors, if that's important to you. But add a simple text menu to help search engines find, index and evaluate your internal pages. At the very least, have a text hyperlink to your site map, which will help search engines find their way inside. And speaking of site maps...

3. Create a site map.
First, let me explain what I mean by site map. In this usage, I'm talking about a site map page of your website that lists all of your important pages. I'm not talking about an XML site map that you put on your root folder for search engines to crawl. Both have value, but I'm only talking about the web page version in this article.

In this discussion, a site map is simply a page that lists all of your other pages (or most of them) as hyperlinks.

Site maps help people find the information or page they're after. They also help search engines crawl your entire website, while offering descriptive hyperlinks to help the engines understand your site's overall theme.

If you have a small to medium-sized website, you could link to every one of your pages. If you have a larger website, it's probably best to focus on your most important, top-level pages.

4. Write specific title tags.
Title tags can be a small change with big impact. I've worked on a lot of older sites with solid PageRank and link popularity, but weak title tags. The title tags on these sites were usually too general to be in line with any kind of search activity. So my first action would always be to rewrite the title tags, making them more descriptive and incorporating key phrases. This single adjustment can have dramatic results, especially on older websites.

On the SEO side, title tags help search engines understand what a page (and by extension a website) is all about. On the usability side, descriptive title tags help people understand what your site is about, especially when they see it listed on a search engine results page with nine other sites.

5. Cross-reference related items.
Here's an easy way to improve your usability and visibility on every page of your site. Recommend related items. At the bottom of an article, for example, you might have "Related article" followed by the keyword-rich title of a related article. About.com does this well.

On the SEO side, this increases your internal linking profile, improves the "crawlability" of your site, and helps search engines understand the theme of your site. On the usability side, this helps readers find related information, improves the "stickiness" of your site, and enhances your overall navigation scheme.

6. Unwrap your PDF files.
Search engines can index PDF files, and they will assign them some value based on their titles. But a PDF does not compete with a web page when it comes to SEO. So if you "unwrap" your PDF files by making web pages out of them, you give the search engines more information to read, understand and evaluate. As a result, your rankings will improve. You can still add a "Download PDF version" link on each page, if you want.

On the usability side, you improve the reader's experience by giving them the option of reading the page now or downloading the PDF for later. You're also eliminating the surprise of having unmarked PDF files. People expect links to go to web pages, unless they're labeled with PDF, WMV or some other application type. Don't launch someone's Acrobat program unless they're expecting it.

7. Offer descriptive content.
I hate mystery websites. You know, the ones that practically hide what they're selling, promoting or offering. You've seen these sites before. They're often 85% Flash or image-based, with the occasional snippet of text here or there. And where they do have text, they often use poetic, meaningless language that some junior copywriter labored over in hopes of a creative award.

I leave these kinds of websites without any idea of what they offer, and I leave quickly. Search engines leave the same way, without the precious data they need to evaluate the site and determine its meaning. Without descriptive content to support each of your pages, products and services, you're depriving two audiences -- potential customers and search engines.

Don't ever let a creative agency tell you that people don't read websites. A truer statement is "people don't read bad websites, or irrelevant websites, or poorly organized websites." But if somebody wants what you're selling, they will read everything you offer before picking up the phone or pulling out their wallet. The question is, are you offering them anything?

The right people will read the right content 99 times out of 100. Search engines will read your content 99 times out of 100. So why not capitalize on a sure thing?

About the Author
Brandon Cornett is the author of The Agent's Guide to Search Engine Visibility, a 130-page SEO training kit designed specifically for real estate agents. Learn more about real estate search engine optimization by visiting: http://www.ArmingYourFarming.com/search


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