Focus on user experience, not keywords, for SEO
Search engines, and thus tailoring your page for SEO (Search Engine Optimization), are a very important part of building websites within the online ecosystem. Search is now integrated into the address bar of most browsers, making it easier than ever for users to quickly access a list of search results on Google, Yahoo, Bing or others. As a business or organization, search cannot be ignored as an essential channel for reaching prospective customers, readers, or users.
A (very) brief history of internet search
Once upon a time, the world wide web became a thing. At first it was just a few servers hosting some pages, each with its own unique address. As the power of the web spread and ingenious folk began to recognize the opportunity, hundreds quickly became thousands and eventually millions. This presented a challenge; how do I find a website that has the information I’m looking for if I don’t know the address?
Enter search engines. In the early days, keyword based search would return useful results. Over time, this simplicity was no longer enough. With an increasingly huge number of available websites, the returned results needed to be sorted somehow to present the “best” content first. This brought in the need to create increasingly complex algorithms to decide which website should come out on top.
Gaming the system
The introduction of page rankings brought a new opportunity. If you could figure out how to get your page to the top of the search results, there was literally money to be made. This was the birth of SEO.
Over the years, there have been varied efforts to get to the top of search rankings. Keyword stuffing, link buying / back linking, and many more “black hat” tactics. In response to what are perceived as negative tactics, the search engine algorithms have continually evolved for the greater good.
Where we are now
Today, Google (and other search engines as well) have extremely complex algorithms in place. It’s likely that no one individual (not even at Google) actually knows all of the ins and outs. What we do know is that the goal of the search engine is still the same today as it was in the beginning: help the user find the most relevant page of content based on their search query.
We also know that search relevance (and pagerank) goes way beyond just keywords, link profiles and meta descriptions. This doesn’t mean those aspects aren’t important, but they’re no longer the MOST important. Time on page, bounce rates, mobile usability, geographic relevance, structured data… None of these are directly related to simple keywords, though all play a part in determining which results a search engine returns for a search.
Advocating for User Experience
As a user, the most relevant experience comes from finding what you’re looking for the first time you choose a link from the search results. As a content provider, that means when someone lands on your page from a search engine, you better satisfy their expectations, or at the very least engage them with other content from your site.
User experience, for the purpose of an individual web page, is a result of the design aesthetic, content and the usability of your site. By focusing on understanding who your ideal audience is and what they are looking for, the user experience can be adapted to best meet their needs. When you can keep a user on your site, the search engine that sent them your way recognizes that you’ve provided a relevant experience. This will not only boost your search rankings, but the user will be far more likely to become a return visitor or customer.
Rest assured, Google (and others) will continue to refine their algorithms to provide better search results. As a content provider, your primary task should be to consider your audience and deliver designed content for real people, not for bots.