User-Centered Design and SEO

Many businesses spend thousands of dollars on usability testing and analysis before launching a new or redesigned Web site. Three months after the launch, business owners are often puzzled about their sites’ lack of search engine visibility. When they turn to SEO (define) information on the Web, they often encounter black-hat myths and other genuine misconceptions about the entire search optimization process.

The conclusion often reached is SEO and user-centered design (UCD) are at odds with one another. Black-hat SEO professionals, of course, tend to encourage this belief because it means they don’t have to venture into an area in which they have limited or no knowledge: Web site usability.

Web site owners and usability professionals need to open their eyes. UCD and SEO are usually completely related. I consider search optimization to be a component of user-centered design. Two specific UCD concepts are very important to the SEO process: a sense of place and an information scent.

Providing a Sense of Place on Web Pages

A sense of place is very important in the SEO process. When people click a link from a search engine, they don’t always go to a site’s home page. They most likely land on a page containing the information they’re searching for, or they land on a page that will lead them to the desired information. For searchers to feel confident that a site offers the product, service, or information they desire, Web pages should present clear “you are here” cues.

The most important cue is keywords. If searchers type a keyword phrase in a Web search engine, they want to see those keywords appear in search results, which is the main reason keywords in HTML title tags and meta-tag descriptions (if used) are critical. Once searchers click a link from a SERP (define), they want to see that same keyword phrase appear on the Web page they land on, preferably above the fold.

Keyword phrases can appear in a variety of places on a Web page. The HTML title-tag content appears at the top of the browser screen, but people generally don’t pay attention to that part of the screen. They do, however, tend to focus on the center of the screen, approximately three to four inches from the top. A heading is commonly placed in that area.

Locational breadcrumb links are also frequently placed in that area. Even though site visitors typically don’t use breadcrumb links to navigate the site, we find they’re important to provide both a sense of place and keyword focus to a Web page.

Interestingly, when we used Jared Spool‘s eight-second usability test, we found participants mostly recalled the heading content. We attributed this to screen real estate placement, white space surrounding the heading, color, and font size. Some of the questions we ask during the eight-second usability test are:

  • What Web page are you viewing?
  • What information is presented on this Web page, or what content is available on this page?
  • Whose site are you viewing?
  • What section, if any, of the site are you viewing?
  • How confident are you that you will see desired information on this page?

During this Q and A process, we find participants mention many you-are-here cues: headings and subheadings, locational breadcrumb links, global navigational elements, and main-content area text. If important keywords are used in all or most of these places, participants feel more confident the Web page contains the information they desire. This confidence transfers to the entire site if the cues are used consistently.

Providing a sense of place consistently throughout a Web site, therefore, communicates trust, reliability, and dependability. It also makes a site more search-engine friendly.

Providing an Information Scent on Web Pages

Ideally, searchers should be able to query commercial Web search engines and be delivered to pages that contain the exact information they want. If a searcher wants to determine the cost of a square, pink, silk Burberry scarf at a variety of online stores, for example, she generally wants to arrive at product pages that show the price and a photo of the scarf.

Information retrieval systems are far from perfect, however, and most content providers don’t necessarily understand search-engine friendly copywriting. The result? Searchers don’t always land on the page that contains the information they desire. They might, however, land on a page that can lead them to the information they desire, such as a category or FAQ page. Providing an information scent on a Web site, therefore, is important not only for closing a sale but also for information retrieval.

To provide an effective information scent, searchers must feel comfortable navigating a Web site. Using important keywords in navigational elements (primary and secondary navigation schemes, breadcrumb links, related cross-links) is critical for providing this scent. Some of the questions we may also ask during the eight-second usability test include:

  • Is the information you wanted available on this page?
  • If not, where can you go to find this information?
  • How can you get there?
  • What pages have you visited? What pages haven’t you visited? How did you determine this?
  • How can you go back to pages you have viewed previously (if applicable)?
  • How confident are you that you will see desired information on this page if you click on this link?
  • After clicking on a link, do you see the desired information on this Web page?

Providing a keyword-focused information scent can make a site search-engine friendly as well as user-friendly.


SEO and Web site usability aren’t at odds with each other. By analyzing and understanding your target audience’s search behavior and keyword usage and by incorporating this information on your Web site, you can create a user experience that benefits everyone: your business, your prospects, your customers, and the Web search engines.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies Local in Denver, CO, September 28, at the Adam’s Mark Hotel.

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