Firstly, I just want to make it clear that I am NOT saying SEO is dead.
A few years ago, I touched upon a subject that had been in my thoughts for a while; the term ‘SEO’ needed a rebrand.
At the time my article didn’t receive a great reception, but I’d like to think I had a fair argument. Since then, I feel the industry has been taking step after step closer to what I call ‘Search UX’.
In fact, if you do a quick Google search you notice that popular SEO blog sites including Search Engine Land, Yoast & Search Engine Journal have also picked up on the increasing importance of UX in the SEO landscape.
The Negative Connotations Behind ‘SEO’
Even in the early days of the internet, UX was an important consideration for any brand that wanted to maximize the traffic coming into their website.
Albeit, until the last 6-7 years or so you could still make it to page one of Google with a shocking user experience by using tactics that focus on manipulating Google’s algorithms.
Back when keywords and links were the highest regarded ranking signals SEOs would typically focus on spamming and manipulating these, even though there was a risk of receiving a penalty from Google.
Global brands including The Washington Post, BBC and even WordPress have been penalized for using these ‘black-hat’ techniques in the past.
A lot has changed since those times. But if I’m being honest, I think this is where a lot of the bad connotations with SEO have originated.
Even today, we still have people asking us “can you get me 50 links a month focusing on X keyword?”. As all SEOs know, it simply doesn’t work like that.
The fact is, there’s no one thing that can get you to the top of Google, and there probably never will be.
Back in the early 2000s, you could do it by prioritizing keywords and links, alongside a few other factors such as onsite technicals and content.
This has evolved into a careful balance of offering a good user experience as well as a huge list of other factors, some of which include social media optimization, reputation management, and site architecture.
These changes have paved the way for SEO as a whole, meaning, the job of an SEO is a lot broader now than it was ten years ago; there are so many more signals and considerations.
Understandably, this means the role has become a lot more difficult.
It’s about offering the right content in the right format, providing the right experience that matches modern search intent, and delivering it faster than ever before.
The Move Towards Search UX
Google’s move towards prioritizing UX began back in 2011, with the release of their Panda algorithm.
This was an early signal that Google was adapting to a more user-focused experience, with the update focusing on the quality of content.
Shortly after Panda came Penguin, an update to Google’s algorithm that moved link manipulation and black-hat techniques to the forefront.
This was Google focusing specifically on what they had identified as a problem long ago. Just now they were publicly warning that link spam would be punished.
The updates meant that Google’s algorithm would follow more human-like search patterns, taking into account context, subject matter, and even synonyms.
Search now favors more conversational searches.
If you couldn’t answer a question with the information that your website is providing, or the actions you’re presenting users with, then your website wouldn’t rank as highly in the SERPs.
At this point, it was clear that the industry was moving towards a focus on relevance and good user experience.
It seemed the algorithm was becoming pretty accurate in interpreting human search behaviours, or at least more accurate than it was a few years ago.
This theory was further backed up by the Rankbrain update, which introduced machine learning as a major ranking factor.
How Can Brands Find the Right Balance Between SEO and UX?
From an agency perspective, this all means that it’s now a lot more difficult to manipulate the SERPs.
Brands have always had to play by Google’s rules, but never to the extent they do now. That’s why it’s important for brands to take note of this shift and adapt their SEO strategies to match it.
Technical SEO and UX go hand and hand with each other now more than ever, which makes sense.
If Google’s algorithm is ultimately trying to mimic human search patterns, then it’s going to take into account things like a website’s loading speed, the site structure and whether it’s optimized for mobile.
And this algorithm is only going to get more advanced, taking more human-orientated factors into account.
SEO’s might have to unlearn the SEO approach and replace their thinking with a more human / searcher approach.
Whilst on the surface this may sound like a lot more work for us marketers, that’s not necessarily true.
In the past we’ve had to please both Google’s algorithm and users visiting our site through different strategies.
But with the algorithm prioritizing user experience more, this has sort of combined into one broader consideration; Search UX.
Of course, there are literally hundreds of other considerations, but if you focus on providing a good user experience you shouldn’t go wrong.
This will only resonate more over the coming months and years as Google’s focus on UX escalates.
What Does the Future Hold for Search?
The way people are searching is changing. And it’s changing fast. People don’t just search on desktops anymore.
In fact, mobile search overtook desktop way back in 2016. Google reinforced this change even further by moving to a mobile-first index in early 2018.
This means that your site should work better on mobile than desktop, not just ‘work’ on mobile. But it’s not going to stop here.
There are so many different devices and formats for people to search through; people search with their watches, tablets and even with their voice.
And these devices and formats are only going to become more popular, therefore becoming more influential in the world of search.
With this influx of devices and formats to consider, SEOs are going to have to spread their skillset across a much wider area.
This means looking at things like UX and site speed across each of these different formats. It’s important to remember that modern attention spans are nothing like they were even 5 years ago.
If your website doesn’t load within 2 seconds on each of these different platforms then you’re going to lose a lot of traffic.
While SEO folks have been saying “think about it from the user’s perspective” for a while, now they have to really mean it!
All in all, it really is good to see that Google is starting to move towards a focus on user experience.
Pay attention to the SEO’s that are accepting this change and remaining quiet; these are the people that will learn and move forward with the right strategies.
The SEO’s who complain or continue to talk about non-compliant techniques will start to get left behind. Google will continue to move towards a user-centric experience and that’s certainly a good thing.