Secret Benefits of Search Engine Optimisation: Increased Usability

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A higher search ranking is the dream of many Website owners. What they don’t realise is that, if done correctly, the optimisation of their site for the search engines can also see it optimised for site visitors.

Ultimately, this means more people will find the Website, which can translate to increased sales and lead generation. But, are the tasks of search engine optimisation and usability compatible? Aren’t there trade-offs between giving search engines what they want, and giving people what they want? Read on to find out (although I’m sure you can guess the answer!).

1. Perform Keyword Research

Before you even begin to build your Website, you should carry out keyword research to identify which keyword phrases your site should target. Using publicly available tools such as Wordtracker, you can identify the keywords that are searched most frequently, then specifically target those phrases.

Keyword research is also crucial for your site’s usability. Write your site’s content using the keywords for which users search, and you’ll literally be speaking the same language as your visitors.

For example, you might decide to target the phrase, “sell toys”, because that’s what your Website does. Keyword research would undoubtedly show you that Web users are actually searching for, “buy toys” (think about it: have you ever searched using the word, “sell”, when you want to buy something?). Place the phrase “buy toys” on your Website’s pages, and you’ll be using the same words as your visitors — they’ll be able to find what they’re looking for more easily.

2. 200-Word Content Minimum Per Page

Quite simply, search engines love content — the more content on a page, the easier it is for search engines to work out what that page is actually about. Search engines may struggle to work out the point of a Web page that has less than 200 words, and may ultimately penalise that page in the search rankings.

It’s also good to avoid low-content pages from a usability perspective. A page with less than 200 words is unlikely to contain a large amount of searchable textual information, so site visitors will undoubtedly need to click elsewhere to find more detailed content.

Don’t be afraid to put a reasonably large amount of information on to a page. Generally, Web users don’t mind scrolling down anymore, and, as long as the page provides mechanisms to aid scanning (such as employing sub-headings — see point 6 below) it shouldn’t be difficult for site visitors to locate the particular information that they want.

3. 100kb Maximum HMTL Size

If 200 words is the minimum length for page content, 100kb is the maximum — at least in terms of HTML file size. Include pages that are larger than this, and search engines may give up on those pages as simply being too big.

A 100kb HMTL file will take 20 seconds to download on a 56k dial up modem -– the kind used by three of every four UK Web users as of March, 2004 (source: UK government PDF). Add to this the time it takes for all the other parts of the page, such as images and JavaScript files, to download, and you’re looking at a highly user-unfriendly download time!

4. Use CSS for Layout

As I mentioned in Part 2 of this series, it’s not unusual for sites to experience significant traffic increases after they switch from a table-based layout to a CSS layout.

Search engines may prefer CSS-based sites and can score them higher in the search rankings. The benefits of clean code, flexibility of important content placement, and greater content density make it easier for search engines to access, assess, and rank CSS-based pages.

Using CSS for layout is also highly advantageous for usability. The reduced HTML file size inherent in CSS-based sites results in significantly faster download times.

5. Use Meaningful Page Titles

If you know anything about search engine optimisation, you’ll know that many search engines place more importance on the page title than on any other of the page’s attributes. If the title adequately describes the content of that page, search engines will be able to more accurately ascertain what that page is about.

A meaningful page title also helps site visitors work out where they are, both within the site, and on the Web as a whole. The page title is the first thing that loads up — often quite a few seconds before the content — so a descriptive, keyword-rich page title can be a real aid to user orientation.

6. Use Headings and Sub-Headings

Search engines often assume that the text contained in heading tags is more important than the rest of the document text, as headings (in theory, at least) summarise the content immediately below them. Many search engines assign the most importance to <h1>, then <h2>, and so on.

Headings are also incredibly useful for your human site visitors, as they aid scanning significantly. Generally speaking, we don’t read on the Web: we scan, looking for the information we’re after. If we, designers and developers, break up pages with sub-headings that effectively describe the content beneath them, we make scanning much easier for users.

Do be sure not to abuse heading tags. The more text you have contained in heading tags within your page, the less importance they will be assigned by many search engines.

7. Opening Paragraph Describes Page Content

We’ve already established that search engines love content, but many engines are especially fond of the first 25 words on each page. By providing an opening paragraph that adequately describes the content of the rest of the page (or the site, if it’s the homepage), you should be able to include your important keyword phrases in this crucial area.

When we arrive at a Web page the first thing Web users need to know is whether this page has the information they’re after. A great (and logical!) way to find out is to scan through the first paragraph, which, if it sufficiently describes the page content, should help out.

8. Descriptive Link Text

Many search engines place a lot of importance on link text. They often assume that link text will be descriptive of its destination and, as such, examine link text for all links that point to any page.
If all the links that point to a page about widgets read ‘click here’, search engines can’t gain any information about that page without visiting it. If, on the other hand, all the links read ‘about widgets’, search engines can easily guess what that page is about. (The example I provided in Part 2 of this series is a case in point.)

Descriptive links are also extremely important for usability. If Web users scan, rather than read, a litany of ‘click here’ links will be worthless to them. Descriptive links act like signposts to scanning users: as the person looks down the page, they understand immediately where the link ‘about widgets’ leads.

9. Avoid Frames

Frames are quite an old-school technique, and although aren’t as commonplace as they once were, they’re still out there. Using frames is commonly seen to be detrimental to your search engine ranking, as most search engines can’t follow links between frames.

Even if a search engine does index your pages, and Web users find you through a search engine, they’ll usually be taken to one of the pages within the frame. This page will probably be a content page with no navigation (navigation is normally contained in a separate frame) and, therefore, no way for the user to move to any other page on the site!

Frames are also disadvantageous for usability, as they can cause problems with the back button, printing, history and bookmarking. Put simply, say no to frames!

10. Provide Quality Content

This may seem like a strange characteristic of a search-optimised Website, but it’s actually crucial. Search engines, in addition to page content, look at the number of links pointing into Web pages. Often, the more inbound links a Website has, all other things being equal, the higher in the search rankings it will appear.

By providing creative, unique and regularly updated content on your Website, other Webmasters will want to link to your site: doing so will provide extra value to their site visitors. Of course, you’ll also be adding value for your site visitors.


Optimising your Website for both search engines and people needn’t be a trade-off. There’s significant overlap between the tasks required to reach these two objectives, and this overlap can be used to your advantage. It shouldn’t be too challenging to create a Website that users can find easily via the search engines, and use once they reach it.

Trenton MossTrenton Moss
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Trenton is crazy about Web usability and accessibility – so crazy that he went and started his own web accessibility and usability consultancy to help make the Internet a better place for everyone.

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