The webinar Driving better rankings through UX is a part of the SEO in Orbit series, and aired on April 24th, 2019. For this episode, OnCrawl Ambassador Bill Hartzer sat down with Chris Giarratana to discuss the influence of UX on technical SEO and vice versa. Join them to explore how UX optimizations can improve your page rank.

SEO in Orbit is the first webinar series sending SEO into space. Throughout the series, we discussed the present and the future of technical SEO with some of the finest SEO specialists and sent their top tips into space on June 27th, 2019.

Watch the replay here:
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Presenting Chris Giarratana

Chris Giarratana is a digital marketing consultant who works with small businesses and nonprofits to achieve their goals. He helps drive conversions and boost sales through SEO marketing, freelance copywriting, and PPC management. Learn more about Chris at www.strategybeam.com

This episode was hosted by Bill Hartzer, an independent SEO Consultant and OnCrawl Ambassador. He relies on his 20 years of direct SEO experience to provide technical SEO audits of websites, as well as technical link audits and link cleanups of websites. Bill Hartzer is known worldwide for his research on the topic of search engine optimization and the New gTLD domain names, as well as Dot Brand domain names. He is a frequent speaker and expert discussion panel participant at various search engine marketing and internet marketing conferences and events such as the SMX and the PubCon conferences.

Testing and UX

It’s really easy to go into a tool and have this great plan, but after testing it you sometimes realize it doesn’t work.

What are all the different ingredients that go into UX.

Even a topic for a blog post or a basic site modification that we think will have a huge effect doesn’t always measure up. Sometimes they really take off social, and sometimes they don’t. It’s hard to predict results of UX changes, so it all comes down to testing.

Effect of technical SEO on UX

Technical SEO and UX really do go hand-in-hand.

On-page SEO and effect on CTR

Without going into technical outreach techniques or crawl data, even basic things like header tags, formatting, and images has a big impact on click-through-rates: these things already give users an idea of what they’re getting into when looking at results on the SERPs. This is something that is proven in tests.

Ranking factors and UX

User behavior can influence rankings, from SERP UX that influences click-through rates, to pogosticking (returning directly to the SERPs after clicking on a page) when a website’s UX is very poor.

Focusing on end-user conversions

Google’s view of user behavior on SERPs gives them the upper hand on this subject. As SEOs, we have to start with the end user and work backwards.

The effect of an optimization in and of itself is not as important as an end user converting: it’s a means to an end.

User-related SEO metrics

We’ve seen talk about the influence of long clicks and short clicks, about time on page not being a reliable metric, or about Analytics not being reliable because not every page has it. But what Chris takes away from all of this is that Google wants to get the right content to the right people at the right time. And that’s our goal as SEOs.

Chris looks at:

  • CTR
  • Number of time page was shown in search results (Impressions)
  • Number of clicks
  • URLs of landing pages
  • Time on landing pages
  • Interaction with buttons/events

He uses this to analyze what people are doing on a given page and to understand what they want.

Google and user behavior knowledge

It comes down to how much Google knows about what users do on website pages.

Google says they don’t use information from Google Analytics, but Bill wonders if there could be information collected from Google Chrome that could eventually influence page ranking.

No one knows the full list of elements that contribute to ranking factors, but it seems likely to assume that Google would use elements of feedback from user behavior to rank pages.

From Chris’s experience, YouTube optimization really focuses on time on page. Consequently, we can only assume that Google applies the same methodology to the general web, despite the fact that they have less control over the web in general.

For example, Google has an advantage when it comes to mobile users, particularly Android users. We know that they use location as a factor when tailoring search results to individual users. This accounts for a significant number of mobile users, which is worth mentioning given the current trends in mobile vs desktop search.

Google’s dominance in the world of search

The use of Google products by almost all webmasters, even if Google Analytics is not installed on your site, means that Google has at least theoretical access to time on page, scroll speed, and other things like that from which they might be able to draw inferences.

Google’s dominance means that they have privileged access to user behavior information that can help them decide what users want and how they interact with that content in order to establish a broad view of internet user experience.

For Bill, Google provides or controls enough internet bandwidth. This includes access to Android, their own data centers, and a higher market share of search. Google doesn’t need actual access to individual website data via Analytics or Adsense. We need to understand that they can look at behavioral data based on information from other, general sources.

Measurable metrics

There are some things we can measure to try to increase our own understanding of user experience:

  • Log file data
  • Analytics data
  • Etc.

Link placement and click rates

One thing that Bill always looks at when doing an SEO audit is where people are clicking.

Site navigation
For example, the order of links in a sidebar or top navigation might influence how often links are clicked. If a third item in an alphabetical list is clicked more often, placing it first might be an improvement in UX.

Chris always works from the mentality of trying to push for the sale. For example, if you have a category page with high value, pushing that to the top of navigation.

Organizing content on a page

You can take the same approach to how you design a page.

Chris gives the example of steps in a relationship: buying a house together or sharing bank accounts isn’t something you want to do as soon as you start dating someone. Similarly, pages should also follow a progression in their relationship with the user.

Chris uses a top-to-bottom, left-to-right approach:

  • The page begins with more general information, assuming that people have arrived from generic sources.
  • Then there’s a call to action. If the person scrolls past it, you can assume they’re not ready.
  • The page then provides more information: the user’s problems, comparison charts.
  • Etc.

UX and visitor maturity

User-content relationships aren’t built on “hey, let’s go do something”. It’s more of a question of building a story and addressing needs through user experience. Users will often tell you where they are and whether they’re ready to purchase based on what they do on your site.

User behavior and UX

Some people confuse user behavior and user experience.

For Chris, user behavior is how people work within your brand, whereas user experience is the tools you set up to help people understand your brand. These aren’t perfect definitions, but they’re a place to start.

On Chris’s site, he was able to write copy that ranked, but didn’t convert. This was a behavior he didn’t want. To address that, he looked at how people were interacting with his site, and realized that the common SEO assumption that “if you can rank, you can bank” isn’t true.

Whether or not your page rank, it’s the user experience on your site that will determine how users behave on your site and whether or not they convert. This means that there’s a sort of causal relationship between user experience and user behavior.

Search intent, marketing funnel and content

Google asks us to create content optimized for user search intent: informational, navigational, transactional…

This starts with the content strategy.

The end result with sales pages is to get people to buy. However, the end result of an informational page is to provide people with the information they need to feel comfortable with your brand. You’ll need to understand that they’re probably researching more at this time.

In web marketing, it’s hard to use the example of a traditional funnel, because people can come in at any point. As you mature the relationship with your audience, different content is effective at different points. For example, whitepapers and case studies are really effective at the purchase stage.

On the other hand, more informational stages need to address the general problems experienced by people in the user’s industry. This gives you a great lead-in for SEO because people often search for solutions to their problems. From there you can present your solution and build up a relationship.

Improving SEO through UX optimizations

There are always low-hanging opportunities for improving SEO through UX: title tags, descriptions, and so on. You should also look at how your content is formatted, using different heading tags.

Content for exact-match long-tail keywords

Moving away from code-bearing options, including an FAQ section at the bottom of pertinent pages is another UX improvement that is great for SEO. The goal is to use the FAQ questions that address exact-match long-tail keywords that, from your keyword research, you see people are actually searching for in your niche.

If by the time your user reaches the bottom of the page, they haven’t clicked on a call-to-action, this is one way to “throw everything out there” to make sure the page responds to their concern.

Local relationship-building through out-bound links

Another optimization is to use local pages and build relationships with local prospects by placing outbound links to local services on your pages. This demonstrates that you understand who they are and what their needs are. Chris uses the example of small business owners in Orlando who are interested in resources for small businesses through local universities, including financing opportunities for entrepreneurs.

This is one example of Chris placing the user experience before SEO: the rapport that he can build with potential clients is more important than the question of whether outbound links on these pages improve their SEO. You want to be the website that provides that information to the target audience.

Experience on recent UX site overhaul

Chris recently worked with a designer and a web developer to improve the design and user experience on www.strategybeam.com.

Page load speed

Page load speed was a big issue, particularly because Chris also uses PPC landing pages, which are in part evaluated by their load speed.

User paths and internal link structure

Chris looked at user paths through Google Analytics to see how people interact with his site. He used this information to optimize the internal link structure.

Quantifying changes

Since the site overhaul, Chris has been seeing a lot of quality leads. It’s hard to attribute this to a single change, but it’s likely that changes like the following have had an impact:

  • Adding FAQ sections
  • Improving page load speed
  • Improving site infrastructure
  • Rewriting copy
  • Improving backend functionality

Bill imagines that the next steps involve more specific analysis in order to compare the before and after on specific metrics:

  • Sessions
  • Bounce rate
  • Popular pages
  • Time on site
  • CTR

Typically on a high level, what you’d do is look at several weeks of data after the change and compare it to the previous period to see in which areas you’ve seen the most improvement. After three months, you’ll have more data, which will give you a broader view of the difference in performances.

Results

Some of the results after a month on the new site:

  • Increase in overall CTR and similar statistics
  • 12% increase in sessions
  • Decrease in bounce rate
  • 200% increase in impressions

It’s exciting to see that UX improvements really work to boost site performance on search engines.

Local SEO

Chris has also been putting more effort into local SEO through local pages. This has been doing really well, though he feels like it’s the “wild west” of the industry at the moment. Currently, his local strategy has included the following steps:

  • Started with a virtual silo of local-based searches for internal navigation on the site
  • Did not create pages for local cities

Created content around demographics of targeted industries in local areas based on what they’re asking

Keyword strategies

Chris likes to focus on on-page optimization, and break up content to concentrate on long-tail keywords. He also looks for synonyms for keywords.

Bill has noticed that he has a few longer phrases that he knows are great matches for his site, even though there are only a few searches for that keyword. He consistently ranks in the top five for these keywords, and though he doesn’t get a lot of traffic from them, the quality of traffic from these keywords produces a good amount of business.

It’s interesting to note that it’s often the same group of sites that rank for these phrases. There’s a lot of day-to-day fluctuation in the rankings between the same group of sites. One trick is to monitor changes to competitors’ pages that share the top ranks on this selection of keywords. It’s worthwhile to look at technical aspects of content structure on these pages.

Once he’s made changes to overtake competitors, he uses the URL Inspection Tool in Google Search Console to ask Google to recrawl the page. Within 15 minutes, he’s seen the page rank higher based on his changes.

Often people get lost in the numbers and think that more search volume is better for better ranks. But what it’s really about is getting the right people to you site at the right time to look at the right content. Chris has found that focusing on long-tail keywords is worth more than fighting for top positions on more general keywords.

Another strategy that works well for Chris has been to build out thematic clusters.

Choosing the right goals

Often we hear a lot of discussion about terms like LSI keywords, that don’t have a lot of meaning for SEO. However, in terms of search volume, it’s more important to look at getting the right people to your site. This will have less competition than aiming for rich snippets and featured snippets.

This goes for local SEO as well: if you’re focusing on small towns, it’s not realistic to expect to drive thousands of people in traffic.

It’s more important to ask “are the people coming to my site willing to buy from or engage with me?” rather than “how many people are coming to my site.”

Top tip

“It’s really about getting the right people at your side at the right time looking at the right content using long tail keywords and thematic content clusters.”

SEO in Orbit went to space

If you missed our voyage to space on June 27th, catch it here and discover all of the tips we sent into space!