It can be argued that user experience and SEO are sometimes at odds with each other – in the past, SEO has focused on serving search engine algorithms, rather than helping users to have the best experience; this has resulted in problems with low quality content and pages stuffed full of keywords that are either irrelevant or poorly placed for users. However, SEO is currently moving towards a far greater integration with user experiences, which can produce much better sites.
In terms of older SEO tactics, the practice of generating spam content and multiple links from directories and low quality sites meant that users searching for content could often find themselves wading through low quality material. At the same time, users could find out that the pages that actually contained content also featured dense, keyword heavy material, as well as poor layout and navigation that was crawlable by search engines, but hard to get around for the average person.
This conflict between SEO marketing making sites more search engine friendly, and actually being practical, has changed in recent years – Google have been one of, if not the major force behind this, with Panda algorithm updates emphasising more human evaluation of content, as well as clampdowns on low quality pages. Effectively, search engines are being updated to make sure that automated, link building content and poorly designed pages aren’t clogging up search results in the same way as the past.
Google’s Panda, and more recently its Penguin updates, are targeting ‘black hat’ techniques that seek to disrupt organic search results, and are allowing sites that feature great content to achieve a better position. Ultimately, this means that users searching for particular keywords are now finding them in an easy to access context where commercial and non commercial pages contain the right content and backlinks to other relevant pages.
Writing on Search Engine Journal, Sujan Patel suggests that SEO, while still requiring an optimisation of meta tags and other, less visible parts of a site’s appeal for search engines, is becoming much more about the overall user experience – this means having better site maps for users to access content, as well as better written on page content that doesn’t try to artificially inflate search rankings by throwing in as many keywords as possible.
It’s likely that these trends will only intensify in the near future, with better metrics enabling Google and SEO marketers, as well as website owners, to gauge their user demographics, and to work out where a site might be failing them. Some of the more notable changes that pages are able to make to increase user experience without sacrificing SEO include making Flash content more crawlable for search engines, and getting better at using meta tags with images, as well as improving indexable internal links on pages.
The growing importance of social media to SEO is also significant to how the user experience is being made a focus over pleasing algorithms – Google recognise social media links and ‘likes’ as an essential way of deciding on the relevance of a page, with the long term effect of making content more visible, and more optimised to be clear and accessible on smartphones and tablets. In this context, traditional problems with user experience and SEO are gradually being reduced.
I agree with you that previously, SEO and user experience are at loggerheads with each other, especially when it comes to blackhat techniques that were employed in the past. These practices are now severely frowned upon and penalized by search engines, which turned out for the better in my opinion.
In fact, I believe that User Experience leads SEO in this as web developers now have to create great user experiences as part of the process to rank well in SEO, and that includes everything from site design and sitemaps to even the traditional SEO things like altering titles that are displayed on search engines.