Search Experience Optimization: The New SEO
The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine. Have you read it? This is where our story begins – at the publication of an academic paper written by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page for the Computer Science Department at Stanford University in 1996. Brin and Page present readers with “Google,” the prototype of a large-scale search engine that utilizes hypertext structure. It’s “designed to crawl and index the Web efficiently and produce much more satisfying search results than existing systems.” This paper was, of course, printed, but it was also available on the web. The best part? It’s optimized. They optimized their search engine research paper for “World Wide Web, Search Engines, Information Retrieval, PageRank, [and] Google.” That’s some impressive – and confident – foresight.
I don’t want to ruin the paper for you – it’s a great read. But I do want to share the main point of “Figure 4. Google Query Evaluation.” The goal of Google was to improve the quality and efficiency of search beyond what other search engines were offering. Keywords from a query are searched for within indexed web pages. The pages are ranked by how many keyword matches the document has. The document with the most matches is your winner. That’s search engine optimization.
As of March 8, 2016, Moz defined SEO as:
As of March 9, 2016, Wikipedia defined SEO as:
Today, I ask you to take a deep breath, open your mind, and accept this fact: that’s not what SEO is anymore.
SEO now stands for “search experience optimization.”
However, for the sake of this article (and for the sake of everyone’s sanity), SXO will be our acronym for “search experience optimization.”
Search engine optimization has, historically, been an arduous line of work in which we (search engine optimizers) have been trying to please the search engine gods. Keywords, title tags, metadata, more keywords, site architecture, backlinks, longer keywords… optimization is a long-term commitment that, when you are truly dedicated, has an impressive reward. You’ll generate more traffic, more qualified traffic, and most importantly, you will please those search engine gods.
However, as Mike Templeman, founder of Foxtail Marketing, said, “We’ve exited the era of search engine optimization (SEO), and have now entered the new age of search experience optimization (also…SEO).” Basically, that cat is telling you to stand back up again.
We aren’t surprised – and you shouldn’t be either.
In the past, writing for the user and writing for the search engines were completely different skill sets. Think back to webpages with paragraphs of keywords – just keywords. Search engines [read: Google] launched those to the top of the seach results pages. As Google has grown in popularity and sophistication, it has also become a powerful advocate for user experience. If you look at Google’s company philosophy – “Ten things we know to be true” – the number one “thing” is focus on the user and all else will follow.
Yes, you could argue that we’ve been optimizing for the user experience since the beginning – to which I would respond: I don’t know anyone who wants to read a paragraph of synonyms (besides linguaphiles, of course).
We were optimizing for search engines.
But then you say, “We still are! We want the search engines to rank us better.”
Okay, Flip-Flopper, you just made this awkward. Now I have to bring up Google’s algorithms – the animal algorithms, not the randomly named updates that haunted the first decade of the 21st century (I’m not kidding! Update names included gems like “Esmeralda,” “Bourbon,” “Buffy,” “Big Daddy,” and “Caffeine.”). Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, and Pigeon – they all encourage digital marketers and search engine optimizers to write for the user, even going as far as writing for what the user meant to search rather than what they actually searched.
This is the shift. This is why we need to be talking more about SXO and less about SEO.
So, let’s talk more about SXO.
Time to address the elephant in the room: search engine optimization hasn’t (historically) played well user experience. Generally, these departments would prefer that the other just simply not exist, and with the previous definition of SEO in mind, I can’t fault either side. Honestly, it was like the Sophie’s Choice of the Internet world to choose who/what to optimize for – the user or the search engine.
Freelancer Zach Rutherford compared the relationship between SEO and UX to the relationship between two dance partners (instead of combatants), saying, “They have way more qualities in common than one might assume. Concise, legible, and informative copy – sprinkled lightly with high quality keywords – serves the purposes of both UX and SEO… [and] properly structured sites are intuitive for search spiders and users alike.” SXO gives the Internet world a third – and far more tolerable – option for its “Choice.” Optimize for the search experience.
Remember that deep breath I told you to take? Yeah, do that again.
Now, before you even start thinking that I’ve just completely discounted the history of proven results through search engine optimization… do not panic. Do not. Panic.
That “arduous work” I talked about – keywords, title tags, metadata, more keywords, site architecture, backlinks, and longer keywords – they still matter. The focus and strategy behind them, however, has evolved. Remember, you’re writing for the user – not the search engine. For example, in the past you might have optimized a page for fifteen different variations of “Service-X State-A.” You still want to use “Service-X” and “State-A” in your optimization of content, title tags, and ads. Just don’t do it fifteen times in 200 words of copy. That is the exact definition of “unfriendly user experience.”
Mitual Gandhi, co-founder of SEOClarity, recently said in an email exchange with Templeman that, “The search engines are no longer kidding around when it comes to search experience on both desktops and mobile.” Gandhi is right – search engines aren’t kidding around… and neither are the search users. When they end up on your site, you better deliver on what they were hoping to find.
Want to know if they found what they were looking for?
Because you’ve made it this far, I’m going to venture a guess that you answered that question with a “yes.”
When you shift from writing for the search engine and instead write for the user, your KPIs change. Sorry to all those who put their websites’ traffic metrics on pedestals – it’s time to put them back on the shelf. In fact, all those “vanity metrics” need to go back on the shelf. While having a healthy amount of page views, traffic, and social shares make you feel good about your website, they are only giving you a small (and often wildly inaccurate) representation of your website’s efficacy. What is happening when people are getting to your website? To answer that question, you need to look at your site’s bounce rate, pages per visit, return visitor rates, time on site, and conversions. These are the measurements that will tell you about the user experience and the user’s level of engagement. You may not choose to focus on all of those KPIs – and that’s fine, every business is different – but you should start to pay attention to at least a few of them.
Now, if this is you…
…this might help.
Google released the most updated version of their Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines in November 2015. This 160-page guide revolves around the user. Websites are graded on quality – expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. Evaluators are also asked to consider page design functionality, site architecture, and on-site content. Then the evaluators are asked to assess mobile user needs. And, finally, the grading scale is a “Needs Met Rating Guideline.” If your site is not meeting the users’ needs – and they have A LOT of needs – you’re site’s standing will suffer. Focus on the user, and all else will follow. I’m jussayin’.
Nineteen going on thirteen…hundred
Google first recognized quality search results by identifying and matching multiple keywords, acknowledging anchor text, and recognizing larger fonts as being more important. Today, quality search results are defined by no less than 160 pages of Guidelines… to start. The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine uses the word “user” a total of nineteen (19) times, which seems pretty generous for such a technical paper. The Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines uses the word “user” a total of thirteen hundred (1300) times. I’m the first to admit that I’m terrible at mathematics, but I’m fairly certain that means the “user” now has a greater value.
The New SEO
Search experience optimization is the new SEO, whether or not you choose to accept that, is up to you. Keep in mind, however, that search is becoming more mobile, more intuitive, more extensive, and more personalized – none of which are ideal for websites full of empty promises. Treat your website users as you would want to be treated. Users with a good search experience will come back to or recommend your website and services. Sadly, search engine optimization doesn’t promise that.