Search Engine Optimization is Now User Experience Optimization

What Matters in SEO Right Now?

SEMRush released its Rankings Report last week using data collected from all their users. As expected, the report determines that user signals are some of the most important ranking gauges. Indicators like bounce rate, time on site, and pages per session are three of the top four ranking factors on this list. It’s no secret that Google sees itself as an answer engine. Their main goal is to provide the best answer for a user’s query—as quickly and easily as possible — and they have advanced AI (RankBrain) working constantly to determine exactly how to do that.

Because user signal interpretation is top on Google’s list right now, it is more crucial than ever that digital marketers optimize our sites for users instead of just for our marketing funnels.

Search engine optimization is becoming conversion rate optimization is becoming user experience optimization.

Before I get started let me add a caveat and say that user intent optimization is just icing on the SEO cake. We can’t stop doing the basic technical tasks that make our sites visible to Google. Search engines still need a clean site to crawl and index before they can retrieve it for SERPs.

Bounce Rate

semrush bounce rate graph 2017

SEMRush’s data determined that the average bounce rate for domains ranking in the top 3 positions in SERPs is just 49%.

Bounce rate is the ratio of users who abandon your site after visiting just one page. To Google, a high bounce rate says that a user searched a query, clicked on your site, and didn’t find the answer they needed. The user either hit the back button (known as pogo sticking) or exited out completely. If your bounce rate is very high, Googile could see that as the signal that your site should not be ranked as high for that particular query.

As such, higher ranked pages tend to have a much lower bounce rate. There are variations and outliers of course. Some industries just have higher bounce rates in general, and Google probably takes that into account when providing results to users. A blog by Kissmetrics indicates that lead gen sites, content sites, and landing pages often have higher bounce rates. Meanwhile, retail sites, portals, and service site generally have lower bounce rates.

This is not to say that your site NEEDS a 50% or lower bounce rate to rank highly and convert users. The idea is that if you’re providing the right type of relevant and useful content, users who are qualified to buy your product will find your site and trust your brand.

Time on Site

SEMRush Time on Site Graph 2017

A lower bounce rate is associated with the time on site metric, as well. If people are finding the answers they need, they’ll stay on your site longer instead of bouncing. Time on website could potentially tie into multiple factors including your content length, depth, and topic. If you’re finding ways to make your site useful to the right visitors, they’ll be on your site longer.

You can’t just create awesome content and expect rankings to follow, though. You have to give your users the tools to continue perusing your site to find the rest of the information they need. Have an easy-to-use, visible navigation. Show users what other pieces they might want to read: “If you liked this, try this…”

Don’t force people into your funnel right away just because they came to your site for information. Let your brand and your knowledge establish you as the main, trusted resource for this information and leads will follow.

Pages per Session

SEMRush Pages per Session Graph 2017

SEMRush determined that the sites in the top spots had an average of 3 page visited per session, as well. If you write an amazing, thorough, and lengthy article that someone spends 15 minutes reading, and then they still exit out right after that amazing piece—it’s still a bounce. Ouch.

There are lots of ways to keep users perusing your site. Include links to related articles on high traffic posts and pages to help people continue their journey. Add internal links to every page with content (just a few links are fine). But most importantly, it’s crucial to be the expert in your area. Work hard to create accurate, comprehensive content that cites sources and answers all the questions people might have about a topic (or points them to places that do answer those questions).

Stop Optimizing for the “Imaginary Audience”

So many times, digital marketers find themselves optimizing their sites for themselves. We think, “My product/service is great. It’s for everyone. I love it. Let me tell you why I think it’s awesome.” Michael Aagaard, Senior Conversion Optimizer at Unbounce, called this “marketing to an imaginary target audience.” We let our idea of what we think users want to get in the way of what they actually want.

A great way to avoid this is to stick to the data that your site analytics provide. By looking at your current bounce rate, time on site, and pages per session, you can see where your user journey drops off, what keywords you might be going after that you don’t necessarily need to, what mediums bring in the most qualified leads, and more. Having an attribution tool, like call tracking software, can help with the kinds of data that online analytics can’t track.

Use Real Data for User Experience Optimization

There are so many factors that work together to determine how a site is ranked, that bounce rate, time on page, and pages per session alone won’t get you to the top of a SERP or send you to the second page. But when we look objectively at data like these three factors, we can see how well we’re serving the users on our site. This is the first step in determining how to optimize for user experience conversion–to look at your real life data, not just the vanity data.

The next steps are to optimize your site based on that data, test your hypotheses for a reasonable period (no, a week or so won’t do), and make changes based on the ACTUAL data (not the data you wish had come through). It’s ok for a test to fail as long as you take what you’ve learned from it and move forward.

What Should SEOs be Asking: How Do I Optimize My Site for Users?

It’s often a hard sell to marketing departments to give away tons of free information and not capture potential leads right away. It feels like you’re throwing away perfectly good money. It’s an SEO’s job to convince the other marketers on the team that optimizing your sites for user experience and intent is the smartest way to build a trusted digital presence, promote your brand, and find the most qualified leads for a sales team.

Sometimes it’s hard work for companies to accept that not all prospects are the best prospects for them. We think that if we could just talk to someone, we can convince them that they need our product or service. And we optimize our websites that way, too. If we can just get them on our website, we can get them in the funnel.

Instead, we should be taking a cue from Google and trying to provide the best, most correct and thorough answer based on what the user is actually looking for.