When SEO Kills Usability


When SEO kills Usability

Using some SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques without proper consideration of a positive user experience is the fast way to kill usability.

When SEO Kills Usability

I’ve noted this as have others, including Google’s Chief of News, Josh Cohen, who was quoted in a Poynter. org article about SEO and user experience as saying:

“Focus on creating a more engaging experience for the users so that they spend a longer period of time per visit. Make sure the user experience comes first, not the search engine visibility.”

Josh Cohen, Senior Business Product Manager, Google News

The issue is one of quality, or lack thereof.  SEO can be used for good purposes, by making it easier for search engines (and thus people) to find the high-quality content they seek.  SEO can unfortunately also be used for bad purposes, to manipulate the search engines to find and artificially rank sites that actually have low-quality, or worse, no content.  When SEO is applied in this dubious manner, to trick search engines, it is often accomplished by using techniques that create bad usability.

Here is the formula I like to use to define the results for usage of SEO and usability:

  • SEO + Bad Usability = short visits = Bad ROI
  • SEO + Good Usability = long visits = Good ROI

Ultimately, if your site is anything other than a massive advertising link farm, the positive SEO and usability your website content provides defines the number and quality of the visits, and thus the amount of revenue gained, not how many visits you can have.

This reminds me of a Tweet Nick Finck posted…

Nick Finck quote about readership

SEO Practices that Kill Usability

There are many ways certain SEO practices can kill usability, but the three most common ways I’ve seen include:

  • Creating pages with minimal amounts of meaningless keyword-stuffed content
  • Creating pages with massive amounts of keyword-stuffed content
  • Creating pages with zero amounts of content

All of these can kill usability, because the techniques used to influence SEO create a quality of the experience that is so lacking.  This causes website visitors to want to run, not walk away, from the site.

Example 1 – Creating pages with minimal amounts of keyword-stuffed content

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Let’s say you’re interested in buying a new printer, you’ve not bought one in a while, so you’d like to know the latest information about how to buy a printer.  You’d probably expect to learn about how to find the latest models, how to evaluate features, and how to compare pricing.

Starting on Bing, you might type in the search term:

How to buy a printer

On Bing’s resulting search listings you’ll find many potentially promising sites.  Having high expectations for finding good quality information you might click on some of the links in the search results, including the link for eHow.com.

Bing How to buy a printer
Bing - How to buy a printer results

You are then taken to the eHow.com page for how to buy a printer which promises to inform you about choosing the machine that’s right for you.

However, what you actually receive in the way of your hoped-for rich high-quality content and good usability on the eHow.com page may not meet your expectations.  Right in the middle of a massive scrolling page of ads are 6 steps for finding a printer.  There are a total of 231 words of helpful advice about how to buy a printer in the body copy.

If we visually highlight the actual page content to separate it from the ads we are left with a minimal amount of content that provides a poor user experience and from a task standpoint does not achieve good usability.  There is little to no useful content, and thus the user experience and poor usability do not come close to matching expectations.

Included in the advice in the steps are such meaty content as:

“Step 2 – Decide between ink-jet and laser printers. How you’ll use the printer will guide your decision.”

eHow How to buy a printer
eHow How to buy a printer

This example clearly demonstrates that the SEO practice of providing just enough keyword rich content (16 uses of the word ‘printer’ and variations in the body copy alone) with no regard to the quality of the content leads to bad usability, and a page filled with hundreds of ads.

SEO and Usability Rule #1 – Don’t skimp on the content!

Achieve good SEO and usability by providing your users with high-quality, useful and usable content

Example 2 – Creating pages with massive amounts of keyword-stuffed content

The opposite of minimal content is maximum keyword-stuffed content, which is an example of using SEO to stuff so many keywords into the content that the page ranks higher in search results, at the expense of usability.

For this example, let’s assume you are interested in buying a used car, and want to research more information on how to do it.  In this case you might type in:

How to buy a used car

In Bing’s listings of results are sites including the top one, carbuyingtips.com.

Bing - How to buy a used car
Bing - How to buy a used car

Clicking on carbuyingtips.com takes you to a page filled with huge amounts of content, presented in a massive scrolling page of car buying content, displayed in varying types of visual styles that lack usable organization.  Go ahead and start scrolling down the screenshot, I’ll be down below there waiting for you…

CarBuyingTips - How to buy a car

From an SEO standpoint this is the equivalent of throwing everything in, AND the kitchen sink! The usability of this page suffers from massive amounts of semi-organized content designed perhaps to overwhelm search engines, and any humans that are brave enough to try to read and digest the information.

It’s not a surprise that this page comes up in top position for the results, just based on the sheer weight of the content all by itself.  The problem however is it’s a rather unpleasant task to try to read, assimilate and comprehend all the content, leading to poor usability and a disappointing user experience.

SEO and Usability Rule #2 – Don’t stuff the content!

Create positive SEO and usability by providing your users with visually organized, easy to read, easy to comprehend, and thus easy to use content.

Example 3 – Creating pages with zero amount content

Using the same search results for “how to buy a used car,” another site shows the third bad SEO example of providing zero keywords in the content of the page when the website visitor clicks through to it.

As is demonstrated below, clicking on the “Howtobuyanything.com” link takes the visitor to a page that has absolutely no content on that page about the specific searched-for topic.  This leads to bad usability due to the frustration of not finding the content that was promised.

How to buy anything
How to buy anything

From an SEO standpoint this is using a keyword shell-game to achieve results in the rankings, but in the meantime providing the website visitor with absolutely none of the searched-for keywords and content.

Duping unsuspecting website visitors by using SEO to promise a page with content, but then not delivering said content on the page leads to bad usability and a negative user experience.

In the above example the website would have been much better suited to provide content about the used car buying guide.  This would more closely align with the user’s expectations and thus provide better usability, through a more positive user experience.

SEO and Usability Rule #3 – Don’t make false promises!

Achieve good SEO and usability by providing your users with the content you promised them.

Conclusion: When SEO Kills Usability

Unsuspecting website owners may not realize the significance of the way bad SEO practices can kill usability, but kill it, it does.  The reality is the owners of these and other such websites would be much better served by improving their usability and user experience, which would lead to better SEO.

This strategy of providing quality content and good usability will over time provide a greater benefit than resorting to bad SEO tactics to temporarily attract visitors.  That’s because the vast majority of visitors who are duped to come to these bad sites, finding terrible usability and poor content will immediately leave anyway.  So the question is, why would anyone spend money on bad SEO techniques that kill usability, only to receive a 1 or 2 second visit and bad ROI?  Was it really worth the expense?  I doubt it.

Instead of SEO killing usability, work on quality content, a good user experience and helpful SEO tactics.  This will in the long run help your website take care of itself in the search rankings.  That way, your website wins, your visitors win, and you win with increased ROI.


  1. I really appreciate this article craig .. and nothing on this earth wil work without user interaction be it ROI or anything its all depends on users. Though Google remind this everytime n thn still some SEO people using these to get light on their site.. May be Google shud start penalise for these kinda pages too..

  2. Hi Craig,

    Really good article. Love the boot image too, demonstrates the point very well. There are really far too many sites stuffed with all kinds of crap that bear no relevance to the users primary task. My worry is that since people are getting so conditioned to using these sites, they won’t know what to do when they see well designed, usable sites!

  3. I think Ryan the point was that certain SEO tactics can work effectively for organic rankings, whether in Google, Bing or any other search engine, but that they can also hurt usability without judicious use. I could easily have pulled examples from Yahoo or Google SERPs and found plenty of the same examples of SEO techniques hurting usability. I just decided to use Bing for those examples – to be fair to them (it’s not a total Google world, at least not yet) 🙂

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