Writing for Usability vs. SEO: Friends, Foes or False Dichotomy?
In Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug gives a spot-on guide to website usability— all that stuff that helps visitors to your site find what they’re looking for. What Krug’s book doesn’t touch on is the relationship between usability and search engine optimization (SEO) —how visitors actually find your site in the first place.
I really don’t fault Krug for this (too much) since it’s not his area of primary expertise, and there’s plenty written elsewhere on SEO. Still, a nod to SEO might have been nice since some principles of usability that Krug advocates can appear to be in conflict with best practices in SEO.
If you’ve read Krug’s book along with a few guides to SEO, you probably know what I mean.
The current maxim for SEO is “content is king” with textual content sitting high atop the searchability throne. If you want search engines to find your site, you need good copy. A picture may say a thousand words to most of us, but to bat-blind Web crawlers, a picture only whispers whatever you can squeeze into its alt tag.
In contrast, to make sites more user-friendly, Krug suggests you “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.” (Cue hearty shouts of approval from graphic designers everywhere.)
When less is more and when less is just less
In my first fresh-out-of-a-college writing job, I was confronted with a harsh reality: the 12 pages of brilliant verbosity in my college essays as an English major was not necessarily going to be rewarded in the business world. I’d just written my first article for the agency magazine, and I proudly passed it on to the graphic designer. It was promptly returned with “You need to cut at least 500 words to fit the page” written on top. How could I cut 500 words from perfection? And for what? “White space”?
Left with no alternative, I began the painful task of cutting my precious copy. I cut and reworded and cut and rephrased. When I was done, something miraculous happened: the fluorescent light above my cube glowed a little brighter as I realized my article was actually better, not worse. I hadn’t amputated any limbs — I’d performed lyposcution and lost the excess fat.
I think what Krug is advocating for is simply good writing. Unfortunately, the Web isn’t always the place to find this. With the lack of physical limitations like paper size, and the speed with which content is generated, the time and motivation to write tight-skinned copy is in short supply. Couple this with a sloppy understanding of SEO and “more” can feel like value added when, in fact, more is mess.
What’s a writer to do? Know thy audience(s)!
Fortunately, most of the principles of writing well apply to both SEO and usability. The key is to remember who you’re writing to. Every good writer knows that “identifying the audience” is step one. For writing on the Web, you have two audiences: the visitors who will use your site and the search engines who will drive them there. Do your due diligence on both. By researching what terms people actually use to find your products/services, you can make educated decisions about what terms are key (avoiding less is less) and what are superfluous (avoiding more is mess).
Consider the following examples of copy for RickySticky Widgets, a small company that helps users improve the performance of their Quicky Stickets:
In order to improve and enhance the quality of the performance, efficiency and speed of your Quicky Stickets, try our newly redesigned and highly innovative RickySticky Widgets which are the trusted and proven source to provide the perfect cutting-edge solution to resolve your Quicky Stickets’ performance issues. Buy your RickySticky Wickets Today!
Problem: the writer is making SEO the enemy of usability by cramming in every searchable keyword he can think of including many that are likely low-value. He loses clarity, and readers, in the process.
Buy our new RickySticky Widgets.
Problem: This is quite usable for a visitor who knows exactly what they’re looking for (and many will), but, with the important search term “Quicky Stickets” omitted, how many visitors searching for “Quicky Stickets” will never reach the page?
Newly redesigned for 5x greater efficiency, our second generation RickySticky Widgets are guaranteed to optimize Quicky Widget performance. Shop online
Much better: This includes a few high-quality search terms but doesn’t overwhelm hurried shoppers with so much text that it obscures the action (i.e., “shop online”).
The good news is nearly all principles used to optimize a Web site for usability (alt tags, titles, clear navigation, etc.) are also things search engines reward. Which audience your site copy is most heavily weighted for (visitors or search engines) will depend on how well established your site and brand already is. And, if you want to have a bit more freedom in how much you write and a place to be a little freer with keywords, start a blog like this one. If I’d written the above advice on a page of the Hile Design site, it’d probably of kept it to 50 words or less. (Hint: notice how many keywords related to good Web design are included in this post.)