Empirically investigating the relation between SEO and Usability

Introduction

With the growth of “information communication & technologies” and diversity of applications on the internet has made Quality of Service (QoS) increasingly critical [1]. However, maintaining usability or user experience (UX) of the website is one important aspect of assuring Quality of Service (QoS) [2].  Also from the business prospective, website conversion (that is visitor turns into a customer) would not occur until the usability of the website is not maintained. Business success cannot be possible without the reduction of the cost per conversion which is merely dependent on what visitors do once they arrive at the “conversion oriented” website. [3]  Therefore, it is the task of the search engine to help the visitors in finding the website with the identification of relevant information in a short time period.

The search engines cannot find any website until the application of some techniques, which is known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques. Researchers established that 85% of all online purchases started with a search on search engines and also ascertained that Google has the largest dominate market share [4]. Google statements imply that the possible existence of search engine optimization and website usability contradictions. Therefore, the research problem of the research is based on the basic empirical evidence which clarifies the nature of the link between these two outcomes. [3]

The study is about the understanding of how search engine optimization (SEO) techniques support website complexity and contradict to the usability/ UX of the website. And ultimately how search engines rank those websites which have greater complexity and low user experience and vice versa. The overall study has helped in the investigation of the relation between SEO and usability. SEO and usability play a very important role in making a website successful; SEO is about attracting people to the website in the first place by making sure it shows up in search queries whereas usability is about people’s behavior after they view the website. The main goal is to increase the conversion rate. If a website has high SEO but not usable, it simply means that it might have traffic but visitors won’t turn into customers (i-e conversion won’t take place) whereas a website with high usability but low SEO simply have low visitors [5]

Google states that the crawling and indexing of web pages is a search engine is the prerequisite for the web pages that are to be displayed on search engine result pages (SERP’s), which implies the possible existence of search engine optimization and website usability contradictions. [3] The existing literature has shown not much empirical evidence which clarifies the relation between SEO and website usability. However, a few researchers have analyzed this relation as a research question and evaluated this relation with the help of three websites either if it is identified on-page SEO elements or have an impact on conversions.

One website among three is created with no SEO and usability techniques, which is known as control web site. Second website is known as “experimental website 1” which is created with no SEO techniques but with the usability techniques. Last but not least is the website known as “experimental website 2.” It is created with all SEO techniques but not usability techniques. After implementing on page, SEO elements on “experimental website 2” have found the improvement in the rankings than a control website over a certain period of time (a month or two). Thus, the result indicates that the application of on page search engine optimization elements is essential to improve search engine rankings.

However, in the conversion experiment, it was observed that “experimental website 1” has a higher conversion as compared to both “control website” and “experimental website 2”. Thus, the result indicates that the on page optimization elements (that contradicts website usability) negatively impact the process of obtaining conversions. Moreover, user based evaluation is also taken by 5 online active users. As a result, it is found that there are some SEO elements which were clearly identified as obstacles by the majority of the respondents. As a future work, the authors suggest to create a search engine optimization and website usability model, in which the contradictory elements and attributes are to be empirically evaluated. [3]

Recent surveys suggest that about two third of the users encounter slow websites almost every week [6,7].  49% of users abandon site or switch to a competitor after experiencing performance issues [6,8]. Thus, it indicates that increase in web page complexity is a key factor of slowing down the websites, which in turns affects the user experience (UX) of the website. Moreover, understanding the complexity has great importance towards the solutions of customizing web pages to achieve the right balance between performance, usability and business interests. [6] How search engine ranked these websites which have serious usability issues.

Several studies have been conducted to analyze the search engine optimization techniques with the help of reverse engineering [9,10,11]. Based on the reverse engineering approach, top 20 ranked websites on Google are analyzed in regard to the content, page rank, Html and Url. Further, ten thousand keywords are taken as a sample set and then division is made into three segments according to the search volume in past three months. The keywords division is named as hot, middle and cold. Researchers argue that keywords are related to the hot segment and have significantly higher PR than middle and cold segment keywords. Moreover, html of the website is validated from w3c validator and the html text ranges from 600 – 1200 words. Lastly, the URL length is no longer than 70 characters and keyword are embedded in it. [4]

There is a need to check the percentage of the ranking algorithm considering the user experience for the ranking websites rather than just following the technology focus. The example of a user centered search engine is the use of social network data in search engines. [12] in which Search personalization is used by making users profiles into accounts. Moreover, re-ranking is one of the most important methods of personalization in which the rank of the final results changes are based on the interests measured from user profiles.

The focus on the high quality service is more likely to generate sustainable high rankings, but the tricky search engine optimization can affect the user experience. [5] Search engine algorithm is consistently changing on the daily basis, it was deemed prudent to first determine which search engine optimization elements have a direct impact on website rankings. There is a research gap which needs to be filled by empirically evaluation of the Search Engine Algorithm (by 2012) in order to judge the ways the usability can be enhanced to support resource discovery mechanism and secondly, to present a search engine optimization (SEO) and website usability model, in which the contradictory elements and attributes are to be empirically evaluated.

The search engines that have trouble in the interpretation of the web pages created with website usability in limiting the text and keywords, then the web pages cannot be viewed by any search engine users. However, web pages that are created with search engine optimization and impede the visitor’s interaction can result the visitor leaving the web page.

As a Research Gap, there is a need to understand the complexity of the SEO of the websites that affects the user experience. There has been a little work done in the understanding of the SEO complex individual web pages and how their complexity impacts the client’s experience. [6] Researchers stated that no empirical evidence could be found which clarifies the nature of the link between SEO and usability outcomes. Also, other ranking factors are ignored except SEO on page factors are considered to evaluate the relation with usability. There is a need to evaluate all ranking factors in order to judge the relation between SEO and usability.

Problem Statement

Search engines are always making an effort to better understand their user’s need and improve user’s satisfaction [13]. Google [14] states that Web pages should be created for the visitor and not for search engines because search engines exist to facilitate the visitor. However, Google [15] also specifies that the crawl ability and indexing of Web pages is a search engine’s prerequisite. The Web pages that are be displayed on search engine result pages to be audited by the visitor. Google’s statements concerning search engines being created for the visitor, but having an artificial intelligence prerequisite, leads us to believe that search engine optimization and Website usability complement each other. It is therefore, required to investigate the level of emphasis of Google to support the psychological satisfaction of a user with search results presented for search session.

Moreover, studies have shown that the primary reason of visiting a website by the people is to look for information they want. However, the search process is usually not completed within one visit. For example, in buying process visitor usually visits a website 4-5 times before making a purchase decision [4]. It is the website usability, which brings him back to the website. Therefore, in designing a usable website, the website usability plays an important role and is based on the following attributes [16]:

  1. Structure: this defines the information organization handles by the application and its relationships.
  2. Navigation: represents how information can be accessed
  3. Presentation: describes how information is presented to the user (i.e. layout and design)

However, the website structure if not managed effectively and can affect the website’s size, complexity and page loading speed. In short, website’s structure affects both technical and service performance [17]. Furthermore, it is important to investigate how search engine optimization techniques are supporting and maintaining usability of the website. Secondly, how search engines are asserting the ranking of those websites which are usable enough for the searchers.

Aims and Objectives

The aim of this research is to evaluate the relationship between SEO and usability of the website. In other words, this study emphasizes on the techniques of SEO and the attributes of website usability to investigate the nature of a relationship between SEO and Usability.

Moreover, to check how much search engines are transformed by technology centered to a user centered latest by 2012 ranking algorithm.

To follow up the aim, we need to achieve the following objectives:

  • To Study and apply the latest search engine ranking factors by exploring Search Engine algorithms from time frame 2010 to 2012.
  • To perform SEO of the Website
  • To measure the usability of the website through different UE Methods and Web Analytics

Research Methodology

The research methodology is to investigate the relation between SEO and Usability, it is known as grounded theory. The grounded theory involves the discovery of theory through the analysis of data [18]. Moreover, it is a research method which operates almost in a reverse fashion from the traditional social science research rather than beginning with a hypothesis; the first step is data collection through a variety of methods. From the data collected, the concepts were derived which are the basis for the creation of theory or a reverse engineered hypothesis [19]. The data was gathered by optimizing two websites from the search engine Google. These two websites were related to health and medical niche. The outcome of the data from both websites was the ranking results on google.co.uk and web analytics stats. Moreover, the usability was also evaluated from 10 usability experts for both websites. All the data was then analyzed and compared for both websites A and B. Ultimately, the theory was made in the form of hypothesis.

Research Scope

The scope of this study is to investigate the relation between SEO and Usability. In order to find this relation, search engine optimization was empirically performed for two experimental websites A and B. After applying SEO to both websites, their ranking results (on google.co.uk) were compared and analyzed for these experimental websites A and B. The online user data was received through Google analytic known as Web analytics data used for predicting the user behavior of the website. Moreover, heuristic evaluation was performed for both websites in order to measure the usability of the website. Lastly, all the data of both experimental website were compared to drive the relation between SEO and Usability.

Contribution

As a contribution, Google search engine ranking algorithms were summarized in the literature review chapter. Moreover, all SEO techniques and usability’s important methods were empirically applied on the experimental websites A and B. In search engine optimization, there are many ranking factors like social signals, on page ranking factors, content, quality back links and more. Therefore, usability as a ranking factor was derived after doing the empirical research. It could mean that if an online web application is usable enough, website owners can achieve ranking very easily with less efforts in terms of time and money.  Precisely, usability affects the ranking and conversions.

Furthermore, researchers argued that measuring user satisfaction for a particular website is an important aspect of usability. Therefore, certain metrics were proposed during this research study. And it was found that if these metrics, such as pages per visit, average duration of a user on the website, bounce rate, new vs. returning visitors are known, then it is easy to predict the user behavior regarding a website. Thus, with these statements, not only user behavior can be predicted, but also the website design can be modified in multiple iterations. These statements can be observed on a regular basis for any website, which is helpful to stay updated about the user behavior.

Methodology

The overall framework of this study consisted of three phases shown in Figure 5, and the methodology framework is explained briefly in the upcoming headings.

Phase I: Experimental Website-A Evaluation

In Phase I, an existing website was used as the baseline termed as Experimental Website-A. The SEO was applied (from Oct 2011 to Dec 2011) to the website-A. In this phase, links were built in the website. However, after the three months of efforts, the keywords were started to rank on google.co.uk. This ranking result was stored to analyze later in the phase III. Furthermore, The Company has stopped efforts of SEO, due to some management decisions, and they started SEO on the second interval which was from July 2012 to Dec 2012. Again the back links were created for the website and the website traffic stats were observed to predict the user behavior about conversions. The usability evaluation was performed and the results were stored to be analyzed in the phase-III.

Phase II: Experimental Website-B Evaluation

In Phase II, the data was received from phase-I that is web analytics stats about the user’s behavior and usability evaluation feedback through the heuristic evaluation; it was used as a baseline to design and develop a new website termed as Experimental website-B. Again the SEO process was performed and links were built from Jan 2013 to March 2013 and ranking was checked on google.co.uk. SEO activities were performed, the user traffic was analyzed with the help of web analytics and usability evaluation was performed. This ranking result, web analytics stats and usability evaluation results were stored to analyze later in the phase III.

Phase III: Data Comparison and Brainstorming

In Phase III, the SEO, Web Analytics and Usability Evaluation data of both experimental websites A and B was compared and analyzed with each other. The outcome of the data would provide results about the relation of Usability with Conversions and SEO (ranking). The hypotheses are stated in a table 1. If the result of the usability heuristic evaluation would be positive for any one of the experimental website whose keywords were performed well, the Google ranking algorithm do have importance for usability and usability as it is one of the ranking factors among others. But in the opposite case, if the result of the usability heuristic evaluation would be negative for any experimental website whose keywords were not performed well, it could mean that Google is not considering usability as a ranking factor nor the usability has a relation with a Search Engine Optimization.

Figure 5: Research Methodology Framework

Table 1: Research Questions and Hypothesis

Ultra life was established in the UK in 2003 especially for research, development, and manufacture market leading nutritional products will assist in supporting some of the key health challenges of our time. In June 2009, Ultra-life was acquired by a UK based pharmaceutical company, which has continued to run Ultra-life (now under the banner of Ultra-life Healthcare Ltd). Ultra-life has witnessed profound results among consumers of its products in terms of weight loss, reduction in insulin dependence among diabetics and improved vitality.

Ultra-life are committed to the continuation of development into the lifestyle trends of the population as a whole to better serve UK and beyond with nutritional products to benefit their health in the future. Their services are available throughout UK.

The company has products related to healthy life, body building, energy and endurance, and weight loss supplements. The company took start with its initial health care shopping store of the website-A.

Experimental Website A

Table 2, shows the basic details about the website-A. The website goal is to increase the visitor of the website and makes some purchases. To achieve this goal, the average pages per visit must be close to 6.5. The website is all about muscles building, weight loss and energy and endurance supplements and the site needs to be search engine optimized for the geographical area of United Kingdom.

Experimental Website B

Table 3, shows the basic details about the website-B. The website’s goal is to increase the visitor and purchase. To achieve this goal, the average pages per visit must be close to 6.5. The website is all about healthy living, weight loss and fitness supplements. The site needs to be search engine optimized for the geographical area of United Kingdom.

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