Case Study

Practically Investigating the Relation Between “SEO” and “Website-Usability”

Research Abstract

The popularity of Internet and the efficient use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have motivated millions of companies to sell their products and services through the online web marketing by the utilization of the appropriate websites. The rate of increase in the web community captures the interest of companies to grasp the user attention to promote and market the products or services online. With the help of online websites, visitors can reach a website through search engines. Therefore, search engines are considered as the main source of finding and retrieving information on the internet.

Search engines are designed, developed and implemented to search the required information on the web. The search results consist of web pages, images and other kind of files types. SE’s are considered as the silent public relation firm that quietly works in the background and helps the visitors to find what they are searching for. Moreover, since last 10 years, Search engines are making a lot of efforts to launch the algorithms which rank only those websites which assure to satisfy the needs of the customers. Those ranking algorithms were based on how Google is assuring to rank websites for users but not search engines. However, literature has not shown that usability is a part of the ranking algorithm by a Google search engine. Therefore, it is important to empirically investigate the relation between SEO and Usability.

In this research study, two experimental websites were designed and developed to find out the relation between SEO and Usability. However, the investigation is based on the number of experiments. The major experiment was to rank both websites with the help of search engine optimization techniques. Moreover, the usability was measured with the help of web analytics stats and heuristic evaluation. Furthermore, it was found that the website-B which was more usable was ranked in less time than the website-A which was not much usable and had some of the serious usability issues. The evaluation conducted within research study had proved that usability is an important ranking factor to rank a website on search engines whereas, it has also been observed that the usability has the higher conversion rate which proofed that usability affects conversions positively.

Introduction

Research Background

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 perspective, 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 behaviour 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 a 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 a control web site. The 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 future work, the authors suggest creating 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 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 the division is made into three segments according to the search volume in the 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.

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-centred 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 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 a 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 in 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 affect 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 being 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 the search session.

Moreover, studies have shown that the primary reason of visiting a website by the people is to look for the 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 website usability, which brings him back to the website. Therefore, in designing a usable website, website usability plays an important role and is based on the following attributes [16]:

  1. Structure: this defines the information organization handled 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, a 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 the usability of the website. Secondly, how search engines are asserting the ranking of those websites which are usable enough for the searchers.

The Study’s 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 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 centred to user-centred latest by 2012 ranking algorithm.

To follow up on 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

The Study’s 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 a hypothesis.

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 backlinks 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 fewer efforts in terms of time and money.  Precisely, usability affects 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, the average duration of a user on the website, bounce rate, new vs. returning visitors are known, then it is easy to predict the user behaviour regarding a website. Thus, with these statements, not only user behaviour 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 user behaviour.

Literature Review

In this section, a detailed overview is presented on the variables like Usability and SEO. In SEO, all techniques are presented whereas, in usability, all methods are explained which are applied in this research study. Moreover, a review of search engine algorithms is also presented to have an understanding of working of Google search engine. Lastly, we have discussed the detail of the background of web analytics to track and predict the user behavior.

Research Background

The diversity of applications (over the web) has made Quality of Service (QOS) increasingly difficult. However, Quality of Service (QOS) has a strong relation with Usability/ User Experience of web sites/applications [2] [20]. Moreover, researchers have identified that 85% of all online purchases start with a search on search engines and ascertained that Google is considered as the biggest dominate market share [21]. Therefore, Google plays an important role to make a web echo system healthier. In addition, Google can maintain usability standards by considering it as a part of the ranking algorithm.

In order to rank, both web sites A and B, there was a need to follow the SEO process. This SEO process contains certain ranking factors. If they followed then a website can be on the first page of Google. However, the Google algorithm plays a vital role in the understanding of “Ranking factors” of SEO.  Therefore, Usability (as a ranking factor) has a relation with SEO and it is an important Research Question. The main objective of this research is to investigate the relationship between SEO and usability. In order to know the Search engine ranking mechanism, qualitative research is conducted. This qualitative exploratory study adopted a grounded theory approach to investigate the relationship between SEO and Usability.

To investigate the relation of SEO and Usability, Google algorithm (2010 – 2012) of three years is studied and applied. For empirical evaluation, the websites that are Website I and II are picked for search engine optimization (SEO).  Moreover “Website-I” is designed and developed by not considering usability. It is termed as “Experimental Website A” whereas the “Website-II” is designed and developed in considering the usability, termed as “Experimental website B”. The date and duration of SEO activities performed on “Experimental Website A” were from time frame Oct 2011 to December 2011 and from time frame July 2012 to Nov 2012. These results were taken from the Search Engine Result Pages (Google). These results were organized and saved. Later on, the heuristic evaluation was performed on “Experimental Website A” from ten usability experts. The results were again organized and saved.

After then the “Experimental Website B” was designed and developed in considering all the usability issues of “Experimental Website A”. The date and duration of SEO activities performed on “Experimental Website B” was from time frame Jan 2013 to March 2013. The results were taken from the Search Engine Results Pages (Google). These results were organized and saved. Again, the heuristic evaluation was performed on “Experimental Website B” from ten usability experts. The results of both websites I and II were analyzed and compared in considering the quality and quantity of SEO activities performed on both websites.

Search Engines are considered to be useful in facilitating the retrieval of relevant information. However, search engines keep the search engine ranking algorithm highly confidential owing to the possibility of abuse and the second reason is to bring relevant results to the users. This becomes a major challenge for webmasters to bring ranking in less time with the usage of less resources.

Visser [3] firstly defined the relationship between SEO and Usability. However, literature defined that having an artificial intelligence prerequisite; leads us to believe that search engine optimization and website usability complement each other. Experiments indicated that the implementation of Search engine optimization elements is essential to improve rankings and the website usability attributes are essential for conversions (purchases). For future work, researchers argued that to create a search engine optimization and website usability model, in which the contradictory elements and attributes are to be empirically evaluated. During this phase, an overview of the usability and its inspection methods is also studied to know in what ways the usability of a website can be evaluated.