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Beyond the Ranking Factor – Why SEOs need to get serious about UX

All too often marketers seek to answer a user’s question instantly, when the aim should be to pique their curiosity and guide their journey through the funnel.

SEOs (and businesses in general) should be preparing for peak season year-round, so you should be preparing and testing your website for more than simply ranking factors.

As Google’s algorithm has evolved to reward (rather than punish) good User Experience (UX), SEOs have taken a growing interest in what happens beyond the first click.

“We use aggregated and anonymised interaction data to assess whether search results are relevant to queries” – Google, How Search Works

While it seems logical that Google now uses engagement (‘interaction data’) to determine what ranks where, there was a time when the search giant’s ability to determine relevant results was less sophisticated, with some ranking factors actively penalising websites practicing what we’d consider good UX.

The clearest example of this was hidden content. Prior to the mobile first index, which started its rollout in 2018, a webpage that displayed all text on a page would – with all else being equal – rank better than a page with text hidden behind tabs, even if an abundance of text was not the most effective way to communicate.

The arrival of the mobile first index brought other instructions that SEOs now take for granted - interstitials, obtrusive pop-ups, and an abundance of ad content above the fold are all terrible for both SEO and UX. The introduction of Core Web Vitals continued to see Google put a spotlight on UX – while speed has long been a ranking factor, cumulative layout shift (CLS) has also been thrust into the conversation.

Despite the average SEO’s new love for UX, the romance usually only goes as far as the ranking factor. This mindset would do a disservice to the clients we work with and the traffic we work so hard to win.

So how do we keep the user engaged beyond the first click?

Initially we need to understand what the golden journey is that we want to encourage our customers to take and clearly signpost it. Once we understand the best performing journey (based on your business outcomes) we can then look at reviewing, measuring, and improving the on-site experience and encourage the users to be sticky. Considerations include:

  1. Build upon our behavioural heuristics

95% of decisions we make or actions we take are instinctive, so we need to wire these ‘mental shortcuts’ into our digital experience using data. We can then build upon these data driven heuristics to start to add empathy within our experience and build brand loyalty by understanding the moments that matter to our customers.

  1. Content Hierarchy

Not only do you need to consider how the content on site is organised from an SEO perspective, but we also need to make sure that content is easily discoverable and consumed once a user has engaged with your experience. Whether this is by clearly navigating and signposting a user to the next best action, or simply ensuring that your taxonomy is clear so that your search is optimised on site.

  1. Context is Key

The context of the user is imperative to the success of your experience. It is therefore important to consider the device that the user is visiting on and how the content is being consumed, for example are they viewing this on their mobile whilst commuting. In addition, we need to ensure that the content that appears on site answers your customers need statement and encourages the onward flow of their journey. We have identified that 22% of European online adults expect to be able to interact with companies via a virtual assistant, while 32% of UK online adults think it’s imperative that brands offer live chat to be able to resolve questions instantly.

  1. Accessibility

Don’t just design for the majority, but establish that your experiences are accessible for all and accessibility in your design and testing process. This will not only ensure that you comply with many regulations, but it will also guarantee that you are providing a consistent and great experience for all audiences.

  1. Speed

You have one second to engage with a customer once they hit your website. Yes, speed is a ranking factor for SEO, but it isn’t just about ensuring that the initial page loads in time, it also means that you are quickly guiding customers on their onward journey by anticipating and answering their next need. If a customer visits a landing page, make sure that the content answers their search intent and ensure that you have a clear CTA above the fold, guiding them on their way.

By breaking down silos between UX and SEO teams, it becomes easier to both spot these opportunities and develop the solutions that support the growth of seamless experiences from search to conversion.


[1] Thinking, Fast and Slow: Daniel Kahneman

[2] Mintel – Online Retaining Report 2021


To discuss how Merkle can support you in optimising the experience beyond search, reach out to our SEO and digital experience teams to discuss

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