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UX v SEO: Friends or Foes?

User experience (UX) design and search engine optimisation (SEO) have a sibling-like relationship: in years past, they may have conflicted, but as they’ve matured, they realise they have a lot in common.

Josh Smith

By Josh Smith & Shayna Burns, 16 October 20224 minute read

By definition, UX design is about creating experiences that support and delight users in achieving their end goals, while SEO is about creating content that appeals to search engine algorithms in order to increase visibility and traffic. What search engines look for might not always be the most optimal experience for users, and so tension can form between these two disciplines. 

At Luminary, we’ve found the greatest value-add lies in integrating these practices early and often. It’s why our Discovery engagements include both UX and SEO activities from week one as our standard offering. The reason? Maximising insights. 

So how do UX and SEO complement each other, how do they still contrast, and what do you do when the ideal strategy for users differs from what’s best for search engines?

How UX and SEO complement each other

They fill in each other’s knowledge gaps

  • UX research, such as user interviews, user testing and cardsorting, can uncover SEO-friendly page and content ideas not previously identified through SEO research alone. UX also helps better define target audiences and what they’re trying to achieve, so SEO can focus on attracting the right audiences.
  • Conversely, keyword research can help UX specialists understand popular search topics and terms, which can lead to feature improvement ideas and navigation menu label inspiration, as well as content gaps that can be tested and incorporated into the information architecture (IA).

They’re both focused on user intent 
When we know what the user is trying to achieve, both teams can align on creating an experience that makes it easier for users to complete their end goal.

It’s all about the user experience
Fast-loading, mobile-first content; logical content hierarchy and header tags; Core Web Vitals performance; and accessibility are examples of requirements for both search engines and UX.

Common ways UX and SEO may conflict with each other

Content consolidation (UX) v content expansion (SEO)
It’s not uncommon for SEO teams to recommend increasing the volume of pages or copy on a site to create relevant landing pages for search engines, while many UX projects find opportunities to consolidate content and add features and functionality.

Labelling for users (UX) v using keywords (SEO)
Keywords don’t always sit cleanly within the broader context of the page or navigation. What’s easy for a machine isn’t always easy for the user. This conflict often arises during cardsorting and labelling exercises. This is similar to our next point…

User-focused H1 tags (UX) v literal H1 tags (SEO)
Our teams regularly have conversations about how to best use the main heading of each page. Writing a user-focused heading that’s rich in brand tone of voice can help the page immediately stand out from the competition. On the other hand, having a heading that clearly explains what the page is about can be both simple to understand for users and helpful for keyword rankings. In this case, we often recommend deferring to the latter but adding a H2 underneath that’s more brand- and user-centric.

Offering a single-page experience with functionality (UX) v individual landing pages (SEO)
A good example of conflicting recommendations is having a single page with filters or multiple category pages targeted and optimised for their respective topics. The former can be great for UX because it means users don’t need to click around to find the content they’re looking for, but it also means search engines won’t find the page relevant enough for all the subtopics of the page.

What to do when UX and SEO have opposing strategies

Thankfully, most of the ways these two specialties contrast is quite tactical and can be resolved through considered conversation.

Communicate early and often
By sharing strategic ideas early, each team will have an opportunity to flag any implications a strategy may have for users and/or search engines.

Consider what’s best for users
Using SEO to drive visitors to your content is only great if they have a good experience once they arrive. If the UX doesn’t live up to their expectations, no SEO strategy in the world will get them to come back or convert.

Consider how people might find your new experience
Have the coolest UX idea? If people can’t find it, even the most optimal solution could be seen as a failure by stakeholders. You may be able to make a small adjustment to the strategy that will make a dramatic improvement to its findability.

Compromise, if possible, and make an informed decision
With egos parked and your ‘user hats’ on, there’s a good chance your team can come up with a variation of the strategy that appeals to both users and search engines. Treat it like a design challenge: What new opportunities/directions might we take? Either way, you’ll be making an informed business decision, aware of any potential shortcomings.

Key takeaways

  • All evidence is good evidence. Don’t discount the qualitative and quantitative data that can come from both UX and SEO research, and involve both early in the strategic process.
  • Don’t limit your opportunities by looking only in one place. Approach your research and problem solving creatively, collaboratively and with an open mind.
  • Use the moments when UX and SEO insights contrast as an opportunity to get creative and come up with something special.

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