Navigating the SEO Maze: Deciphering the Meaning of 'Doing What's Best for Users'

Navigating the SEO Maze: Deciphering the Meaning of 'Doing What's Best for Users'

Exploring the clash between chasing algorithms and prioritizing user experience in SEO. Uncover the essence of SEO priorities in this thought-provoking read.

Ranking factors are no longer the main focus. Instead, the priority is on user satisfaction. Tweets from Danny Sullivan, Google's search liaison, ignited a discussion in the SEO community. The key takeaway is to prioritize users over Google.

A series of Tweets from Danny Sullivan

A series of Tweets from Danny Sullivan

Screenshot from X (Twitter), March 2024 (Image Credit: Kevin Indig)

There are two opposing camps when it comes to polarizing points, and SEO is no different.

One camp believes that Google has the ability to measure, understand, and reward user satisfaction. Their focus is on helping users reach their goals, believing in Google's intelligence.

Content optimization, tech SEO, and link building are considered crucial for success in SEO according to Camp Two. They believe that machines operate based on algorithms, and algorithms are based on equations. Interestingly, Google is often described as lazy and unintelligent.

However, there is a third camp that believes both perspectives are valid.



Image Credit: Lyna ™

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Red Pill/Blue Pill

In my experience, the simplest model of SEO involves technical optimization, content optimization, and backlinks to aim for the Top 10 search results. However, to reach the Top 3, strong user signals are essential, provided that user intent is met. This basic model aligns with my experience, but there are five key ways in which it doesn't fully reflect reality.

Google's systems may not be perfect as they don't always prioritize the highest quality content. Certain spam tactics can still be effective, and even mediocre content can still end up ranking well. Long-tail answers may not perform well either.

It was a clever idea to consider ranking Reddit results higher, but it's important to note that some of the answers found there may not always be reliable. SEO can be quite unpredictable, filled with uncertainties and dependent on the ever-changing algorithms.

User journeys are not always straightforward. Instead of focusing solely on the traditional sales funnel, a more effective model includes various factors such as intent, multiple touch points, and eventually a purchase.

Customers can be influenced to make a purchase in various ways, whether it's through recommendations from friends, social media, advertisements, or even by chance. For example, seeing a stylish shirt in a YouTube video may spark the desire to buy one immediately.

First, individuals begin their journey by exploring and evaluating options. They may Google articles about shirts, watch YouTube videos, and read reviews to gather information.

After going through this process, they eventually come across an offer that they are interested in and decide to make a purchase. This is when they visit and buy the shirt they were looking for.

With this purchase, the user journey is complete.

Measuring the impact of content becomes challenging due to nonlinearity. It is possible for a significant piece to receive high traffic but not result in conversions, making it hard to determine its revenue contribution.

Is Google being truthful about incorporating user signals into its ranking algorithm? This raises the question of whether the company is also dishonest about other aspects.

I have noticed that adding more "best practice" elements to a page often leads to a positive impact. One example is on X (Twitter), where elements such as author bios, publish dates, or table of contents were discussed. Whether Google's system actively seeks out and rewards these elements or users simply prefer them, they tend to have a positive impact.

My biggest challenge and concern is the subjectivity and lack of clarity in phrases like "helpful content," "good for users," or "user experience." What exactly do these phrases mean? If we take it to the extreme, one could argue that almost anything can be labeled as either good or bad for the user. It's just too subjective and oversimplified.

A better approach to navigating the confusing state of SEO is a mix of SEO, conversion rate optimization (CRO), and good ‘ol market research.

Never Send A Human To Do A Machine’s Job

CRO and SEO are connected at the hip and should have never been separate.

From here is how pros do conversion rate optimization:

In the past twenty years, SEO and CRO have developed separately. Despite the push to break down barriers within organizations and the trend of breaking down large applications into smaller parts, why are SEO and CRO still considered separate disciplines?

Both SEO and CRO begin with understanding user intent and aim to create a seamless experience for users.

Successful Conversion Rate Optimization rests on three core principles:

Understand user intent, motivation, and friction

Run experiments

Focus on business impact

Understanding the intentions and motivations of users is essential in coming up with original ideas instead of just copying from other sources like blog articles. By knowing what users want to achieve (such as making a purchase, evaluating options, seeking inspiration, or solving a problem) and what drives them (like price, features, value, or status), we can identify areas of friction and create unique solutions.

Combining Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) playbooks with market research provides a more accurate answer to the question of "what's best for users" compared to relying solely on traditional SEO strategies. This approach allows us to better understand and cater to the needs and preferences of our target audience, leading to more effective and successful outcomes.

Market research can illuminate underserved topics independently from search volume.

Hotjar and Mouseflow are valuable tools, but often the only ones in a belt that can hold a lot more.

Talking to users, either in real-time or asynchronously, needs to be a priority again. With the availability of asynchronous video tools and AI, it has become easier, quicker, and more efficient to gather insights from users. It may seem like a simple concept, but many of us are not taking advantage of these tools due to being stuck in outdated thinking patterns.

Our reliance on traditional methods can be likened to a powerful drug that keeps us complacent and unwilling to step out of our comfort zones to embrace new ways of doing things. However, by clinging to these old ways, we are also hindering our ability to adapt and evolve. It's a risky approach in today's fast-paced world.

Search volume is the best proxy for a market we have in marketing. But it’s as tricky as using productivity for economic growth.

From the inaccuracy and flaws of search volume:

In summary, search volume is:

Not available for many keywords, especially transactional keywords

Often inaccurate

Averaged over the year, which means that seasonality is not reflected at all

Backward looking

But selecting topics to create content for isn’t enough. We also need more user input for the essence of content.

Aggregators have a better understanding of this principle compared to integrators. This is because they focus more on the product, and SEO teams are usually part of the product organization.

On the other hand, integrators are less likely to gather qualitative user feedback or conduct expert interviews before creating content. The top integrator brands often have specialists within their team, and this expertise is evident in their work.

Tech SEO is crucial regardless of which side you're on. Google is cracking down on low-quality websites and generic content due to its own limitations. Simply prioritizing user experience is no longer sufficient.

Crawled pages vs. Organic traffic

Crawled pages vs. Organic traffic

Image Credit: Kevin Indig

This site had a technical issue that caused many pages to be indexed. Organic traffic immediately tanked.

Welcome To The Real World

We should make it clear that our systems are designed to follow people's preferences. Therefore, if you focus on pleasing people rather than the algorithm, you will stay ahead. One of my unconventional beliefs is that it is important to prioritize following the algorithm. In reality, it is crucial to be precise and on target.

It's important to keep adjusting to Google's algorithm changes regularly, as you may always be playing catch-up.

Being ahead is crucial because you never really know how far ahead you are compared to the algorithm, and when it might catch up with you.

Google rewards successful strategies. If staying ahead of the algorithm was recognized, individuals would adjust their methods accordingly.

The current environment appears to be ideal, perhaps even overdue, for integrating more Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) into Search Engine Optimization (SEO). However, it is important not to overlook the importance of ensuring that the algorithms are satisfied.

"You need to release everything, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Clear your mind."

Also, I will be a speaker at the Digital Olympus Summit in Eindhoven on May 31st. Let me know if you want a free ticket. I have two available, and they will be given on a first-come, first-served basis.



Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

Editor's P/S:

The article emphasizes the shift in SEO focus from ranking factors to user satisfaction. While some believe Google can accurately measure user satisfaction, others prioritize content optimization and link building, acknowledging Google's limitations. A third group combines both perspectives. The article explores the complexities of SEO, highlighting the importance of understanding user intent and optimizing content accordingly. It also discusses the role of conversion rate optimization (CRO) in enhancing user experiences and the need for market research. The article concludes that a balanced approach that addresses both algorithm requirements and user preferences is essential for SEO success..