Usability Impact On Search Engine Rankings

Written on
November 8, 2013
Jeremiah Smith
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There are a limited number of variables that search engines can take  into account directly, including keywords, links, and site structure.  However, through linking patterns, user engagement metrics and machine  learning, the engines make a considerable number of intuitions about a  given site. Usability and user experience are "second order" influences  on search engine ranking success. They provide an indirect, but  measurable benefit to a site's external popularity, which the engines  can then interpret as a signal of higher quality. This is often called  the "no one likes to link to a crummy site" phenomenon.

Engagement Metrics

When  a search engine delivers a page of results to you, they can measure  their success by observing how you engage with those results. If you hit  the first link, then immediately hit the "back" button to try the  second link, this indicates that you were not satisfied with the first  result. Since the beginning, search engines have sought the "long click"  - where users click a result without immediately returning to the  search page to try again. Taken in aggregate over millions and millions  of queries a day, the engines build up a good pool of data to judge the  quality of their results.

Machine Learning

In 2011 Google  introduced the Panda Update to its ranking algorithm, significantly  changing the way it judged websites for quality. Google started by using  human evaluators to manually rate thousands of sites, searching for  "low quality" content. Google then incorporated machine learning to  mimic the human evaluators. Once its computers could accurately predict  what the humans would judge as a low quality site, the algorithm was  introduced across millions of sites spanning the Internet. The end  result was a seismic shift which rearranged over 20% of all of Google's  search results. This caused a dramatic drop in rankings for sites that  have performed well in search for years simply because they had poor  usability in their site design.

Linking Patterns

The  engines discovered early on that the link structure of the web could  serve as a proxy for votes and popularity - higher quality sites and  information gained more links than their less useful, lower quality  peers. Today, link analysis algorithms have advanced considerably, but  these principles still hold true.

We expect the usability elements  of websites to continue to grow as an important ranking factor in  search engines as the web advances into a more user friendly medium.

Key Takeaways

  • Usability is a new and growing factor in search engine ranking algorithms
  • Improving  usability on a website has a twofold effect; an increase in search  engine traffic due to higher rankings, and an increase in conversions on  the website due to improved usability
  • Google monitors user activity on your site after they click through from search
  • Sites with better usability tend to acquire more inbound links

Simply effective marketing.