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The website usability balancing act

As Google and other search engines become ever more aggressive, SEO experts are responding in kind, finding new ways to maximize search engine results. In the latest round of developments, Google’s Matt Cutts posted on his blog that the company’s algorithm will no longer allow page rank credit to simply flow past NoFollow links. In the past you could use NoFollow links to help shape page ranking. The search engine would ignore the link and not penalize you for asking it to bypass that page. No longer.

The response in the SEO community has been to tell web designers to modify the links used on each page in your site, often to extremes. For example, Scott Smigler says we should remove site-wide navigation on sections like product listings.

This is where I get upset.

Web site design is first and foremost about usability. If people get frustrated with navigation and their ability to quickly get to the information they want, all the SEO tweaking in the world won’t help your site.

Navigation is a very sensitive issue. You can’t remove site-wide navigation from any page on your site, regardless of how important you think that might be for search engine optimization. This navigation acts as a road map, guiding people through the site. It must be consistent at all times. There is no other option! Studies since the web began have pointed out the importance of consistent site-wide navigation in user satisfaction. Even as people have become more familiar with the web and have taken some things for granted, this dependence on consistent navigation has, if anything, become even more critical. Competitor’s web sites are just a mouse click away. You can’t afford to frustrate or annoy your visitors.

To be fair to Scott, whom I respect, he does say that it might not work. I’ll go further than that and say this solution can’t work. It’s so bad that it has no place on the list.

I’ve encountered this kind of aggressive off-the-hip tactic before, and it was ugly. When a Google loophole allowed page ranking to be increased by using keywords in image file names as well as “alt” tags, an SEO consulting firm talked one of my clients into letting them optimize the website. The result was an unholy mess, in which every image file name and “alt” tag became a long, cryptic flow of keywords. Not only was it unmanageable from a web design standpoint, but it was unusable for visually impaired people. As they would mouse around any page on the 1100-page site using the aural navigation tools, they would hear long nonsense sequences of hyphenated words that made no sense at all. Changing this later took dozens of hours of unnecessary work.

Allowing an SEO tactic like this to be employed at the expense of navigation reality is no different from people who ignore other realities of marketing communication. I recall one young art director showing me a brochure he had created. He was sure it would win awards, because it was so “creative.” Unfortunately, it ignored the realities of usability. The entire brochure was printed with nothing more than high gloss varnish on a solid black background. To read any of the copy, you had to hold the pages just so in the light, moving the paper so that each new line would catch the light. I asked him, “How many prospective customers do you think will take the time and effort to read this?” He hadn’t thought about it that way.

SEO is a science, and deserves respect from the marketing community. At the same time, we need to be careful to understand that online communication is a symbiotic relationship between a number of expert elements. SEO is only one of them. Another element is usability and navigation. Equally important are graphic design and the science of eye flow. Still another is copywriting. We should never take any one of those elements by itself and place it on a pedestal, looking down on all the others. You can’t sacrifice any one of them and still have an effective end result.

Problems exist in SEO and we’ll have more of them down the road. It’s nasty out there, with unscrupulous players making things more challenging for everyone else as the search engines try to maintain order. But sudden, extreme solutions cause more harm than good. Clients will hear about them and make demands that end up being unreasonable and unworkable. Let’s have clear, meaningful dialog with all the parties to make sure that we build truly successful web sites for our clients.

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George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

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