Search engine optimization (SEO), in the sense most people think about SEO, is becoming less about optimizing for the search engines and more about optimizing the user’s search experience.
It’s called “search experience optimization” or SXO.
SXO is not a new concept.
I’ve said that SEO boils down to creating quality content on a website that delivers a quality user experience. But this is nothing new. It has been a topic of discussion among SEO consultants since the early 2010s.
The issue is, how do you measure quality? Quality is subjective. What you think is “good” may not be good according to your users. Good content goes beyond just matching the user’s query. It needs to meet the user’s expectations, too.
And that goes beyond SEO.
SEO, in its purest sense, is optimizing your website for the search engines. Meaning, you make sure your website can be found, crawled, indexed, and used. In short, it meets Google’s guidelines to be included in its index.
SEO, in the marketing sense (the way most people think of it), is optimizing your content to increase your chances of having your website come up in search results. You do this by creating content around search terms and topics that matches the user’s query.
But how well does it match the user’s expectations?
That’s where SXO comes in.
Your website may be ranking well because you have good content. But it also has to be relevant and valuable to the user. And the more relevant and helpful it is, compared to all other alternatives, the higher you will rank. But high rankings don’t always translate into quality traffic.
The way to look at it is, give quality content and a quality user experience (in consuming that content), and you will attract quality traffic. But to get more quality traffic, you need to meet their expectations. And you need to do it better than all other alternatives.
This is where you need to think about how your users search. You need to understand your users, what they’re searching for, and how they search.
So good old market research, in other words.
From Google’s perspective, these things are determined by a number of different metrics, such as analyzing click behaviors. For example, clickthrough rates, dwell times, pogosticking, “next clicks” (when people bounce back to Google and choose a next listing), and a host of other metrics.
Matching search intent is the key.
Doing so will provide the best search experience to your user. The greater the match, the greater the signals. But it doesn’t end there.
A greater user experience affects search experience, too. If your content is top quality and, in essence, presumably satisfies the needs of the searcher, but the user bounces back because the site is unusable, unreadable, or unsafe, it will affect the search experience.
Therefore, the quantity (and quality) of your traffic will increase in proportion to the quality of your content and your user’s experience. Again, “quality” here is defined by how well it matches the user’s query and their expectations.
So how do you optimize the search experience?
First, look to match the search intent and the user’s level of awareness. Both are important. In other words, ensure your content responds to the kind of search they’re making and meets them at their current stage of awareness. (For more on this, visit my OATH formula on stages of awareness.)
In other words, your content may be educational and the user does an informational search on the topic you’re covering. But if your content is intended for a product-aware (hurting) audience when the user is unaware of the problem or the solution (oblivious or apathetic), they’ll leave.
Second, make sure the process of finding and consuming that content is smooth, unhindered, and easy. Usability is more than just having a “good” website. User experience (UX) is a major ranking factor and Google is paying more attention to signals than ever before.
In fact, UX signals (like page speed, mobile-centric design, HTTPS security, obtrusive interstitials, safe browsing, etc) are not only going to help SEO, but they will also affect SXO, too.
Google has introduced a new set of UX metrics called Core Web Vitals that you will need to be aware of. Google will soon be implementing a new algorithm called “Page Experience Update,” rolling out in May 2021, that will affect rankings and CTRs across the board.
Google will add warning labels to its search results telling users if the sites have a good or bad page experience.
As you can imagine, people seeing a not-so-good warning beside your link will avoid it or hesitate, even if it’s ranking well. So this will eventually affect CTRs, which in turn will affect traffic quality and rankings.
But it can also affect their perception of you.
Think of it another way.
If your website has a bad experience (or a bad experience warning), the traffic you will get may well be perfectly qualified for the content and even for your business. But the bad experience will make them think twice or create a “horn effect” (I call it the ketchup stain) that will impact their perception of you.
In other words, a poor search experience will create cognitive dissonance that will affect their perception that will pervade other areas, including the decision to buy or recommend you. Conversely, a site with a good warning will likely create a more favorable perception.
Here’s the best advice I’ve heard when it comes to SXO:
Aim to end the search.
Doing so takes into account that you have good content on a good website that matches the user’s intent and expectations.
But don’t just give the user no reason to go back to Google. Give the users a reason to stay, too, which will increase dwell times.
Optimize for the search experience, not just the search engines.