SEO vs Usability – Can Hotel SEO Go Too Far?

Regular battles in the office over how SEO should be implemented, here's a great piece from Doug McKenzie on the merits of SEO vs. good usability


Doug McKenzie
Web Developer

First off, I need to state that I’m a big believer in SEO. However, recent requests have made me relook at SEO, how it’s implemented and think about best practice techniques. Bear with me on this, it’s going to be long one!

So what are these recent requests that have made me pause for thought? Re-order the site structure of an entire site to get higher value keywords nearer to the left of the url.

To give an example: 


Now you have a url that is more optimized for people looking for lighting for clubs But this site also sells other products, for other industries and its structure (and navigation) may look something like this…









Now if we use the reverse naming proposed for SEO optimization, we get a site naming structure like this…










Now I know there’s ways of doing this – a mod_rewrite for example might look something like this:

RewriteRule ^/([^/]+)/([^/]+) /$t2/$t1  //untested so treat with caution!

There’s also the very real possibilities for things to go wrong with cross-linking and content updating as well as confusion creating a site structure that doesn’t match it’s navigation structure.

Also, what happens when search engines algorithms get fed up of this keyword stacking and just assign equal weight to words in a url? Overall, there is something about this approach that just makes me uneasy. You may have heard of white hat and black hat SEO – this approach, whilst white hat, is still swiftly fading into gray areas and made me think harder about SEO.

The Origins of SEO

We all know (hopefully) what SEO is, but where did it come from? It certainly wasn’t there when I first started programming web pages (but then again neither is alta vista (I tell a lie, it is still knocking around!)).

So how did SEO come about? I would suggest that it descended from 3 main tenants of a web page build:

  1. Semantic Markup
  2. Usability
  3. Accessibility

Semantic Markup

Simply the practice of using the correct HTML tags for content. The main title of a page being an <h1> tag rather than a styled <span> for example.


Whilst this phrase means a whole lot more – for the purpose of this discussion it rolls along merrily with semantic markup: having a correctly structured page – 1 h1, with h2s under that and h3s breaking up content within them etc


Takes the above ideas further by requiring of a web page the ability for it to display its content regardless of the device viewing it. Screenreaders for example use the heading tags and list tags as a way of navigating around a pages content. This is where the practices in semantic markup and content usability actually have significant impacts on how some users can use the page.

So how did this evolve into SEO? Probably from 1 chap looking at his log files and realizing that using a particular word in his h1 tag gave him a higher ranking in search engines that the previous word he had been using for certain search terms and this resulted in more visitors to his site.

I’m now going to make a very bold statement which I’m sure (and I’m kinda hoping) will provoke debate:

SEO is the art of tricking search engines

See, I even typed it in bold!

Whether you’re black hat or white hat, the ultimate goal of SEO is to appear at the top of the results lists for words and phrases you want your site to be associated with. Increasingly this has meant pages and copy being written not for the humans reading them, but for the search engines scanning them. Whilst I’m a huge believer in Findability, it’s well worth taking into account that every time you make a change to copy to appeal to search engines, you also may be making it less appealing to humans.

And this is where things get interesting…

Let me know when a search engine buys something from you!

At the end of the day, it is the human user who will be making the decision to interact with your site. To borrow from this article by Nick Stamoulis.

Would you click on this link?

Bad SEO example

Have a look for yourself and see which results appeal to you and which you would click on (but be sure to come back and read the rest of this after!). Search Google

Now you more than likely had an emotional response to the results, some attracting you and some repelling you (and if you didn’t feel anything and a cruise in the Bahamas holds no appeal, I’m a little worried for you…). The point is, the SEO keywords of the page probably aren’t what’s compelling you to click certain links above others on the page (at least they weren’t for me).

This is where the human factor comes in and SEO is no help with that, it may actually be a hindrance if it’s making your copy human unfriendly.

So let’s look at what exactly SEO is doing for you…

As I argue above, SEO is the art of tricking search engines in presenting your page in response to a persons search term.

But is it? Actually it’s not, according to the latest research I read – it breaks down along these lines:

  1. SEO (20%)
  2. Page Rank (30%) – the value of links coming into that page / site
  3. Fresh Content (50%)

Sorry, can’t find the link to this info presently – here’s an alternative presentation of how Google ranks pages.

So SEO is not the sole driving factor that makes your page appear on the front page of search engines. Page Rank, fresh content and age of site and content also play a major role.

Now I’m not knocking SEO. Keyword analysis is important to increase findability. After all, your page on Bahamas Cruises would never show up if it didn’t contain those words (unless you had a load of heavy weight sites linking to it using the term I guess). However, SEO isn’t the only reason your site is getting shown on the first page and it’s almost certainly not why people click the link.

It’s not all about SEO anyway!

SEO helps you get up the search results listings. But it doesn’t encourage someone to comment on your content and interact with you. It doesn’t prompt people to tweet about it or Like It on Facebook. It doesn’t make people think “Oh hey, Bob would love this, lets send him a link”.

SEO is designed for search engines, not for humans. However its humans that will decide whether they click on your link in the results and then ultimately buy into whatever you’re offering on your site. And humans are not, despite evidence to the contrary, generally stupid. They have a bullshit detector and will shy away from obviously SEO’d pages.

I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone who has a made a case study on the effect of SEO, human-friendly copy and ROI. Just speaking personally, the sites I visit and go back to are the ones that talk to me as a human being – I trust them more. This also impacts upon the brand as a whole. And I’m willing to bet that it impacts ROI as well. Would you rather have 1000 people who see your site which result in 100 clicking through and 10 purchasing or would you have 100 people see the link, 50 click through and still 10 purchase.

I’m using these as wild made up figures but they’re there to show that the same result can be achieved but the trust and loyalty to your brand is far higher in those 100 than it is with the 1000 who came through SEO.

So what are the options?

SEO is a valid tool but be careful of going crazy with it when there’s arguably other methods that may serve you better in the long term.

As I’ve mentioned previously – content is king . Search engines seem to think so too – ranking new fresh content highly. Now that can be SEO’d content but still should be written for humans. Because if you do that, they’re more likely to link to it, share it, tweet it and like it which *drumroll* increases Page Rank. What d’ya know – you’ve just hit 80% of the factors that make a page appear on search results without even touching SEO.

Give it that fine polish of keyword analysis and placement to help increase findability and you’ve hit 100%.

So to sum up my thoughts on SEO


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