Designing for search is not designing for experience

Kieron McCann, strategy director at Wunderman Thompson Technology, explains how businesses can rank high and perform well on Google search.

Someone using the Google search engine on a laptop.

When you boil the world of digital down, it’s largely comprised of two main jobs.

First, there’s all the work you need to do to ensure your product or service is easily found, achieved through paid media and search optimisation. Second, there’s all the work required to ensure people have a rewarding experience so that not only will they make a purchase, but they’ll also come back again later. That sounds pretty straightforward, so all we need to do is make sure we do a bit of both and everything will be fine, right? Unfortunately, for most businesses, the answer is no. Search and experience are becoming so sophisticated that it’s becoming more and more difficult to combine both approaches at the same time.

The difference between search and experience

If you consistently want to appear at the top of search rankings, you need to optimise absolutely everything to that single end. This means doing everything to minimise page load speed, constantly updating keywords, constantly refreshing content, maximising relevance, ensuring your pages are compatible with Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), optimising your media spend, as well as a number of other highly specialised approaches to boost rankings.

When it comes to experiences however, many of the things you need to do to optimise search ranking are the opposite of what makes for a good experience. Rich, personalised experiences often take longer to load due to the need for larger, heavier weight imagery, or the need to do back-end processing to assemble the right experience, personalised for each visitor You might even design completely different UX for different segments, dynamically changing them as needed.

You could equate search to building a high performance F1 car, while experience can be likened to building a highly customised limousine. Both serve different purposes and attempting to combine both together means you’ll end up with something that excels at neither.

But isn’t experience part of the algorithm?

Already I hear you thinking “Ahh, but what about the engagement metrics that increasingly feature in the Google search algorithm? They account for experience, don’t they?”. While it’s true that engagement metrics such as page dwell time, interactions, social shares and return visits do reinforce your search rank, they currently appear to have less impact than performance. A really excellent page that loads slowly will almost certainly rank lower than a high performing average page. And that’s perfectly reasonable – in our own research into Experiences Customers Want, respondents made it clear that many companies still need to do more to improve basics such as page performance.

There’s a more important factor to consider, however. As sophisticated as the Google search algorithm is, it simply cannot fully account for the quality of an online experience in human terms. Designing for a single search engine is not the same as designing for humans. Good experiences have an emotional dimension and are typically experienced across the entire journey, across both digital and non-digital channels, and that’s something Google can’t really measure.

Excelling at search or experience is about culture as much as technology

One company that I work with is a master of search optimisation. Across the dozens of product categories they consistently place first or second in Google search rank. To achieve this, they employ a large team to constantly optimise content and spend seven figure sums on keyword data, search and content production. Even then, despite having more than 1,200 pages on their site, approximately 80% of their traffic is accounted for by just 40 pages.

Maintaining search rank is not a casual undertaking, it takes a singular focus. This focus on search is totally ingrained in their culture. Everything they do day to day is focused on search rank and everyone knows the value (or cost) of not being number one.

Experience requires a different culture altogether. While the skills required may be similar, the ways of thinking are not. In recent years, digital experiences have become exponentially more complex. While the number of channels has proliferated, personalisation has compounded the challenge by requiring far more content to target ever more finely segmented audiences. Many companies incorrectly assume that better experiences are just a function of better content production. It’s much more than that. You also need cutting edge technology, very high-quality customer data and insight, sophisticated real time analysis, complex logic to target content and offers and to undertake next best action recommendations and very efficient business processes to orchestrate it all. It also requires a commitment of people to be thinking about how experiences can constantly be made better.

Focusing on purpose

So what is the best course of action? Is it just to be really good at one at the expense of the other? As always, it depends on your business model. However, while focusing on search exclusively at the expense of experience might pay dividends in the short term, it has limitations in the longer term. When you are ranked number one, the only way is down.

Search centric strategies also typically mean you end up paying to acquire every single customer, even repeat customers, there’s little focus on building loyalty. Also, the maturing of the search market means that there are limits on the growth that search can deliver. At some stage you will need to become good at both. You’ll need to apply the necessary skills and culture to both.

But wait, didn’t I just say that you can’t combine an F1 car with a Limo? Indeed, I did. The answer is that if you want to perform well in both search and experience, you’ll need to think about building a garage with one of each. That means being clear about the purpose of your pages and taking the right approach for each. As with my client example above, a small number of pages can be optimised to drive a significant amount of traffic, while the rest can be optimised for experience, engagement and retention.

The skill lies in ensuring the right handoff between the two and committing to being at the top of your game in both approaches. It means paying attention to not only content, but also to data, logic, and the businesses processes that govern how your site is architected, the tools you use and how pages are coded, authored and published. It also means building the culture of relentless improvement of both disciplines. It means knowing how to drive the race car as well as the limo.

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