With all that has changed in search engine optimization over the years, there is one thing that remains constant. Useful websites outperform useless websites over the long haul, from both a ranking and a profit perspective.
When people find your website, what do they do? Do most of them “bounce” by hitting the back button? Or do they stay on the site for a while and read an average of, say, six pages per visit? If you can’t answer these questions, you cannot properly optimize your website for rankings and sales. Why? Because usage data, as it’s known, is becoming more and more important in search engine algorithms.
An Obvious Point
Before we continue talking about search engine optimization, let me get one glaringly obvious point out of the way. Usage data is most important because it tells you how well people can use your website, and how useful they find it. Of course, it also tells you how well your visitors are converting (subscribing, downloading, purchasing, whatever), and these are the most important factors of all. But this is an SEO article, so let’s talk about the impact of usage data on your search engine rankings.
Search Engine Evolution
Search engine companies make most of their money from advertising (sponsored search / pay-per-click). The more people using their search engines, the more money they can make from advertising revenues. In order to retain their user base (and, ideally, to grow that base), the search engine companies have to protect the quality and relevance of their search listings. You don’t have to be a genius to connect those dots.
Protecting the Quality of Search Results
How do search engines ensure the quality and relevance of their listings? By continuously developing technology that rewards popular websites. But many in the SEO industry have figured out how to trick the search engine algorithms by making their websites appear larger and more popular than they really are. Call it “black hat SEO” if you want — labels are beside the point.
The bottom line is that search engines are always trying to weed out the manipulative websites and reward the truly useful, popular websites — websites, for example, that attract inbound links based on usefulness, not by renting and buying the majority of their links. Link building has become big business, and the more the link-building industry grows, the harder it will be for search engines to count link popularity as the number-one factor of website relevance and popularity. So they use many ranking factors. One of the factors seemingly on the rise (especially with Google) is usage data.
What Is Usage Data?
As the label implies, usage data is information that shows how people are using your website. When people find your website through a search engine, that search engine can track the visitor long enough to find out how they respond to your website (until the visitor closes the browser or deletes their cookie files). So, for example, if 90% of the people who find a website through search engines hit the back button upon reaching the home page, then the usage data suggests a low-quality website. Maybe it’s a link farm, or maybe it has poor usability. Whatever the reason, search-driven visitors are leaving the website in droves, and the search engine can track this behavior.
On the contrary, if 90% of the people who find a website through the search engines go on to read several pages, actually spending time on the site, then the usage data suggests a quality website (and a good match with the person’s search query).
How Important is Usage Data?
Search engine optimization “ gurus ” will argue all day about the current and future importance of usage data. Let them argue, I say. One thing is obvious. If you’re a search engine company, and you have data that suggests the quality and relevance of a website as viewed by your users (people using search engines), you’d be a fool not to use that data to improve your ranking algorithm.
Let’s remember the business model here. Better, more relevant search results help the search engine company grow its user base. A larger user base allows them to sell more advertising and at a better price. More advertising revenue helps the search engine company survive and thrive in a highly competitive industry.
Still One Factor of Many
It’s also important to note that usage data is still one of many factors the search engines use to determine website rankings. You still need a well structured website; you still need plenty of relevant, original content; and you still need strong link popularity. But usage data plays a role too, and I predict that role will only expand in the coming years.
Killing Two Birds…
When you improve your website’s usage data, you are killing two birds with one stone. You are helping your search engine / SEO cause, but you are also making your website more successful in general. That’s because positive usage data suggests a useful website, the kind of website that people come back to and recommend to others. And that’s a fundamental requirement in the success of any website.
So how do you improve your website in this regard? Here are some tips.
1. Overall usability – The easier your website is for people to use, the more likely they will be to actually use it. All other things being equal, this means they will navigate more easily and read more content (than a website with poor usability). Your conversion rates will also be higher if you improve usability, so this is a double-benefit.
2. Home page usability – Overall website usability is important, but home page usability is absolutely critical. There are two primary reasons for this. First of all, the majority of people who find your website through search engines will enter through the home page (unless you have sub-directories with unique topics). So you should work extra hard to make sure your home page is enticing, inviting and easy to understand. Secondly, people who enter your site through an internal page will often go to the home page to find their way around. It’s the equivalent of a “You are here” poster in a shopping mall. If people can’t figure out your home page, they can’t figure out your website.
3. Home page enticement – In the last point, I briefly mentioned the enticement factor. Even if you have pages and pages of useful, interesting content, you have to lure people in to read it. This will reduce the number of people who “bounce” elsewhere upon reaching your home page, and it will also increase your conversion rates and general website success. Determine your website’s primary benefit to visitors, and make sure that benefit is crystal clear on the home page.
4. Quality of content – I always get a good laugh out of SEO “experts” who say that content doesn’t matter, that only links matter. These people are shortsighted to the point of being harmless, so I usually let them think what they want. Linking may increase a website’s search engine ranking, but without quality content your search-driven traffic will bail out on you. Goodbye visitors. Goodbye conversions. Goodbye profit. And goodbye usage data!
5. Organization of content – Organization is a sub-theme of usability, which we talked about above. All other things being equal, good organization will separate a successful website from a flop. But it also takes some effort. I always say that “it’s damn hard to make a website easy,” but you have to do it. You have to draw your little sketches and reason things out in order to create a website that makes sense to people. There should be a place for everything, and everything should be in its place.
6. Interlinking for stickiness – If you have plenty of quality content on your site (and lots of pages as a result), interlinking can help you increase your website’s “stickiness.” In this context, interlinking is linking between various pages on your website. If you’re writing a page about purple widgets, and that page mentions orange widgets as well, make it a hyperlink to the page on orange widgets. WebMD.com and About.com both do this well.
Despite the endless arguments in SEO circles, usage data matters. It matters for search engine ranking and will continue to evolve in this role. But more importantly, it matters to you because it’s a direct measurement of how people are using your website, which relates to your website’s success in general.
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