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Testing & Evaluating Usability to Identify Technical SEO Issues

By Matthew Edgar · Last Updated: December 16, 2022

Technical SEO is about more than getting higher search rankings or driving more traffic from organic search results. Broadly speaking, technical SEO can help with those goals but technical SEO is also about making the website better for users.

The main questions technical SEO attempts to answer include: can people find the content they want to find? does the website load quickly? is it easy for people to use (especially on mobile devices)? can you prevent people from reaching errors?

All of those questions can help your SEO efforts, but they are ultimately about improving the usability of the website. Usability is the process of making it easier for the people visiting your website to use your website. Usability is concerned with efficiency and effectiveness; a usable website is one where people (users) can accomplish tasks effortlessly.

As a result, one of the best ways to identify technical SEO issues is by evaluating the website’s usability, either through testing or evaluations. During a usability test, you recruit participants to use your website while you monitor how they interact with the website. A usability test identifies where people struggle to interact with the website, including identifying areas of the website that confuse or frustrate people. This can include dead ends or other impediments people encounter.

Along with usability testing, usability issues (including the usability issues that most affect technical SEO) can also be identified with a heuristic evaluation. Heuristics are guidelines you can use to help identify potential problems on a website, like unhelpful error text or confusing links on the page.

The issues identified through testing and evaluation will also create issues for search engine robots as the robots crawl, index, and rank a website. Google is, in many respects, trying to emulate how humans use and think about websites as they make determinations about what websites to rank in search results.

In This Article

  • Usabilty Test Questions. To begin, this article will review the five most important questions to ask participants when conducting a usability test to help identify technical SEO issues.
  • Heuristic Evaluation. This article will review what that evaluation looks like and why it should be included in a technical SEO audit.

Usability Test: Questions to Identify Tech SEO Issues

Usability Testing 101

If you’ve never conducted usability tests of any kind before, Nielsen Norman Group has a great article introducing all aspects of conducting usability tests.

Running a usability test can seem like a big undertaking. However, a usability test doesn’t need to be perfectly executed to be useful. Even if your participants aren’t exactly representative of your target customer base or if you can only recruit a few people to participate, you can still get valuable insight into issues that exist on your website—the point isn’t to get a statistically significant evaluation but instead to generate ideas about what problems might exist that are holding back your SEO and website performance.

Question 1: Can you find a page about this topic?

During a usability test, you should ask lots of questions about content. Back in 2011, Google published questions you can ask about your website’s content to gauge quality and trustworthiness and all of these are great questions to ask during the usability test. From a technical perspective, the main question you want to address is if people can find key pages on your website. If people can’t find pages, Google probably can’t find pages either.

There are two ways to approach this question during a test. First, you can make it task-driven: please try to find a page about this topic on the website. After prompting a test participant with a task, you then watch their process for locating this page and track how long it takes people to find the page. Do participants use the navigation and locate the page in two or three clicks? Great, then the pages are probably pretty easy to locate. Do people give up looking for the link and use the internal site search instead? If so, that probably spells trouble for how easy it may be to find pages on your website. Do people go to Google and look for the page on your website? Well, then hopefully Google has already found the page in question.

The other approach is to let test participants tell you what topics they think the website discusses and indicate which pages belong to each of the various topics they have identified. With this approach, you can see if people correctly understand the content contained on the website. As well, you can gauge if people are selecting the right pages when evaluating topics contained on your website. If several participants ignore five important pages as they decide what topics your website covers, then you know those five important pages aren’t given sufficient priority within your website’s hierarchy and design.

Question 2: As you click through the website, what pages don’t seem to fit?

After people have clicked through a sufficient number of pages, the next content-related question to ask is what pages are out of place on the website. This question will help you identify any irrelevant pages—or at least pages that might seem irrelevant to an outside observer. If you agree with participants calling a page irrelevant, the action is simple: remove the page. If you don’t agree with participants calling the page irrelevant, well then, the action becomes quite a bit more challenging: rework the page so that it fits better within the website.

This question can also help you identify pages that are low-quality compared to the rest of the website. All the question asked is “what doesn’t fit” and, hopefully, low-quality content won’t look like it fits on your website. Related to this, you may also identify duplicate content here as well since, hopefully, multiple versions of the same page shouldn’t fit either. To more clearly address quality or duplication, though, you can rephrase this question as needed—even to the point of making the question about a specific section on your website.

Question 3: How fast does the website feel?

There are quantitative ways of measuring the website’s speed —and you should run those metrics. A usability test gives you a way to understand the qualitative side—how fast the website feels to the people participating in the test. The classic example is a website that “loads” after just one second, even though the bulk of the content takes two or three more seconds to appear—the quantitative metrics will make it seem like everything is perfectly fine, but the qualitative metric will show otherwise.

You may want to use the usability test as a way of evaluating different types of load indicators (like spinners or progress bars) to see if those indicators change people’s perceptions of the website’s speed. A load indicator on the entire website might seem frustrating, but a load indicator for a particular piece of content may make the website feel faster than it really is. Then again, a load indicator may reach a limit—after three or four seconds of watching a progress bar, a person trying to visit the website may simply choose to give up.

Along with noting the specific words participants say about the website’s speed, also note the participant’s body language and facial expressions. Do they seem frustrated by slow speeds? Do they seem impatient or annoyed? All of that helps makes the case for speeding up the website more than any quantitative report on speed ever could.

Question 4: How do you respond to this error?

During a usability test, I find it helpful to rig the website you are testing so that it can produce what appears to be an accidental error. Intermix a few broken links. Have a form set to fail. Break an image or two. Doing so gives you a chance to see how people respond when that error occurs and this gives you a way to test if your broken experiences are working properly.

First, you want to know if people can recover from that error or not—errors happen, but can a person easily and effortlessly return to a working part of the website? Second, you want to see how frustrated people get by the error—does this error worsen their opinion of the website/company, or is the error no big deal? And, finally, you can see how people recovered—what links or features on the error page did they use to get back to a working state?

Along with the errors you intended for people to “accidentally” encounter during the usability test, people may encounter an error you didn’t intend them to find. While hopefully, you can find those errors in other ways, a usability test is a helpful way to surface any lurking problems on your website. If these types of errors do surface, the same questions apply to understand how well the broken experience works.

While you are walking participants through the website, the participant might find a part of the website they think must be an error even though it isn’t. Don’t argue with the participant or try to explain otherwise. Instead, try to understand why a participant considers that to be an error and what they think they should do about it.

Question 5: What do you think of the website’s layout?

This question can be made more specific, such as applying it to a particular page or set of pages. Making this question more page-specific can help evaluate specific organic landing pages. Whether asked broadly about the website or specifically about a page, the idea behind this question is to determine what parts of the website’s layout are beneficial and which parts of the website’s layout are making it difficult to use the website.

On the positive side, people may call out features that make it easier to navigate through content, clear navigation, headers that clearly explain the topics covered, and so on. These are the elements you want to keep on the website and, presumably, if those elements are helping people use the website, those elements will help search engine robots too.

Of course, there could be a negative answer to this question as well—people might call out a weird layout shift, text that is too small, animation that makes it harder to read the page, an obtrusive ad, or something similar. Of those elements of the layout that are a problem, pay special attention to any that would also be flagged by Googlebot as part of their Page Experience guidelines, including Core Web Vitals, since those are a much higher priority to address.

Heuristic Evaluation

Along with talking to users directly, one of the common ways of evaluating a website’s usability is to perform a heuristic evaluation. During a heuristic evaluation, experts evaluate a website based on well-established and well-researched principles (or heuristics). Heuristics aren’t specific rules—you don’t necessarily need to follow what these heuristics say but generally, you increase your chances of success if you do follow these heuristics. That includes improving your chance of SEO success as many usability heuristics overlap with SEO. That said, there are many gray areas and room for exceptions. So, these act as guidelines as you decide how specifically to design, write, and structure your website.

These are also helpful to review as part of a technical SEO audit. Is the website structured in a way that works easily for humans visiting the website and robots crawling the website? There might be code making the page difficult to use or some pages might contain thin content, which could prevent the page from being indexed by search engines.

The question is what heuristics you evaluate a website against. There are many different best practices and principles listed on the web. But, the most popular list of usability heuristics comes from Jakob Nielsen. Some of Nielsen’s heuristics clearly apply to websites and SEO—like maintaining consistency, following standards, using the user’s language, avoiding errors, or making the website efficient to use.

Along with Nielsen’s heuristics, Ben Shneiderman has “8 Golden Rules Of Interface Design”. These mostly track with Nielsen’s heuristics. For instance, Shneiderman’s 8th golden rule, “Reduce short-term memory load,” tracks with Nielsen’s heuristic of favoring simpler and more efficient designs. The difference is a greater emphasis on short-term memory by Shneiderman. This serves as a good reminder that most people aren’t storing how to use your website in their long-term memory—typically people want to get in, do whatever they have to do with your website, and forget your website exists. This is true for robots as well; for optimal indexing and ranking performance, robots should be able to crawl a website quickly and effortlessly.

Another group of heuristics is Arnold Lund’s “Usability Maxims”. These are a bit wittier than other heuristic lists (my favorite, “Know thy user, and YOU are not thy user.”). Probably the biggest problem is at 34 items this becomes a bit hard to use a guide to evaluate a website—unlike 8 Rules or 10 Heuristics. Many of Lund’s maxims convey different aspects of the same concept. For example, Maxim 10 is “Keep It Simple,” and Maxim 24 is “Keep it neat. Keep it organized.” Both are unique concepts, but they get to the same basic idea that a usable website is simple and orderly (Nielsen and Shneiderman consolidate these concepts into one heuristic and rule). Like other heuristics, some of Lund’s Maxims apply a bit more to software and apps, but you can apply most to a website as well as to software.

I also wrote about heuristics in my book, Elements of a Successful Website. In the book, I condensed all the other heuristics out there into five main themes and discussed how those apply to websites instead of apps. If you are interested, you can purchase my book on Amazon.

Final Thoughts

Technical SEO overlaps heavily with usability. Talk to people about your website and use what you learn to fix problems and make your website just a bit better. Review usability heuristics and see where your website might fall short. Doing so will help your SEO performance (and your website’s overall performance as well). If you have questions or need help, please contact me.

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