Usability Test for Technical SEO

February 09, 2021

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

The main questions technical SEO attempts to answer can be boiled down to things like: 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.

As a result, one of the best ways to identify technical SEO issues is through usability testing. During a usability test, you recruit participants to use your website while you watch. As you watch people using your website, where do they struggle? What confuses or frustrates people about your website? Where do they run into dead ends or other impediments? Chances are if people are confused, frustrated, or unable to use some aspect of the website, search engine robots will have issues moving through the website too. Keep in mind, Google is, in many respects, trying to emulate how humans use and think about websites as they make determinations about what to show in search results.

In this article, I am going to walk through the five or the more important questions to ask participants when conducting a usability test to help you identify technical SEO issues. Before getting into those questions, though, if you’ve never conducted usability tests of any kind before, it can field intimidating and overwhelming. Nielsen Norman Group has a great 101 article discussing all aspects of conducting usability tests. That article also includes references to many other articles, ranging from recruitment strategies to techniques you can use to improve how you talk with participants.

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. You should ask these types of questions 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 is 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 tables of contents 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 since those are a much higher priority to address.

Final Thoughts

Running a usability test can seem like a big undertaking and one you just don’t have the time or resources to take on. Remember, a usability test doesn’t need to perfectly executed to be useful.

Maybe your participants aren’t exactly representative of your target customer base—oh well, Googlebot isn’t an exact representation of your target customer base either.

Maybe you can only ask five people to use your website—the point isn’t to get a statistically significant evaluation but instead to start getting some ideas about what problems might exist and that is tremendously helpful, especially if you use the usability test results alongside other metrics.

Maybe you flub some questions during the test or forget to ask important questions—oh well, focus on the questions you did ask and run another usability test next month or next quarter.

Quit making excuses and quit feeling intimidated. Talk to people about your website and use what you learn to fix problems and make your website just a bit better. Doing so will help your SEO efforts (and your website’s UX and conversions too). If you have questions or need help, please contact me.

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