Another article has appeared on the topic of SEO and Usability and how these two different skill sets benefit each other. The latest, Usability and SEO. Which comes First?, written for Search Engine Watch by Eric Enge, caught my eye because he wrote:

"What I want to emphasize here is one key point: Usability comes first, and SEO comes second."

It's funny to hear that statement coming from a professional SEO.

In the late 1990's, when I offered search engine optimization services, I didn't get the call for help until the web site was launched and swimming for dear life in the pool of search engine results. In those days, there were lots of search engines yet SEO came last. It came after the design and after the people who were intended to use it..if they ever found it, that is.

During the past ten years there's been a drastic improvement in the amount of companies who accept the need to work search engine marketing techniques into their web sites. User centered, persuasive design on the other hand, are still just whispers in the wind. Will it take another ten years for usability and accessibility to be as justified a expense as marketing is for a web site property?

What opened my eyes was working in user interface design and discovering that usability came last, even AFTER SEO. It was always a pleasant surprise to hear someone on the design team inquire about image alt attributes or fuss over page title tags. Unfortunately, I realized they only knew these things mattered because some of them owned their own personal web sites. It wasn't something the company demanded for itself, they were just lucky enough to land web site designers that had their acts together.

User centered design still gets shoved around. As it makes its way into the world of search engine marketing, the experience reminds me of the game "Red Light, Green Light". The caller yells, "Green light!" and everybody runs forward with confidence trying to get to the finish line first. Then the caller shouts, "Red light!" and suddenly everyone stops. They have to hold their position. They can't breathe or giggle as they wait for their next instruction.

Corporate Blinders

I was recently part of a conversation where a man was describing his company's future plans. They currently sell products online locally and are now moving into a neighboring country. After this they plan on going global.

As he describes it, they have no usability person in the entire company. They have search engine marketers. But they have no idea how to sell online internationally. They don't understand what browsers are popular outside the USA. They don't know how to make forms usable for global customers. User behavior and habits vary by culture, even down to how web pages are read. They assume their present website will work everywhere. I see this constantly and wonder how some corporations survive with such tunnel vision.

Usability is misunderstood and therefore not even considered a worthwhile investment until sales stop, or worse a lawsuit appears by someone unable to use the site.

It's Not Who Goes First

Whenever I see phrases like "Usability is first, SEO is second" or "SEO is first, usability is second", or "SEO doesn't need usability", I lament the air of competition these sentiments set up.

Both disciplines are vital to the success of your web site. They are equal partners in the road to success.

Usability, accessibility and search engine marketing practices are united partners because they're focused on the web site visitor. We can all walk up to these customers and shake their hand together.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

September 10, 2007

Kimberly Krause Berg is the owner of, and co-founder of Cre8asite Webmaster Resources Directory.

Kim's career began in 1996 as the Webmaster for an Internet magazine publishing company. Later, while working for "dotcoms", she built websites, incorporated search engine optimization and performed Internet software application usability/user interface testing. For years she freelanced on the side by performing search engine optimization services via Now a self-employed usability/SEO consultant, this mother of 2 is an advocate for home and small businesses. She specializes in what she calls the "marriage between search engine optimization and usability" and to that end offers Cre8pc and Cre8asiteForums as teaching sites.

Search Engine Guide > Kimberly Krause Berg > Usability and SEO - Red Light, Green Light