Every day we get businesses coming to us looking to improve their search engine rankings. They want to talk about an SEO campaign but one quick look at their site and we see that SEO may not be the right approach for them. Usually in these cases the site needs a complete usability makeover.

These businesses, however don't want to discuss website architecture, visitor usability, or even making their site search engine friendly. They want rankings and want them now.

I understand their standpoint. These are small businesses looking to purchase a service that will get them near instant visibility and exposure. "We'll take care of the rest," is what they often imply. But therein lies the problem. SEO and SEM without good usability is like inviting people out to eat at a rat and roach infested restaurant. You may bring people in, but you won't make them happy.

A real-world usability analogy

Lets take this restaurant analogy and extend it out a bit. Lets say that you own the restaurant. You start spending money on advertising and see more and more people trickling into the restaurant each night. But you notice something peculiar. Some who come through the doors turn right around and leave. Others come and eat, but you never seem them come back a second time.

You start running the numbers and find that each night about 300 people are coming through your doors but only 5% stay and eat. You're selling about fifteen meals a night. You realize you have a problem. And the solution is... more advertising.

You know it's the rats and roaches that are turning people away but you feel that if you just increase your advertising you'll be able to sell more meals. It works. Each night more and more people come to your restaurant. Few stay but many more leave before they even taste your delicious cooking. Yet you are selling more meals so that's a good thing.

You figure if you boost your advertising even more you can increase your traffic to 600 a night and serve 30 dinners. Again, if you do even more marketing and bring in 1200 a night then you can serve 60 dinners. That's some solid growth goals, you think.

A friend suggests that instead of advertising you fix your roach problem. So you run the numbers for that and come back disappointed. Fixing the problem will expend a full year's worth of your advertising budget. And if you stop advertising you know you'll lose well over 90% off your nightly traffic, which means that only 15 people will be coming through the doors each night. If you were to maintain your 95% exit ratio then you'll only end up serving one, maybe two meals a night instead of 15. And even if you were to serve 100% of those that came through your door, there won't be any growth because there is no new advertising to bring people in.

By all appearances fixing your rat and roach problem is going to cost much more than you'll gain. You'll lose 12 meals a night and at best maintain without the potential of growing for a full year. You conclude that it doesn't make sense to stop advertising or to fix the roach and rat problem so you decide to continue doing what you're doing. After all the advertising is bringing in the people, and you are selling a few more dinners each night than the night before.

Usability works exponentially

What you don't realize is that usability works exponentially. Let's say you, as the restaurant owner, spend your yearly advertising budget and fix your roach and rat problem. A week later your restaurant is squeaky clean. Now what?

Since you're not advertising you find things worse than expected; only a handful of people are coming through the door, much less than you had hoped. But you notice something else, of the five or ten people that come through each night, all but one or two stay and order a meal. That's new.

Your foot traffic has dropped much more than you anticipated but the number of meals you are serving each night has stayed pretty strong. You're serving fewer meals than before but more than you had initially calculated. Of course, that’s still a net loss for you.

But the next night you get a few more coming in and again 90% of them stay instead of flee. As you talk to your customers you find that, for the first time, your place was recommended by someone who came the night before. The following week you notice customers from the previous week are returning. That's never happened before. And each night you talk to people who are coming in based on the recommendation of someone else.

Before you know it you're bringing in 30 people a night through referrals and repeat business and are serving at least 25 meals. That's what you were serving while advertising heavily. A year later you find that with very little or no advertising you're doing significantly better than before and almost as well as you had projected had you kept your money invested in new advertising.

With a new year you have an advertising budget again but you realize that you won't have to spend near as much as before in order to increase your business. Your advertising dollars go a lot further now because you don't have to bring in a whole lot more traffic just to get a few sales. Now, your sales growth is much more in line with your traffic growth. You decide then that you can take the excess advertising dollars and re-invest it in better equipment, more cooks and perhaps even a larger space that will seat more people.

Making usability work for you

So I'm sure that by now you can see where I'm going with this. While search engine marketing is important, sometimes your advertising dollars are better spent making your website more user friendly. Usability issues can kill website business. But most people just focus on getting more people or traffic to the store because they rationalize that this is how they sell more.

By fixing usability issues you can sell more while without having to spend a lot of money always trying to bring in a lot of new traffic. A little goes a long way. Once you are able to increase your conversion rates, every dollar you spend on marketing and SEO will be more effective and have a much bigger impact on your profit margins.

So, when is usability more important than SEO? Almost always.

January 23, 2008

Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.


This is an excellent article, possibly one of the best I have read for the business I seek. I will be posting a link to this page tonight.

SEO is complicated and foreign to many businesses. Usability of their website is never thought of. The idea that someone would enter their web sites and immediately leave has not been thought of as many small business web sites do not have tracking. Many small businesses have a long way to go, but at least now I see an interest and many are making up the slack they have lived with for so long.

As an SEO-sympathetic usability guy, let me just say: Amen, brother :)

I think it's especially true for PPC, where clients are paying directly for traffic. I've been amazed how many companies I've encountered that are throwing thousands/month at the AdWords slot-machine but balk at the idea of evaluating their campaigns or spending $500/month to fix them (and save $1000).

One of the best articles I've read on the topic. Excellent analogy.

I’m all for getting the exterminators in.

As you rightly pointed out Stoney, a quick fix of some usability issues will result in positive conversions down the track.

Some people just prefer roaches I guess.

Thanks for this useful information

Excellent analogy! Great article.

It pretty much sums up my stand on SEO, SEM and Websites in general. It's the conversion rates that count most of all. It's far easier to work on bumping up conversion rates from 2% to 4% than it is to double your total traffic.

Not to say that you shouldn't advertise... but if you've already done that, then it's the next step - convert!

That is one of the most honest things I read. Someone has to be comfortable with the site before staying there.


I've found that good useability practices are inherently linked with SEO anyway. Usually it's impossible to do one without doing some of the other.

In fact everything about web development and marketing is inextricably linked.

But don't get me started that's a whole 'nother long story.

Hi there-

Stoney, I still think SEO professionals and people in general still don't get that SEO is a subset of Web site usability. They are not separate issues. They are actually the same issue.

Somehow, SEO (in some circles) has come to mean designing for machines or software only, even though ultimately it is human beings who use those machines and software.

It's been an HCI (human/computer interface) issue for ages: people designing computer interfaces that are confusing to end users.

I think many people do not understand usability, particularly those in the SEO industry, computer sciences, and Web design/development. There is only one SEO blog where I read information about usability because the moderator IS a usability professional. The others? Usability parrots. It is really easy to quote Jakob Nielsen and Jared Spool to support your beliefs. It is another to validate their findings through your own scientific analyses. People who are usability professionals actually usability test. A lot of them (like me) continually get education and training in the field.

IMHO, usability has become a hot sales term to use (like long tail SEO, social media optimization, etc.) so that people can make a sale. In reality, I do not believe most SEO professionals understand Web site usability or even practice it.

But I am trying to educate in Search Engine Land:


Shari, I agree that SEO and usability (should) go hand in hand. Though I don't think it's just a matter of educating the SEO community but a matter of educating the clients. Fur us this has been an uphill battle. I've got clients that have seen growth year over year due to the optimization and web usability fixes we have implemented but they continue to point to a couple of keywords and say, "what's up there?". It's frustrating considering we know that how much things have improved for them.

Businesses have to really understand the benefit of usability for the SEO community to embrace it. Otherwise all the teaching you do in the community is just creating more, as you say, "usability parrots". Personally, because we are still trying to convince clients of the benefits of usability ourselves we haven't had much of an opportunity to do a whole lot of testing. I'm probably on you would call a parrot, but we don't just use it a s a buzzword. We've studied usability a great deal and continue to do so and push for implementation of key usability elements where we know there are issues.

If we can get more in the community to parrot I think the SEO community would be on the right track.

Stoney, well put.

A white paper deftly outlining a superset of this mode of thinking (free PDF download, 135 kB—hope I'm not violating comment policy by posting link; I've no monetary stake in it):




LOL... Roaches and Rats... Absolutely hilarious... This post is the plight of most web marketing strategists... Time after time we tell clients that CONTENT MATTERS... Yet clients continue to bring there Brick and Mortar philosophies to the web... They translate more hits as they see bodies(roaches) packed in a store... To most this is "doing business"... But the offensive truth is, there's no cutesy sales clerk breathing down your neck or a slick salesman to strong arm you into a making a purchase... "Business as usual" will not work on the web... Nope! The Web is WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET... So if I'm required to leave my email address just to enter the site, FORGET ABOUT IT... If I log on and it takes a minute to download a thousand ad placements, IM OUT... If l log onto your site from your high ranking within a search engine but cant find anything that relates to my KEYWORD because the site is set up like a thrift store, GOOD RADIANCE... And finally, for all you wanna be Web 2.0's, we all learned a valuable lesson in elementary school abbr. KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid... Listen to Stoney because he just saved you from my $2000 retainer @ $150 per hr. fee to exterminate your Ratty web pages... Luv the post Stoney

Oh, I love it! I always use the restaurant analogy to describe script theory and meeting people's expectations on your website. If things don't happen in the order that you expect (all over the world) then you will leave, not tell your friends and not return.

You know, if the waiter forgets to offer you a drink when you sit down for dinner, doesn't offer you dessert when your main is done AND doesn't bring you the bill once your finished you get irritated!

Cafes always suffer from this - I like the ones that put an obvious sign ' PAY AT COUNTER' where you can SEE it!

And one thing, The biggest paradox and the competitive edge for my business is that usability companies so often FORGET about the branding and SEO in their client projects and even their own businesses!

Great article. Our office always debates about this. Thanks will share.

Wishing you all an exSEOllent 2008

Great Metaphor re SEO / Usability and the restaurant. It's always much easier to sell an idea with a compelling story.

I concur with your views that the most important thing is to have a site that keeps people there, if not to make a sale at least to get their info so that you can lead them down a path as follows

know ==> Like ==> Trust (Then they will become a Customer)

I think optimising your website still has a part to play, yet often the problem is, it's carried out by people who are technically savvy however they are not Business Savvy. They have no idea about the business they are working for at a deep enough level to make meaningful changes to the site and as for things like PPC then it gets even worse. I'm also amazed by people whose websites just appear to be a version of their business card then spend fortunes on advertising!

Mike Ashworth
Business and Marketing Coach
Brighton and Hove, UK

Stoney It's funny how you nailed it right on the spot. Most the time its because of the owners first time hiring out a bad designer which ends up making them own a bad website that will soon need a facelift, get reindexed, redesigned etc. Then you have them go and hire a buncha bad seo people because they just can't find anyone who practice ethical search engine optimisation and then end up spending even more money. It is really hard to find a good company out there nowadays for seo.

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