Design and User Experience Come Before Link Building

This is not a misinformed diatribe about how design and user experience are more important ranking factors than links. Without a doubt, building enough of the right kind of links can still outrank low quality junk. That said, we’re pretty much with Google’s Matt Cutts on the link building obsession:

“A lot of people think about how do I build more links, and they don’t think about the grander, global picture…you get too focused on search engines…If you look at the history of sites that have done really well…you can take anywhere from Instagram to Path, even Twitter, there’s a cool app called Yardsale, and what those guys try to do is they make design a fundamental piece of why their site is advantageous to go to…If you really get that sweet spot of something compelling, where the design is really good, where the user experience just flows, you’d be amazed just how much growth and traffic and traction you can get as a result.”

No, not even Matt Cutts is saying that user experience and design are more important ranking factors than links here. He’s simply pointing out that the most successful sites on the web put so much effort into design and user experience that they couldn’t care much less about search engines, because they’re going to stay successful with or without rankings.

We’d like to elaborate on why we think design and user experience should always come before link building, assuming you’re anything other than a churn and burn affiliate sales autoblogger.

Conversion rate optimization brings permanent results for all traffic sources

For the vast majority of sites on the web, it’s much easier to double your conversion rate than it is to double your traffic by building links. Obviously, this isn’t true for a site that’s already optimized for design and user experience, but most sites haven’t done that.

Link building improves performance in the search engines, but CRO improves performance across the board. No matter where the traffic is coming from, paid or earned, if you put user experience first, you boost the lifetime value of each visitor.

Now, some people will argue that CRO and user experience are two different things. There’s some truth to that, but I think it takes serious imagination to believe that they aren’t intimately connected.

The better the user experience, the better your conversion rate. Clean, intuitive, purposeful design undoubtedly does the same. Unbounce wouldn’t have written a stellar ebook called Conversion Centered Design if it didn’t. Here are the takeaways they have to share, and we can’t help but find ourselves nodding in agreement with:

  1. Encapsulation – Techniques used to draw the user’s eye toward the content that is most likely to convert.
  2. Contrast and Color – Contrasting colors draw the eye and are more likely to encourage a click.
  3. Directional Cues – Use abnormal angles to point users through possible objections and then to your call-to-action.
  4. Whitespace – Don’t overwhelm the user with clutter, and give page elements room to breathe.
  5. Urgency and Scarcity – Create a feeling of limited time and limited supply (under the right circumstances)
  6. Try Before You Buy – Let users scrutinize your product before payment to build trust and display confidence in the product.
  7. Social Proof – Demonstrate that others have been pleased with the product to build trust. In particular, when possible, the social proof of people who happen to be just like the user is most effective.

We also like Unbounce’s 36 real life examples of converting landing pages to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.

At the same time, we agree with Stephen of Conversion Factory and what he’s said at Moz. The largest jumps in your conversion rate really do start with user experience, not design. Start with the question “why aren’t users converting?” When you phrase it that way, it starts to sound bizarre to answer it by saying “because our button is the wrong color.”

Start by thinking like the customer, then start setting up Crazy Egg heat maps to figure out how they behave, employing user testing from places like UserTesting.com, using Survey Monkey to test non-behavioral assumptions, and setting up your split tests. Focus most of your attention on a small number of metrics that truly matter, only bothering with the other metrics if you spot a noteworthy correlation. (Sometimes a dramatic boost in your microconversion rate has no impact on your overall conversion rate.)

You can learn just as much from your big losers as your big winners. A landing page that does especially badly can also tell you how to reverse things and get a big win.

Put simply, find out why users aren’t converting, and fix it. Don’t complicate the process.

User experience creates repeat customers

Experience has trained most marketers to recognize that it’s very difficult to capture a consumer who habitually gives their money to one of your competitors. Habits die hard. It’s so much more important to retain your existing customer base than it is to get new customers. Churn and burn strategies only work for businesses that sell a single kind of product that only needs to be bought once.

If you want to stay in business long term, it’s almost always better to retain those customers, develop a new product, and sell to them again than to focus exclusively on obtaining new customers.

Even if this isn’t your plan, repeat visitors are more likely to keep you in mind and recommend your brand to a friend.

How can you build repeat visits? Well, we keep coming back to tools and communities because of their incredible power. For example, we love what Blue Fountain Media did for Smarties, which grew the Facebook Fan count from 900 to over 40,000 and dramatically boosted their repeat visitor count. They did this by giving users an immersive, interactive, gamified experience.

The potential for link earning here is unavoidable as well. Smarties earned an Interactive Media Award and got featured in SmartBlogs.

NASDAQ, on the other hand, chose to grow its repeat visitor count by building a strong, tight-knit native community (PDF link). They incorporated the ability to rate stocks, personalize content, view articles that meet user-defined criteria, view activity walls, and utilize other social components. They picked up 3,000 registers within 6 weeks and saw an improvement in repeat visitor count.

Think of the sites that you visit more than once and that you navigate to directly without using the search engines. What kinds of sites are these? Odds are, you don’t just visit them, you use them and interact with them. This is where too much emphasis on “content” as it is currently defined by the industry can actually be a bad thing.

Content is static, but tools and communities are not. They are inherently engaging. They take the user out of the passive, hypnotic state that they would get from a television set, and into the active state of mind. The more control the user feels over their own experience, the more memorable that experience becomes.

This is why the most successful sites on the web are all about doing.

Give your users something to do, and repeat visits will inevitably follow.

Earned popularity is always better than manufactured popularity

We mean several things when we say this.

From a pure ranking standpoint, it’s always better to have a genuinely popular site than it is to have a large, marketer-placed link profile. Genuinely popular sites generate natural link profiles and thus remain more or less protected from Google algorithm updates and data refreshes. Manufactured link profiles generally leave patterns, and when they don’t, more work is involved than in attracting a genuinely natural profile.

This goes beyond rankings, though. Earned popularity means that you have a customer base that actually enjoys what you do and is willing to recommend you to a friend. It means that it’s going to take a lot of work for a competitor to snatch your customers away, and it means that customers will feel like they naturally chose to do business with you, which is good for conversions and retention.

In this sense, manufactured popularity in the form of ad purchases and other forms of interruption marketing has disadvantages. It makes consumers feel like they were forced into a purchase, they may feel cheated afterward, and they are less likely to become repeat customers or to recommend your services to others.

This isn’t to say that PPC, display ads, and push marketing in general don’t have advantages of their own. They undoubtedly work faster, and in today’s age of targeted advertising, they are great for capturing hot leads. But these consumers are fickle unless you can also earn their trust. Those profits may be temporary, unless you invest them back into more long term marketing strategies.

I’ll say this. I think this industry is guilty of drawing an artificial line between inbound and outbound tactics, and even though we borrow this terminology, it’s important to keep in mind that all of this lies on a continuum. You can use outbound techniques to earn popularity.

User experience is where trust is earned. It may happen on your site, your social presence, or your email list. The location is not as important as the experience.

Yes, natural links do happen

It’s sort of amazing how often certain segments of the SEO community like to argue on this point. If you live in the fat-head of highly competitive, word-for-word keyword matched search terms, then yes, you’re going to see a lot of unnatural links. And yes, sites that use them are still ranking. We don’t live in a fantasy world where that’s not the reality of the situation.

But if you look at the link graph of the web at large, and most of the real industry thought-leaders, that’s not what you’re going to see.

Just take a look at the link profile of virtually any page on Cracked.com. Cracked talked about 5 scientific reasons a zombie apocalypse could actually happen, it earned them links from 434 domains, and it got mentioned in Smithsonian Magazine. That’s how most links on the web happen.

Or look at the link profile for OMGpop’s Draw Something. They created an app with great user experience, and they picked up links from Gigaom, The Verge, ReadWrite, TechCrunch, The New York Times, and a total of 606 domains. They didn’t email these people and ask for links. They became newsworthy.

We’re not arguing against guest posts or link building outreach. We do it. It works. We’re just saying that when Google says you can attract links by creating a memorable user experience, they’re not blowing smoke.

When you do it right, it also happens to work much faster.

Design and user experience can be measured and tested with provable results

This is a big one for us.

We won’t argue with the fact that link building produces real and measurable results. It is, however, much more difficult to separate the junk and wasted efforts from the things that actually play an important part in the algorithm. We know that Moz domain authority correlates fairly well with rankings, and we know anchor text and page relevancy have some influence, but it’s more or less impossible to separate the folklore from the real ranking factors. You can measure the success of campaigns, but it’s hard to eliminate wasted effort.

Design and user experience, on the other hand, are readily measured and testable at a moment’s notice. You can quickly compare two landing pages and find out which one generates the most conversions, which one is more intuitive to users, which one keeps people on the site longer, and so on.

It’s not that difficult to measure strategies are useless. That’s a very naïve, by the books way to think about marketing. And gradually, over time, you certainly can eliminate some of the wasted efforts from your link building strategy. Intuition can go a long way and I’m not going to argue against it. More innovative and advanced measurement techniques are also available, which is why it’s worth having a statistician onboard if you can afford it.

All that said, hard numbers and proven results are irresistible to clients, and the ability to test and refine strategies quickly and easily without needing to backtrack is priceless.

The way users interact with your site and its design is the same way that influencers are going to interact with it. If you’re optimizing for users, you’re also optimizing for outreach. A page or tool that wows users is going to wow the people who can link to you. It’s much easier to just point an influencer to something amazing than to use hand-waving voodoo to convince them to link.

How’s that for a measurable, testable SEO strategy?

The most successful sites on the web put design and user experience first

If you actually take a look at the highest rankings sites on the web, you’ll note that pretty much all of them (Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, WordPress, Adobe, Blogspot, etc.) are tools and communities that people would keep using if Google completely stripped away their rankings.