February 12, 2013, 9:59 AM

Doing well in SEO requires a focus on site design

IRWD speakers link search rankings with site usability.

Lead Photo

Brianne Keating Forst of Plow & Hearth speaking at IRWD 2013.

When figuring out how to rank web sites in search engine results, Google Inc. watches what happens after a consumer clicks on a search result and visits a site. That means how effective and usable an e-retailer’s web site is plays an important role in search engine optimization, according to experts this week at Internet Retailer’s Web Design & Usability Conference 2013 in Orlando. 

Google tracks the time elapsed between searches, how fast a visitor moves off the page Google directed him to, the overall time spent on the site, load times, interactions with and traffic from   social networks and, for e-retailers using Google Analytics, purchase behavior, said Larry Becker, principal at consultancy Larry Becker Web, during a Monday workshop.   When e-retailers look at pages they want Google to look at kindly, they should think like a consumer and make sure the page answers questions visitors might have. “Ask, ‘What can I do here? Why should I do it here and not somewhere else? What do I do next?’” Becker said. “Usability and SEO go really well together.”

It’s important to make sure the design of a page provides visitors with the answers they seek.  “Contrast is important,” Becker said.“There’s no better way to confuse people online than to make everything the same,” he said.

That is a lesson catalog and web merchant Plow & Hearth LLC learned when it redesigned the top navigation for HearthSong.com, one of several e-commerce sites it operates.

“We knew that customers who engaged with our navigation converted better than [via] any other clicks on our home page,” said Brianne Keating Forst, e-commerce director for Plow & Hearth. A redesign changed the color palette for the top navigation from one with distinct colors highlighting the product category to a uniform, muted pale blue. Clicks dropped precipitously, Keating Forst said. “It impacted our entire conversion rate because that navigation was getting less clicks.” The merchant went back to using the colorful navigation.

Another part of Plow & Hearth’s SEO strategy is to carefully pick the keywords it wants and expects to rank well on in natural search . It then includes those words in the footer text of web site pages. Keating Forst said, for example, that she wouldn’t expect or try to compete for top placement in natural search for a term such as “toys”—even though some of the merchant’s sites sell them—given how many other, larger e-retailers are vying for ranking well on that keyword. Instead, the e-retailer focuses on picking very specific, often seasonal keyword terms it believes it can win on, such as “outdoor play toys,” and putting that term under the category “shop” at the bottom of the page, where Google will pick it up but where it won’t distract consumers shopping the page. “For a smaller brand, we are working to pick terms that have a good opportunity to get conversions up,” she said. Plow & Hearth changes out the terms seasonally.   

The merchant is also building out its presence on social media so that Google will rate it highly for its interactions with social networks. Keating Forst said the Plow & Hearth’s Google representative nudged the merchant to participate in Google+ because it includes retailers’ posts alongside search results. But Pinterest is the retailer’s real social media standout. Keating Forst said nearly 50% of all traffic coming to the merchant’s sites from social media comes from Pinterest, and nearly 90% of all sales that take place after a click from a social network are made by consumers arriving from Pinterest. Keating Forst said the e-retailer is looking at ways to incorporate Pinterest more broadly on its web sites.

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