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Did the Fight for Search Visibility Kill Enjoyable Cooking Blogs? Why UX and SEO Should Go Hand in Hand

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I. Just. Want. To. Make. My. Damn. “Kale and Butternut Squash Infused Quinoa and Ancient Grains Salad.” But this sadistic blogger-turned-SEO-savant apparently hates my rumbling belly.

I don’t want to read about your family values, look at a gallery of twenty-seven photos, or be asked for the tenth time to follow your Instagram. I don’t want to understand the ins and outs of why a diet based on vegetable seeds is superior to last season’s nuts-and-fungi movement. I am not flexible enough to do yoga while cooking—who on earth needs tips about that?

This is the near daily struggle for a large audience of us who come home from a tiring day of work and just want to read a recipe quickly, make dinner, and settle in for some much earned decompression. But over the past few years, whether I’m searching for broad terms—like “steak recipe” and “healthy meal ideas”—or more specific recipe titles, I keep finding myself rapidly scrolling through pages of blog content praying for a succinct recipe at the bottom. Some days I’m lucky. Other days, my digging just ends with a ten-minute video recipe that has me immediately bouncing off-page and—for the first time in years—looking to the second page of Google results for less cumbersome results.

It’s a curiously infuriating situation. Technically, these blogs have every right to be at the top of my Google searches: They provide accurate and useful information, loads of images, keyworded writing, and even video. Their pages are shared liberally across social platforms and recipe aggregators who validate them as valuable content. From a search perspective, it’s perfect content.

But from a user perspective, it looks like SEO has killed the recipe blog.

Image of a woman holding a flag at the oceanside

The Battle of Acronyms: Balancing UX and SEO

Search engine optimization, at its most fundamental level, is a balance between two needs: the need for sites to drive traffic to their content, and the need for search engines to push traffic to the best content.

In the early days of search engines, before the term “blog” was even a widely understood term and Google’s algorithm was considerably simpler than what we know today, we saw site owners exploit this dynamic, using tactics like dumping a jumble of keywords at the bottom of pages, or building out dense networks of self-referential backlinks that didn’t actually point to useful content.

In response, search engines stepped up the curation ability of their algorithm and built out promotional structures that allowed them to pull in revenue while also getting a chance to approve a small pool of the results being served on the first page. This relationship has continued for some time: Google updates algorithm or ad practices, site owners seek ways to exploit the change, Google updates again, and so on—a regular Myth of Sisyphus for the digital age.

The result has been a bevy of new tactics—including the much-hated, over-written cooking blog—and Google’s concerted effort to move their algorithm towards quality of content rather than quantity (while also quietly making it increasingly necessary to pay for advertising). The result is a sort of snake eating its own tail for bloggers: In dogged pursuit of top slot on search, we’ve damaged the value of our content to the point where number-one positions are seeing declining click-through rates.

In fact, we’re seeing some fundamental shifts with search that affect content marketers, like how around 34 percent of searches don’t even result in clicks at all anymore. On the marketing end, this means we’re faced with a handful of options to keep our pages lively. Google hopes you’ll opt for the paid search route. As a content marketer, I hope you’ll lean towards optimizing your user experience first.

UX and SEO have always gone hand in hand to some extent, and this has never been more true than today as engines continue to try and rank for quality of site rather than a checklist of content. But there’s a fundamental difference between UX and SEO: SEO is when you focus on building search visibility by building a site in the style of “good” websites. UX is when you pick up organic traffic because you focused on building a good site from the start.

Image of two marketers looking at a website

Building with UX as the Goal

For marketers who want to keep up with the ever-changing SEO landscape in a way that remains algorithm and audience relevant, reorienting to prioritize user experience can definitely help. Start with these three tactics to get your team thinking like designers.

User Experience Testing

The scale of these projects will depend on how much time and resource you have to put towards it, but simply recording people on your site actually interacting with content is a great way to see if there are blaring issues that your team has missed due to familiarity or tunnel vision.

Define Interaction KPIs

For search marketers, it’s really easy to get caught up in search visibility and traffic metrics. But just as important as bringing people to your site is making sure they actually behave in the way you want. Setting up your page with Google Analytics event tags for key actions, valuing metrics like low bounce rate or ever-growing pages per session, and keeping an eye on ultimate conversions down the line will tell you if and why people are enjoying your site.

Experiment

Style guides and standard practices are a great way to ensure that your site experience is consistent for visitors. But a consistently unpleasant experience isn’t something your brand should invest in. Every month or content cycle, try to think of ways to mix up your formula and see how it affects your interaction metrics. This can be as simple as testing longer or shorter formats than what you’re used to or pushing out different types of media.

As search engines continue to grow more quality focused (and more “pay to play”) it will be important for marketers to remember to think audience first, and not engine first. There will always be a load of levers for your team to think about in terms of driving traffic, but if you sacrifice the quality of your material for the benefit of maximizing one traffic source, you’ll harm all of your content marketing. Be audience centric, always look for ways to improve your site experience first before visibility, and, for the love of God, put your recipes at the top of the page.

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Featured image attribution: Jeff Sheldon

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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