Website Optimization For Humans vs. Bots—A Guide
Search engines aim to present users with the best answer to their search query. And they do it by crawling and indexing millions of web pages and then ranking them based on their own criteria. (To put this into perspective, Google alone processes around 8.5 million searches per day across the globe.)
To help companies position themselves at the top of the search engine result pages (SERPs), SEOs study what search engines want to see, run experiments, and try to help businesses grow their organic presence. At the end of the day, it’s called search engine optimization for a reason, right? It’s about using the tools at your disposal to optimize your website and make them more attractive to search engines.
This “idea” of SEO execution is still very popular, which is why strategies like keyword stuffing, scaling low-quality content production, and spammy link-building tactics have been so prevalent. (Even though today, these are less effective than before, we can’t deny they’re still around and are even standard practices for some agencies and industries.) But beyond all of this, focus on the goal of a SE too.
If a search engine’s goal is to show the best page to resolve a user’s problem, SEO is about helping businesses create a page that matches user intent while providing the best user experience possible.
In other words, we need to understand that SEO has two main audiences: humans and bots.
Website optimization help search engines understand what’s on them and improve our chances of winning top positions to achieve our inbound goals. Still, we also need to remember that our business deals with customers, and customers are humans. Humans are the ones that are going to use our pages and convert. So when building and optimizing your website, go beyond ranking factors and think about what the person on the other side is looking for and the best way to give it to them.
No, You Don’t Need to Choose Between Humans and Search Engines
You’ve probably seen very questionable pages ranking in the top 3 for many queries. If it’s true that user experience is such an important factor, why do these types of websites get away with just doing basic optimizations like keyword matching?
Here’s a post from Sarah Taher that we think encapsulates this notion very well:
There are still many industries that play “the keyword game” and don’t do much more than that.
However, we’ve also seen niches getting completely controlled by companies that are willing to go the extra mile. These companies get so far ahead that it’s almost impossible to catch up with them without investing huge amounts of time and money.
One thing is true, there’s more than just “create high-quality pages” for SEO success.
Bots and Humans Experience Your Website Differently
People and search bots see very different things when they access your pages.
That distinction is important because it means you need to take care of very different things to optimize your pages for each of them. When a person enters your page, they’ll be able to absorb the intended experience you’ve created, and they do it through the design, copywriting, and functionality of the page.
For example, if your page shows tabular data, people will be able to absorb this data much faster and understand the organization and meaning behind it. You could also offer filtering features to rearrange the data to focus on what’s more important for them. This gives a much better user experience than just a plain list of data points. However, this also requires a lot of mental processing to understand the parts as a whole, and it’s not something crawlers are built to do.
From this example alone, we would draw the conclusion that it’s not worth the extra investment in user experience if bots can’t actually use or understand any of this. That’s where most new and misled SEOs go wrong and why we still see so many bot-focused optimizations implemented nowadays.
Search Engines are For People
Since 2013, Google has been working and evolving its algorithm and tooling to be more in tune with users. The truth is that, in the end, Google is trying to do the same thing SEOs should be doing: catering to its audience.
Search engines are built for people to use: the better the content they can offer, the more users they can attract. And that’s one of the major reasons Google is such a prevalent search engine today.
With the Hummingbird update, Google moved away from matching exact keyword phrases and allowed its algorithm to understand the intent behind queries. Instead of just ranking pages by how close it matches the search phrase, it started to rank them by whether or not the page matched the intention of the user.
From there, every update has been about making it harder for websites using spammy techniques to rank higher in the SERPs and favoring those that cared the most about the user. More recently, the Core Web Vitals update and the Useful Content update made it clear that user experience is at the front of search engine optimization and can’t be ignored any longer.
If you want to rank higher in Google, you’ll need to put people first when creating and optimizing your pages – which is also a good thing.
Bots and Humans are Both Your Audiences
It’s definitely not as easy as it once was to rank on Google, but it’s definitely simpler than ever before.
Back then, you couldn’t just focus on user experience and ignore search bots’ demands for keywords and links. If you did, you were never going to see any results from your campaigns.
Nowadays, optimizing for search engines means optimizing for humans. No more compromising quality to satisfy bots. Instead, bots are looking for these signals of “quality” to ensure that your pages are the best option for the user. In other words, both the interest of bots and people are more aligned than ever, making it simpler to understand what Google actually wants from you to rank.
However, there’s no denying the rankings standards have risen, making it much harder to compete for the top positions, demanding more creativity and technical performance.
To be successful in SEO in 2023, you’ll need to satisfy your two main audiences: people and bots.
4 Ways to Optimize Your Website for Humans and Bots
When you put user experience at the core of your search engine optimization strategy, there are four primary mind-shifts you’ll need to put into practice:
Writing for Humans Equal Higher Rankings (and Conversions)
If you’ve ever read a solely bot-optimized article, you’ve experienced how unnatural a page can be written. Reading the same phrase over and over again feels just weird.
When reading a blog or even a landing page, people want to read as if they were being spoken to. It should feel more like a story than just facts being thrown at them, but without getting filled with fluff.
But we can’t forget that not only humans will be reading our pages. Bots need to understand what your content is about in order for them to categorize, index, and rank them properly.
Here are four things to keep in mind when writing content for humans and bots:
- Use heading tags (h1, h2…) to structure your page – humans and bots use headings to understand the flow and context of your page. People will use these headings to orient themselves through the page and to find bits of information faster.
On the other hand, bots use headings to understand the most important aspects of your content, making them a great place to add the main keywords and related keywords if they make sense.
|Pro Tip: Headings are good for communicating to Google what your page is. It uses them to choose quick answers for feature snippets, but also to choose what to show or read to users when they do a voice search. Making your headings more conversational can also help you rank for voice searches, which are becoming more common as people use assistants like Google, Alexa, and Siri.|
- Use bullet points and tables to structure the page logically – long blocks of text are harder to read and understand. For lists, use bullet points and numbered lists (like the one we’re using right now) to make the information easier to consume. This is also a good signal for search engines, which might use your lists as quick answers directly on the SERPs, giving you more visibility.
Another strategy you can use to maintain structure is using tables to present data points. It’s much easier for your users to understand large amounts of data when they’re neatly organized by headers and factors, making for a greater user experience – and again, search engines can show these tables when they make sense on the SERPs.
- Keep in mind the search intent while writing – every query has an intention behind it, and it’s our job to decipher what the user is looking for so we can answer their questions in the best way possible.
The most basic starting point is determining the format that best suits the query. Some queries require lists, others quick explanations, while for other queries is necessary to create an in-depth guide.
Think about keywords as an intention label and not as a checkpoint to include in your article.
But how do you satisfy intent? Well, it’s simple. Make it so the user solves their problem after reading your page. If you want to rank for “how to create a business plan,” after reading your guide, the user should be able to take action and start outlining their business plan. Otherwise, you’re just wasting their time, and thus Google won’t rank your page in the top positions.
|Pro Tip: If you understand search intent, you’ll also notice that there are additional resources that can help you provide a better experience for the end user. For example, searches around “templates” can benefit from you offering a downloadable resource or a template generator. Extra resources are a great way to make users take action, but they also are a great signal of matching search intent. The right tool or extra resource can help you rise in rankings and win you new leads at the same time.|
- Tell a story, not just facts – we think in terms of stories, and that’s what will keep your readers interested and on your page. Google also takes into consideration things like bounce rate and time on page, to determine whether or not your page is the right fit. But you also benefit as it increases the chances of them converting into paying customers.
Use statistics to back up claims, show original research, or display a unique point of view. The personality you display in your writing will influence the voice they have in their heads while reading, making it a more pleasant experience.
Your written content is the heart of your campaign, and ensuring high-quality content production is crucial to gain traction instead of falling into the void.
As long as you focus on these four things, the rest will come naturally. Bots will be able to understand the topic you’re covering and will have an easier time positioning your page, and your visitors will enjoy and use your content to take action.
Next, Design and SEO Can (and Should) Work Together
Although design is an integral part of web development, for a long time, design and SEO were at odds. Usually, websites with weak designs and fewer visual elements performed better on the SERPs than bolder websites (design-wise).
The fact was that visuals were often an unnecessary evil because this took resources away from writers creating hundreds of low-quality pages filled with keywords, they slowed down websites, and bolder layouts could make it harder for search engines to pick on the “truly important” elements.
However, this is no longer the case. Design has become a powerful tool for organic traction for three main reasons:
- Design is content – websites that use visuals to support their written content have a big advantage over those using just text. These visuals can help users understand certain points better, and visuals like infographics and graphs are helpful in summarizing information and are a great source of backlinks.
In addition, Google also crawls and indexes visual resources, which can become an extra source of organic traffic.
- Design dictates the user experience – although every aspect of a website contributes to the overall UX, design is the first factor that’ll dictate the user experience. Visuals, layouts, and the flow of information are all part of the design aspect of a website, and if the flow is poorly designed, so will be the rest of the experience. Just imagine how frustrating it is not to know how to use a website because of its poor design.
- Design encourages action – you can be the best copywriter ever, but if your CTA is poorly designed and fails to catch the attention of the reader, you are shooting yourself in the foot. Great design makes CTAs glow and helps you guide your visitors’ eyes toward your offerings, new resources, etc.
To optimize your website’s design to improve SEO, you’ll need to think in terms of usability and user experience.
For example, great design needs to take into consideration responsiveness. If the design isn’t flexible enough to adapt to different screen sizes, then it’s poorly optimized.
Search engines put a lot of emphasis on the mobile experience because mobile traffic is increasingly taking over the internet, so it should be a priority for you as well.
We went into more details in our mobile optimization guide, but here are the main highlights:
- Take into consideration tappable areas
- Make your layout stackable, so it’s easier to adapt to vertical scrolling
- Avoid intrusive pop-ups
- Design simpler forms
- Use large font sizes to make your content easier to read
Keep in mind that it is not just about screen size but also usability. People will be using their fingers to scroll the page, so having enough whitespace for them to place their fingers it’s important.
If you’re not sure where to start, open your website on your phone and test how navigation, images, text, and scrolling feel. Testing is the best way to ensure proper mobile usability.
Lastly, we recommend you take a look at HubSpot’s article on designing for humans and bots. Their designer goes into much more detail on how design teams can support SEO goals. However, one thing we want to highlight from it is how search intent has to influence design choices.
Here’s their example:
“In the first example, someone searching for “business plan proposal template download” might expect a page that enables them to directly download a business plan template, and connotes a high level of specificity and intent — this customer is likely in the consideration phase of their search, and probably already knows what a business plan proposal is and how to use it.
On the other hand, someone typing a query like “business plan proposal template examples” might not know what goes into a good business plan, and might be interested in a high-level article that gives them more context, as well as a few different options.”
You Don’t Need to Sacrifice Functionality for SEO
Technical performance influences user experience as much as design does but in a different way. Where design provides the visual experience, technical performance provides the foundation for this experience to be transmitted.
Things like high loading times, broken resources, or badly optimized code can easily break the website experience for people, so search engines also want to measure performance in order to score your site.
Because of this, just like in the design case, there were a lot of compromises on the technical side of websites to make it possible to increase rankings, and one of the major tradeoffs was functionality.
Embedded tools (e.g., price calculators), real-time data, and other dynamically generated content are great for the users’ experience but were hard to optimize for performance.
Again, just like with design, a tool or functionality can help you match the search intent of the user much better. For example, if a person is looking for “color combinations” or “color wheel for design,” a tool like Canva’s color wheel would be the perfect math.
Free tools are also a great way to earn backlinks organically, which will help you build authority and then pass link juice to the rest of your pages.
|Pro Tip: Still, dynamic pages are hard for Google to handle, so a lot of crawling and indexation issues could start to emerge – even if your code is efficient. To make it easier for search engines to crawl, understand and index your dynamic pages, you can use Prerender to take a snapshot of your fully-rendered pages automatically and serves them as a static HTML file to search engines, allowing you to create unique, high-quality user experiences without hurting your SEO performance. No longer needing to worry about choosing to please search bots or your users. See how Prerender works.|
Of course, optimizing your website’s technical performance for humans and bots go beyond just creating JS-based resources. Here are a few other technical SEO areas to focus on:
- Page speed and core web vitals – it’s not enough for pages to load fast in terms of rendering the page (LCP), but they also need to be stable (CLS) and become functional fast (FID).
- Security – especially websites that handle personal information and bank information need to pay attention to how secure their website is.
- Site structure – the way you organize your pages through internal linking and navigation has a big impact on your site’s crawl budget and crawl efficiency. Also, a well-thought-out and well-structured website is easier to navigate for people, helping them find relevant pages easier.
If you’re not sure where to start, we listed the six technical SEO tasks with the highest impact on organic performance to focus on.
These are the bases of a people-first approach to SEO. As long as you’re mindful of these principles, both humans and bots will have a better time interacting with your website, and you’ll see all kinds of benefits, not just traffic.
Providing a great user experience is the foundation for online success. From improving organic traffic and brand awareness to increasing conversion rates and LTV, building your website with users at the heart of it, will pay off in the mid to long run.
In the end, what’s good for UX is more often than not good for SEO.