UX and Link Building: How to Step Up Your Game

So, you’re getting the hang of this whole link building thing. 

You have several links under your belt, and you’re getting more responses to your outreach emails. You’re finding relevant target sites and not overusing the same anchor text over and over again.

If you want to step it up even more, consider the intersection of UX and link building.

I’ve seen my fair share of links with misleading anchor text, or links that land to sites that are impossible to navigate.

As a web user, clicking on a link and finding yourself somewhere totally unexpected is one of the worst experiences you can have.

It leads you to distrust the linking domain and loathe the destination domain.

You’ll think twice the next time you click on a link.

To build a truly good link, you have to look at every aspect of the link from the user’s perspective.

Google and User Experience

Google is always on the minds of SEOs and link builders.

I recently read a piece on Search Engine Land by David Freeman that got me thinking about UX, and how closely it’s tied to how Google operates– and how it ranks pages.

He explains:

“Part of Google’s philosophy has always been focused on delivering the best user experience. With recent technological advances, Google and other search engines are now better placed than ever to deliver this vision. This focus will only intensify over the coming months and years.

Yet for many teams and agencies, UX has not consistently been a part of the SEO toolkit. Whether or not an SEO practitioner can discuss UX or make meaningful UX recommendations very much depends on personal experience, background and professional development programs.”

David is correct– UX is often the last thing on the minds of link builders. We’re busy thinking about search engine visibility, linkable assets, and how to improve our outreach efforts.

But even when we’re not considering UX, Google definitely is.

Google’s goal with the SERPs is to serve up the best possible search results for any given query.

Since Allstate ranks number one for ‘car insurance,’ you’d best bet their website is user friendly and that you’ll land on a helpful page when you click the link from the SERPs.

Car insurance is a highly competitive field, so it makes sense that Google factors UX into its ranking algorithms, along with content, links, and a few other factors.

In that regard, I don’t believe a low quality, thin content, non-navigable page with 100,000 links could ever outrank Allstate– at least not in the long term.

Google doesn’t want to lose its seat as the world’s number one search engine, so they’re dedicated to serving up good search results. Good search results mean good webpages– webpages the user can easily navigate on desktop and mobile, while finding the information they need.

Quality, relevant links will help catapult your website into better search engine visibility but, going forward, I really don’t think you’ll be able to compete if you’re not thinking at least a little bit about UX.

Bad UX and Link Building

Bad UX is all around us.

In the name of better search rankings, there are those that will do almost anything, as long as it doesn’t technically violate Google’s link schemes guidelines.

This makes for a much worse user experience and, quite honestly, pollutes the web.

At SEL, David Freeman identifies two SEO-related red flags when it comes to UX:

  • Tabbed content, in which consumers land on the page relevant to their search, but the information they sought is hidden within a tab.
  • Infinite scroll pages, in which multiple subtopics reside on a single URL, with no method to land the consumer on the section relevant to their search.

Let’s take the infinite scroll example.

Say you built a link to your tax software website with the anchor text “tax exemptions for single parents.” The link leads to the “tax preparation” category on your blog, which is an infinite scroll page.

You want a link to that category on your blog so you can rank higher for either “tax preparation” or “tax exemptions for single parents”.

But when the user has to scroll down four or five pages before they find anything related to tax exemptions for single parents, they’re going to give up and close the tab before they find the information they need.

They’re going to feel far less trusting of both you and the site who hosted you link, and they’re going to run right into your competitor’s arms.

If you’re using the anchor text “tax exemptions for single parents,” you’d better be pointing that link to a page that clearly explains what these tax exemptions are, without sending the user on a fishing expedition.

Let’s look at another example. Say you got someone to link to one of your product pages. They use the anchor text “I recently bought this organic cat food,” and it links to one of your product pages for said cat food.

But when the user lands on your page from their iPhone, it’s a garbled mess.

Images are broken, and they have to zoom in and scroll around to find the ‘buy now’ button. The font is too small for them to read about the cat food itself, and the checkout process is counter-intuitive. That’s because you never tested your product page for mobile devices.

If a user has difficulty, you can rest assured Google will notice.

Google doesn’t like ranking pages that don’t serve mobile users– so how much good did that link actually help you, in the end?

Not very much.  

How SEO and UX Can Work Together

Now that you’re thinking about why your links need to lead someplace useful, and how your links should function from a user’s perspective, let’s dig a little bit deeper.

Moz’s Rand Fishkin put together a Slideshare presentation called SEO & UX: So Happy Together that raises some excellent points.

I’ll embed the entire Slideshare at the end of this section so you can read the entire thing, but I’m grateful to Rand for putting this together just when I was thinking about UX and SEO, so I want to address a few of the points he made.

Rand says the goals of modern SEO are:

  • Driving high quality traffic from search engines
  • Helping [Google, SEOs, and marketers to] understand what searchers are seeking
  • Identifying missed opportunities to influence searchers
  • Positively impacting brand reputations in search
  • Creating long-term value with minimal risk

Here’s what he identifies as the goals of modern UX:

  • Helping users accomplish their tasks easily and enjoyably
  • Helping organizations with their user-influencing goals
  • Positively impacting access and reach for every potential user
  • Improving desirability, credibility, findability, and usability
  • Uncovering potential needs and fulfilling them

Rand also notes that Google’s ranking inputs increase, rather than compete with, UX priorities. Those inputs include site accessibility, content relevance, keyword usage, external links, visitor engagement, URL structure, citations, and brand mentions.

None of those factors should be going up against UX– because they all enhance the user’s experience when implemented properly.

If your external links lead to useful pages that load quickly and easily for the user, that enhances UX. If you serve relevant content behind each of your links, you’re improving a user’s experience.

On that level, it’s all pretty simple. Basically, if you put yourself in the user’s shoes when you’re building a link, that link goes beyond being useful just for SEO purposes– it becomes useful to the end-user, as well.

Google takes many factors into consideration when they rank your website, and links are an important factor. But Google strongly values user experience– and I think that in the near future, links that undermine UX are going to be far less valuable.

So, You’re Saying I Have to Be a UX Expert?

I’m actually not saying you have to be a UX expert. 

What I’m saying is that you should always keep the user in mind. 

Even putting Google aside, UX is important when it comes to links.

You build links to increase search engine visibility and boost web traffic– but you also want the user to convert and buy something as well.

If the user has a poor experience, they’re far less likely to buy anything once they land on your page from a link, or from the SERPs.

UX serves to encourage “good user behavior.” Basically, when a website performs well in the search engines, and also creates an intuitive experience for the user (which inspires that good user behavior), you have the best of both worlds.

Here’s Geek Powered Studios’ John Leo Weber  on the matter:

“Influencing good user behavior will lead to metrics like longer times on site, lower bounce rates, more pages per visit, and higher returning visitor counts. While the goal of [SEO] work is to attract visitors, the goal of [UX] work is to nurture visitors and turn those visits into conversions.

The function of UX in SEO begins with user friendly web design. Usability and simplicity are typically the primary goals in UX driven web design…”

John notes that user-friendly web design includes:

  • Using logical page layouts.
  • Prominently featuring important elements like contact forms and and links to primary pages.
  • Employing fast load speeds.
  • Using CTAs and callout sections to drive traffic to your conversion pages.
  • Ensuring a good experience on all devices and browsers.

He lists other factors, as well, but those go a bit more heavily into real UX theory and conversion rate optimization (CRO), which aren’t every link builder’s specialty.

A user’s time spent on your site, and their bounce rate, can also affect your search engine visibility. Basically, John is saying that first impressions are everything, once someone lands on your site. If the user can’t figure out what’s going on with your website shortly after they land there from a link or from the SERPs, they’re going to abandon ship.

He also notes that site speed is important, citing a study from The Guardian that states 32% of consumers will abandon a slow site within five seconds.

Closing Thoughts

So, here’s my point– we can all understand site speed, good navigation, and relevant content.

If a link builder leads a user to a slow page with irrelevant content and nonsensical menus, that link builder has actively made the web a slightly worse place.

You have to keep up your end of the bargain.

When you build a link, make sure it points somewhere logical and sensible. Don’t mislead the user for better search engine rankings; instead, build good links that serve the user well.

When the user lands on your site, make sure they can find what they need, and make sure they don’t get bored waiting for the page to load.

Think before you link.

Going forward, we won’t have the luxury of ignoring UX. I believe links that lead to bizarre pages that don’t work properly on mobile devices are going to be near-worthless in the future. I also believe that user intent will factor into how valuable the links you build are, just as much as relevance and Domain Authority (or similar metrics) factor in today.

Link builders don’t need to be UX experts– but we’re doing ourselves a disservice when we don’t consider the user’s perspective with every link we build.

UX isn’t the new SEO, but the two are joined at the hip.

If we want to compete against the huge brands with unlimited marketing budgets, we need to link smarter and better– and that means considering UX with every link we build.

  1. To be honest, I’m not sure how you’d build an editorially approved link that didn’t lead someone useful. Why would a website owner grant a link to you if it led someplace with a poor UX experience?

    • Nathan, It really depends on the editor and some may approve an article based on the quality of the content without checking each individual link. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  2. Interesting insights David. Thanks for the tips. I’ve always read how UX play a very important factor in SEO today. Do you think it weighs more than link building?

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