The words that designers hate.
These words give anyone involved in UX nightmares.
SEO first, users second.
Oh, the humanity!
But that is exactly how I approach a fresh programmatic build.
That is how I have helped build out multiple successful programmatic builds.
Even though many SEOs will hate this strategy, it is what I will continue recommending for clients tackling a new, large-scale setup.
The SEO first, users second, approach
An SEO first approach does exactly that, it puts SEO ahead of the user experience.
It’s not saying to ignore the UX of the site, by no means.
It’s just making sure that anything being built for an MVP (minimum viable product) has SEO front of mind.
If a feature is being considered there’s one simple question that is asked.
“Is this primarily for SEO, or for users?”
If it’s primarily for SEO, great – it’s in!
If it’s primarily for the users, then it’s moved down the task list a little bit.
As time goes on, more focus can be placed on the users, that the system is now generating.
A product could be launched that’s 80% SEO and 20% for users.
2 months later, it’s 70/30. 4-6 months down the line, 50/50.
As the traffic grows, that traffic starts to be optimised for.
Similar to a chicken/egg scenario, except, what’s the point in primarily focussing on users, when they don’t exist yet?
Why I recommend this strategy
Development time is precious.
Programmatic builds take time to get traction in the market.
Getting the MVP live as soon as possible is critical to give the build time to grow in the market.
Getting the MVP live ASAP lets you further iterate on the build once you’ve enabled the ability to drive traffic.
Focussing on SEO first gets you to market faster, with a product that is “good enough” to start getting indexed, and hopefully ranked.
What’s the point in building a pretty page, with fancy animations & conversion-optimised widgets, if you’ve got no one visiting the page?
Avoid the void
A less-than-average user experience also makes sure that the product teams come back to rework the build later.
What’s going to be easier to get across the line.
Reworking a build based on a poor UX for an ever-growing user base?
Or reworking a build based on poor SEO that may or may not actually drive traffic?
I know what one I would rather try to sell into the product team.
You probably won’t even need to mention it. Someone higher up might eventually spot the build and start asking questions forcing more time to be spent on the product. Perfect.
Avoid the void of “that can’t be prioritised” that many SEO projects will fall into.
Get the results, and get more work done, albeit a bit cheekily. Sometimes you’ve just gotta play that game, to get the best result possible.
Keeping existing users out of the SEO-first approach
If you’re an existing website, but planning a new programmatic build, how do you avoid the existing userbase entering the build?
Especially when it’s an SEO-first approach, you don’t normally want to push your existing users into it as it has a higher chance of degrading their experience.
After all, you’re focussing on acquisition more than retention.
The main way of doing this is by keeping internal links to a minimum.
Not something you do with most builds, but at the start just limit where you’re linking in from. Prioritise links from ‘less visible’ locations initially.
Link from within widgets a bit further down the page, in places that users aren’t going to actively look at.
Some systems I have worked on have even only had a handful of homepage links pointing in, from towards the bottom of the page.
It’s enough to kick things off!
This will essentially help you dark launch the site, allowing you to start to gain traction whilst you still build the whole experience out.
No point delaying everything when you can get it live much earlier, with minimal risk.
Should you be taking an SEO-first approach?
(my new fancy way of saying “it depends”)
Are you a brand new site? Yes.
Are you a brand new programmatic build, tacked onto an existing site, that existing users won’t need? Yes.
Are you a brand new programmatic build, tacked onto an existing site, that users will need (ie an optimised search)? No.
Are you rebuilding an existing programmatic build with an existing large user base that will get migrated over? No.
Plenty of great use cases for an SEO-first approach, but it’s certainly not for everyone.
For many, the users should definitely still come first.