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SEO experts will constantly sell to you that SEO not only helps make your website easier for search engines to parse and determine the content of but also that SEO improves the user experience and hence is a win win situation.

I am no stranger to SEO and know many if not most of it's principles. What they say seems to make sense but is it true? Have designers and UX experts found SEO principles to hinder innovative and user friendly design? To what degree do you think this statement is true? 50%? 60% etc?

UPDATE

By SEO in this instance I mean only on-site SEO. Meaning how you can structure your websites layout and content to make your keywords pop!

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5 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

In general I would say yes. Search engines want to return the best results so the most usable sites are a part of that. Let's run through some of the main on-site optimizations:

Page titles in <title> tag:
The page title is shown in several places: the browser's window title bar and/or tab, bookmarks (as default name), search results and often in other links pointing to your site.

Headings in <h1> tags:
Headings provide a clear structure to the page and makes it clear what the page is about.

Simple, static-looking URLs:
This makes it much clearer, when seeing links from other sites, what the target page is about.

URL stability:
In other words, every piece of content has one canonical URL. If /hello.html and /goodbye.html contain the exact same content, that's pretty confusing.

Keyword density:
This is an area that gets way too much focus but if you look at the extremes it's obvious that a page loaded with the same word or phrase over and over is not good for usability and readability.

Site speed:
A fairly minor factor which probably gets more attention than it deserves. Regardless, faster sites are clearly more beneficial to users.

However, it's not all good: there are some optimizations that may harm usability. The one that springs to mind is keywords towards the start of the page title. See this Pro Webmasters question. This may encourage site owners to spam keywords at the start of a title, making it less clear what site you are going to. Even Stack Exchange does this, taking up valuable space on the browser tab and making it harder to find the desired page amongst several tabs.

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'findability' is an aspect of usability. SEO would improve that aspect. But there's so many flavors of SEO that it's hard to say it's blanket true. Most black hat SEO, for instance, is typically bad for UX.

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Well, I was talking more about on-site SEO, the advice regarding page layout, the tags that content should be in (I know that matters little since you can style it any way you want) the advice that you should have a certain page size, and that all your content should be clear within X words on the page and menu structure should be in a certain way on your website. Basically what is called on-site seo. –  Ali Sep 12 '11 at 19:35
    
I don't call that SEO but rather semantic markup, coding best practices and quality copywriting. Granted, in doing that, it often leads to good SEO by default. –  DA01 Sep 12 '11 at 19:38
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If you are doing proper SEO practices and applying the usability process you will generally succeed at a strong user experience and have good SEO performance. As part of the UCA process you will have identified the audience and will have generated (card sort, etc) keywords relevant to that audience to apply throughout navigation and site content.

As part of my process, I check what users give me back in an open card sort against Google to see if other users search for the same term or a similar term. That has helped me increase both usability and SEO on websites.

From a coding best practice, onsite SEO techniques definitely should not affect UX since as DA01 pointed out, it's really a coding best practice and not UX.

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When SEO is done well and honestly, it helps make a good first impression to the visitor who arrives from a web search, as they will find what they expected. If someone looks at a page of results and chooses one because they think it seems right, but arrives on a site that doesn't seem to deliver, they very quickly become frustrated and start off with the site on the wrong foot.

Where on-site SEO can conflict with usability is when keywords are out of alignment with what a person thinks they should be finding. I've seen SEO concerns outweigh clarity and other marks of good content, and that should also be a real concern for achieving a good user experience. If the content writer and SEO specialist collaborate they it should prevent either aspect from hurting the other.

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It depends on various factors such as type of site, information the user gets from the website. But Yes, as Todd mentioned above if it done well and honestly .

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