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What’s more important: your readers, or SEO?

Last month at Blissdom I attended a fantastic workshop about SEO presented by Melanie Nelson, Shelly Kramer, and Ang England. Among the many take-aways from that panel was the fact that I’m missing out on some important search engine optimization by having all of my external links open in the same window. What does that mean? If you click on this link you will leave this page and go to another page. But if you click on this link a new tab will open up in whatever browser you’re using, leaving this one open. Since I started blogging I’ve always done it the first way. I’m not sure why, other than because that’s how I like things to work when I’m clicking on links. If I want something to open in a new window, I do it myself by holding down the Ctrl key while I click.

The reasoning behind doing it the other way – opening external links in a new tab – has to do with bounce rate, which is expressed in a percentage: how many visits end after only one page. My bounce rate has always been fairly high, usually around 80%. I never paid much attention to it, mostly because whenever I’m asked for my stats I’m never asked for my bounce rate. But this was an SEO workshop: was the bounce rate directly affecting my SEO? Or is the theory that if you send someone off of your page they’ll be more likely to come back if you leave your site’s window open?

I sat down today to change the way my hyperlink form works. I’m on WordPress, and I thought it would be as easy as finding the file with the code for the form and changing which target was chosen by default, so that I wouldn’t have to remember each time to choose the “open in new window” target (I’ve done this easily for other forms on my blog). But I couldn’t find the file! After about an hour of wasted time I finally said screw it, and started looking for a plug-in; maybe somebody else had solved the new tab problem for me.

I found the right plug-in right away. I downloaded and installed it, and set things up with one check-box so that all external links on my blog would automatically be opened in a new tab. And it wouldn’t just apply to new posts, either: every single external link in every post and comment on my blog would now open in a new window. It was just that easy. I started cruising around my site to check links and make sure that it was working.

I left it that way for all of five minutes. I hated it.

I don’t like it when I click on a link and a new tab opens. Not on my site, not on other sites. There are some exceptions, usually dealing with calendars or sites that are devoted just to links, like Fark. And for the Blogging Angels posts we make sure that every single link opens in a new tab, so as not to interrupt the podcast that might be playing. But for the most part, I only want a new window to open if I choose to do it that way. Even if it would improve my SEO, why would I do that to my own readers? I don’t auto-DM on Twitter because I don’t like getting auto DMs. I don’t throw my gum on the sidewalk because I don’t like stepping in gum. This is no different. And there are plenty of things that I can do to improve SEO that don’t directly impact my readers in a negative way.

But still, the other questions remained: were people leaving my blog and not coming back because of the way I do my links, and was my bounce rate affecting how my blog comes up in google searches? I get almost half of my traffic from search engines. Could it be higher?

The first question is a hard one to answer, but I do know this from looking at my analytics: people who come straight to my blog, or from twitter, or facebook, or from another site, tend to stay for a while. They click on related posts, they check out my about page, they puzzle over my ridiculous disclosure page. It’s the people coming from search engines who are totally ruining my bounce rate: barely any of them stick around and click on other internal links. That’s not so say it’s not valuable traffic, it’s just that they stay long enough to read what they came for, and then leave (bounce rate has nothing to do with how long a visitor stays). That’s good news for my sponsored posts and reviews, since most of my search engine traffic is looking for information about products.

The second question – is my bounce rate affecting my search results – is even harder to answer, because google is so super secretive about how they get their results. So am I getting fewer visitors via google by making my site better for my regular readers? Could be. But in the end that’s a trade off that I’m more than willing to make.

Originally posted on Behind the Screen. All opinions expressed on this website come straight from Amy unless otherwise noted. This post has a Compensation Level of 0. Please visit Amy’s Full Disclosure page for more information. Amy also blogs at Filming In Brooklyn and Momtourage, and podcasts with The Blogging Angels.

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9 Responses to “What’s more important: your readers, or SEO?”

  1. Elissa on February 20th, 2011 8:45 pm

    You ask some good questions here…
    Corporately, the prevailing theory is to keep your website open while the user clicks on another link…I personally like it cuz the tabs stay open and I can easily track back..

    This would be a good #blogchat question..I’ve never done this chat but I know it happens on Sunday nights…you might get some interesting perspectives…


  2. Amy on February 20th, 2011 9:00 pm

    @Elissa – I’ve never participated in #blogchat except occasionally when I’ve just happened to see something. I don’t know why, it sounds right up my alley.

    I’m not sure why my preference is what it is, but I think it has to do with expectation. There are certain sites I go to all the time where I know the links will open in a new window, and it’s fine. But when I’m on someone’s blog and that happens, it’s rather jarring.


  3. Amy on February 20th, 2011 9:20 pm

    I guess it depends on your surfing style, but I hate it when an external link doesn’t open in a new window. Very often I am clicking on things that I’d like to read later – I keep a lot of tabs open when I’m surfing. Just another opinion :)


  4. Amy on February 20th, 2011 9:24 pm

    @Amy – I actually open a lot of links in a new window, so I totally get that, but I like to do it myself and have the option.


  5. Elissa on February 20th, 2011 9:29 pm

    Hey #blogchat is on NOW… and they’re talking about SEO!


  6. Ashley @ Mama of All Trades on February 20th, 2011 9:32 pm

    I am a one-window gal. I will right-click on every link I want to click on so I can make sure I choose for it to “Open in new tab”. I get annoyed at myself (not the site) when I straight click on a link and it pops open in a new window or the link redirects me in the same window. I end up going back to the link source and reopening the link in a new tab.
    Ashley @ Mama of All Trades´s last [type] ..Five Question Friday 2-18-11


  7. Amy on February 20th, 2011 9:33 pm

    @Elissa – I know, I’m there, but honestly it’s not helping much – like most of the good twitter chats that really caught on, it’s too much to follow, and my question just got lost.


  8. Beth @ TheAngelForever on February 21st, 2011 10:34 am

    I switched over my links to open new windows quite a while ago. It would drive me batty as a reader when I was reading, clicked on a link and went right to a new page. In doing this, I lost what I had been reading and from time to time things would crash. I like when windows open so I can multi-task at my own pace.
    Beth @ TheAngelForever´s last [type] ..Making New Hockey Memories


    Amy Reply:

    @Beth @ TheAngelForever, I’m not surprised that most people like to open their links in a new window – I open a lot of mine that way – but I’m really surprised at how many people either do it that way on their own sites, or don’t mind when other sites do it for them automatically. Seriously, surprised.


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