Make’em Work, But Not Too Hard: Zipf’s Law of Least Effort and SEO

Zipf’s Law of Least Effort states that the way to make something work is not by working hard, but instead by doing it less and doing more of other things. This creates a paradox where those who work harder don’t actually get anything done because they’re too busy trying to do everything well. The law also applies when crafting SEO strategy: you can make sure your site ranks for keywords with little effort, but if you want long-term success in ranking high on Google’s search engine results page (SERP), then you should focus on just a handful of key terms at first

In the SEO world, I’m a bit of an outcast. I’ve been an information architect for 16 years, the past seven of which have been spent focusing on search engines. This puts me solidly in the SEO and UX camps, and I’m wary of Google from both perspectives. My life’s aim, mission, and jihad is to close the gap between SEO and UX so that we can take the choice of what’s relevant away from the algorithms and give it back to people, like you and me.

Kathleen Garvin and Webinomy have given me the chance to write about critical UX ideas that impact rank in search results through the Panda algorithm’s ever-shifting structure. We spoke about mental models before. We discussed the center of attention and Google’s page layout algorithm last month. Today’s article looks at Zipf’s Law of Least Effort, or don’t-make-me-work-too-hard-to-get-what-I-want-or-I’ll-bounce-back-and-pick-someone-else-and-your-rank-will-drop-as-your-bounce-rate-rises, as it pertains to your site visitors.

It would seem self-evident that no one wants to work any harder than necessary to achieve a goal. That didn’t stop Harvard linguistics professor George Zipf from verifying this in 1949 with his Principle of Least Effort, which has since become a staple of user experience.

The Zipf’s Principle of Least Effort entails the following:

  • People want the best results with the least amount of work.
  • The majority of productive activities are repeated repeatedly, and as a result, they get simpler and faster with time.

The Principle of Least Effort, when applied to website user experience, suggests that visitors do not want to spend a lot of time and effort deconstructing your novel navigation labels.

Is it simple or precise?

Professor Zipf’s conclusions on least effort are bolstered by new study into the factors consumers use to choose information sites. Should I look it up on the internet or ask the savvy villain down the hall? The moderating influence of information need in information source selection from Lu and Yuan for the following findings apply the Principle of Least Effort to information resource selection.

Quality (relevance and specificity to the topic being addressed) and accessibility are two criteria used by information searchers when evaluating information resources (ease at which an information seeker can reach an information source to get what they need).

When characterizing users as “cognitive misers,” Lu and Yuan point to the sufficiency principle, claiming that most of the time they are seeking for a “good enough” rather than “the best” response. Because browsing the Web is very simple and search engines do such a fantastic job of determining “quality” via relevance ranking, accessibility would be the most important consideration in making a decision.

What Does This Have to Do With Search Engine Optimization?

The user has an option. If you are fortunate enough to be towards the top of search results for a query and do not immediately satisfy the user after arriving on your website, they will swiftly dismiss you and go on to another option. Matt Cutts has discussed Panda and bounce rate enough times that we may reasonably believe there’s some truth to it.

According to Google study published in The Role of Visual Complexity and Prototypicality…, individuals prefer text over picture for information gathering because it is simpler to read and comprehend words than it is to deconstruct what an image is attempting to express. Let’s look at a few Fit’s Fails in terms of user experience and, as a consequence, SEO.

Least Effort Fail 1: I’m seeking for a digital firm that can assist me boost my website’s earnings. The one below will have me digging through each part to see whether what I’m looking for is there. When I go there, there’s a lot of huge text and nice colors, but I have to browse to the bottom of the page to see whether they provide the services I’m looking for or if they explain why I should want what they have.

I’m sure this is an award-winning site, and I’m willing to bet my bottom dollar that their bounce rate is high, as consumers take one look and then return to a more straightforward result. Why not provide menus for navigation? Why should your users have to work any harder than necessary to achieve what they require? Professor Zipf would argue that the user mental model adapts to the existence of navigation, and that scrolling around takes far more work than picking another search engine result.


Least Effort Fail 2: Collective is another digital design firm that missed the Zipf message when they released their site with cryptic navigation labels. A row of photos with indecipherable words appear in front of our brow-furrowing text, neither of which gives me any indication of what I’ll encounter on the other end. Sigh. I decide that finding out would be too difficult, so I return to the search results for selection number any-one-but-this-one.


Least Effort Fail 3: This digital firm feels that site visitors are interested in hearing about their numerous successes, and fortunate visitors will find this information prominently displayed above the fold. Don’t get me wrong: I believe in design. However, I do not believe it is the most significant component of the mix, and neither is information about your firm. The navigation labels are rather obvious. The trend of “no menus” encourages consumers to hunt for what they want; most of them probably don’t.


Leave no one behind, whether it’s a user or a client.

Unfortunately, my Christmas request for SEO to return to its former simplicity was not realized. It’s more difficult today, and it requires sleeve rolling, getting in touch with squishy human behavior, and that all SEOs “cowboy up,” reaching across the aisle to help their UX colleagues in prioritizing people above design.

  1. Users want a fast and simple response. On landing, make sure the page’s content is front and center in the user’s line of sight.
  2. Text is preferred over images by users because it is simpler to understand. Fight to be included in the design stage so that you may advocate hard, if necessary with fisticuffs, for clarity and direction when users arrive on a page.
  3. It’s not only about getting connections in, but also about getting links out. Examine your clients’ websites through the perspective of the least amount of work. Users don’t always have the luxury of time to browse the site. Are there any helpful connections or pathways to similar or beneficial information?
  4. Users, not placement, are the focus of keyword research. Examine the language that people use to access the site. Make it as easy as possible for your users to understand what labels and link text represent.
  5. Being overly unique isn’t always a good thing. Examine competition sites to ensure that yours isn’t too far off the mark in terms of what visitors anticipate.

UX, SEO, and the squinty-eyed academics who lead us in the right direction with their studies are all in this together. I’m not sure about you, but I think I’m in good company. Google Panda, beware! We’ve got you covered.

P.S. Don’t miss Whiteboard Friday: SEO Information Architecture. (Many thanks to Rand! It’s great to see you get on the UX is the new SEO bandwagon bandwagon. You’re not alone in this.)

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