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Frames and search engine visibility

Still answering this question after all of these years

Most of the major commercial web search engines can follow the links inside of a frameset layout. They have had that capability for many years. Nevertheless, many search engine optimization (SEO) professionals make inaccurate and erroneous blanket statements about frames and search-engine friendly web sites, which leads me to the following reader question:

I heard I shouldn't use frames in my web site if I want high quality traffic and high search engine positions. Is this true?

Alas, another search engine marketing myth. Web sites designed in frames can get high quality search engine visibility. But there are some things you should know about frames befor deciding to use it as an element of your site design.

Frames and search engine spam

There is the issue of frames abuse. Many unethical search engine marketers like to use hidden framesets, often called envelope pages, to stuff keywords in a web pages, keywords that search engines can see but the target audience cannot see (most of the time). They place words inside of the <noframes> and <noscript> tags, hoping to boost search engine visibility.

The result? Search engine engineers caught on very quickly. Now search engines either ignore or demote the keywords found in these tags. So, in terms of search engine positioning, they are practically useless.

But back to frames. Should you or should you not use them in your web site design?

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Pros and cons of frames

One of the first web site designs I ever created was formatted in frames. It was a real estate site, and the frameset layout was a logical choice, given the size of the web site. The site had no problems ranking well in the search engines for two reasons:

  1. The site was fully navigational and crawlable without the frameset layout, and

  2. There were only two frames, and the main content frame still looked fine without the other frame.

Search engines select the web page that they determine is the best for search listings. It might not be the page you would choose.

First and most importantly, the content inside of the main frame must be written with keyword-rich text, since that is the frame that should contain the information that is most important to the search engines and your site's visitors. All main content frame pages must contain unique title tags, page and section headings (when applicable), relevant meta-tag content, alternative text (when applicable), anchor text, and so forth.

Second, the site had a secondary navigation -- text links. As I stated in the article Image maps and search engine visibility, always have multiple means of navigation, one of which is search engine friendly. I always create sets of text links that correspond to sets of navigation buttons. The main content frame always had a set of navigation links at the bottom of a page and embedded links in the main content area, when applicable.

Never assume the search engines are only going to crawl and index the page that contains instructions for the frameset layout. Search engines will select the page(s) that they determine are the best options. The page they select might not be the page you would choose.

Third, if a main content page was the only page that ranked well in the search engines, the still looked aesthetically pleasing without the other frame.

What ended up happening with this site? The web site owner eventually abandoned the frameset layout for an unframed site because users did not want to scroll to the bottom of the web page to navigate the site. Result? Better web site usability, more traffic, and higher search engine positions.

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Frames and web site usability

Frameset designs pose multiple problems. Sure, pages within a frameset can be search engine friendly and rank well. I have designed many frameset designs whose pages rank well, delivering quality and consistent traffic over time. But it doesn't mean the frameset design is optimal. It just means that it can rank.

When you design and write a site, always design and write primarily for your end users, not the search engines because the search engines won't purchase thousands or millions of dollars of your products and services. Your target audience will. A site should always be optimized for your target audience first, search engines second.

If a site is properly optimized for "human" usability, the site is often search engine friendly by default.

Usability experts continually do not recommend frameset designs. And they don't make that recommendation because they like making blanket statements. They test the effectiveness of the framed and unframed layouts.

Although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence in favor of frames, look past the sales pitch for facts.

I, too, have tested the effectiveness of the framed and unframed versions of the sites I've designed. And, without exception, the unframed design always gets more search engine traffic and higher conversions. I can attribute the higher traffic and conversions to the removal of the frameset because it's the only attribute that I changed in the design.

Although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence in favor of using frames as a design format ("Well, my site ranks in the top 10 with a framed design...."), you should look past the sales pitch. Usability experts and people like me perform usability tests to verify our recommendations. We test our results over a specific time period, measuring only a single variable at a time. That is really the only way to get reliable data.

Frames solutions

As stated in Chapter 2 of Search Engine Visibility, one solution is to give your site visitors the option of navigating your site in the framed and unframed versions. Let your target audience determine the most effective layout.

If you find that your site visitors prefer the framed design, then use that design. If you find they prefer the unframed design, then use that one. You might discover that with the, site visitors are able to perform their desired actions more easily and efficiently with the unframed design.

But I know that bosses and the "powers that be" can be unreasonable and want to use frames merely because they think they are cool. If you are in a situation where you absolutely must have a frameset layout, then you will have to employ a JavaScript workaround on every page of your site, which, quite frankly, is quite time consuming, but it works. My SEO colleague, Alan Perkins, wrote an outstanding article about self referencing framesets which explains how to do this.

My honest opinion? The time it takes to create the frames workaround can be better spent in writing quality content that your target audience wishes to read, and building a more effective interface.

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Conclusion

Usability experts, web site designers, and search engine marketers consistently state that end users prefer an unframed web site design to a framed site design. Many of them, particularly the usability experts, do not make blanket statements because they are narcissistic. They genuinely test the effectiveness of both types of designs and ultimately recommend the one that is best for the audience.

If you find that a frameset layout works for you, then by all means, use it. However, don't be afraid to test whether or not your audience prefers the unframed version of your site. You will probably see an increase in traffic and corresponding sales.

 

Shari Thurow - photoArticle by Search Engine Visibility author Shari Thurow, Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine optimization (SEO), web site usability, information architecture (IA) and web design firm. Shari is also the co-author of When Search Meets Web Usability.

If you would like permission to publish this article for your online newsletter, blog, or web site, please fill out our contact form or call us at 847-426-4256.

For more information about our search engine optimization, search usability training, information architecture (IA), and site design services, please fill out our contact form or call us at 847-426-4256.

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