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Search-engine friendly design: more important than links?

Why design and validation are equally important

Search engine optimization (SEO) professionals have a wide variety of search engine strategies. Some SEO professionals emphasize link development above all other ranking factors. Others claim to know the secret sauce -- search engine algorithms. Where does search-engine friendly design fit in? Which leads me to a reader's question:

Ten years ago, all I heard from SEO experts was keywords, keywords, keywords. Now all I hear about is links, links, links and social, social, social. I understand keywords are important. I understand that links might be more important than anything else. Do you think that design is just as important as links?

I have a very different perspective than many of my colleagues. I do not believe link development is more important than any other ranking factor. I do not believe keywords are less important than they used to be. Rather, I believe that a search-engine friendly design is equally as important as keywords. And I believe a search-engine friendly design is equally as important as objective, external third-party link development.

A web site's information architecture and interface design are important for many reasons:

  1. Your target audience wants an aesthetically pleasing web site that is easy to navigate.

  2. How web designers and developers code your web pages will greatly impact your site's search engine visibility (because they affect crawling and indexation).

  3. A search-engine friendly design can greatly decrease, or even diminish, other search engine marketing and advertising costs.

Here are a few things to always remember about search-engine friendly web design:

Design for your target audience

In a study from Consumer Web Watch, over 2,600 participants were asked to rate the credibility of web sites based on a variety of factors. The study's results showed that the two most important factors for credibility were "Design Look" (46.1%) and "Information Design/Structure" (28.5%). Even though this study is "old" by web standards, the study raises an important point: people have to look at a web page before they will actually read its content.

Imagine a web site that is only constructed with words formatted in XHTML text. No products photos, logos, nothing except keyword-rich HTML text. Would you honestly purchase products from a site that has no photos of the product?

Components of search engine optimization (SEO)

Figure 1: The elements of search engine optimization (SEO).

Likewise, what do you think doorway pages are made of? That's right, mostly XHTML text. That's why they can rank well -- temporarily. But they rarely convert.

So the design of your site matters to your site's visitors. They have to trust you. They won't order from you if they do not trust you. Your web site design does communicate trust.

The problem with many search engine optimization firms is that they think with blinders on. They only thing that matters to them is a top position, or they focus on keywords only, or they focus on links only. I am not saying that keyword phrases and links are not important (because they are - they are each an essential element of search engine optimization). I am saying that there is so much more to the search engine optimization process than placing words on a page and/or building links to a web site.

Usability issues, branding, and the user experience are also important.

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Design for people who use search engines

Of course, all web sites should be designed and written primarily with the target audience in mind, but your target audience will probably be using the commercial web search engines to find the products, services, and information offered on your site.

Let's say your copywriters have written the keyword-rich text that you need. If you build your site with various technologies (Flash, session IDs, jQuery, responsive design, AJAX, etc.), then the search engine spiders can have a very difficult time accessing that keyword-rich text. Or they will not be able to access it at all. Result? Little or no search engine visibility.

Quick tip: Responsive design is not naturally search-engine friendly.

Also, popularity is a very important component of search engine algorithms. So your human visitors must actually like your site. In other words, they should find your site easy to navigate and easy to use. If your visitors find your site contains quality content and easy to use, they are more likely to link to it.

Therefore, design matters to the search engines so they can access your keyword-rich text, and it matters to your human visitors so they can easily find that keyword-rich text once they arrive at your site.

In fact, a search-engine friendly web site is going to provide more accurate search results for your internal site search engine, which totally enhances the user experience.

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Design for the searcher experience

Realistically, the majority of web sites need to contain graphic images. Sites need logos for branding purposes. People like to see what they are purchasing, whenever possible. And as much as I love style sheet capabilities, the proverb "pictures speak 1,000 words" is true more often than one might imagine.

I have also read many articles where search engine optimization firms claim that they specialize in SEO only, not being a web design firm who "dabbles" in SEO.

I wouldn't hire a search engine optimizer who DOESN'T understand how design affects search engine visibility. All search engine marketers should be able to work with all types of site designs and troubleshoot them. Is the site navigation scheme problematic? Or is the URL structure the problem? Hire an information architect and work closely with him or her.

Sloppy XHTML code? When should you use graphic images and when should you use XHTML text? Don't listen to a technical person's mental model. Does your target audience have the same mental model as technical people? I very much value the technical skills of developers and programmers. But I also know when their advice is valid...and recognize when their decisions are not made in the right context.

What about site usability? How many search engine optimizers are educated in website usability? People are not going to order your products and services if they do not find your site easy to use. They are not going to link to your website, nor are they likely to cite your content via their preferred social media.

Web designers and developers can create web sites that please both the search engines and human visitors. It just takes education, training, practice, and a realistic attitude.

So to answer your question: in a nutshell, when it comes to search engine optimization design is just as important as keywords. Design is just as important as links. These elements are not mutually exclusive.

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, and site design services, please fill out our contact form or call us at 847-426-4256.

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