Effective Search Engine Optimization for Web Designers
Steven Snell – Vandelay Design
Many clients ask their web designers to optimize their website to increase visibility with search engines and to attract more visitors. Some designers and agencies offer specific SEO (search engine optimization) services and others want nothing to do with SEO. Most clients that ask for a search engine optimized website understand very little about what is involved in SEO and what it takes to achieve top rankings for competitive keywords.
Because web design and SEO are closely related, it’s a topic that designers are frequently asked about, but there is often a lot of gray area about what is the responsibility of the designer and what is within the designer’s power. While many clients want the designer to create a website that ranks well and attracts targeted visitors, SEO is really an ongoing process that involves much more than the design and coding of the site. Things like keyword research, content development, and link building are also critical aspects of optimizing a website for search engines, and typically these are all ongoing processes.
Although SEO involves much more than just design, there is still a lot that the designer can do to set the foundation for an optimized website. If the designer creates a search engine-friendly site any future and ongoing SEO efforts will have a greater impact. In my opinion, web design and SEO are separate services, and a designer cannot create a truly optimized website without other pieces to the puzzle. The designer should create a search-friendly site and educate clients on what else will need to be done (such as content development and link building) in order to effectively optimize the site for searches.
In this post we’ll take a detailed look at the subject of web designers and SEO and many of the issues that are involved.
What is the Designer’s Responsibility in Terms of SEO?
As was mentioned in the intro, the designer should create a website that is search engine-friendly and will set the foundation for all other SEO efforts. What does it mean to be search engine-friendly? Essentially the term recognizes that design and coding of a site only has so much impact on search engine rankings. A search-friendly site will make it easy for search engines to find the content, determine what the site and pages are really about, and allow the site to rank as high as possible based on the content of the site. However, a search-friendly website needs more work to be truly optimized for search engines. For a detailed look at what makes a website search engine-friendly see How to Create Search Engine Friendly Websites by Cape Cod SEO. We’ll take a detailed look at some of the specifics later in this article.
In addition to building a search-friendly site, the designer should also discuss the subject of search engine rankings with the client to explain what else needs to be done on top of having a search-friendly site, and also should work with the client to identify keywords and phrases to help the client reach the right visitors. In some cases the client will already have identified the words and phrases they want to target, but some clients may not have even considered this before hiring a designer.
Why Does SEO Matter to Designers?
If web design and search engine optimization are really two different services, why should SEO matter to designers? For starters, some designers and agencies offer both services, so naturally there will be some overlap and SEO must be taken into consideration during the design process.
Even for those designers that do not offer specific SEO services, clients hire a designer to get results. While the client’s opinion of the designer will certainly be impacted by the visual appeal and aesthetics of the design, what most businesses really want from a new website design is impact. If it’s an e-commerce site, they will want to sell more products. If it’s a blog, they will want more traffic, subscribers, and interaction in the comments. If it’s a service-oriented business, they will want more inquiries and ultimately more customers/clients that are generated from the site.
If a designer wants to keep clients happy and pick up more referral business, the designer should be equally concerned about the results that are achieved through the site as the visual appeal of the design. Regardless of the type of website being designed and developed, search engine traffic can help to achieve the desired results.
Since search engine traffic is so instrumental in the success of client websites, the designer should be well versed in building search-friendly websites and should give each site a chance to rank well. Otherwise, the designer may create sites that look great but ultimately wind up as a disappointment to clients.
The SEO Limitations of a Designer
Although the design and development process is critical to establishing a solid foundation for search engine optimization, there is only so much that can be done by the designer. Assuming the designer is not also providing services for content development, link building, and social media marketing, the chances of a site ranking well for highly competitive search phrases based solely on the work of the designer/coder are very slim. If the site is already well established in its industry and has considerable number of quality inbound links it will have a chance to rank well, otherwise, building a search-friendly site is just the start.
Web designers are frequently asked by clients to create an optimized website that will rank highly for their targeted search phrases, but unfortunately there is no magic wand that a designer can wave to achieve top rankings without other work. The design and coding of the site is simply one piece to the puzzle. The designer should educate clients on the basics of SEO and what will need to be done to achieve top rankings, or should help the client to identify less-competitive search phrases that may be achievable with a search engine-friendly site and some basic content development.
What Designers Shouldn’t Do
Because the design and coding of the site is really the foundation of SEO, it is important for setting things up properly, but it’s also important to not do anything that could cause this foundation to be unstable. Black hat SEO (anything that attempts to deceive the search engines and violates Google’s guidelines) may help a client to achieve better rankings in the short-term, but could seriously harm the site in the long run. Designers should have a basic understanding of SEO and what could potentially harm the rankings of their clients in order to avoid these situations.
Additionally, designers should avoid making promises like “I can create a site for you that will rank on the first page of Google for X keyword.” Particularly if the designer is providing just design and coding services and not additional SEO services, there is only so much that the designer can control and promises like this will often be difficult to keep. When clients ask for a site that will achieve specific search rankings, the best thing to do is to explain what is involved in optimizing a website, offer your help for the services that you provide, and recommend someone else for specific SEO-related services if there are parts that you do not offer.
Effective SEO for Web Designers
Now that we have discussed the role of the designer in the SEO process and why search traffic should be considered by designers, we’ll take a look at some specific things that designers can do to create a search-friendly site for clients. For the purposes of this article, references to web design are intended to include front end development (HTML/CSS coding) as well as visual design.
1. Thoroughly Discuss the Topic of SEO with Clients and Help Them to Determine Which Keywords Should be Targeted
At the start of any design project it is helpful to discuss the topic of search engine optimization with clients. This is helpful for a few key reasons: 1) If the client has unrealistic expectations about a designer being able to create a site that will rank highly, it is helpful to educate them on the breadth of SEO and the role of design as one aspect, and 2) The designer and the client need to work together to determine what search phrases should be targeted and how the site should be optimized. The client always knows their business and customers better than the designer, so it’s critical that they are involved in determining what search phrases should be targeted.
2. Basic Keyword Research
If the client has not considered or is not sure what keywords and phrases they want to target, the designer can assist them by doing some basic keyword research to determine which phrases searchers are using, what related phrases are also possibilities, and how much competition exists for these phrases. There a lot of tools and software available for keyword research, but the Google AdWords Keyword Tool is sufficient for basic research (and it’s free). With this tool you can enter some words or phrases, receive data on the number of searches that are done on a monthly basis for them, see the level of competition for AdWords (which is often representative of the level of competition for organic search results as well), and receive a list of suggested or related phrases.
Even if the client has already identified the phrases that they want to target, it’s not a bad idea for the designer to do some basic keyword research anyway. There may be other words and phrases not identified by the client that could be better in terms of number of searches or competition for rankings. Additionally, if clients have identified targeted phrases without doing any research it may be helpful to show them the level of competition that they will face by targeting these phrases and how that compares to the level of competition for other similar phrases.
3. Discuss Page Titles with Clients to Create Optimized Titles
The most important on-page factor for SEO is the page title. Ideally, page titles should include the targeted words and phrases in order to provide the best match when someone searches for the targeted word or phrase. Titles can include other text in addition to the targeted phrases, but the targeted phrase should be included in the title. Of course, each page on the site should have its own title and can be intended to target a different search phrase. For example, a photographer’s website may have a homepage with a title that targets the phrase “Philadelphia photographer” and secondary pages could target separate, but related, phrases like “Philadelphia wedding photographer” or “Philadelphia landscape photographer”.
Because page titles are so influential in search rankings, designers should discuss them with clients (at least on key pages) and use the keyword research to aid in determining what should be used for the titles. For clients that use WordPress, designers can install the All in One SEO Pack plugin that will allow users to control page titles on any pages and posts that they create.
4. Clean Code
Part of having a search friendly site is using clean code that makes it easy for search engine spiders to crawl the pages. If search engines have a hard time determining the content of a page it is unlikely to rank very well (see What Beautiful HTML Code Looks Like from CSS Tricks for an example of good code). CSS-based layouts makes it much easier to keep the HTML code clean by separating the content and the design, as opposed to table-based layouts.
5. Keep Primary Content High in the Code
The main content of a page should be located as high as possible within the HTML code of the page. Within the body, the header content will typically appear first, but the main content of the page should appear above sidebar content. Even if the sidebar is shown to the left of the content on the screen, a CSS-based layout can be used so that the content is still placed above the sidebar content in the code. Keeping the main content higher means that search engine spiders will find it quicker and they’ll have an easier time recognizing what they page is truly about.
6. Use Headers and Sub-Headers Appropriately
Heading tags (such as h1, h2, h3, etc.) should be used to indicate headers and sub-headers within pages. While it is possible to achieve the same look by setting font weight, style, or size without using header tags, the header tags indicate importance and structure for search engines. They make it easier for search engines to know what is being emphasized on the page, and they can help the designer to be able to target specific phrases.
7. Use Internal Links to Help Visitors and Search Engines Find the Important Content
Throughout this article we have talked about link building as an important part of SEO. Attracting links from other high-quality sites to pages on your own site (or your client’s site) is a critical part of achieving high search engine rankings, but internal links (a link from one page to another page on the site site) are also important. In general, search engines will assume that the pages that have the most internal links pointing towards them are most important. For instance, if every page on a site includes a link to a particular page that includes detailed information about a product, it would be logical to assume that the product detail page is pretty important.
Using internal links effectively can make it easier for search engine spiders to crawl through the site and find all of the content/pages, plus effective internal linking will make a site easy to use and navigate for visitors, which is ultimately more important than search engine rankings.
8. Use Appropriate Anchor Text
The anchor text (the clickable text in a link) is also important for search engine rankings, both from internal and external links. For the purposes of this article we’ll stick with internal links, since that is what the designer can control. Ideally, anchor text should match up with the targeted phrases or at least include them within a larger phrase of anchor text.
Using keywords and phrases in the anchor text helps to indicate to search engines the topic of the page that is being linked to. For optimization purposes it is better to use keyword-rich anchor text as opposed to “click here”.
9. Set Up a Sitemap
There are two different types of sitemaps and the each have their own purpose. XML sitemaps or Google sitemaps are not intended to be used by human visitors, rather they exist to help search engines find all of the important content of a site. An XML sitemap makes it easier for the search engine spiders to crawl the site and it reduces the chance of a spider missing a certain page and not including it in the index. WordPress-based sites can use the Google XML Sitemaps plugin to automate the process, and for other types of sites you can use a tool like XML-Sitemaps.
HTML sitemaps are intended to be used by human visitors as a way to find specific content on the site, however, they also have an SEO-related purpose. While HTML sitemaps are primarily intended for human visitors, they also provide an opportunity to use internal links to point towards all of the important pages of a site. When the search engine spiders find the sitemap they will be able to easily crawl through the site using the sitemap and the links in the sitemap can help the search engine to determine the important pages on the site (for large sites that don’t include a link to every page on the sitemap).
10. Use Friendly URLs
The URL of a page can have some impact on its search engine rankings, so it is best to use keywords or phrases within the URL. The ideal URL will include the important words or phrases that will tell both human visitors and search engines what the page is about without being ridiculously long. Very long URLs make it harder for users to copy and paste, email, and write down, and search engines also prefer shorter URLs.
Hyphens or underscores are often used as a way to separate words in a URL. This can make it easier for visitors and search engines to read the URL and determine the keywords. Most content management systems will allow you to have some control over the URLs that are created.
11. Use Alt Text on Images
Images and photos used on pages should include alt text for describing the image. The primary purpose of alt text is for accessibility and usability purposes, including screen readers for handicapped users. With effective alt text it is possible to know the purpose or the point of an image without even seeing it. For SEO purposes, keywords or phrases can be used in the alt text for a small boost. Alt text shouldn’t be used strictly for SEO purposes at the expense of usability, but it is helpful to use targeted words or phrases in the alt text when possible and appropriate.
12. Canonical Re-Direct
Search engines view http://example.com and http://www.example.com as two different pages (one has www and one does not). A canonical re-direct is helpful because it indicates to search engines which version of the page is preferred and eliminates the need to view them as two separate pages. Without a canonical re-direct search engine rankings may suffer. A re-direct can be setup in the .htaccess file, see 301 Redirects and www/non-www Canonical Problems.
13. Minimize Page Load Time
Page load time is important for user experience, and also in recent months Google has indicated that it will become more influential on search engine rankings as well. Minimizing load time is a rather large topic that could justify an article of its own (see How to Minimize Load Time for Fast User Experiences) but we’ll quickly look at a few issues here. Things like images, audio and video, as well as calls to a database will increase load time of pages. In general, the connection speed of most internet users has increased in recent years so larger page files and slower loading pages are not as big of a nuisance to most visitors today. However, it is still helpful to optimize files and use tools like YSlow to determine what can be optimized further.
While design is only a part of the SEO process, there are a number of on-page factors that a designer can, and should, control in order to build a search-friendly website. In situations where clients have unrealistic expectations for what a design can accomplish without efforts for building links or adding optimized content, the designer should communicate with the client to educate them on the basic factors that determine search rankings and what needs to be done in order to rank well for competitive phrases. Feel free to share your own opinions and experiences in the comments.