Coming up with a web design that is great for both the user and search engines is something that web designers should learn early in their career. This enables them to approach their projects from an additional different perspective – that of the business owner who is concerned about traffic and conversions and revenue.
‘Branding’ is not the main reason most businesses create a website; they want a measurable return from it.
In the words of the late advertising giant David Ogilvy – “It’s not creative unless it sells.”
Here are some tips we think all web design students should know:
Ensure Your Content Can be Indexed
Ensure Your Site Navigation is SEO Friendly
Plan Your Site Structure Properly
Use Appropriate Anchor Text for Internal Linking
Use Human-Readable URLs
This might seem like a very ‘duh!’ thing to point out, but you’d be surprised by how many relatively new websites we find that have content that cannot be indexed. For example, take a look at this site which was designed just three years ago:
Using a search engine stimulator, this is what a search engine spider sees:
Yup, absolutely nothing except the page title.
Ajax also presents a problem. Since it loads content dynamically, it isn’t spiderable by search engines. Also, the URL doesn’t change so your user is unable to bookmark the page or send it to a friend (or tweet or like or share the page).
Side note – a few weeks ago the marketing manager of this company was approached by an SEO company. They quoted him for a search engine optimization campaign – without any talk of a website redesign! Go figure.
It’s not uncommon to find website navigation built with Flash or using images. The problem is that Google isn’t very good at crawling Flash and can’t even read images. Sure, you can put in the alt text, but it still passes less link juice than text links and these are the most important pages on your site.
And never, ever use mystery meat navigation.
One of the ways Google determines the importance of a particular page in relation to the site itself is to look at how far away the page is from the home page. The further away it is, the less importance it gives the page. If it’s a large site that requires a deeper structure, try to group your pages thematically. How you link internally is very important as it determines how PageRank flows through your site.
Make sure you use the appropriate anchor text for your internal linking as well. This helps search engines understand the content on the page. Of course, don’t go overboard with it.
Your URLs must be descriptive of your content. Human-readable URLs are useful not only to the search engines but to your users too. Which of the following would you prefer?
Having your keywords in your URL will help in your rankings as well.
Choose Static Over Dynamic URLs
A static URL doesn’t change so there aren’t any parameters. For example, http://cloudrock.asia/malaysia-seo is a static URL.
A dynamic URL typically occurs when content is pulled from a database. In this case, the site serves as merely a template for the content. Dynamic URLs usually have characters such as ? or #.
PageRank flows similarly to both static URLs and dynamic URLs. However, try to limit it to 2 or 3 parameters to make it easier on the search engines.
- More memorable
- Better for use in offline media
- Higher click throughs
- Better keyword relevance
- Search engines handle static URLs better
The only caveat is that you have to be able to do the rewrites properly (so pay attention in class!).
Use Unique Meta Data & Page Titles
We always see websites with the same meta data for every single page.
Ever since Panda came along, duplicate content has become a huge issue especially for e-commerce websites. You have to help Google tell that every page is unique and the page title is one of the first indicators. It appears in the SERPs, so a well-written one will help increase your click-through rates. Keep it to around 65 characters so that it doesn’t get truncated.
Meta description tags are also largely ignored. Granted, they don’t affect rankings but they are important when it comes to your click-through rates. A well-written meta description help users determine if they want to read your article.
Meta tags are important, but at the same time…
Stuffing the Meta Keywords Tag is Not SEO
The meta keywords tag is basically useless for SEO (unless you’re doing SEO for the dominant search engine in China, Baidu). Still, we see ‘Optimize Meta Keywords’ in a number of designers’ web design packages in Malaysia.
The worst part is that they keyword stuff the meta keywords tag. Not only is it useless, Bing uses it as an indicator of spam so they are possibly harming their clients’ websites.
Block Pages You Don’t Want Indexed
This is especially important during the developmental stage. You do not want a search engine indexing your half-built web pages. Also, some designers we’ve worked with have been really sloppy and do not delete unused or unwanted folders.
You can block pages with a Robots.txt file or use a developmental environment like XAMPP.
Flash is attractive to web designers because it gives the impression of high-production values, sophistication and cinematic grandeur. But from a search engine perspective, a splash page could stop its spiders right in their tracks. A splash page is typically made with Flash and this could mean you won’t get indexed beyond the first page.
From a usability perspective, splash pages just means another step a user has to take before reaching the content they are looking for. Here’s a great quote from Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering at Macromedia (the company that made Flash):
When we have clients who are thinking about Flash splash pages, we tell them to go to their local supermarket and bring a mime with them. Have the mime stand in front of the supermarket, and, as each customer tries to enter, do a little show that lasts two minutes, welcoming them to the supermarket and trying to explain the bread is on aisle six and milk is on sale today.
If a usability expert from the company that made the product tells you it’s not a good idea, then it’s bloody well not a good idea.
Choose WWW or Non-WWW Now
This is a very common oversight. Search engines treat the www version (a subdomain) as a separate website from your non-www version. If you don’t choose between one or the other, you’re just splitting your PageRank between the two.
Use 301 Redirects, Not 302s
301 and 302 are both HTTP status codes that are returned to the browser when you request a page from the server.
301s are permanent redirects. They tell search engines that you have permanently moved the page to another location. They would then transfer any link juice from the current page to the redirected one.
302s are temporary redirects. They do not pass any link juice (although after a while Google can learn that the page has been permanently moved).
Always use 301s when you change the location of a page.
Use a Sitemap
Provided that you have good on-page navigation, search engines would have no problem crawling through your website even without a sitemap. Even so, John Mu from Google states that they do still use sitemaps so you wouldn’t do yourself any harm by submitting one. If your navigation is complicated, then you definitely should submit a sitemap.
Use the Heading Tags Properly
Your heading tags help tell search engines what your content is about so use them properly. There shouldn’t be more than one H1 for each page. Use the H2-H6 tags to show the hierarchy of your content. Try not to use the font tags to create your headings. If you need to stylize your heading tags, do it in your CSS file.
Don’t Neglect Image Alt Attributes
While Google can download images, search engines can’t make sense of images nearly as well as humans can. The Alt text passes anchor text and helps search engines makes sense of the image. Do not leave it blank especially if your site uses a lot of images.
Page Load Speed Matters
Although not a major factor, Google does use the page load speed as a ranking factor so it’s important you ensure your website loads quickly. A common mistake we see is websites with a lot of code in the section which slows it down.
You can use this free tool to check your load times.
Do a Basic Install of Google Analytics
It takes about ten minutes to sign up for a Google Analytics account and to place the code in the HEAD section of your website. You don’t even have to do any customizations at all at this stage. Even if your client doesn’t request for it, you’ll be doing them a huge favour by implementing it and teaching them how to read the data.
Remember, the only value a client derives from their website is how much money they make out of it. This means traffic and conversions.
While you’re at it, don’t forget to connect Google Analytics to your Google Webmaster Tools.
W3C Validation Is Not Important for SEO
This is not a SEO tip per se, but we have been hearing this myth being bandied about quite a lot lately so we’re going to put an end to it here.
W3C validation has little importance to SEO outside of ensuring proper rendering to your website visitors.
Visit the website of any billion-dollar company (Amazon, Twitter etc) and chances are you will find a website that doesn’t validate. Heck, even Google.com itself doesn’t validate.
Validating your code is good, but don’t claim that it does anything at all for rankings.
If Your Client Wants SEO, Bring a Specialist in from the Start
Just because you have followed the tips above doesn’t mean you’ve ‘done SEO’. At the most, you’re offering SEO-friendly web design, which is already great in our book. There are only a handful of local designers we’ve met who can do that (no matter what they claim).
However, there are a lot of other considerations beyond web design when it comes to a full-fledged SEO campaign.
Sure, some designers have managed to rank their own websites (they are the subject matter experts themselves and have no problem coming up with tutorials and other great content), or for their clients in less competitive markets.
But they usually come up short when it comes to more competitive verticals where links are hard to earn organically, the clients don’t have great (or any) content, don’t know how to create any and the designers themselves are not familiar with the subject matter. This is common especially in the B2B markets in Malaysia.
And working alongside a knowledgeable SEO consultant would be an interesting learning experience for you as well. God knows I’ve learnt a lot from the talented web designers I’ve worked with.
And by at the start, I mean even before you buy the domain name. Bringing a SEO consultant early on will benefit both you and your client. For one thing, you won’t have to do any rework to accommodate SEO concerns – which I know is something web designers really hate.
Do you have any other tips for budding web designers?
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