Better SEO Through Design

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Rand Kramer
Rand Kramer
Is it possible to design a great looking website and achieve a high level of search engine optimization (SEO)? It sure is, and we see evidence of this all over the Web, as well as in mobile platforms. In recent years the heavy emphasis on Web standards has enabled designers to develop more creative, engaging interface designs without compromising SEO goals. Effective SEO is no longer a mystifying goal that only trained SEO consultants can achieve. Think of the combination of good SEO and quality design as just sound site development. To dig in further, this article takes a closer look at how to achieve both without having to sacrifice design principles or effective SEO.

Lessons from the Design Studio

Here are some things to think about well before, and during, the design process:

  1. When setting up a page structure and composition, designers tend to start with a specific defined grid system. You should take it a step further by considering how the grid can support elements for SEO; not only where images and text will be placed on the page, but also setting up a clear hierarchy of information, logical page titles and text links, headings and sub heads. This approach not only supports users' browsing behavior but also makes it easier for search engine spiders to move throughout the site.

    Aarron Walter's, Building Findable Websites, makes the point that designers should think about human interactions first and not try to trick the system to get to the top of search rankings. “Build for humans first and at the same time make sure our content is accessible to machines as well, which is going to help us reach more humans to make it more findable.”

  2. Unnecessary tables can obstruct your HTML code. Search engine spiders read clean semantic markup and basic HTML. They read from left to right and top to bottom. Most competent designers today would not consider building a site with tables and are on board with standard and validated code practices.JavaScript at the top of your page can also inhibit search engine spiders. Some developers suggest placing the JavaScript at the bottom of the page. Be careful if you take this approach since it can substantially slow down page load times. In addition, for global drop down menus that may be overlooked by search engines it is recommended to have a set of redundant navigation links in the footer and as inset sub page navigation. Also be sure to use cascading style sheets (CSS) to emulate rollover effects and don't use images in the place of text.

  3. As a designer, I have always enjoyed the benefits of the interactivity of Flash, especially when brought into the components of a website. Flash allows typography and video to render uniformly across a variety of platforms, which removes design limitations found in straight HTML-based sites. To learn more on this topic, I'd recommend an interview with Justin Everett-Church from Adobe where he speaks about how to make Flash accessible.

  4. Type should be type and not a graphic representation; search engines do not see graphics the same way as text, they see only a single associated alt tag. If you present text elements as graphics, you are putting your site at risk for lower search engine rankings. Instead, use system fonts for text, which is also a basic principle when building a purely HTML site.

  5. The ability for users to find a website depends not only on how well the site is built from a technical perspective, but also on good user experience principles. By focusing on-site architecture and sticking with some basic conventions, you'll produce clearly defined content and pages for your site. Your users will find what they are looking for, visit more of your site, stay longer and tell others about the site. After all, that is what you should strive for.

Ultimately, it is possible to have a well designed website that is visually appealing, content rich and emotionally engaging – while also achieving high search engine rankings. As designers, we should never pursue top search ranking to the detriment of usability, accessibility and brand integrity. If you plan for both, and realize that as a good designer, SEO and compelling design are your responsibility, this will lead you to creating findable sites and enjoying the kudos of happy clients.

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