Online Exclusive: How to Build a Search Engine-Friendly Web Site

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As a seasoned search engine marketing professional, I've optimized hundreds of Web sites over the years. A vast majority of the time, I'm brought into the Web development process late in the game. Rarely am I brought in at the ideal time: during the planning phases of a site design or redesign. This oversight typically means higher costs and delays in the development process.

Because of this, my team of search engine optimization professionals has adapted to engagement during any phase of a Web site's lifespan. Based on past experiences, we've identified critical touch points during the site development process where Web designers and optimizers must collaborate. Each of the following Web development steps involves one or more touch points: site planning and specification, site architecture, wireframes, design comps, beta testing, site launch and maintenance.

Site planning and specification. In an ideal scenario, a company looking to create a new site, or redesign an existing site, should engage SEO professionals from the very start. The planning phase usually determines site objectives, functionality and content. Building a search engine-friendly Web site should be one of the objectives.

As such, the site functionality (or code) should be clean and content should be keyword-relevant. For example, Flash, frames and JavaScript are not inherently search friendly and should be used judiciously. Content should consist of HTML text containing keywords relevant to each pages' theme. If one of the Web site objectives is to be search engine friendly, the site specification should be reviewed and approved by an SEO professional.

Site architecture. During the architectural development phase, the Web design team typically determines the overall size and shape of the Web site. Two important elements of site architecture to search engines are the navigation and URL structure.

Ideally, the Web site will have at least one set of HTML-based navigation that can be easily "read" and followed by search engine spiders. From a content perspective, the architecture should include a site map and custom 404-error page. For the URL to be SEO friendly, it should be keyword-loaded (i.e. whether it is dynamically created or not.

Wireframes. More advanced site developers often include wireframes, or early design comps, that illustrate task flow and information architecture. Even though this phase does not address creative elements or code, it does illustrate basic page layout and contents. As such, a SEO-friendly Web site should include HTML text and navigation (often in the footer).

Design comps. The design comp phase addresses template design refinements, including layout, colors and imagery. In this phase, the design team should understand the impact of using HTML text for page headers instead of text graphics. In addition, the copywriter should be made aware of the impact of keyword density, proximity and relevance on each page. The programmers should be aware of the impact of their choice of platform and code on SEO-friendliness.

Beta testing. All sites should undergo a thorough quality assurance testing phase before launch. During this stage, the SEO professional should review the site on a page-by-page basis and provide specific recommendations on ALT, META and title tags. In addition, they should review the copy to ensure it is properly optimized.

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