At its core, web design is about taking what is essentially bland, context-free information and elevating into a form that is as intuitively usable as it is aesthetically pleasant. It’s about making modern communication easy, in much the same way that good handwriting was the key to the scribes of the Dark Ages and the art of the layout was critical to the earliest drum-printed newspapers.
The ‘problem’ of web-based businesses is that they can’t afford to devote themselves strictly to appealing to their surfers — there’s another entity (if you’ll give me the latitude to refer to them as such) that looks at the pages first. They’re the spiders — the web skimmers that Google and other search engines have by the thousands that are constantly scanning websites, reporting content, and feeding the algorithms that build the search engine’s results pages. Those spiders don’t have aesthetics (yet!), so how does a web designer please such a creature?
SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, has two parts: the off-page part that involves getting other websites to link to your content, and the on-page part that involves manipulating the code of the website to offer the maximum appeal to those spiders. There’s no ‘pleasing’ a robot with art, naturally, but there’s definitely a science to telling them exactly what they want to hear.
Count to three. 1…2…3….that was 1713 new webpages that just got created. If you can’t tell the spiders what they want to hear, whatever website you’re creating, no matter how artistically amazing, is going to be useless because there’s going to be thousands of websites between your page and the first page of Google.
So what can a web designer do to create the best on-page SEO? Here’s a few simple line items:
- Create The Right Kind of Hierarchy: Surfers generally couldn’t care less about your site’s hierarchy, but it matters immensely to the spiders. Keep your website flat — no more than 4 clicks from the homepage to any page you want to show up in the SERPs. If you find that a specific ‘deep’ page is getting a lot of spider action, create some links from that page to some of your less-hit pages.
- Universal Navigation: Spiders like a website that flows logically, but users need to be able to use your navigation easily as well. The tipping point between the two is called ‘universal navigation’ — the strip at the top of (almost) every modern webpage that offers links to all of your site’s most important pages. If you’re going to use drop-down menus off of that bar, make certain they’re coded in HTML; the surfer won’t know the difference, but it’s much easier on the spider that way.
- Meta Description: Any website that you want to see ranked on Google needs to have a meta description that is both accurate for the surfers and contains one or two keywords for the spiders, end of story.
- Image Optimization: Take the time to name your images, and include an Alt tag describing the picture and a Title tag that either describes the picture or is witty and useful to a surfer…and if you can work a keyword into one or more of the filename, alt tag, or title tag, so much the better. Yes, this includes images like the banner, the frames, and all of those other parts that provide the backdrop of the website.
- URL Optimization: Similarly, the URL of each page on a website should have a clear, hyphenated description of what the page is about (and, if it doesn’t suck, a relevant keyword.) If you’re blogging, for example, you should already have the keyword in the title — so using the title as the URL identifier is smart.
- Avoid Relative URLs: This is simple and vital — absolute links reduce server response time, make more sense to both surfers and spiders, and are the only links you should ever use ever.
- Load Time Is Important: One of the more challenging jobs of the web designer is making a site that has the visual ‘wow factor’ without taking a long time to load. Minimize the number of HTML queries that need to be made in order to load the page, and you’ll make both surfers and spiders happy.
- Metadata: This is debatable as to whether it’s up to the SEO guy or the content producer, but someone should be putting metadata — sometimes called ‘Rich Snippets,’ ‘Microdata,’ or ‘Schema’ — into your content. Metadata tells Google exactly what kind of data each labeled item is, such as identifying the author of a book being discussed. Moz’ Guide to Rich Snippets has a lot more information on the subject.
SEO and web design might seem like they’re at odds to an outsider — the art vs. the science, as it were — but the truth is they’re much more like chocolate and peanut butter: two great services that serve great together.