SEO on your own site is straightforward, at least in terms of the politics. SEO'ing a site that a team works on is another matter.
You will come up against barriers. These barriers are often put up by designers, developers, copywriters and management. Frustrating as it is for the SEO, this is the reality of working on a site alongside other people, all of whom have agendas and requirements that may differ markedly from your own.
So how do you navigate this space? How do you ensure your SEO objectives can be met when other people may be resistant to change, or openly try to block you? In this post, we'll take a high-level, conceptual look at the challenges the SEO faces when working on a client site, and talking-points to help explore and clarify concepts.
1. Why Are We Doing SEO At All?
SEO is a pain.
It's complicated. It gets in the way, particularly when it comes to design. Why do we need headings and a lot of text when a picture tells a story? SEO appears to be an arbitrary, dark art with little in the way of fixed rules, and the client probably doesn't care about it anyway.
The thing is - if SEO is done well, a client may throw a whole lot more money at the site in future. Everyone likes to build on success, and that means more business, and more exposure, for everyone involved. On the internet, traffic = success. Traffic = money. A site that few people see, no matter how well executed, will likely fail, just like a site that fails to engage and convert visitors will fail. The client may not know they want SEO now, but you can be certain they'll be asking questions about it after launch.
If SEO is done poorly, the site may not be seen by as many people as it otherwise would. What use is a beautiful design that is seldom seen? What use is great code that is seldom used?
The value proposition of SEO is that it helps get a site seen. It's a powerful marketing channel, because most people use search engines to navigate the web. Sites that deliver what the search engines want stand to gain a lot more traffic than sites that do not undertake SEO. If your competitors are undertaking SEO, this puts your work at a competitive disadvantage. Their site will be seen more often by search visitors. Their web agencies will likely get more business as clients see greater returns on their investment.
That's why we do SEO. To be seen.
Of course, a site can be seen by other means. Word-of-mouth, social media, links, brand awareness, and offline advertising. A site doesn't need SEO, but given that it is a relatively easy win in terms of cheap traffic acquisition, the extra effort involved is negligible compared to the upside benefits. It's like being given a choice of having a shop located on main street vs a location way out in the desert. Much the same effort involved in building, but significantly different traffic potential.
2. SEO Is A Design Element
Just as copywriters require space to insert paragraphs and headings, SEO's require space to do their thing.
If you're a designer, an SEO will likely provide you with a list of their requirements. These requirements need not be onerous, any more so than leaving space for copy is considered onerous.
There are two key aspects where SEO needs to integrate with design. One aspect is the requirement for machine readable text, provided in a format the search engines are able to read, and derive meaning. Search engines "think" mostly in terms of words, not pictures. Make design allowances for copy that includes lot of headings and sub-headings, a technique which also dovetails nicely with usability.
The other key aspect is crawl-ability. A search engine sends out a spider, a piece of code that grabs the source code of your website, and dumps it back in a database. It skips from page to page, following links. If a page doesn't have a link to it, or no crawlable link to it, it is invisible to the search engines. There are various means of making a site easy to crawl, but one straightforward way is to use a site map, linked to from each page on the site. Similarly, you should ensure your site navigation is crawlable, which means using standard hyperlinks, as opposed to scripted/executable links. If you must use scripted links, try and replicate the navigation elsewhere on the page in non-scripted form, or within the body of the text.
For most sites, that's pretty much it when it comes to design considerations. In summary, the inclusion of machine readable text, and a means for a spider to crawl easily from page to page.
An SEO may also wish to specify a page hierarchy and structural issues, where some pages are given more prominent positions than others. Of course, this needs to be weighed against navigation considerations for visitors who arrive at the site via other means.
3. SEO For Developers
Like design, there are two key areas of integration.
One is tagging. SEO's will want to specify title tags, and some meta tags. These need to be unique for each page on the site, as each page is an entry page as far as a search engine is concerned. A search visitor will not necessarily arrive at the home page first.
The title tag appears in search results as a click able link, so serves a valuable marketing function. When search visitors consider which link to click, they'll use the title tag and snippet to influence their decision.
The second aspect concerns URL's. Ideally, a URL should contain descriptive words, as opposed to numbers and random letters. For example, acme.com/widgets/red-widgets.htm is good, whilst acme.com/w/12345678&tnr.php is less so. The more often the keyword appears, the more likely it will be "bolded" on a search results page, and is therefore more likely to attract a click. It's also easier for the search engine to determine meaning if a URL is descriptive as opposed to cryptic. For an in-depth look at technical considerations, see "SEO For Designers".
One workaround if the database needs unique codes is to translation at the URL level, using URL rewriting.
4. SEO Is A Marketing Strategy
The on-page requirements, as dealt with above, are half the picture.
In order to rank well, a page needs to have links from external sites. The higher quality those sites, the more chances your pages have of ranking well. The SEO will look to identify linking possibilities, and point these links to various internal pages on the site.
It can be difficult, near impossible, to get high quality links to brochure-style advertising pages. Links tend to be directed at pages that have reference value. This is a strategic decision that needs to weighed during site conception. Obviously, few sites strive, or want to be, Wikipedia, however there are various ways to incorporate reference information into commercial sites where the primary purpose of the site is not the publication of reference information.
For example, include a blog, a news feed, publish the e-mail newsletter to the site, and/or incorporate a reference section within the site. It doesn't matter if this section isn't viewed by visitors who navigate directly to the site. It provides a means to get a lot of information-rich content into the site without disrupting design and other commercial imperatives. Think of it as a "mini-site" within a site.
Not every page needs to be for the purposes of SEO. SEO can be sectioned off, although this is often less ideal than more holistic integration throughout the site.
5. Strategic Factors For Managers
Concept, design and development can screw-up SEO.
Poor integration can result in loss of potential traffic. This traffic will go to competitors. The longer a site doesn't use an SEO strategy, the harder it is to ever catch the competition, as a head-start in link building is difficult to counter.
If your aim, or your clients aim, is to attract as much targeted traffic as possible - as most site owners do - then SEO integration must be taken as seriously as design, development, copy and other media. It may influence your choice of CMS. It may influence your strategic approach in terms of how and what type of information you publish.
Whilst SEO can be bolted-on afterwards, this is a costly and less-effective way of doing SEO, much like re-designing a site is costly and less effective than getting it right in the planning stage. If SEO is integrated in the planning stage, it is reasonably straightforward.
The time to incorporate SEO is during site conception. SEO is a text publishing strategy. Design and development will need to make minor changes to the way they approach a site build. Doing this retrospectively, whilst not impossible, is more difficult, and therefore more costly.
Coda: Flash Workarounds For SEO
There are various workarounds to existing search-unfriendly design, but I'd advise to avoid the problem in the first place.
Flash, whilst a useful tool for embedding within sites, should be avoided for the entire site. Flash is a graphics/animation format, whereas search - and the web in general - is primarily a text format. If you build an entire site using Flash, then your competitors will overtake you in terms of search visitors. The formats simply do not gel.
One work around is strategic - split the site in two. Use Flash as a brochure site, and create a hub site that is text based. Consider including a "printable" version of the site, which will give the search engines some text to digest. Whilst there are technical and strategic ways around Flash, they are often clumsy and tedious.
The search engines can make sense of most sites, but if you're expecting to get rewarded by search engines, then it pays to stick as close to their technological strengths and weaknesses as possible.
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