You know what would be really cool?
Your whole site redesigned in Flash!
We could really liven it up. We could do animated navigation! Edgy!
We're cutting-edge web designers. We've designed stuff that's won tons of design awards! Let's take your boring site and totally reinvent it! Make it interactive! Your visitors will love it dude!
Erm...uh-huh. Maybe not.
It's little wonder that SEOs often come into conflict with the web designers. Those designers who design-for-designs'-sake can cause serious problems when it comes to internet marketing strategy, and getting seen in search engines.
Thankfully, there are also enough good designers who do understand that web design is a balancing act.
On the flip-side, there are SEOs who underestimate the power of good design. It's one thing to get a visitor to a site, but what happens once they get there? If the visitor finds a design unappealing, confusing or lacking in credibility, they are likely to click back. The cost of not spending a few hundred/thousand dollars on good design could be significant.
If you're thinking of hiring a designer, and SEO and web marketing is important to you, then you need to make sure they follow a few guidelines. Here's a checklist that will help you and your designer come up with the ultimate, well-crafted design that both appeals to your visitors, and complements your marketing efforts.
The point of synergy between SEO and design lies mostly in structure.
1. Purpose/Know Your Audience
The first, and by far the most import aspect of web design, is to clarify the purpose of the site.
Write down these three questions, and answer them in as much detail as you can.
- Who will use the website?
- What will people use the website to do?
- How will people find the website?
Who Will Use The Website?
The "who" question is about meeting expectations.
If your audience are tree-huggers, they aren't going to respond to a slick, corporate site. It's like wearing a suit to an interview for a pool-guy position - the image doesn't fit the purpose.
Put yourself in the users shoes. What are their likes? Dislikes? What type of language do they use? How old are they? What is their demographic? Are they web-savvy? Can they read small fonts? Write down as many characteristics as you can in order to build up a profile of your user base.
When you first visit a competitor site targeting your audience, what attracts to you to it, and what annoys you? Why? What are your expectations?
Your site must reflect the values, needs and desires of your target audience.
Let's take a look at a couple of examples where the designer has got this right:
The audience are web designers. People who are visually-oriented. People who want news about the latest trends and techniques. The design and format reflects these values and desires. It is based around large, bright attractive visuals. Text is kept to minimum. Smashing Magazine uses a blog format to facilitate the dissemination of news. All other functions are relegated.
The audience for this site are people interested in usability, in particular, the writings of Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen has strong, and often divisive, views about the role of simplicity in web design. Some may say the site is not designed at all, but they'd be wrong. The site is Nielsen's theories and agenda made form. The design reinforces the idea that structure is more important than gloss.
What Will People Use The Website To Do?
What is the primary function of your site? The function needs to be crystal clear. What do you want users to do? Do you want users to sign up and discuss topics? If so, then you need to orient your design around serving that function. The layout, the graphics, and the text should all encourage a user towards taking that action. Relegate all other design aspects to secondary status. If the design gets in the way of a user completing that function, it isn't good design, no matter how pretty it looks.
How Will People Find The Website?
How the user will find the website is often overlooked be designers.
If visitors are going to use a search engine to find your site, then your site must be oriented around SEO. That means fast, crawlable, and content rich.
If users find your site because they are already aware of your brand, then seo considerations may be less important. The user merely needs to be assured they've arrived at the right site. Such sites usually put heavy emphasis on branding.
Will most of your uses find you via StumbleUpon? Again, there are design features that appeal to this audience.
2. Visual Culture
This is a summary for a course offered by the University Of Wisconsin. It sums up the nature of our visual culture well:
Ours is a visual culture. Our workplaces are visually saturated environments and our dominant pastimes (films, television, video games, and the internet) are visual media. Moreover, we communicate visually when we are trying to cross over cultural boundaries; think, for example, of the graphics devised for international signage. Knowledge is often communicated visually: scientists chart brain activity, economists graph fiscal trends, geographers map territory and detectives photograph evidence. The growth of the web as an information distribution system has made an understanding of visual design factors indispensable in every field of study. The visual also our access to the past. The earliest recorded communications are pictorial and artifacts are central to the reconstruction of history
This is where both the graphical element of web design, and spacial relationships on the page itself, play a significant role.
Graphics convey meaning in different ways to text. The saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" is apt here. Ensure your graphics reinforce the values and needs of your audience. Make sure the graphics help people, not hinder them. Too often, graphics are self-consciously used to impress.
Obviously, web design is not just about appropriate and pleasing graphics. It's also about form, and that includes text. What do you feel when you see a huge block of text in tiny print? Most people feel that, hey, this is work!
Spacial considerations are an important way to convey meaning, and also useful for SEO. Split pages up into headlines and short paragraphs. This technique serves two purposes. You can include extra keywords in heading tags, and you can focus attention where it needs to go. When people arrive at your site via a search engine, they will scan your page for their keyword phrase. Make sure they find it quickly and easily.
Your website doesn't exist in isolation. How often do you glance at a website before clicking back or retyping your search query? Do you spin your scroll wheel immediately after arriving at a site, scanning for the exact information you require? No doubt you do it hundreds of times a day. Chances are, so does everyone else.
Therefore, clarity, both visually, and in terms of conveying meaning, is very important. If you can't convey to a visitor "you've found the right place" quickly, then you run the chance of losing that visitor.
All the linking and SEO in the world won't solve that problem.
Obviously, a website that can't be crawled is invisible to the search engines. Include a Google Site Map, and make your navigation text based, where possible. If you must use scripted links, then duplicate the navigation for crawlers. No matter what some designers might say, navigation is not the place to get funky. It's the place to get simple.
Consider cars. If you drive one car, you can drive them all. Why? The controls are all in the same place. Car designers don't get funky with the main control mechanism. The same goes for websites. Where navigation is concerned, stick to convention.
Personally, I'd avoid any designer who tries to get clever with navigation. They don't understand the web.
If faced with a design decision, go for the simple over the complex.
The web favors simplicity.
It's the nature of the beast.
6. Branding Is The Experience
Brand is often thought of purely in terms of identity. But this is an oversimplification.
Take, for example, McDonalds.
If people were asked to think of the brand of McDonalds, they'd think of the big, stylized letter "M". Or Ronald McDonald. But the McDonalds brand is made up of much more. The McDonald's brand is about fast service. It's about cheap food. It's about generic, yet tasty food. It's about the layout of the store. Every aspect of McDonald's store design and process is rolled into the brand. It's the entire experience. The M is really just a badge.
It's the same with websites. The brand isn't the graphical logo. The brand is the speed your pages load at. The clear layout. The ease of navigation. The tone of your writing. The fact you answer queries quickly. The fact it's easy to contact you in the first place. Your web design must not get in the way of these aspects. It must complement and reinforce them.
Your pages must load as fast as your visitors expect pages to load. And these days, that means Google fast! If need be, sacrifice graphics and features for speed. Speed is not just important. Speed is everything. It is too easy for a visitor to click back.
8. Read Point 7 Again
Really important. Really :)
9. Conflicting Agenda
One conflicting agenda between designers and SEOs often has to do with style over substance.
The main point of this post is to reinforce the idea that substance and style are inseparable. Both designers and SEOs must find a middle ground in order to arrive at one goal: a successful site. Avoid designers whose aim is to win awards, unless of course, winning design awards is part of your marketing strategy. The designers agenda should closely match your own.
10. Design Is Mostly About Structure
I was having a chat recently with a web designer who has formal graphic design qualifications, has won Webby Awards, runs his own web design shop employing 50 people, and has worked on multi-million dollar web projects. He's come round to admitting - very reluctantly - that on the web, graphic design doesn't really matter much. The design is mostly about structure. The information flow. Facilitating the interaction.
And he's right.
What we've often come to think of as design is more than just graphics and appearance. That's the icing. Design is about facilitating a process. It's about the way people move around and follow steps. A web site that makes that process complicated will not work, no matter how good the presentation.
A good designer will understand this.
Try to avoid those who don't.
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