Why Web Design Matters

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:

Smashing Magazine

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.

3. Clarity

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.

4. Crawlability

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.

7. Speed

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.

Many do.

Try to avoid those who don't.

Further Reading

Published: October 29, 2008 by A Reader in


October 30, 2008 - 2:14am

I am a web developer of more than 10 years, and in this time my views have gone from web design being almost completely "art" to my current view where it's almost completely "science".

Back in 1998, the race seemed to be to create the most cutting edge all-Flash website. Jakob Neilson was derided by many developers as being a bit backward and regressive. The future of the web was going to be a more and more immersive multimedia experience according to the forecasters of the time.

Now of course usability and search engine optimization have been recognised as being vital to the success of a website (yes also accessibility, but I argue this is less impacting on make-or-break success). I had to RELEARN web design since I was under the impression that it was all about aesthetics. Wrong.

"Multimedia" did come through faster internet speeds, but really only as Flash elements on the web page (e.g. youtube, which has a rather plain but very usable layout wrapped around its Flash player videos).

It's not a zero sum game of aesthetics V usability/SEO - it's just that aesthetics cannot conflict with usability or SEO. I'm talking about your average site here that needs every advanatage it can find to succeed, not a superstar brand that can get away with an all-Flash / concept website since it pretty much receives type-in traffic of its brand name.

Finally I think content is so over-looked by many clients. They think a website has been completed upon launch date. they don't understand that this is just the framework to house their all-important, sales-making content. The content compels the visitor to stay and read more, to return, to recommend.

October 30, 2008 - 6:29am

i am guilty as charged! my webdesigner.ph site hasnt been updated lately. thanks for the reminder Aaron :)

October 30, 2008 - 7:24am

Great post Aaron, true branding, SPEED, crawlability, navigation and structural architecture are critical to the success of Flash sites!

October 30, 2008 - 10:17am

Agencies are particularly susceptible to this as they try and use offline branding techniques online... websites are not brochures, flyers, posters or anything of that ilk, people use brands online whereas offline they perceive brands... its something many agencies have yet to understand.

October 30, 2008 - 2:48pm

I often get the question when I do web design work for a client "I want my website to be on the first page of Google." If only this was common knowledge. I usually tell my customers that I can get you on the first page if you type your company name into Google but beyond that it's up to you to promote your site. I created,SEO'd and manage swimuniversity.com and have been building on it for almost 6 months and I am no where close to being number one on Google and I know all the ins and outs. So this is a great article for designers who get this question from their clients or who need to not just focus on flash sites.

October 30, 2008 - 4:53pm

That Swim University site has exceptionally weak inbound links, with most of them being from blog comments. You need to go deeper into higher quality link building if you want to get that site to rank for non-branded terms.

October 30, 2008 - 4:01pm

This post makes me happy inside. As a non-graphics web "designer," I'm glad to see there's room for me.

I really like the title "Experience Designer" for people who design websites. It puts a greater emphasis on the user, navigation and page layout than it does on fancy animations or wacky, "innovative" features. Obviously there's a time for innovation, but it should rarely come at the client's expense.

Great article.

October 30, 2008 - 6:10pm

As companies may feel the economic burdens, do you see positions of both SEO and design titles coming together? Or do you feel both are much too large for one person to orchestrate? This seems like an obvious solution for balancing design, usability, and experience.

October 30, 2008 - 6:34pm

I think you can dominate one and hire out talent where you are weak. I tend to be marketing oriented but still do ok...but then again I mostly am working on building my own sites rather than providing client services.

October 31, 2008 - 1:42am

Well said.

October 31, 2008 - 1:52pm

I completely agree with your post. I think I'm about to loose a new client because they want all Flash and animated graphics, as well as separate opening splash page. I try to explain just what you put forth here, but I think it's falling on deaf ears.

November 18, 2008 - 1:12am

Peter, great post and well said (can't be said often enought). I agree that designing a website needs knowledge about your target audience (!!), consistency in navigation architecture and page layout, standards-compliant implementation (=structure, e.g. no header2 without header1 first, sounds obvious but...; etc.)

@wxman: don't loose your client! your consulting is valuable and UCD (paper prototyping, user testing) might proof you right but the heck, if your client pays for it... I'd loose him because I've successfully refused to get aquainted with Flash though ;)

PS.: Peter, have a look at my blog @ mgitsolutions.com/blog - would love hearing from you. Cheers.

September 4, 2009 - 5:47pm

Nice article! "Design is Mostly About Structure" is a great and concise point. I think you could have written an entire blog post on that alone.

Points 7 & 8 (Speed) give me pause. I recently updated danfinney.com and used large transparent PNG files to produce a nice functional effect. As a designer who designed sites for 14.4 modems I am familiar with the need for fast loading sites, however my existing clients and target audience all have high-speed access. My thoughts were to take advantage of that increase in bandwidth and do things with design and content that I would not have attempted in the past.

Do you stand behind this recommendation for demographics that serve entirely or mostly high-speed access? Are you suggesting the speed (load time) of the site might effect the SERP?

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