How to balance SEO and web design

When creating, or redesigning, your website there is a careful balance of design and SEO that needs to be addressed to create an attractive, fully optimized site. We look at the needs of both SEO and design teams and try to find a way to have a strong element of both in the final web design. 

Web designers and SEO analysts often have vastly different aims and requirements from a website redesign. Here’s a recent example from our office:

Our designer has created a beautiful website for a new client. He shows it to our SEO team. Their hair turns white and their eyes bulge on stalks: “Where are the words? There’s no title. How are people supposed to find us?!”

So after some gentle negotiation, he adds a tiny bit of text down the bottom of the page, not wanting to disturb the carefully feng shui-ed site design. “Errr no, that’s not what we meant,” cry our suffering search experts, “we need actual words up the top of the page – Google WILL know if we have no prominence of the key terms.” The debate is probably still raging…

This is a classic scene in the long running battle between the two parties. It happens in agencies and web publishers from London to Lesotho.

Clients will all have their own priorities, but in general companies want a site that ranks high in search engine ranking, looks good and is user-friendly too. So the two sides need to work together.

The SEO position

Historically the ultimate ideal landing page for an SEO is a strong text-heavy page, with flowing copy (with plenty of keywords) over multiple pars, and striking headlines. On-page you want lots of great written content – highly relevant, interesting copy for search engine spiders to get their mitts on.

But the basis of the SEO-design war is that designers often find words ‘messy’ and ‘annoying’, and suddenly you refresh your page and find that your copy has gone walkabout…

But TIW’s head of search, Jez Booker, argues: “From a pure SEO perspective (i.e. bringing in search engine visitors to a site) user friendliness and nice design is, not to put too fine a point on it, irrelevant.

“With a quick search I could show you TONNES of sites that look awful but perform well in search engine rankings. On the other hand, we get a large chunk of our business from sites that look awesome but have no visitors. There’ve been so many jobs I have worked on over the years where the client has forked out big money on creating a beautiful site with lots of whizz-bangs and pretty pictures – and then wondered why nobody comes and visits.

“The main problem we encounter in this kind of job is that they’ve blown their budget and want us to perform miracles with no marketing budget.”

This is Jez’s example of an SEO’s dream site: sharingpensions.co.uk

seo-versus-design

“It has good clear headings, lots of links to internal data sources, good tables and current dates (very important)”

Whereas this is his nightmare: jacu.no

design-beats-seo

“You need an initiation course to learn how to use it. And more importantly, where is the content?!”

Minimum SEO requirements for a Google-friendly page

Just 200 words of text per page should stand you in reasonable stead for search results – just don’t try to cram too many keywords in, as this can do more harm than good. Search engines need content in order to list pages in their huge indices of keywords. And don’t forget a good sprinkling of links (to other pages on your site and to other sites). As well as content, search engines need to see links in order to find the content.

But while Jez says 150 words is an absolute minimum content length for pages and blog posts, he would recommend at least 300 words: “But it’s not something we get hung up about these days.”

Indeed, he stresses that nowadays, to win top rankings for keywords/key phrases, you must think about writing ‘the best content on the web’, the best of breed, around the main keyword you are targeting, “with citations, references, comment, opinion, annotated illustrations/graphs and so on”. By its very nature, a piece of content like that is (generally) going to be long, and way over 200 words.

Content is king

But although the editors over at sharingpensions.co.uk may have eschewed the services of a top designer some text-led websites such as newspapers, which still live and breathe written content, don’t discount the importance of the best design. The Guardian’s award-winning website has a brilliant mix of imagery, user-friendly design, and, of course, lots of text.

If high design is not an option, a good example to learn from newspapers like the Guardian (and sadly, the omnipresent MailOnline) is that long and intriguing headlines make for ‘clickable’ content, before you know it the user journey has gone on for pages.

Jez agrees: “Think ‘shareability’. Is what you are writing going to be shared? Is it good enough for people to say, ‘hmmm nice article/post/infographic/amusing picture of hamster with cat, I should send this to Bob and Alice’. This is the essence of shareability.”

Viral videos and images are highly ‘clickable’, and get your visitors to the site in the first place, and are an important way of keeping them on there. Making your own such content is preferable, but even having someone else’s video on your page will help boost a page’s stickability.

And copy writing isn’t for everyone, and even those may not have the budget to pay a professional – that’s where images come in.

Images can also make your point in a way that your text might not be able to. From a designer’s perspective you can make your entire point from an image.

Do’s and don’ts of site redesigns

When it comes to a redesign, there are some SEO requirements that are absolutely essential, according to Jez.

His absolute number one requirement is that no existing content is lost, second is that if the URLs of existing pages are going to be changing, then the correct redirects are put in place.

For very large sites, this means SEOs spend quite some time mapping old URLs to their new address, ensuring that in-content links are updated and making sure any proposed new site architecture does not mean lost connections between pages.

“Everything is negotiable except for those two requirements,” Jez says.

When redesigning a site it is essential that SEOs and designers work together, but the honeymoon period doesn’t last long…

“It is my personal experience that designers and developers would prefer to completely ignore SEO recommendations given half a chance,” says Jez. “So we create a checklist for them, and then we spend the next few weeks/months, reminding them of it, cos if we don’t, they tend to wander off reservation.”

The design perspective

There are some truly beautiful sites on the web right now, with the help of ever-evolving technology that creates captivating design that works.

Parralax themes are huge right now, for creating stunning sites with large images, which are still fast, responsive and user-friendly.

A designer’s dream website will prioritize images over text – but this is not as bad for SEOs as they may think.

‘Alt text’ on your big, beautiful images is a big contribution to search engine results.

Alt text is a sometimes overlooked SEO tool. Providing semantic description of images for search engines has a positive impact on SEO by adding to search engines’ semantic understanding of your site or page. You can also attract some additional traffic through Google Images, but with Google’s own redesign of their Image Search facility this is no longer a way of winning visits as it once was.

As well as Google disliking ‘keyword stuffing’, it is important to keep your descriptions natural for visually impaired website users or for when a picture isn’t being displayed correctly.

Yet again, those sneaky SEOs have turned design to their advantage (Jez: “Pictures are just opportunities for alt-tag descriptions and captions.”) Although this can work the other way around – by allowing SEOs an opportunity to put in more keywords through Alt text, you are able to use multiple images. It’s called compromise, people!

Website resigns take time when incorporating SEO

We spoke to designer Ian to see how he feels about balancing his needs with those of SEO.

“From my experience, different SEOs will expect different things from the finished website, so I need to know in advance just what’s required.

“For instance, I’ve had SEOs come to me and recommend that WordPress is the way to go (one of TIW’s preferred platforms). But problems can occur down the line though, if the site needs an extensive e-commerce functionality as well, then designers and SEOs will need to talk, as WordPress may not be robust enough a solution.”

When you start a site redesign, TIW recommends involving SEO teams from the start. Ian explains that despite SEOs feeling otherwise, designers “appreciate that it’s a huge task getting a website ranking in the search engines, so they should be in at the ground level speaking to the SEO team as early as possible.”

In an ideal world all designers would choose a gorgeous site, over a drab SEO-led one, but it doesn’t always work that way: “Site look and feel is really important, but designers are aware that SEOs are going to put text on the site (and plenty of it) so unless there’s no SEO requirement from the client, then image heavy, text minimal designs are a no-no.” Early collaboration is the key to avoid wasting everyone’s time.

As a full-service digital agency TIW gets many requests from their clients – not just for design, as Ian puts it: “SEO definitely is a top requirement for agencies nowadays. Unfortunately there’s no point having a lovely looking website if you don’t get any visitors! Customers expect a trackable return on investment.”

What’s important to the client, should be important to the agency

Ian seems to be more accommodating than a certain SEO expert… But what should designers hold their ground on when the SEOs come a-callin’? “Whatever the client is happy with!”

But sometimes it’s the clients who cause the issues (yeah, yeah, the customer is always right – we know that really!), when they seem to be asking for the dream minimalist site:

“A client gave me a brief of a very minimal design, but also an extensive SEO requirement. They were in a fairly crowded marketplace online, and weren’t going to rank for their key phrases without a decent amount of text on the site, but Google rankings remained one of the core objectives. The client had been told by a friend who was ‘an expert’ that they didn’t need to put much text on the site and so stuck to their guns. I suspected they were going to use a Russian blog network or something similar to send dodgy links to the site in the hope of fooling Google. In the end, I decided to walk away, as I could see that we’d be the ones to blame for the site not performing.”

 

Written by

Holly is part of TIW's growing SEO team. A web content creator, she is also a magazine designer and event photographer. Not averse to a five star meal or premium beauty product, Holly is an avid blogger and social media enthusiast, she will be contributing to the TIW blog and looking after all things social. Contact: holly.pike@theinternetworks.co.uk

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