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5 Reasons Why Web Design Should Be Your First Stop in Any SEO Campaign

Ade Lewis

by Ade Lewis on 6th February 2013

Web design blackboardWeb designers and SEOs don’t always see eye-to-eye, which is why Ade Lewis from Teapot Creative takes a look at what the two disciplines can learn from each other. Can’t we all just get along?

You have to have been asleep for a very long time to realise that what we generically call ‘SEO’ has changed dramatically over the last couple of years. Spam is dead (or should be), SEO agencies are getting bigger; there are increasingly more of them and individual roles within agencies are getting more specialised. A great many things have changed over the years but one unfortunate area still remains largely ignored by SEOs the world over: Web Design.

We all know that conversions are better than traffic, that brand reputation, trust and customer loyalty are hugely important to being successful and that sales rely on usability and user experience, so why do many agencies and freelancers seem to have a blind spot when it comes to web design?

I don’t know if it is that people see coding and design as being too complicated and out of their realm, but almost anyone can look at a website and say whether they like it or not. Just ask your self the question – “Would you buy from that website?” That’s it.

You don’t need to know how to fix it, you just need to identify that there is an issue that needs resolving. Design and trust are always a personal thing, so it may be that you end up in the minority and everyone else thinks the site is great; but don’t be scared of questioning the design of a website if you don’t think that it is good enough to convert site visitors to customers.

SEO has gone beyond simply raising the profile of a website in search engines. It used to be that if you were ranking number 1 for your top keyword then you were winning. You could have a crappy website sitting at the top of Google and the money would keep rolling in. This doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. Websites have improved massively; there’s more interaction, better design, better usability, quicker navigation from Home page to product or from Home page to service and increasing numbers of visitors are landing on websites from sources other than search engines.

So let’s take a look at five reasons why web design should be your first stop in any SEO campaign.

1 – Reduced Bounce Rate

ArngrenIf Joe Bloggs hits your website and doesn’t instantly like what he sees then there is a very high chance that he will bounce back to Google, Facebook, Twitter, or wherever he came from within seconds.

There is often a lot of confusion and controversy about bounce rates. What is classed as a high bounce rate? Do Google penalise a site if the bounce rate is high? These are questions for another blog post, but it is safe to say that if the aim of your website is to sell a product or a service then if your site visitors are bouncing then they aren’t buying.

An ugly website will sell less, this is a fact.

Here are a few things to look out for :-

a) Is it immediately clear what the site does?

b) Would you trust the information on the site?

c) Would you recommend it to a friend?

d) Are the business contact details easy to find?

e) Does the site use stock photography images featuring the same people that we’ve all seen a thousand times before?

f) Is the site packed to the eyeballs with advertising?

g) Is it hard to tell which parts of the site are adverts and which parts are meant to be content?

h) Do your competitors’ sites look a hundred times better?

Improving the look of a website is by far the easiest way of reducing the bounce rate and improving the stickiness of a site. It doesn’t need to have award-winning design that utilises the latest techniques, it just needs to look professional, be easy to read, the styling needs to match the target audience and it should be trustworthy.

2 – Increase Conversions

When people think about web design, the first thought is normally about how a site looks but the architecture and layout of a site is just as important. Poorly designed websites not only look bad but they are often really badly planned with no thought put into why they were built in the first place. Here’s a standard conversation that leads to a poorly designed website :-

Client – Hi. I need a web site.

Web Designer – How many pages do you need?

Client – Uhhmm, Maybe 25.

Web Designer – No problem. If you send me the web addresses of a few sites that you like and the text copy then I’ll build one for you. Do you have a logo?

Client – Yes, my wife did it in Microsoft Word for me.

Web Designer – Great. That will be £1000 please.

Client – That sounds quite expensive.

Web Designer – How about £900 and I’ll include the web hosting for free?

Client – Ok. When will it be ready?

Web Designer – Tomorrow.

Ok, I may have taken this hypothetical conversation to the extreme but it illustrates a stripped down version of the common process that results in an unsuccessful website. There is often no thought given to why the site is being built, who the target audience are or what the business goals are likely to be. This type of website planning is completely lead by the client, it may contain the text copy that the client wants to include but very often isn’t structured to logically funnel site visitors towards the business goals.

If you are starting a new SEO campaign then it is worthwhile getting a couple of other people that don’t know the details of the job to visit the site. Watch them and see how long it takes them to understand what the site is about, how it works and if they complete a goal such as following a purchase through to the checkout stage or completing a contact form. At a minimum it should be clear and easy for site visitors to complete the goals of the business.

If you find that there are issues that need addressing and they can be sorted out from the start, then it will make the success of the campaign much more likely. A lot of the time it isn’t possible to get site changes made at the start of a project (normally down to client budget) but if you are aware of the issues early on then it will still help shape the way that you run the campaign and you can raise these issues again later on in the project.

3 – Don’t Waste Good Content on Bad Design

Good site content is an absolute must. Content that interests, engages, inspires or amuses can be the difference between a successful website and an unsuccessful one.

You can have the best written content in the world packed with interesting, relevant and witty information, but the truth is that if your website looks like it was built in 1993 then hardly anyone is going to read it. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have good copy, but just don’t waste it.

Your content should be clear and easy to read. Where possible it should start above the fold and the font colour should not induce any level of headache.

Oh and the use of Comic Sans is still a crime.

4 – Trust, Brand and organic links

Business Man Jumping Is it clear that there is a credible person or company behind the website?

The use of ‘obvious’ stock photography throughout a website can give it a faceless and overly corporate feel; I say ‘obvious’ because not all stock photography is bad.

We have all seen the standard stock photos of perfect employees with impossibly white teeth, groups of young male-model businessmen clutching their briefcases and punching the air depicting deserved success. These images fill space on a website and they break up text content but they do nothing to inspire trust and loyalty from your site visitors. Ahem….

As a general rule, if images are being used to depict members of staff then these should be images of the ‘actual’ members of staff. The photography may not be as high quality and the people may not be as beautiful but it is honest and that honesty will be picked up.

Make sure that contact details are really easy to find with telephone numbers in headers and physical addresses in footers. Nothing shouts ‘Dodgy!’ more than a site with no contact details. If you can show a local number that can also help build trust although that is not always possible for large brands and those using phone number tracking services. The end goal is to show people you want them to know who you are, that you are a real business and you want them to get in touch.

Clearly communicating your logo and brand through the design of your site reinforces that your business is comfortable and confident with its own identity. A website may well be the first impression that someone has of your brand.

Ensuring that a website is trustworthy and branded helps to provide a positive user experience. Site visitors will be much more likely to trust content, much more likely share content via social media and much more likely to link to it.

5 – Outreach is easier

Link building is normally the most expensive part of any on-going SEO campaign. Building high quality links takes a large amount of time and effort and the easier you can build these links the more cost effective your agency will be.

Link builders can often be quite removed from the site that they are trying to build links to, their whole focus is on finding the best link prospects and crafting a cleverly personalised outreach email. It can be easy to overlook the fact that at some point between outreach and placing a link, the link prospect will visit the website and, like our friend Joe Bloggs from earlier, if they don’t like what they see they too are likely to bounce.

No Trust = No Link

If at all possible you should never get to the outreach stage of a project still trying to promote a crappy website. If you are at this stage then updating the site styling should be a no brainer.

But We Don’t Do Web Design. We Do SEO

How many SEO agencies write their own copy?

How many SEO agencies film and produce their own video content?

I would estimate that 99.9% of agencies outsource at least some of their regular tasks, why should web design be any different?

Give a decent web designer FTP access to a site for a day and they can work wonders. Two days and they can work miracles.

Enough said.

Image Sources:

Arngren.net Website
Business Man Jumping of Joy from BigStock
Business Man Writing The Web Design Concepts On a Black Board from BigStock

The views expressed in this post are those of the author so may not represent those of the Koozai team.

Ade Lewis

Ade Lewis

Ade Lewis is an SEO consultant and head of web at Teapot Creative. Coming from a coding background, Ade favours the more technical side of SEO with the odd bit of branding and design thrown in for good measure.

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  • Mike Essex

    Mike Essex 6th February 2013

    Hi Ade. Thanks for writing for us.

    I think there’s certainly a movement occurring at the moment with SEO’s crossing more disciplines and finding new ways to influence other parts of the online process to get results. Web design is just one part of the process but a vitally important one as you suggest.

    For example when we redesigned Koozai.com we found we got a better response rate from outreach and more links came naturally to the site without us having to ask. Part of that is potentially due to the brand growing but if you trend our new links across the last two years the spike that occurred when we redesigned certainly makes me believe it was a large contributing factor.

    Reply to this comment

    • Ade Lewis 6th February 2013

      Hi Mike. Thanks for letting me write for you :-)

      Looking at the ways in which the SEO industry has evolved over the last couple of years I don’t think that we can afford to sit in Silos anymore and focus on one discipline.

      No matter what you specialise in I think that we need to have a really rounded understanding of as many factors as possible that can influence SEO. The main focus of any SEO campaign is the website so it seems the logical place to start.

      Reply to this comment

  • Chris Gilchrist 6th February 2013

    Thanks for the post Ade. I love this topic coming from a web design background but focussing more on SEO now and running a company that does both but I think there’s some dangerous assumptions mixed in with all the great advice.

    1) “An ugly website will sell less, this is a fact.” This isn’t a fact and nor can it be proven given that design is subjective. You might prove that familiar designs sell more but saying ugly doesn’t work is misleading.

    A site can be ugly yet very usable and accessible and outperform a site which has a pretty design but doesn’t function well. I know you referenced usability but this statement almost contradicts the goodness you mentioned.

    2) “if your website looks like it was built in 1993 then hardly anyone is going to read it” again I completely disagree. This isn’t a fact and I’d argue there’s plenty of proof that contradicts that statement. Without looking for the perfect example this site jumps to mind for me http://www.seobythesea.com/2012/12/google-map-spam/ . If you conducted a ‘design’ evaluation you could find tons of faults (sorry Bill) yet there’s a post inked to above with 47 comments and Bill’s stuff always gets tons of attention and eyeballs. If the content is good enough people are willing to overlook poor design. Ideal? No. But make or break? Also no.

    3. Ugly is relative. Sometimes ugly can be used to massive advantage ie http://www.lingscars.com/

    Anyway just my thoughts I agreed with most of what you said but I think the points above just create more friction between SEOs and Web Designers which doesnt help either industry or our clients.

    Reply to this comment

    • Ade Lewis 6th February 2013

      Hi Chris,

      I completely respect your comments and to be honest I pretty much agree. My post is trying to put forwards the point that SEOs need to look at web design and look in detail at the site that they are trying to promote.

      A site can be ‘ugly yet very usable’ but will it inspire trust? and will it be link-worthy? I am sure that there are examples of sites that are ugly and do all of these things but I am sure that you will agree that these in by far in the minority and in general they won’t.

      To do the subject justice each point would be covered in-depth with examples that are the exception like the ones you have given but then it probably would never have been written or posted.


      Reply to this comment

      • Chris Gilchrist 6th February 2013

        I’ve come across sites, not that long ago, that actually looked so disgusting you couldn’t work on them during lunch. But they had incredible sales. I honestly think the trust thing is subjective and as designers or online people we see things very different from the average user.

        A site can look awful to you or I and still be trusted and make a fortune. Just the same way a company with awful branding, crap literature and no website can make tons of money. And they are not always an exception to the rule.


  • Jim Seward 6th February 2013

    If I was to offer a counter argument it would be with Plenty Of Fish and this article


    Plenty of Fish is one of the worst designed sites on the internet, it’s absolutely awful (erm….not that I know from personal experience of course *dodgy sideways glance*) but it works, it does exactly what it says on the tin, no more, no less and makes huge wads of cash.

    Let’s take another website that makes a fortune.


    nobody can look at that and think for a moment “that’s a well designed site, they’ve put a lot of thought into CRO”

    What it is however, is a site with personality and it’s that personality that sells, again, this article looks at it and how the site persuades people to buy


    People buy from ugly websites……FACT!

    Reply to this comment

    • Jim Seward 6th February 2013

      damnit, Chris beat me too it with mentioning Ling’s cars

      Reply to this comment

    • Ade Lewis 6th February 2013

      Hi Jim,

      I am loving some of the example sites in the comments.

      Again there will always be exceptions and making a website uber-ugly can pay off big time but from a business point of view you can only pull this off a limited amount of times and I truly believe that my statement of ‘An ugly website will sell less’ will hold true for the vast majority websites in the vast majority of niches.

      Reply to this comment

  • Iain Bartholomew 6th February 2013

    I think Jim and (to a lesser extent) Chris are right here. Ultimately beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there is no universally applicable standard.

    Functionality is more important than the aesthetics – can users get where they want/need to be in an intuitive way without overcoming obstacles.

    Reply to this comment

  • Emilia Dariel 6th February 2013

    I agree with you all. Ugly sites do SELL! It doesn’t mean you can’t have a beautiful site/page and still convert customers. You just have to keep testing different versions, different creatives, and see what works best. Optimization is a never ending process.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mark Shawcross 6th February 2013

    Really good post. Thanks Ade.

    Whilst I can see the opinions behind some of the above comments are they not sort of missing the point of the post?

    Surely this is about people involved in SEO being more aware of how having a better website can help with their day to day SEO tasks?

    There doesn’t seem to be any opion in the post that “Ugly Sites Don’t Sell” just that in general they sell less and I completely agree with this opinion. I think that most websites would sell more if they were better designed.

    Sites like LINGsCARS are a phenomenon and not the norm. We see wacky/ugly/crazy sites from time to time but if you tried to apply their formulae to all of your clients websites then you probably wouldn’t have many clients for long.

    The majority of people that approach SEO agencies really could do with some focus on improving the trustability of their sites and cleaning up their design and I really do think that it would make the life of a link builder a hell of a lot easier.

    Reply to this comment

    • Chris Gilchrist 6th February 2013

      But that’s the whole point, it’s an opinion and not a fact as stated. You ‘think’ that sites will sell better if they were better designed is also opinion and not a fact on which to justify a client assigning a budget.

      I haven’t missed the point of the post, I stated I agreed with a lot of the points, I’m pointing out the ones I feel undermine the generally correct argument.

      Plus is about benefiting the company/client and not about making a link builders life easier :)

      Reply to this comment

  • Mark Shawcross 6th February 2013

    Hi Chris,

    You are right, it is an opinion.

    Can I ask if you are of the opinion that the average business website out there can’t benefit from a bit of a design tweak?

    I get your point about it being about the client and not making link builders lives easier but if by tweaking some design elements it does make our lives easier then does this not by default benefit the client and make their site more link worthy?

    Reply to this comment

    • Ade Lewis 6th February 2013

      Hey Mark,

      Thanks for your comments. I think that actually Chris is right in what he has said.

      I was probably very flippant with my statement – ‘An ugly website will sell less, this is a fact’. This is definitely my opinion and not a fact.

      I still truly believe that the vast majority of business websites would perform better all round in regards to conversion, trust and linkability if they had a logical, thought-out architecture and a good level of design but, as Chris says, this isn’t fact just my opinion.

      Thanks again.

      Reply to this comment

  • Chris Gilchrist 6th February 2013

    Being involved in SEO I’m all for making sites more linkworthy via design, I just wrote a post on it http://www.hitreach.co.uk/blog/how-to-make-your-website-more-interesting-and-linkworthy/

    What I said is don’t just assume because a site is ugly (in your opinion) it will sell less or be less read as a result. And certainly don’t state that it’s a fact unless you have evidence to back it up.

    When Amazon first launched guess how many designers wrote posts on how boring and bland it was and how they could have done a much better job at designing it.

    Now 10 years later sites try to emulate it wherever possible to harness the benefit of it’s familiarity with such a massive audience.

    If you point out usability issues which have been proven to benefit a site that’s one thing but to say it won’t perform as well because it doesn’t fit a certain design criteria is not accurate.

    Reply to this comment

  • Luvnish 7th February 2013

    Related to this topic, the following guest blog post on the smashing magazine came to mind:
    Here you’re actually linking the importance of both SEO and web design, combining both conversion and user experience. Big thumbs up for that.

    Reply to this comment

  • Ade Lewis 7th February 2013

    Hi Luvnish,

    I did read the post that you refer to when it came out and then followed the subsequent skirmish. I have to say they none of my views follow that post.

    The real point behind my article is that the usability and design of a site should be taken in to account at the start of any SEO project. If improvements can be made at this stage then there can be positive knock-on effects for CRO, SEO, trust and ultimately the success of the business.

    Reply to this comment

  • Chris Gilchrist 7th February 2013

    Hopefully by this time next year we won’t even need to discuss the various disciplines and they’ll all just be considered part of the whole.Which they always have been really.

    Reply to this comment

  • Ade Lewis 7th February 2013

    Hi Chris,

    Amen to That!

    I think that it is on the way, it just needs a little push and a rethink of how we define the term ‘SEO’

    Reply to this comment

  • Ronhilton 25th February 2013

    Nice indeed. And of-course it’s really essential as your webpage is the first and last impression for your visitor. Which these to decide go for more digging with other pages or just quite instead.

    And web design is the best weapon to make our website unique from other competitor in present.

    Reply to this comment

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