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by Alec Sharratt on 29th March 2012
I was recently at a party offering some SEO advice to a friend when someone who I didn’t know and who evidently hadn’t been listening to the entire conversation interjected: as it transpires he is a web developer and he said to my friend “SEO is simply good website design”. It was at roughly this point when some friction began to arise between us and a thus ensued a defensive and rather pointed diatribe from myself about how he was wrong!
This is to me a myth and one created by web developers in all likelihood to charge people more money for an “SEO friendly website”. As it happens I do actually design and build websites and this is primarily how I segwayed into SEO. In most cases that I have seen “SEO friendly” means that it has a robots.txt file and a sitemap if you are lucky.
Although I do website design and I am technically competent, I would not go as far to as to describe myself as a web developer, for I am unfamiliar with certain technologies and platforms and am limited to my narrow experience with web design. Equally, in this vein I am always surprised when web designers say that they can do SEO. In much the same way, they are probably familiar with the concepts of SEO, but these are nearly always incomplete. One might know that Meta Tags are needed but not know the character limits or what can be done with rich snippets.
There is a lot of crossover between web design and on-page SEO in both directions and this trespasses on the other’s territory, which can cause friction between SEO’s and Web Developers.
What is Good Web Design?
For me, good web design should render a site searchable by Google, so no Flash, easy to use and to navigate and visually representative of the brand / company that the site is for. A few bells and whistles and some aesthetically pleasing design work can go a long way toward the user experience. However the main components of On-Page SEO would be missing from this cocktail.
For me a website can be well designed for someone to use, but this does not mean or infer that the website will be “SEO friendly”. There are many things to consider when setting up a website and launching it; Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools accounts, sitemaps both xml and hmtl, robots with a complete lists of “disallows”, GEO Tags, keyword research, keyword focus, anchor text linking, Meta data, etc, etc.
What Is Good SEO?
Good SEO is a combination of on-page elements, analytical elements, and off-page seo (link building). So Good SEO will cover all of these areas comprehensively in order to create a complete SEO strategy. Anyone who thinks that you can do it all through on-page is either working in an uncompetitive sector or is gravely mistaken. If you do believe that, I would suggest you make a payday loans affiliate website and make millions out of it by the end of the month!
To be honest the above is just “good SEO”, its not great SEO… To have great SEO done, there are many things to consider about engaging with your audience, and marketing your website online with more than just links. Getting great links isn’t easy, it takes time and effort and is usually well outside of the remit of a web design agency.
The Advantage of Designing a Website and Optimising it
When you have complete control over a website, this provides you with the distinct advantage of getting everything in place before it is uploaded. When I do this I use best practice guides and rules for every element of the site from navigation to site structure, to CRO best practices and SEO elements.
If you are using templates in Dreamweaver or WordPress, this affords you the chance to create isolated Pay Per Click pages very easily reusing content from the rest of the site and simply adjusting the template with PPC in mind.
When creating forms or “call to action” pages, despite not having conversion data to hand, you can still build the forms and pages to best practices.
On to Some Technical Stuff
I have covered on-page elements before briefly in videos and there are already some checklists out there for optimising on-page, but I would like to lay out all of the things that I do when designing a website from scratch. I think this differs slightly from looking at a site and changing elements because of the level of control that you have over the website.
Visual On-Page Elements
There are several areas of on page optimisation and the most obvious of these are the visual elements. See the image below:
H1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Titles
These should never be used to control the styling of text on a website; this can be much more efficiently achieved through effective use of CSS or use HTML code within the page itself. For example you can use <font size=”3″></font> to increase the size of the text within the code. H titles should be used only to head relevant bodies of text.
Keyword / Content
The rules here are simple, ensure the content is unique, you can use a plagiarism tester such as copyscape (www.copyscape.com) to do this if you have not written it yourself.
Also ensure that the keyword that the page is targeting is used throughout the text; there is no need to keyword stuff here nor any need to try and hit some magic ratio like 3.5%. Instead make the content readable, grammatically correct, and unique. Use the keyword within the opening and closing paragraph at the very least.
Bolding keywords can also help promote them, but again do not make this look spammy, bold one or two throughout the page.
If you are using a WordPress template or if you are graphically orientated, try to avoid the pitfall of creating a header that stretches right down to below the fold. Headers are great and can give instant impact with your brand colours, products, etc… But they can also be made to be so large that the user has to scroll down on every page to read the content or find the menu.
This is more of a design aspect affecting the user experience rather than an SEO element, but later on if you want to optimise the site for conversions this will be an issue.
There are two main sitemaps needed on a website: the sitemap.xml which is essential for search engine crawlers to index your website accurately. This is also used to submit your website to webmaster tools.
The second is a .html sitemap which acts as a navigation page for your website users as well as providing a link to every page on your website.
Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics
I always get this set up prior to uploading the site, there is usually a verification file with the webmaster tools which needs to be uploaded. The analytics is set-up using some code which is put into the <head></head> section of the source code.
These are small jobs but essential for good SEO work.
The following Meta should be in place on your website before it ever goes near the internet:
Meta Description – Capitalise each word, involve the keyword for the page and keep to the character limit of 155.
Meta Title – Capitalise each word, involve the keyword for the page and keep to the character limit of 60.
GEO Tags – This can be generated from a number of free sites and go in the same section as the Meta data. These little snippets of code tell the search engines where the company is based or where the page is targeting.
There are many things to consider when designing a website and optimising it, both skills will shape the user experience on the site as well as delivering traffic to the site. Getting all of these aspects in place before the website is uploaded will help it be indexed quickly, accurately and enable the immediate tracking of traffic.
In some less competitive niches this is enough to get a website ranked on the front page before any off page activity is undertaken.