As the web becomes a more demanding place for all of us, you have to offer more to your clients to keep them and their users satisfied. Nowadays you’re almost expected to deliver SEO-friendly websites to clients and just about every modern WordPress theme promises precisely that.
Sadly, the vast majority of them don’t deliver though. Designers and developers are often guilty of skimping on the SEO essentials and I imagine many don’t know or even care about the basics of search optimisation. It’s understandable in a way too, because you have enough on your plate as it is. But it’s worth getting the SEO essentials under your belt and working them into your projects. You’ll be setting your clients up with a website designed to perform better in the real world and set yourself apart from the designers/developers who don’t bother.
So let’s get started with our look at how to create websites that perform in search engines.
SEO topics for today
We’ll be splitting these posts into three or four parts and even then the series won’t be anywhere near comprehensive – there’s simply too much to cover. But, rather than cover everything in detail the aim is to give you a brief overview of the key points to consider. This will be enough of a starting point for you to go away and explore the points we cover in more detail.
I’ll also suggest a resource or two for every point we cover, so you can get more insight into each of them. The good news is (spoiler alert) there isn’t much difference between good SEO and good design/development. But knowing how they overlap – and their relationship to marketing an online brand – will help you make more effective design and programming choices.
Today we’ll be focusing mostly on the design process, but we’ll start with domains and URLs. The reason for this is because domains are a key part of the wider brand design process and URLs are directly related to them. In the next post we’ll focus more on the technical and coding side of things, before we look at some wider concepts that tie SEO and web design/development together.
How domain names and URLs impact SEO
In terms of SEO it all starts with a domain name. Domain names aren’t designed for search engines though, they’re designed for humans and there are a couple of key things to remember.
First up, it’s always a good idea to make domains accessible:
- Make them memorable
- Keep them short
- Easy to type
- And look legitimate, trustworthy, etc.
Not every visit comes from a link, so consider users who have to rely on memory or type in a URL as someone speaks (is it excite.com or xcite.com?). Easy to type should speak for itself – why would you make things more complicated for people? And, as for legitimacy, you want to avoid looking like a spammy site. Avoid numbers, hyphens or anything else that would put people off using your site.
Note: These are all concepts you should be considering in projects regardless of SEO. These choices seem more related to user experience than search (or so you might think). But you’ll soon see accessibility, user experience, and many of your existing design patterns are fundamental to SEO as well.
Once upon a time, domains with keywords typically performed better in search results – but this doesn’t have the weight it used to. That said, there are still search benefits to keyword optimisation, on a domain level, but also in terms of anchor text (as long as you don’t go over the top).
There’s also the benefit to users too. People can tell a lot about your brand if your domain is descriptive, which helps on numerous levels of click-through rate, users intent and other aspects that impact search.
Does this mean you should always optimise keyword-rich domains? Well, not necessarily. First of all, it’s getting harder to come up with keyword-rich domains that don’t look spammy – especially in competitive fields. But you also have the question of branding – and if your client is brand orientated, one of their most important keywords will actually be the brand name itself.
Domain extensions can be a tricky topic when so many .com domains have been exhausted. These days there are more domain extensions than ever and you can pretty much pick your own. Be careful though, because the new crop of domain extensions (TDLs) can still have that look of spam about them – or even confuse users.
As things stand it’s difficult to argue against .com as the best domain extension – especially for a serious business. You may hear people talk about TDLs as a ranking advantage, but there’s no truth to it (not yet anyway).
URLs are the extension of domains themselves and there are some key considerations in terms of structure. And, much like domains, these are largely human factors too.
First of all, URLs should closely match the title of any given page. This means no dynamic parameters, like this:
That doesn’t tell users anything about the page they are visiting, which makes it highly non-descriptive away from organic search (imagine the same URL on social).
Keywords in URLs
Keywords in URLs are still a very good thing for the exact reason above – they give a relevant description of what the page is about. This helps users decide that the following page can offer what they’re looking for, simply from seeing the URL. Again, think social links or the browser bar that appears when you hover over a link:
Separating words in URLs
The way to separate words in URLs is with hyphens, but you can also use underscores. Either choice is fine on a technical level and you can also separate words with spaces. In reality though, be careful of spaces – because they’re rendered as %20 in URLs and this detracts from readability once again.
Safest bet? Stick with hyphens as your word separator.
Information architecture and SEO
Information architecture aims to offer users the fastest, most intuitive path to the information or actions they need most. This couldn’t be more important for modern SEO either, when user factors and performance have a direct relation to search ranking.
When bounce rate, time on site, internal links, the number of images and video integration are direct ranking factors (amongst other IA related bits) you can start to see how the two are so closely related.
This is a very different relationship now, compared to the days of ‘black hat’ SEO, where search presence was prioritised at no expense. Or more accurately, at the expense of information architecture and other UX factors. Thankfully, this couldn’t be further from the truth these days, as the dark days of SEO have been wiped out almost entirely by Google.
Check out this video from Rand Fishkin over at Moz for a more in-depth look at how IA and SEO have cosied up over the last half decade or so.
The role of user experience in SEO
Much like information architecture, the wider user experience of your projects has a huge impact on your clients’ ability to rank in search. Think about it this way: crappy user experience means higher bounce rates and less time spent on a site. It often stops people coming back to a website, even if they see it again in search results – none of which sounds good for SEO.
It goes beyond that though, because mobile optimisation is now a ranking factor. So is the use of secure encryption. While site speed has been a ranking factor for years already.
Heck, if your font choice is wrong or your text is too small or the colour contrast makes it difficult to read outdoors, you’re looking at lost traffic and a dent in search ranking – it really does go that deep.
The good news is, if you’re slightly OCD about your UX design then Google (and other search engines) will love your work. More importantly people will love it too and any self-respecting SEO will tell you people come before search engines every time.
Here’s a quick run-through of UX factors that have an impact search ranking:
- Page speed – Bloated code, host providers, image downloads, fonts, server requests, caching, etc.
- User engagement – Bounceback rate, time on website, number of pages visited, interactions, calls to action, conversions, etc.
- Mobile optimisation – Optimisation (eg: responsive vs mobile-only vs native app), mobile page speed, browser compatibility, video format (not flash), etc.
- Visual design – User engagement (see above), trust, more likely to earn backlinks.
For more discussion on the relationship between user experience and SEO take a look at this post by Darren DeMatas at Selfstartr.com, where he gets five expert opinions on the topic.
Content and search optimisation
We could have included content in the user experience section, but it’s important enough to deserve a section for itself. In fact, content is so important in search optimisation that many consider content marketing as the modern SEO.
That’s not strictly the case – there are still many technical aspects of SEO, outside of content, which we’ll cover in more depth next week. However, it is true that content is fundamental to everything SEO, because this is what people are looking for when they search.
Google and other search engines are on a mission to connect people to the best and most relevant content to user search queries. And, even if you’re not writing the content yourself, there are still some important considerations to make.
- Page content (written) – Word count, quality, uniqueness, authority, placement, form (think static vs. dynamic), etc.
- Visual content – Ads, visual balance, image optimisation (alt tags, etc.), responsivity, user engagement.
- Sharability – User engagement, valuable content, social shares, inbound links (earned), trust, authority.
This is one of many reasons you’ll hear top designers talk about having the majority of a website’s content in place before the bulk of the design work begins. Sadly, this rarely happens – especially in the age of WordPress, frameworks and various other design shortcuts.
Naturally, you have to find the right balance for you and your clients, but don’t forget content is another opportunity to set yourself apart as a designer in this competitive industry.
And, once again, here’s a handy resource from the team at Moz for more insights into the role of content in SEO.
In our next search optimisation post
Sadly, that’s all we’ve got time for today, but we’ll be back next week with another post on creating search optimised websites. Next time around we’ll focus on the coding side of things and how this has an impact on search results.
Hopefully, you can already see by now that good SEO is essentially good design, good development and good marketing rolled into one (or at least parts of them). And, if you understand how these elements work together, you’ll be able to set our clients up for success and build a reputation as a designer who makes things happen.