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SEO & website design: Everything you need to know

SEO is important to any business that operates online, and many don't realize it needs to be built into the web design process -- not added in later. Here, columnist Marcus Miller has provided a comprehensive guide to SEO and web design.

Your website is the center of your digital marketing world — the place that all digital rivers run toward. And of course, the largest of its traffic sources is generally organic search.

Yet all too often, businesses don’t think about SEO until after having a website designed (or redesigned), and these sites are often sadly lacking on the SEO and digital marketing front. They may look shiny, but if the marketing smarts are not cooked in at design time, then you will be running the marketing race with a wooden leg. Or at the very least, faced with going back to the drawing board and wasting a whole load of time and money.

We have been thinking about the SEO and web design connection a lot recently at Bowler Hat and have just published a website design planning guide to help in what can be a complicated process. This is a companion piece to that guide that really covers the SEO considerations in far more granular detail.

In this post, I have a look at how SEO should be an integral part of your website design (or redesign) process. We are going to look at what you need to consider to have a site that is built for search marketing and lead generation — and how focusing on happy users keeps the Google gods on your side.

We will also take a look at some of the common pitfalls that can befall businesses looking to build a new website that is central to your digital marketing efforts.

In brief, I am going to help you ensure your next site is a lean, mean SEO and digital marketing machine.

Developing an SEO-friendly website
At a fundamental level, an SEO-friendly site is one that allows a search engine to explore and read pages across the site. Ensuring a search engine can easily crawl and understand your content is the first step to ensuring your visibility in the search engine result pages.

A search engine utilizes a web crawler for this task, and we are trying to work with the search engines rather than against them. Unfortunately, there are many ways to make a website, and not all technologies are built with search engine optimization in mind.

Building an SEO-friendly site requires careful planning and a structured approach to representing your business and the services you provide. For many businesses, this can be complicated — it’s not always easy to document exactly what you do.

As a marketing tool, your website should be built upon a solid digital marketing plan with a clear business model and value proposition. If that’s unclear, then you need to revisit that first.

Assuming you have all that good stuff in place, let’s dive in.

Fundamentals
There are a few core elements that set the stage for a well-optimized website design process.

Domains
Your business may use example.com as the primary domain. But you may have others. Ensuring your domain makes sense and relates to what you do is super-important. Ensuring that all variations and subdomains correctly point at the main site and redirect to a single canonical version of the site is important.

Our business is called Bowler Hat. We operate in the UK. We are a web-based business. It naturally follows that our domain is www.bowlerhat.co.uk. All subdomains 301 redirect back to the main URL www.bowlerhat.co.uk. We have few domain variations that 301 redirect back to the main URL. This all makes sense.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that having-my-keywords-in-my-domain.com helps. It just looks daft. It can help a little for local businesses, but ensure you are mapping to the real world. Be sensible.

Hosting
Your hosting is also important. A slow site makes for unhappy users. Your hosting should follow common-sense rules. Be situated where your audience is situated. Be fast. Be platform-specific, if necessary. WP Engine is a great example, as it provides a platform tailored to WordPress websites.

CMS
The CMS (content management system) you choose for your business can hugely influence how successful you are. WordPress is a great option in many situations, but it’s not the only one. It certainly is wired up at a basic level in a way that Google can understand. This is not to say it is the best choice for all situations, but certainly, it’s a good starting point for most businesses. Just be sure that the CMS you choose is the right one for your situation, rather than the one your chosen web company prefers to work with.

Crawling & accessibility
The first step is ensuring a search engine can crawl your site and understand what it is that you do (and where you do it).

Indexation
To understand your site, they have to be able to read the content of the page. This means that the main content of your site should be text-based behind the scenes. Not images. Not flash or video. Even in this ever-advancing world, your main content should still be text-based. There are some great tools, like web fonts, that mean you can still look the part, and your images have a place, but be sure to talk in clear language about what it is you do so the search engine can read and understand your offering.

Images, videos, PDFs and content are also important and can be a source of search engine traffic. Again, these need to be discoverable and indexable.

Link structure
To index your content beyond the home page, you need internal links that the search engine can crawl. Your primary navigation, search engine directives and tools like XML sitemaps all help the search engine crawl your site and discover new pages. Tools like Screaming Frog can help you ensure that your site can be easily crawled by a search engine.

Information architecture and structuring your site
I have always like the filing cabinet analogy for website structure. Your site is the filing cabinet. The major categories are the drawers. The subcategories are the folders in the drawers. The pages are documents in the folders.

  • Cabinet: your website
  • Drawer: high-level category
  • Folder: subcategory
  • File: individual document/page

Context is indicated not only by the site it exists on but also by the position within that site. Our own site has a drawer for services, and each service has sub-services in folders. Your site will be largely the same.

This is relevant to blog posts, articles, FAQ content, services, locations and just about anything else that is an entity within your business. You are looking to structure the information about your business in a way that makes it understandable.

Some sites may take a deep approach to structuring content. Others may take a wide approach. The important takeaway here is that things should be organized in a way that makes sense and simplifies navigation and discovery.

A three- to four-level approach like this ensures that most content can be easily navigated to within four clicks and tends to work better than a deeper approach to site navigation (for users and search engines).

URLs
Context is further indicated by the URL. A sensible naming convention helps provide yet more context for humans and search engines.

Following are two hypothetical sets of URLs that could map to the Services > SEO > SEO Audit path laid out above — yet one makes sense, and the other does nothing to help.

Of course, the second set of URLs is a purposely daft example, but it serves a point — the first URL naming convention helps both search engines and users, and the second one hinders.

Navigation
Your navigation is equally important. When a site is well-structured, the navigation works with the structure, the URLs and other components, like XML sitemaps, to help solidify what each page or piece of content is about.

Navigation is more than just the menu at the top of your website. It is how you signpost users to the most relevant part of your site. Navigation can be a tool to raise awareness of additional services and includes not just text links but content on all pages and in the templated design elements of your site.

I have always liked the signpost analogy. I walk into a supermarket and look for the signs to find what I need. Your website is no different. If a user is referred and searches for your brand name, then they will land on your home page. They then need a signpost to get them to the relevant service. And it had better be easy to find!

It is very easy to get this wrong, and careful thought must be applied — before you build the site — regarding the needs and wants of your users. A website is a digital component that should execute the strategy from your marketing plan. Understanding users here is crucial so you can ensure you are meeting their needs.

Navigation should not need any real cognition — it should not make the user have to think. The following image is a sign from my local home improvement store. Which direction takes you to the car park and which direction takes you to the deliveries entrance?

Mobile-friendly design
The most popular device used to conduct internet searches and to browse websites is the mobile phone. We live in a mobile-first age. Sites optimized for search engines should give equal consideration to the mobile layouts of their websites (rather than just bolting on simple responsive website design).

Yet, in 2017, responsive design is not enough. We were talking about the importance of responsive website design in 2012. Five years later, with massive technological progress and greatly improved mobile data networks, your future customers are using mobile as the first, and often only, device to interact with your business.

To create a truly mobile-friendly design and maximize results from mobile search, you must think of the needs and wants of mobile users. What a user will do on a phone is often far different from what they will do on a computer. And even if your conversions tend to be on a desktop, that crucial first touch may well be on mobile.

A few months back, I looked at 28 key factors in creating mobile SEO-friendly websites that will help you move beyond simple mobile-friendly responsive design.

From an SEO perspective, it is worth noting that mobile-friendliness is a confirmed ranking factor for mobile search, and it is the mobile version of your site that will be used by the search engine to review and rank your site. However, far more important, mobile is how your prospective customers are searching for and browsing your site.

Work hard on optimizing the user experience for mobile users and you will reap the rewards for your efforts in terms of traffic and user engagement.

Page speed
Another key consideration in the mobile era is page speed. Users may be impatient, or they may not always have a great mobile data connection. Ensuring your pages are lean and mean is a key consideration in modern SEO-friendly website design.

A great starting point is Google’s mobile-friendly test. This tool will give you feedback on mobile-friendliness, mobile speed and desktop speed. It also wraps everything up into a handy little report detailing what exactly you can do to speed things up.

I went into a little more detail on how to optimize for speed in a recent column on mobile optimization. Suffice it to say, page speed is yet another important consideration that spans how your site is built and the quality and suitability of the hosting you use.

Usability
Web usability is a combination of other factors: device-specific design, page speed, design conventions and an intuitive approach to putting the site together with the end user in mind.

Key factors to consider include:

  • Page layout. Important elements should have more prominence.
  • Visual hierarchy. Make more important elements bigger!
  • Home page and site navigation. Clearly signpost directions for users.
  • Site search. Large sites need a sensibly positioned search option.
  • Form entry. Make forms as lightweight and easy to fill as possible.
  • Design. Great design makes everything easier.

This is just scratching the surface here, and usability really has to be customized to the individual site. A couple of resources I would check out would be the book, “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability,“ by Steve Krug and my mobile optimization checklist.

The content marketing funnel
Your website has a hell of a job to do: it must help your business get in front of prospective customers on search engines, and then it has to engage and convert those customers.

Your site needs content to help with all of these stages of the customer journey. Content and SEO is an important combination here, as you may get in front of a customer as they look for similar services from another company they are already considering.

SEO nuts & bolts
As you can see, there is a lot to consider before we even look at the more familiar elements of optimizing your site and pages. We should only really start to think about keywords and basic on-page optimization once we have this solid foundation in place. And hopefully, if we have structured everything correctly, then the actual optimization of the pages becomes far easier.

Keyword targeting
Nailing your keyword strategy is so much easier once you have a solid structure without internal duplication. If we look at our previous examples for site hierarchy and structure, then adding keywords is relatively straightforward (and is something we would often do in a spreadsheet pre-design).

Meta description tags
Meta descriptions don’t directly influence rankings. We all know that, right? But of course, that is completely missing the point here. Your meta description is the content of your advertisement for that page in a set of search engine results. Your meta description is what wins you the click. And winning those clicks can help improve visibility and is absolutely vital in driving more users to your pages.

Meta descriptions must:

  • truthfully describe the page content.
  • advertise the page and improve click-through rates.
  • consider the user’s thought process and why they will click on this page.
  • include keywords where relevant and natural to do so.

The search engine will highlight search terms in your page title and meta description which help a user scan the page. Don’t use this as an excuse to spam the meta description, though, or else Google likely will ignore it, and it won’t lead to that all-important click!

There are also situations where it can make sense not to create a meta description and let the search engine pull content from the page to form a description that more accurately maps to a user’s search. Your brief meta description can’t always cover all the options for a longer-form piece of content, so keep this in mind.

Heading tags
Heading tags help structure the page and indicate hierarchy in a document: H1, H2, H3 and so on. Text in heading tags correlates with improved rankings (albeit slightly), but what really matters is that alignment between the structure of the site, behind the scenes optimization like page titles and meta descriptions and the content itself. Line everything up, and things make more sense for users, and we help search engines categorize our content while eking out every last bit of simple, on-page optimization we can.

Remember to align header tags with the visual hierarchy. Meaning the most important header on the page (typically the <h1>) should also be the biggest text element on the page. You are making the document visually easy to understand here and further ensuring that design and content are working together for the best end result.

Page content
The content should generally be the most important part of the page. However, we still see archaic SEO practices like overt keyword density and search terms with a lack of connective words used in the copy. This does not work. It certainly does not help with your SEO. And it makes for a poor user experience.

We want to make sure the context of our page is clear. Our navigation, URLs, page titles, headers and so on should all help here. Yet we want to write naturally, using synonyms and natural language.

Focus on creating great content that engages the user. Be mindful of keywords, but certainly don’t overdo it.

Image optimization
Image SEO can drive a substantial amount of traffic in the right circumstances. And again, our thoughts regarding context are important here. Google does not (yet) use the content of images, so context within the site and the page and basic optimization are crucial here.

Common problems
SEO projects at Bowler Hat often include an SEO audit as the first port of call. We can’t cover every eventuality here, but the following are the usual suspects that crop up and that web designers should be mindful of.

Duplicate content
There tend to be two kinds of duplicate content: true duplicates and near-duplicates. True duplicates are where the content exists in multiple places (different pages, sites, subdomains and so on). Near-duplicates can be thin content or substantially similar content — think of a business with multiple locations or shoes listed on a unique page in different sizes.

Keyword cannibalization
eyword cannibalization refers to the situation where multiple pages target the same keywords. This can impact the ability of your site to have one page that strongly targets a given term.

Where the site architecture and hierarchy has been carefully planned, you should eliminate this during the planning and design stages.

Domains, subdomains and protocols
Another potential issue where duplication crops up is where the site is available on multiple domains, subdomains and protocols.

Before too long, we can get to a situation where the site has eight potential variations. Factor in the site resolving on any subdomain and a few duff internal links and we can often add things like “ww.example.com” to the list above.

These kinds of issues are simply resolved with URL redirections, but again, they deserve consideration by any web design agency that takes care of hosting and is serious about the SEO of their customers’ websites.

Botched canonical URLs
Another common issue we see is an incorrect implementation of canonical URLs. What typically happens here is that the person building the site looks at canonical URLs as an SEO checklist kind of job. They are implemented by dynamically inserting the URL in the address bar into the canonical URL.

This is fundamentally flawed in that we can end up with the site running on multiple URLs, each with a canonical URL claiming that they are the authoritative version. So the canonical implementation exacerbates rather than resolves the issue.

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