Web Design vs. SEO: It Doesn’t Make Much Sense

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It’s a common sight: designers bashing SEOs and vice versa. We all have been seeing this happening for a long while now. And it’s probably not going to end any soon. It might get pregnant and more heated in a year or two, though. Unless, of course, both sides realize that they finally need to go along, that clients don’t give a crap about their altercation and are interested in one thing above everything else: a website that’s great usability, appearance and at the same time ranks well.

What’s The Fight All About?

We all know the issue: Web designers (or developers) claim that rankings are not everything, that SEOs often use aggressive techniques to manipulate rankings and can most probably guarantee snake oil more than anything. SEOs, on the other hand, claim that Web designers often make their life difficult with poor coding and have little to no knowledge of SEO; that neither design nor content is everything – other things matter too in making a website more user friendly and more search engine friendly.

The Smashing Magazine post by Paul Boag from last December that drew the ire of the SEO community can be taken as a good example here. As we all know, Paul was fatally attacked as an individual, as a designer and as a Smashing Magazine author for discussing his thoughts on what’s the best way to go about SEO. Of course Paul made some wonderful points – such as “great content is better produced in-house, rather than being outsourced to an agency” and “website owners are unhealthily obsessed with their rankings on Google” – but he also undermined the importance of all SEOs, showed his lack of knowledge about what SEO exactly is and somewhere suggested that a good designer can take care of SEO as well.

Then there was a rebuttal by Will Critchlow and Bill Slawski and, by and large, the whole SEO community. The post discussed the things Paul missed out on, why SEO is important and some SEO tips.

Does Either Side Make Any Sense?

Anti-SEO posts usually cause myriad reactions – “oh wow!”, “goddamn, not again!”, “this debate is eternal, like seriously”, “oh look, a link bait”… My reaction is: does all this make any sense? Of course it should. But in reality, it doesn’t  not at least to your clients, because they want the best of both worlds. Simply put, they want both visitors and conversions.

Who’s Getting Attacked Here?

You might not be surprised by this, but more often than not only the ones that don’t do their job well are attacked. If we see the reactions, however, it feels like professions are being attacked, when the truth is that there’s bad everywhere, in every industry. With that said, why do we become so harsh to some industry just because there’re some bad elements in it? True, snake oil vendors predominate and eclipse the good SEOs but that doesn’t mean they can belittle the value of SEO in any manner. Everyone’s at fault somewhere: the bad SEOs/Web designers and people who trust them, often because of the low price tag

What Can Be Done?

Education can of course help people make the right decision. Google has been trying harder and harder to make the life of black hatters difficult. But SEOs and Web designers have a responsibility too. Whether you’re a designer or an SEO, you first need to accept and then try to make your clients understand that neither SEO nor Web design is a panacea in itself – both are paramount and must go hand in hand. As a matter of fact, this is what Bing’s Duane Forrester most probably implied when he said this at SMX West 2013:

“If you want to wow the search engines, you have to wow your customers. Build a site that they want and can use.”

Unfortunately, we’ll be seeing these anti-SEO posts and their rebuttals even five years down the line. But if a few of us decide to be responsible toward what we do and how we do it, we could make a little difference.

Let’s wrap up with some Web design and SEO best practices to start a journey to responsible tomorrow.

Web Design Best Practices

  • Embrace the mobile-first responsive Web design approach (recommended by both Google and W3C) if user interactions on your website through mobile devices are similar to those on desktops. It it’s not so, embrace the dedicated mobile site strategy. Google recommends you to choose what’s best for your business.
  • Don’t fall for the ongoing bloated site trend – on a mobile device a Web page on an average takes 10 secs to load. Instead make sure your site loads in less than 5 secs.
  • Search suggestions in within-site search are good and even a must have, but convert search into navigation wherever possible.
  • Design readable sites; make sure that font doesn’t break when a user uses text-only zoom in functionality.
  • Stick to the latest Web standards.
  • Think about visually impaired people too.

SEO Best Practices                                              

  • Keywords are not dead and never will be—but using them intelligently has become more important than ever.
  • Given the changing and often shortening search terms because of on-the-go usage of the Web, mobile-specific keyword research has become imperative too.
  • Think about infographics, newsjacking, guest blogging and video content to get natural (and high-quality) backlinks and do away with practices such as article syndication, comment spamming and the like.
  • Focus on building not just links but high-quality and, most importantly, relevant links. “Relevance is the new PR,” eloquently said an ex-member of Google’s search quality team.
  • Stay away from known hazards such as accidentally blocking a complete site with robots.txt.
  • Embrace Facebook’s Open Graph protocol and Twitter Cards to give an optimal experience around your content in the social space.
  • Use Google Plus authorship benefit, which, many say, is the future.

Are you ready to make the Web a better place? 

Image credit: http://jurassicpark.wikia.com/wiki/File:Spinosaurus_vs._T-Rex.jpg

Ruchi Pardal

Ruchi Pardal

Ruchi Pardal is the Director of ResultFirst, a Digital Marketing Company with a global clientele. Serving in the digital domain for more than a decade,... Read Full Bio
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  • Joshua

    Ideally, SEO and Marketing concerns would always be on par with Design goals. But, often conflicts are created where the roles overlap. Often SEO audits and suggestions involve “nitpicking” at developed sites. In the best cases, “optimizing” alt tags, suggesting more appropriate file names (manwithdog.jpg!!!) or encouraging better site architecture may seem like trivial details to the designers who generally are never aware of the future success or failure of the sites they work on. In the worst cases, the SEO may the first person to dig through the code and identify poor practices such as using H1’s for presentation purposes , pointing out that text choices might be to “stylized” and might be encouraging exits .. etc etc. No one likes their work picked apart and if they have any passion for the project then they don’t like their “baby” and their choices being questioned and challenged.

    Its a shame that it isn’t easier to find a middle ground, it seems so obvious that basic SEO considerations are important for all – if you in fact took passion and are proud of the design work you created, wouldn’t you hope to have it seen by as many as possible or create success for your benefactor and patron so they can continue to hire you or your agency on for future design work?

    In a perfect world, a strong SEO can identify goals prior to the development process and work hand in hand with the Designers to create a end product that is both aesthetically pleasing and successful for the business it represents. This requires that the relationship between Designers and SEO team isn’t adversarial and the SEO is capable of evangelizing the importance of his/her recommendations without downplaying the importance and passion of the Designers involved.

  • Josh

    You need to how to do both. An SEO who doesn’t understand web design or can’t do the basics actually is all talk and doesn’t really “do” anything. While a web designer who knows little about SEO is pretty much useless these days. Of course that’s a strong generalization but kind of true if you think about it.

    • Ben

      Absolutely right!

    • HemanthMalli

      I agree with you !! A web designer who knows SEO as well can show wonderful results by optimizing the website on search engines !!

  • SeoSemantic

    It makes sense or it doesn’t. But clients want both attractive design as well as Seo. It’s very easy to say that webdesigners think that Search engine optimizers don’t know about the design and vice versa. But to get more traffic on the website they should work with the co-ordination.

  • Ben

    I think it’s essential that both sides are compassionate to each other. Like Dumbledore said to Harry: “how often this happens, even between the best of friends! Each thinks that what they have to offer is more important than the other!” Because you won’t rank with a poorly optimised site, no matter how beautiful; but you won’t convert any sales from a perfectly optimised but unattractive site which doesn’t consider the user. I take care of the lion’s share of web design in my office, and the guy who leads the SEO team and I are going out for KFC later this evening. Be friends with your colleagues! It leads to better work, a better working environment, and most importantly, better results for your clients. Can’t we all just get along?

  • Ruchi Pardal (post author)

    I appreciate all the comments here and would really love to see more and more SEOs embracing the user experience (and more and more designers valuing SEO) as we go along. 🙂

  • iphone application developer

    That is a really good tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere.
    Simple but very precise info… Appreciate your sharing this one.

    A must read article!

  • Sunshine Coast Web Development

    Thank you for a very informative article. SEO and Web Development is changing rapidly and I think if we keep our content focused and work hard on all aspects of the web development process the result will be inevitable. Thanks again.