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The "Design" Part of Search-Engine Friendly Website Design

Design matters. Learn what is important for designing websites for people who use search engines and search experience optimization (SXO)

Design part of search-engine friendly design image

For many years, I have been silently listening to and observing other search engine optimization (SEO) professionals speak and write about the topic of search-engine friendly website design. I'm the one in the back with the black wig, sunglasses, mustache, and trench coat.

All joking aside, I am genuinely interested in how other web designers/developers approach this topic. Is their approach different from my approach? Are there design elements that I, perhaps, might have overlooked?

What concerns me is how the term "search engine friendly design" has been twisted to have different meanings, mostly centered around URL structure. Granted, part of having a search-engine friendly website is providing access to keyword-focused content.

Nevertheless, whenever I listen to my colleagues address this topic, I notice that the "design" portion of search engine friendly design is notoriously missing.

Where is the discussion about allocation of screen real estate, use of graphic images, text formatting, animation, color selection, and other important design decisions? A URL (web address) is not the only part of a web page's interface.

Accessibility and URL Structure

As many SEO professionals already know, the first part of the spidering process is accessibility. A web page's content is not analyzed until search engines are able to access the content first.

The ability for a search engine to access site content is often referred to as crawlability and/or indexation. Factors that affect a search engine's ability to crawl a website include:

  • Website navigation (global, local, contextual)
  • Information architecture
  • URL structure
  • Duplicate content filtering

A site's URL structure is crucial for search engine access. Additionally, in search engine results pages (SERPs), keywords in the URL are often highlighted to increase user confidence in search results.

However, a page's URL structure is not the only part of the interface. Let's see how a web page looks without the actual page design and content:

Medicinenet.com web page with URL displayed only

A modified web page about osteoporosis from MedicineNet.com. The only items users can see in this browser is the URL (web address) and part of the title tag.

Users see a page full of white. They do not see text, graphic images, or colors. When users look at this particular URL structure, they assume that they should be viewing an article about osteoporosis. But they do not see anything except a seemingly empty web page.

I show this graphic image (screenshot) to illustrate a point: Website design is composed of many elements. It is not a single element. Likewise, search-engine friendly design is not composed of a single element. Search-engine friendly design consists of a number of elements, including but not limited to:

  • Font/typeface selection and formatting
  • Readability, legibility, and scannability
  • Color
  • Whitespace
  • Clickability/tappability
  • Usage and formatting of text, images, and multimedia files (video, audio, etc.)
  • User experience (UX) design, where users are searchers
  • Page layout
  • Quality of code

If a web designer's only skill is to create crawler-friendly URL structures, then perhaps people should look for another web designer, one whose skills encompass the wide range of design elements.

Information architecture and navigation design

Even if a site's overall URL structure is crawler-friendly, it does not mean that search engines can easily access content. How pages are linked to each other also impacts search engine visibility. In other words, a site's information architecture (IA) and corresponding site navigation are other crucial components of search engine visibility.

Many SEO professionals and web designers/developers commonly confuse the terms "information architecture" and "interface." The interface (design and page layout) should not be created until after the information architecture is determined. Some components of information architecture include:

  • How content is organized, grouped, and labeled
  • How content is placed in categories (taxonomy)
  • How individual web pages link to each other (global, local, and contextual navigation)
Types of website navigation from the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web

Adapted from Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld. Used with permission.

Even though the first part of the search engine process is access, the first part of the search engine optimization process should be keyword research, understanding the users' language, as it is important for labeling and categorization.

Whenever I hear or read that the first part of the search-engine friendly design process is access or accessibility, I honestly believe that is a huge mistake. Information architecture, and the subsequent interfaces, should never be determined without understanding the users' language and users' mental models first.

Text vs. graphic images

Perhaps one of the most hotly disputed design topics is the use of text vs. graphics formatting for search engine visibility. Many search engine optimization (SEO) professionals mistakenly believe that to create a search-engine friendly web design, all they have to do is create a site map page and have a text-link navigation scheme.

Although some site designs can become more search-friendly by adding a site map and text-link navigation, making blanket statements such as that clearly shows that many web designers/developers do not understand search usability.

Search engine optimization is not only throwing text links on a page. What kind of text links are web designers proposing? During my years of experience and research, I have identified multiple types of text links, the types of web pages in which they should be applied, optimal formatting (color, size, font/typeface selection, white space, borders, etc.), and best placement options.

Inappropriate text-link usage is rampant among allegedly search-engine friendly web pages. Text links should serve a purpose to users...not only to search engines.

I do not make blanket statements about text-link usage. Misuse of text links often makes web pages difficult to read and difficult to navigate. People do not link to web pages that are difficult to read and difficult to navigate, even pages with top search engine positions.

Search-engine friendly web design is comprised of many elements, not only URL structure. Search-engine friendly design is also not haphazardly throwing text links on a web page. Allocation of screen real estate, use of color, font/typeface selection and formatting, use of graphic images and multimedia elements, file format, categorization, and labeling are important components of the design process.

A person who truly comprehends search-engine friendly design knows how to combine all of these elements to meet user expectations, accomplish business goals, and meet the terms and guidelines set forth by the major web search engines.

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