Designing for SEO

What does it mean to design for SEO? Designing with SEO in mind is primarily about balancing user experience and brand goals with the SEO “needs” of search engines. We see the major elements of this as:

Indexation

As a primary goal, PM Digital makes sure the sites they are designing are able to be indexed by search engines. Sure, this means avoiding 100% Flash websites and splash pages but, moreover, this means using CSS and web fonts to control the display of text copy rather than simply rendering it all as an image. (Images of text cannot be crawled and ranked by search engines.)

We’ve mentioned avoidance of 100% Flash websites but this must be taken a step further to include consideration of individual elements/features of the website he/she is designing. For example, many catalog retailers publish Flash or JavaScript catalogs that are unable to be indexed. Others publish very engaging, content rich widgets (like online games) that are similarly unable to be indexed.   Designing with indexation in mind means designing to target HTML5 capabilities or, at the very least, designing Flash/JS elements with areas to include supporting text copy and/or division into discreet landing pages.

Navigation structures

When we design for SEO, a topic closely related to indexation is navigation. Picking up where the previous paragraph left off, we ensure navigation elements are not designed in such a way that they require complex Flash, JS or form submissions. Real text elements are preferred for navigation labeling.

Next, the design of a site’s primary and secondary navigation must create an internal link structure that does three things: i) does not overwhelm search bots with hundreds of links per page, ii) creates a link “tree” that effectively passes SEO equity from relevant higher level pages to relevant lower level pages, and iii) avoids creating orphan pages. Normally, siloing of information is a bad thing but, when designing deep site navigation, particularly secondary navigation like faceting, fulfilling these three requirements means presenting links only relevant to the section the user has already selected – “siloing” deep links by category and avoiding overwhelming every page and users with links to now-irrelevant sections of the site at large.

Finally, information architecture (“IA”) must be involved when designing site navigation. This can be as simple as dictating what text needs to be included in navigation elements. This can be as complex as steering a design to use six main navigation headers instead of five because keyword usage/linguistics point to the existence of six valuable audience segments, thus enhancing the user relevancy and experience.

Design with Optimization in Mind

Once the design process has checked off these fundamental indexation and navigation issues, the design for SEO process can focus on ways to design that will help actively optimize the site. A few ways include:

  • Header Structure – ensuring all content pages have a clear header/heading for the page and expand using sub-topics that are presented in a hierarchical manner.
  • Expanding DIVs – employing areas that, when clicked, open additional text content
  • Rich Snippets/Media – designing product and category pages to support star ratings, reviews and media types (like video) that will enhance search engine result listings.
  • Responsive Design – a subject unto itself, but designing a site to be responsive solves many SEO issues that prevent organic ranking success within mobile indices.

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Pre- and At-publish Testing/Optimization

At PM Digital, we take design for SEO one step further than many by involving our SEO team in site development, pre- and at-publish QA processes. The SEO team’s two major areas of focus are:

  • Structural Optimization – pre-publish, our SEO team reviews the site’s URL structures, ensures the site is coded to support TITLE and META tags, checks for complex indexation issues and helps spot duplicate content that may exist within the site structure.
  • Search Engine Equity Migration – at the time of publish, the SEO team is employed to map existing site URLs to the new site equivalents. This helps minimize ranking & traffic loss during re-design.

In short, designing for SEO does mean considering indexation and placement of text, but it also involves much more informed decisions about coding and information architecture. As we see silos coming down between our clients’ marketing departments, so too have the walls come down within agency operations like design and development to include wider considerations like SEO and audience targeting.  What have you found, on either the agency or client side, to be design practices that are good (or bad) for SEO?

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