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Web Design and SEO: Why Pretty Isn't Enough

Aug 10, 2008
You have it all figured out: the flash on the front page is beautiful and pertinent to the site, your images are lovely and fit well, your articles are well-written and SEO'd, and you even have your SEO marketing plan set up. Everyone who sees it agrees that your site is professional and slick, well-written and informative.

So why isn't anyone coming and why aren't they returning when they do come?

Web site design is deceptively easy to learn, but difficult to master. Professional librarians with PhDs are often hired for the very large sites, just to keep them organized and searchable. Even smaller sites often are harder to navigate than they should be. And hardly anyone does their internal SEO structuring properly.

To tell you everything you need to know would take a couple of books, but some simple things will make your designing life easier and help you create pages that are both beautiful and friendly.

Internal Site Structure: Usability and Navigability

The way your site is linked together, page to page and level to level, is incredibly important to how the search engines look at it and how your human users get along. If you have beautiful Flash navigation bars and a search box, it may look elegant to you but it is NOT searchable, and search engines will not give you proper credit for the site. It is also not friendly for visually-impaired users. At the very least, include a text-link menu at the bottom to take users to all the sister pages to the one they are on.

By the way, a good rule of thumb is to think about how a blind text-dependent viewer would see your site and design for that person. In essence, web spiders, the little programs that document your site and help search engines rank it, "see" your site just like a person who is visually impaired. Makes you think a whole different way about that pretty Flash, doesn't it?

On with internal links. Bread crumb links became a standard of Yahoo! in 1997, and are still very useful today. These links are found at the top of a page and work as a map for the viewer back out to where they were originally. The deeper your site, the more useful bread crumbs are. They look like this:

home : category level 1 : category level 3 : this page

with each level but the last linked back to the main page for that category. You see them used frequently on catalog sites:

home: clothing : girl's : pantsuits : pink lamb pantsuit

By using these subtle links, you make it easy for your visitors to move back out to any level they want. And if you have these links at the top, with linking at the bottom to sibling pages, you ensure your user can get anywhere they need to go with about two clicks. In large sites, this isn't practical, but in medium sites it can be a godsend.

Also make sure you use a robots.txt file to protect your private stuff: raw images, CGI-bin, and anything you just don't want out on a Google search. This tiny text file goes into your site's root directory and only takes a minute to set up. If you have a large and complex site and you want to ensure that it's thoroughly searched, you can use a sitemap file, an XML file (you can use it even if the rest of your site doesn't use XML) that ensures web spiders map every part of your site you want them to.

Lastly in site usability, make sure that on every single page your user has a simple means to contact you, preferably a link to a Contact Me! page. This is often included at the bottom of the page, but some webmasters find it works better somewhere else. Just be sure it stands out in the page.

SEO: Your Site and Your Campaign

Search engine optimization is the life's blood of web business. If your site is not optimized, it is not visible. While Google has done a number of things to keep you from cheating by keyword stuffing, using gateway pages, and using invisible text, there are many, many things you can do to make your site SEO friendly and ensure that your ranking is as high as is possible.

Start with the rule of thumb from the last section: the blind man, Every single important element on your page should use alt-text to label it, and each one can use a little SEO. That butterfly jumper on your girl's clothing page? Label it in alt-text girl's clothing butterfly jumper.It's that simple. If you have a database-driven site, you can simply ensure you include an alt-text column for each item's description and include the right HTML in your page templates; if your site is smaller, you'll need to label each image by hand. You don't have to label every image, mind, but each label is going to give you a little boost.

Use pertinent anchor text for each link. If you're linking to girl's dresses, that phrase should be used as the link to the other page. This is a way of getting a keyword bump for free the search engines assume that this page will be about girl's dresses. The worst link: the lazy man's "you can find it HERE", linking the word here.

Avoid overusing Flash. This is one of the most common errors made by people who are excited about beautiful web pages. Get this one thing straight: a site entirely designed as Flash may look impressive, but it is harder to navigate and will not be picked up well by the search engines, no matter what trick or workaround you use. It fails the blind man's rule. Use Flash sparingly, and as a way to enhance your site, not to impress visitors. One of the few places that uses it well: the Ikea website, where great Flash is used to demonstrate things like putting furniture together. Another good one: Discover.com, where components are often designed in Flash and embedded in HTML pages.

Try not to use duplicate text. The search engines see this as spam, and it can end with your site being penalized. Instead, use unique text on each page.

Finally, optimize your entire site, not just the home page or the articles section. Your site, if it's like most sites, can be entered at any level. Assume that your reader may come in anywhere, and design accordingly.
About the Author
Randy Zlobec, Search Engine Marketing Expert and owner of a Myrtle Beach Web Design company specializing in search engine optimization and web site design services.
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