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Design Considerations from a Search Standpoint

by Pete Wailes on October 19, 2012

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SEO, over the time that I’ve been working on it, has changed drastically. Back in the mists of time, it was fairly easy to simply create a site, get the title, meta keywords and description tags right, have OK content and you’d rank. Nowadays it’s somewhat more complex.

There’s various aspects that haven’t been traditionally considered part of SEO which have absolutely become part of it. Over a series of posts, I’m going to deconstructing each of these and looking at what needs to be taken in to account as part of it.

On-Page Seo & Design

There’s two elements to the partnership between design and SEO; the code, and the visual interface. In the first instance, we’re looking at elements like Schema.org mark-up, XML sitemaps, rel author and publisher, how we deal with the various things a designer might sketch out for a design. In the second, we’re looking at the content – does the title match the expectations of the users who’re going to end up on this site from search traffic, is the imagery appropriate, does it work with the user in the right way at the right time?

Both of these aspects are as important as each other, but equally both are beyond the scope of traditional SEO. With the former, we’re getting in to front end development, UX & UI understanding. For the latter, we’re becoming art designer, copywriter, psychologist and data analyst.

The Devil in the Detail

As with all things, the only way to really grok all this is to get down and dirty and work with all these things. So let’s start with schema and go from there.

schema.org

5659553622_1e7aa02b94_b[1]Schema is a cross-party agreed data format, used to tell search engines certain things about your site. In the words of the site itself:

“Many applications, especially search engines, can benefit greatly from direct access to this structured data. On-page markup enables search engines to understand the information on web pages and provide richer search results in order to make it easier for users to find relevant information on the web.”

Part of the problem though is that it’s still a relatively unknown thing. As such, it’s going to fall to you, the SEO, to make sure that it gets implemented properly. So what can we mark up with this? Well, here’s a few examples:

  • In a blog post: the main content, the word count, the date, citations & comments
  • For a pharma site: different drugs, their costs, the intended audience, descriptions of the drug, what it affects and how, what it treats, where it’s from, how much it costs…
  • For an ecommerce site: products, product reviews, average review score, cost, brand, images, offers, price…

These are just three things, out of many. The entire list can be found here. Warning – it’s long.

What this does is allow search engines and other structured data systems to look at your website and actually understand what’s on it. Longer term this will be the main format for getting Google & co to understand the detail of your content and how to relate to it.

Other Considerations

3513096570_4c3c8542fa_b[1]There’s a lot of other mark-up you can use too. For example, we’ve got rel next and previous in navigation between different adjacent things, like for a blog post, it’s previous and next posts.

For linking your posts to your own name, we need to have rel author, and for linking the rest of a site to your brand, rel publisher. To ensure every page gets indexed properly, you’ll need an XML sitemap, or possibly more than one. And you’ll need others for video, news items, images, and possibly one for mobile too.

Then there’s rel canonical, for handling duplicated (or almost duplicated) content, both where it’s replicated on one or many sites, concatenating CSS to reduce HTTP requests and asynchronously loading javascript that’s in the head, putting any other javascript before the closing body tag, reducing HTTP requests with image sprites, and working on improving database and server performance through optimising queries, putting a CDN in place for serving static files, setting up memcached or Varnish servers… All these things and more impact search, and so as an SEO, you’ll need to know about and understand all of them. If you don’t, you’re not going to be able to help your clients in every area.

The Visual Interface

It’s not just the code and architectural considerations that have advanced though – how a site looks has increasingly become a part of the day to day life of an SEO. Aside from the obvious consideration that a good looking site is more likely to be linked to than one that hasn’t had time spent on it, there’s specific considerations that must be taken in to account for a site to perform its best.

Designing for the User

6891355075_a861ce9c2b_b[1]Users nowadays can’t be relied on to use a desktop with a few potential resolutions. As such, you need a site that can cater to any sized viewport, from 320 by 480 mobiles up to 2880×1800 QWXGA+, and soon 4096 by 2160 4k super-monitors, which is 58 times the size of a mobile phone.

Needless to say, that means that the idea of simply scaling one size up and down will simply fall apart. You need a different design for different sized displays. Because people can read and share and write and link on anything, be it their phone, tablet, laptop, desktop or 4k gaming machine.

More than that though, there’s things that you can design in theory that don’t translate well into search friendliness. For example, that collapsible accordion left hand navigation with a link to every category and child category on your site might be lovely from a design and UX standpoint, but it’s going to add hundreds of links to every single category and (possibly) product page. Which your SEO is going to shout at you for.

Designing something that’s as search friendly as possible certainly introduces challenges, but the payoff is a site that’s better capable of attracting traffic, and generally, of converting better too.

The Written Word

7213539470_91da54b292_b[1]When you get in to producing content, you’re going to need to keep search in mind too. Now, this doesn’t mean spamming. If you repeat a keyword over and over, I guarantee you that you’re just going to annoy your users. And great search-friendly copywriting is an art, into which spammers dare not venture.

So if it’s not keyword stuffing, what is it?

Well, it’s ensuring that the search phrases for which your content attracts visits matches the messaging on the page. For example, if most of the traffic is from people in the research phase of the buying cycle, is the content geared toward informing them, or selling to them? Is the tone appropriate? How about the titles? Can the piece be scanned quickly for the right information?

These are all traditionally copywriting and UX questions, but they’re things that you’re going to have to be able to weigh in on as well, as they’re considerations to do with search.

Considerations for Images & Video

7890787158_c43d94f02b_b[1]There’s an elephant in the room here. Images and video work better the better the quality they are. But a professional camera like a Canon ESO 5d mark II will set you back more than a thousand pounds. Fine if you’ve got the money to invest, but if you haven’t, then you have something of a problem.

It used to be that you could ignore this, but now with sites like Pinterest around, it’s not the case anymore. And since all it takes is for one of your competitors to take the time and care to get great images, and shoot wonderful video for their site to put you at a huge disadvantage, not doing it is simply relying on the hope that no-one else can be bothered either.

Needless to say, this isn’t a wise business strategy. So yes, it’s going to cost, both in terms of money and time, but it’s absolutely something that needs to be considered and actioned as part of doing business online. Also, that video needs to be in HD, and hosted (probably) on YouTube and Vimeo; YouTube for the search volume it can pick up, and Vimeo for putting it on your site (Vimeo’s player is by far more design-friendly and elegant than YouTube’s).

The Social Connection

7968954274_cb3e6a21cf_b[1]Whilst correlation doesn’t equal causation, and no-one’s managed to prove conclusively that social sharing does influence rankings longer-term, it’s certainly probable that if not now, certainly in the near future it’ll be a part of the algorithms used by Google to weight search listings. As such, if you’re not socially aware and engaging with your customers and audience online, you’re going to be overtaken by those who do.

Completely aside from the search benefit to this, there’s also a plethora of other benefits too – easy channels for getting PR out, the ability to measure and alter your customer’s affinity with your brand, real-time customer support, increased traffic and revenue… It takes an investment, and will take time to show it’s worth while you build your brand and presence, but it’s absolutely worth it.

Shooting for Exceptional

5140446758_3810be51ff_b[1]It’s certainly not easy to produce an amazing piece of design, and to keep that quality throughout every element of your site. However, it’s not something that you can afford to ignore – but by investing the time and energy required to keep your site at the forefront of your field, you’ll ensure that you get, and stay ahead of your competition.

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