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Redefining Search-Engine Friendly Website Design

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The term "search-engine friendly design" has always been misunderstood by many people: usability professionals, web designers/developers, information architects, advertisers, and even search engine marketers. If you look at this phrase at face value, it seems to mean designing a website for search engines.

Likewise, the term "search engine optimization," commonly abbreviated as SEO, is equally misunderstood. At face value, it seems to mean optimizing your website for the commercial web search engines. In fact, these face-value definitions are so pervasive that people still dismiss SEO professionals as snake-oil salesmen or people who game the search engines to get top positions.

In reality, these face-value definitions are inaccurate. I have always thought of search-engine friendly design as designing a website for people who use search engines. And SEO as optimizing a website for people who use search engines.

Notice there are two parts to these simple definitions: (1) people and (2) search engines. In order for a website to be search-engine friendly, it should be friendly to both humans and search engines - not to search engines exclusively, not to humans exclusively. BOTH humans and search engines.

Designing for Search Engines Only - The BIG Mistake

How can you tell that an SEO professional designs/develops sites for search engines only? Ask them their definition of search-engine friendly design. You might hear such terms such as crawlability (the ability for a search engine spider to crawl a site) and indexation (the ability for website's most high-quality pages, videos, and images to be available to rank).

You might hear incredibly over-generalized statements such as, "Make all of your links to text links" and "You have to change all of your links to text links because search engines want a faster download time." You might even hear the words usability, user experience, and site architecture thrown in there for good measure.

All of those words: crawlability, indexation, user experience, usability, site architecture. Sounds impressive? Doesn't it? An SEO professional who uses these words with confidence and authority must know what he or she is talking about, right?

In my experience, most SEO professionals do not have a clear understanding of search-engine friendly design because they are missing the other half of the definition: the human side. Many SEO professionals might know what search engines want, but they are clueless at understanding searcher goals, behaviors, and expectations.

The Human Part of Search-Engine Friendly Design

Here's an example. Every time I participate in a Site Clinic at a Search Engine Strategies conference, I always encounter websites that have items in the wrong place, especially blog and ecommerce sites. Searchers have very clear mental models where items should be placed on a web page, and if those items are not in the right place or aren't there at all? They spend less time completing the very tasks you want them to complete (Add to Cart) and more time trying to figure out your website. Or, even worse, they just leave. Who has time to figure out confusing websites?

One of my rules of website design is that a website should be easy to navigate, to accommodate searcher goals. However, navigation design is a subject that many search professionals and web developers never study. They think that searchers instinctively know what is clickable and what is not clickable. As a website usability professional, I know that this is not true. I see people get lost and confused on websites all of the time.

Guess what happens when a website is confusing and difficult to navigate? People don't link to the site. People don't talk about the site's content in social media. People don't bookmark the site. People don't Add to Cart or Subscribe. People just leave...how is that for a positive brand experience?

At the San Francisco Search Engine Strategies conference, I will cover the both the human and the technical aspects of search engine optimization (SEO) in various panels, the Express Site Clinic, and in a Training Workshop. Here are some of the things you will learn in the Training Workshop:

  • How to effectively use keywords in site navigation - with best and worst examples (the solutions might surprise you).
  • The Dos and Don'ts of labeling, formatting, and describing content (web pages, images, videos).
  • How to format and place items on types of web pages -- where searchers expect to see them.
  • Don't know the parts of a web page? Most people don't (including your tech team). We will go over the parts of a web page and how to format them for search engine visibility, sales, and conversions.
  • Easy and inexpensive usability tests that you can do to accommodate web searchers...and Google.

Don't know how to code or program? Don't worry. The Training Workshop is tailored for both technical and non-technical jobs.

In conclusion, always remember that SEO is optimizing for people who use search engines. An effective, profitable website is one that is designed, written, and programmed for your target audience - the very people who use search engines.

This guest post was written by Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine optimization (SEO), website usability, information architecture (IA), and web design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search-engine friendly websites worldwide since 1995, she is the author of Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari's areas of expertise include search engine optimization, website design and development, searcher behaviors, findability, and search usability.


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