Walking the Line between SEO and Design

Like the Hatfields and McCoys, agency creative and SEO teams remain locked in a continuous feud divided by a line in the Google sandbox. Both sides stand behind their respective crafts, each believing their work vital to online success.

One must drive traffic. The other must communicate brand experience. Both are essential, yet employ very different techniques and ideas. How can design and SEO live together in harmony?

The Design Side

Designers create Web sites with the audience in mind. Too often they believe a user's experience dictates success. A simple "build it and they will come" mindset pervades their approach to site design. That's not all bad.

At a very basic level, creative teams long to tell a story. Through design and copy, the team takes a brand and crafts a world for it. They instill a Web site with a look and theme; a feel and flavor. Often, the most effective way to convey a message is through more expressive technologies like Flash, AJAX, and Silverlight. Even video integration has become more prevalent with increased broadband penetration.

Designers want to make use of these technologies because they engage the user. Technological integration helps tell the brand story and bring design to life. If Flash or Silverlight will make the overall site experience more enticing and interactive, then designers should implement them accordingly.

The SEO Side

If a designer tells a story, then the search engineer provides directions to the lecture hall where it's told. The SEO side focuses heavily on traffic and visibility, believing a Web site must be seen to be heard.

Now here's a surprise. Remember those cool technologies the creative team wants to use? Well, SEO wants to use them too. They're just more cautious.

While an SEO-friendly Web site doesn't need to be straight HTML, SEO teams must take into consideration search engine spiders. Even if a site uses AJAX, key content must be accessible to spiders for indexing.

This is where the two teams lock horns. When creative says Flash, SEO counters with CSS. When creative wants rollover navigation, SEO wants text-based. So what's more important: the experience or the traffic? Which side is right?

The Compromise

It can't all be about SEO. If you drive traffic to a site and user experience is sub-par, you disappoint not only the user but the client as well. Conversely, what good is an eye-catching Web site if no one can see it? The Internet is big enough for both experiential design and search optimization.

While not always easy, the designer and search engineer can find ways to achieve both creative and search interest without sacrificing the integrity of either.

The key to such compromises is education. Creative must understand how SEO works; SEO must comprehend the importance of certain design elements to branding and messaging. Both must also consider how visitors will reach the site. Will they find it solely through search? Or will a media blitz help drive traffic to the site? All these elements must be considered when negotiating design and optimization issues.

The Client Comes First

Regardless of department affiliation, designers and SEOs must place client interests before their own. Clients want both brand identity and search visibility. The creative and SEO teams need to put aside their blood feud in order to meet such expectations.

Sometimes you might have to forgo a video splash page, or you may need to optimize a Flash microsite. Even if you disagree with the other department's tactics, you still need them to achieve project objectives. The client matters, not your personal interests.

About the author

William Flaiz is vice president of search engine optimization (SEO) and web analytics at Razorfish (formerly Avenue A | Razorfish). In this role, he oversees the firm's global SEO and web analytics practice that services clients across the US, Europe, and Asia.

William manages a staff of more than 30 account services partners, analysts, and strategists, in defining the needs and providing solutions that help clients to measure and optimize their web site investments.

William joined the Philadelphia office of Avenue A | Razorfish in 2002 to establish the web development practice there and, within six months, he led the development of an award-winning healthcare portal for eMedicine. During this time, he managed the creative, user experience, and customer insights groups, growing the revenue and staff dedicated to web development projects, which accounts for approximately 1/3 of the office's revenues today. More recently, William served as vice president of operations for the Philadelphia office, overseeing all agency planning and financials.

William taught classes on web development and the Internet at various universities in Philadelphia, and has served as a judge for the eHealthcare Leadership Awards for the past three years. He has spoken at industry conferences and authored articles for industry publications, including MD Net Guide, the Center for Business Intelligence pharmaceutical series, and the Nashville Advertising Federation.

William earned a B.S. in accounting and finance and MS in information systems from Drexel University.