Should designers be expected to carry out SEO?
For years now we’ve heard the phrase “SEO is dead” being bandied around the net, most recently in an ill-advised article in UK newspaper The Guardian. At the time, the article caused something of a rumpus around the web from various SEO professionals who quickly printed some responses.
However, the idea that SEO is dead has been around for a long time, almost as long as the discipline itself. It’s fair to say that these days, SEO encompasses a range of techniques, rather than just optimizing a site, so it’s probably better described as digital marketing overall.
But what, if anything, does SEO mean to the web designer? Is it their job to ensure that the site has the correct meta information and on-page keywords? Or is it just the technicalities like site structure that they should concentrate on?
Offering more pays better
There’s little doubt that SEO is a widely used technique, in terms of design and marketing and so it stands to reason that the designer who can offer optimization will win better paid projects.
With this in mind, I thought I’d create a series of articles that look at the different aspects of SEO and what designers should really be carrying out as a minimum. For today, we’ll concentrate on the basics, such as:
- Choosing a URL & structure
- Meta tags
Content will of course be mostly up to the customer, but do bear in mind that many just can’t write. If you want to be able to offer a truly all-round service, then why not considering partnering with a freelancer or content agency so that you can?
URLs, how to choose and URL structure
Before looking in a little more depth at URLs, it’s worth giving a little thought to keywords. Now this is something that the client should already have carried out (research) if they have a good marketing plan, as they can be used over so many different platforms these days.
Keyword research takes time but if you have it, then use it and offer it as another service, you can always take on a virtual assistant with SEO skills if you get too busy. Whatever the case, when you begin the design process, ideally you should have the keywords that are going to be used at your disposal.
This brings us to URLs. Is this something that you provide for your clients along with hosting and domain registration? Perhaps you should, URLs should really be as short as possible, so that they’re memorable and make use of keywords where possible.
When it comes to structure, it’s safe to say that there are good URLs and bad ones, if you’re giving thought to SEO.
- GOOD Format – www.website.com/other-page
- POOR Format – www.website.com/44/otherpage/44735413
The ‘shorter the better’ rule stands here too and the URL should just describe the page/use the title of the target.
In the first instance, URLs should be used alongside market research in order to find the best, most searched for terms, which are relevant to the site’s industry and audience. These can then be used for creating page URLs depending on how the audience searches.
For example, do they shop by:
- Product type
- Product name
It’s much better to create a URL structure based on words, rather than numbers:
It’s easy enough to see which is preferable. This isn’t always possible with ecommerce sites though and will depend on databases and how they’ve been created. However, for information and content pages, they are a must for search. Page and folder file names are much more user friendly. Using hyphens is also good practice as it allows the URL to be quickly scanned by a user, showing them that their search is on the right track before they even arrive at the site.
Keywords and phrases can also be used here, for maximum search capabilities. If using a CMS, such as WordPress, then URLs can be edited with ease, as below.
Don’t forget to create 301 redirects if you’re carrying this out for an existing site in order to clean it up and make it more search engine (and usability) friendly.
This is so basic, it’s almost not worth mentioning, but I will anyway, just so we cover all bases. I’m not going to insult you by explaining what meta information is to you, as I can’t imagine any designer doesn’t already know.
Meta keywords have little in the way of any uses these days, thanks to the black hat practice of stuffing as many as possible in. However, it might not hurt to include a key phrase here, just to be sure.
For reference, meta information should be as below.
Remember that descriptions should be highly relevant and not overuse keywords, while titles should use keywords as close to the beginning as possible.
When it comes to keyword density, both in meta tags and on-page, I work by the premise of not really worrying too much about it. Unless I’m specifically asked by a client to keep to a certain density, I won’t, and even then I’d be more likely to tell them to ignore density.
A key phrase, based on keywords, in the meta information and on page, accompanied by a closely related phrase or two in the body of the text should be ample, depending on word count.
Google is very up for penalizing those that abuse keywords and it’s so easy to get a penalty that I feel erring on the side of caution to be the best approach. I’m also a writer and actively hate being made to force words in where they would be better occurring naturally. Write for people more than search engines should really be the premise of any design.
Again, this is something that every designer is more than familiar with, especially whilst everyone remains in love with typography. However, it’s worth pointing out that keywords that appear in H1, H2 tags and so on will help your SEO efforts.
If you can once again use keywords/phrases in these, it certainly won’t do any harm either.
Images and site speed
So we all know that images are one of the major obstacles to a speedy site and so these should be optimized so that they are as small as possible. This can be done using a variety of methods and these days, HTML5 and CSS3 can ensure that images don’t have to be the heaviest part of the site.
For responsive sites it’s also vital that performance is looked at, as unless optimized for performance, they can be very slow to load. However, a recent Moz study found that Google’s algorithms work on time to first byte (TTFB), rather than document loading and rendering.
The way that Google measures site speed and the fact that it’s just one tiny element of more than 200 algorithms means that you shouldn’t be too concerned when it comes to SEO and ranking, but you certainly should for users.
Usability is key when it comes to making conversions and I’m sure that you would rather build a site that increases your client’s sales than not. So it’s important to give users first consideration over what Google might thing, especially since it’s not really making any difference.
All of this is, hopefully, something that many of you are doing anyway, in the interests of good practice, with a few handy tips thrown in. A good site structure and hierarchy is essential to SEO, as is the content of the site and usability.
SEO tends to attract less than scrupulous people looking to make a quick buck. So, as an established designer, if you think you have the times and skills, to me it makes sense to offer SEO as you’re already trusted.
The question then becomes, are you happy freelancing, or could you see yourself heading up an agency that offers a complete design and optimization service? Not everyone will want the latter, but there’s little doubt that when it comes to digital marketing as a whole, opportunity doesn’t just exist, it’s actively knocking.
In the next part, we’ll look at the role of social media in SEO.