Why SEO Comes First

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I’ve been an SEO for many years and during that time I’ve worked with all sorts of web developers – each with their own mix of talents and enthusiasm. For all their hard work, good intentions and passion, generally speaking they’ve all been a massive dud when it comes to one particular aspect of online marketing: search engine optimisation.

It’s not the fact that web designers tend to be bad at SEO that’s the problem – in fact I’m glad they are otherwise there would be no work for people like me. The problem starts when they claim that they do understand it, partly in order to secure the work.

And for the record, whilst I wholeheartedly appreciate that there is a distinction between designers and developers, I have found each are guilty protagonists, so I apologize if I use these terms interchangeably. If pushed I would also say that your average Mac user knows far less about SEO than your average PC user (and take from that what you wish), but as I am about to explain, having a little knowledge could well be worse than having none at all.

Web Designers’ Views on SEO

Generally, when you ask a web designer what he or she knows about SEO – if their sun-starved faces don’t completely go blank – they may talk about title tags, pretty URLs and maybe even a sitemap.

What’s for certain is that they won’t discuss anything other than the on-site technical aspects of their websites.

That’s fine – these are important parts of optimization and many designers don’t even get that far. I’ll go further and say thank goodness that the days of frames are long gone whilst the irony of not a single Flash website showing up in Google for the phrase “Flash website” isn’t lost on an SEO.

So, let’s consider a typical scenario. Along comes your average relatively clueless client to a web designer studio and they (or their sales team) go through the sales process, show them how great their existing clients’ websites look and demonstrate their excellent hosting plans as the client nods along enthusiastically to the sales patter.

Five minutes before the sales meeting closes, the clients ask about this SEO they’ve read so much about. The design team issues a final gush about how all their sites are search engine friendly and will easily be found by the spiders and what’s more, they even install Google analytics for free! And so the deal is done.

Six months down the line and sales on the client’s site are lackluster, traffic is low and the return on investment is negligible. Along comes an SEO, and before he can even say “Your site has canonicalization problems and no call to action”, the client’s defences are up. He’s already “had SEO done” and it didn’t’ work – anyway, he’s now spending his marketing budget on Yell.com and an advert in the local press.

Thank you, Mr Web Designer – another potential client gone, another website without a marketing plan and another detractor of SEO as a profession.

SEOs’ Views on Web Design

Let’s flip this around and ask an SEO about Web Design and – if they even find the time away from their ridiculous workload to answer –  they may talk about HTML, headers, bodies and footers and maybe a bit about PHP or CSS. Ask them if they can also provide a website and they would have no hesitation in referring you to someone else who knows better – probably someone they are connected to through a LinkedIn account.

In the same way a car mechanic might be a dab hand at making a vehicle go faster, he wouldn’t for one second assume he’s also best suited to then race it. Web designers have to detach what they do from anything to do with what a contemporary SEO would do.

Web designers are hurting the search marketing industry at the very source. When clients whose understanding is only as good as the person who is telling them think that SEO is what web designers do, we’re at the bottom of a big uphill battle.

This is the fundamental problem – web designers are the gatekeepers. They are client’s first port of call and because their work is what the client sees and understands, it is they who influence the site’s design and functionality.

It’s generally up to the SEO to then clean up the mess and rectify the oversights the developers and clients between themselves have left. This is never good news – just as no mother likes to hear that their children are ugly, no web designer likes to be told their site needs changing.

Why SEO Comes First

The following list skims the surface of what a good SEO will do for their client. Immediately, it is clear that our responsibilities go way beyond onsite optimization and whilst the term SEO remains, our role and scope is considerably wider ranging. If there is a web developer out there who considers all of these aspects, then good on you – but I doubt you have time to do all this as well as design websites.

  • Site Accessibility
  • Keyword Research
  • Content Creation/Strategy
  • Link Acquisition
  • Social Media
  • Pay Per Click
  • Search Protocols
  • Community Involvement
  • Local Search

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Two parts of what an SEO provides are largely ignored by web designers, much to the disaffection of their clients: Keyword Research and Traffic Acquisition.

Keyword research should be the starting point of any web build. If you do not know what your prospective customers are looking for, how do you know what words the site should be optimised for? Formula One designers consider the tracks their cars are going to go around before they build the cars. Fisherman consider what fish they are after before they choose the nets they use. Why wouldn’t a website be built and optimized for the words they need to target?

The second and most important part of SEO which web designers fail to recognise is how the site is going to generate traffic. How and why should the site you are building get traffic and make sales? Pretty images and compliant code doesn’t get you very far.

Web developers rarely consider the strategy of how to make this happen: whether the solution is ultimately through content marketing via a blog, attracting inbound links through link bait or integrating a solid social media strategy, making these decisions before the site is built makes a huge difference to any website’s ROI.

Separation of Responsibility

Each party cannot be expert across the other’s discipline. It is important that each party has an understanding of the other.

What Web Designers need to concede and explain to clients is that whilst their sites may be search engine friendly, they are not offering SEO.

To claim anything else undermines our fledgling profession and misleads clients. We have enough bad SEOs doing that already!

Alex MasonAlex Mason
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Alex Mason is Head of Search Marketing at FDC Studio. With a fascination for the web and its boundless opportunities, you can follow Alex on Twitter.

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