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.
The role of social media
There’s little doubt that social media is becoming increasingly important to SEO, especially with regard to G+ and Google’s rumored plans for Authorship and Author Rank are likely to cement that.
But what role, if any, does the designer play when it comes to integrating social with the company website? Well that depends on both the designer and the client, but most sites will now have social media links included as a minimum.
That means that for the designer, the opportunity is there to come up with some great, eye-catching, unique designs when it comes to the images for the links. Add to this the need for branding to be identical cross-platform these days and the opportunity for designers is even more apparent.
Why integrate social?
Social signals, such as the amount of followers a site gains and the content that is shared from a site are important. As you know, in the dark days of post Penguin and Panda, content is even more important than it’s ever been and in order to measure engagement, it’s necessary to measure shares as well as traffic to the site.
Ideally, the client should have a sound marketing plan in place for you to work from. They will know which social platforms they are going to use, if they want to include social logins, and the relevance of placing icons on their site.
This means that the savvy designer can maximize on this and provide not only awesome icons on the site, but also great designs to grace the client profile on each social media site. Facebook gateway pages, for example, are a great marketing tool for encouraging people to give contact details and an opportunity for you to create eye-catching, tempting designs that can draw the user in.
User experience is everything
Well integrated social media channels are essential to the modern web experience and this means that designs should complement this. This can be done in a variety of ways and many of you will have noticed that many clients have moved away from a static design in order to replace it with variable content, which is usually powered by social media.
According to David Carillo, manager at Earned Media: “Implementing Facebook Open Graph and Twitter cards on a Website is the best way to control the presentation of your website (sic) on social networks. And it’s a lot easier to implement from the beginning than to have to go back once the site is already built out.”
Not only this, but the ability to embed content such as YouTube videos and SlideShare presentations means that you have a Google-friendly website in terms of multimedia content too. SlideShare presentations are becoming increasingly popular as a content marketing tool, with many preferring it over white papers now, as it’s a simple but effective way to present content in a form that’s easy to digest.
Tweets, Facebook reviews, LinkedIn recommendations, all of these can also be pulled from social to further boost trust between the client and their users. All of this means that you’re creating a site that is making the very most of social media in terms of usability, SEO, consumer trust and engagement.
Design opportunity and social
There’s nothing to say that you have to be restricted to using social plugins, or icons for each social media site. These can be incorporated into the design to match the branding of the company.
For example, the design below is a good example of using creativity to make branded social icon links, whilst keeping them entirely recognize as relating to each social network.
As you can see, it’s immediately apparent which network matches each button, but the designer has been clever and linked the icons to the style of the website. If we now go and check out the social media sites that are linked, you can see that the fishing company has done well with Twitter and carried on the theme, but failed somewhat on Facebook by just using a logo.
For most designers it’s a simple matter to design Twitter headers and Facebook cover images in Photoshop and the impact it has on the overall brand is well worth it.
Social plugins and logins
Social logins are a great way to include a call to action and create a community without asking too much of the user. These are not just an ideal way of making the site more social by allowing comments and suchlike, but they provide valuable and accurate data that can be used for marketing.
This can then be used for personalizing the user experience for content, product recommendations and more. This is invaluable for a company looking to streamline their lead generation but it can be a little problematic from the perspective of the developer.
Of course, there are plenty of companies out there who provide social login connectivity as a service, but if you want to code your own there’s a good, detailed article on the MSDN site by Andrew Dodson.
For reference, Facebook remains the preferred network for social login across pretty much all industries, so you could begin with that one first. Bear in mind that it’s thought G+ will catch up by 2016, so you could also include a G+ login.
Further advantages to providing social login options with a site include doing away with forms. Social login performs the same function, which is simply to collect user information and build a mailing list, to name but one. Add to that the ability of mobile users to login with a single click, and you’re onto a winner.
With regard to plugins, whilst they can slow a site slightly, they are worth having for sharing purposes, as shares are counted by search engines as being useful.
Get your social skills perfected
In order to give clients the best possible service, every designer should be prepared to integrate social and know the reasons for doing so. The benefits are numerous to the client and include excellent branding opportunities, increased SEO and lead generation, an enhanced user experience and more.
With mobile becoming more and more common when it comes to what we use to browse the net, social can play a vital part too. Many sites are discovered through social media sites and so creating eye-catching designs for social media profiles is another way to increase traffic.
Social also gives a site the ability to host multimedia content and allows this to be shared in a two-way manner between the site and the social media presence.
At the end of the day, there’s no getting away from the social media revolution, so the best approach is to maximize the benefits it can give to your clients and in turn, your own business.