Search Engine Friendly or Search Friendly?

  |  August 16, 2004   |  Comments

Somewhere along SEM’s evolution, ’search-engine-friendly design’ came to mean friendly only to Google or Yahoo. What happened to the user experience?

A search-friendly Web site isn’t only about being Google-friendly. Sounds a bit astonishing coming from a search engine marketer, doesn’t it?

Search friendliness isn’t only about Google, Yahoo, MSN Search, Teoma, or any other crawler-based search engine or human-based directory. Search friendliness is first and foremost about site visitors. Having a search-friendly site is far more important than having a search-engine-friendly site.

Ad Agency Issues With SEM Firms

I have to credit my colleague Dana Todd of SiteLab for setting the wheels in motion. In her presentation at the Search Engine Strategies conferences, Todd points out one of the biggest complaints ad agencies have about search engine marketing (SEM) firms is, "SEMs want to make Web sites ugly."

My gut reaction to that statement? Well, I was offended. I often feel agency-based site designers are more concerned with eye candy than user-friendly Web sites.

Being a designer as well as a search engine marketer, I understand my aesthetic preferences don’t always translate into sales or search engine visibility. I’ve seen plenty of ugly (in my opinion) sites generate millions of dollars in sales because the text, layout, color scheme, and information architecture are exactly what the target audience wants to see. I’ve also seen hot, Flash-based sites generate little or no sales.

I’ve witnessed sites with top positioning for popular keyword phrases generate little or no sales. On the flip side, I’ve also seen sites with top 20 or 30 rankings generate millions of dollars. Ranking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Following my gut reaction to Todd’s presentation, I began to truly comprehend agency concerns. Many SEM firms do create ugly Web pages due to limited design skills. Somewhere along SEM’s evolution, "search-engine-friendly design" came to mean being only Google- or Yahoo-friendly. What happened to the user experience?

Search Engine Friendly Versus Search Friendly

I prefer the term "search-friendly design." "Search-engine friendly design" seems only to focus on Google, Yahoo, MSN Search, Teoma, and other spider-based search engines. "Search friendly design," however, focuses on end users and search engines.

How easy is it for visitors to form a mental map of your site? When you ask site visitors what site section they’re viewing, can they answer without hesitation? If you asked visitors how they arrived at a particular product page, would the answer be a logical sequence or a convoluted clickstream?

Try using your site’s search engine. Search for product names, model or SKU numbers, brands you carry, or a short product description. Do the most relevant pages appear at the top of search results? If you have a business-to-business (B2B) site, type a short service description in the search box. Do the most appropriate services pages, FAQs, or customer service pages appear at the top of search results?

I admit that a search-friendly site might not be easily spidered by Yahoo or Google. Look at two of the major shopping sites, QVC.com and HSN.com. Their internal search results are quite accurate, but the URL strings make it nearly impossible for spider-based search engines to access the sites’ content.

If designers, developers, and search marketers would focus more on sites being search friendly, they might find their sites can easily generate targeted search engine traffic and convert visitors into buyers within a single site.

SEM Software Developers

Sometimes colleagues ask me to evaluate their new search engine optimization (SEO) software, often for shopping carts or content management systems (CMSs). (Many times retailers use shopping software to design e-commerce sites. The software generates unwieldy URL strings for most pages on the site.) A common sales pitch I hear is, "Make your site 100% search-engine friendly." I wonder what exactly they mean by that, particularly as many of them are software developers with limited design skills.

So I ask them directly. What they mean is all search engines have access to the content on all Web pages. Which is great. It’s a step in the right direction, as I mentioned in a previous column. As much CMS and shopping software passes too many parameters in the query string, the resulting URL structure is problematic for search engine indexing.

Search friendliness means so much more than providing search engines with access to page content. Unfortunately, the definition can also be applied to spam doorway pages.

Doorway page software can generate search-engine-friendly pages. These aren’t difficult to create -- just a bunch of keyword-rich text and cross links. Heck, my mom can create doorway pages.

Kudos to my colleagues for moving forward. Now’s the time to move a step further: Make the site spider friendly and user friendly. Then it will be a product to be reckoned with.

Conclusion

Search-friendly design doesn’t only make Google, Yahoo, MSN Search, and Teoma happy. Search-friendly design focuses on user experience. That’s a win-win situation. Create a site where visitors can easily find what they’re searching for before they arrive, via the spider-based search engines. And create a site where they can easily find information after they arrive. All on the same site.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shari Thurow

Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.

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