The Web is overflowing with sites search engines can’t index. The problem is largely due to URL structure, back-end programming, and poor design choices. I could fill a book with the search-friendly design mistakes I’ve seen. For starters, here are the top five mistakes I typically encounter.
Design First, Optimize Second
The biggest design mistake made by Web designers and site owners is to treat search engine optimization (SEO) as an afterthought, rather than a main component of the design process. Bring in a search specialist before a site is created, not after. Site architecture should be based on what the target audience searches for.
A search specialist can perform keyword research to determine the words and phrases to be used as a site’s information architecture; the navigation schemes, categories, breadcrumb links, headings, and cross-links.
If search is an afterthought, it can cost site owners thousands, even millions, of dollars in advertising expenses and sales conversions. People may have a more difficult time finding a site via the major search engines without paid search advertising. Once visitors arrive at a site, they might have difficulty locating the products and services they searched for.
Always bring in a search specialist early in the design process.
A splash page is a main entry page with either a large graphic image and a link instructing visitors to “enter” a Web site; or a Flash animation with a link to skip the animation (“skip intro”), and a redirect to a new Web page after the animation is completed.
The home page’s main function is to act as a site’s table of contents. A home page shouldn’t be a site index (the site map’s function) or a giant ad. A splash page is essentially a giant advertisement.
The problems with splash pages are threefold:
- Splash pages lack keyword-rich text. The most important text on a Web page is the title tag and visible body text that can be copied and pasted into a text editor. A splash page contains no visible body text, except possibly, “skip intro.”
- Splash pages have only one link and are rarely cross-linked. Most splash pages link to a single page within a site (usually, the real home page). This format tells search engines only one page on your site is important.
- Splash pages often have redirects. Most search engines will not include splash pages in their indexes because of the redirect. Search engines want to deliver users to pages that contain the information they’re searching for. A home page may have that information. A splash page doesn’t.
If usability tests, focus groups, and Web analytics data clearly indicate the target audience likes a splash page, keep it. But be prepared for the negative impact it can have on search engine visibility.
Lack of Focused Content
For a page to rank well in the search engines, it must appear to be focused on a number of specific keyword phrases. Currently, there are two ways to determine whether a page is focused: user testing and keyword density analyzers.
With user testing, we typically present testers with a few page samples for a specified period (10 to 30 seconds). For a business-to-consumer (B2C) site, we might present variations of a category page, product page, and home page. We then ask the following:
- Where are you? (Asked periodically throughout a usability test.)
- Is there a clear focal point for this page? Are there multiple focal points on this page? If so, what are they?
- Do the product descriptions give you enough information to place an order? If not, what information do you want to see?
- What looks clickable on this page? Why does it look clickable?
- Does this page offer too many, too little, or the right amount of choices?
Based on how users answer these questions, we can determine if a page is focused enough on specific keyword phrases. On successful Web pages, keyword phrases usually appear in the HTML title tag, headline, breadcrumb link, product name, product description, and cross-links.
Keyword density analyzers can also determine if content is focused. These tools are useful for people who don’t have the hang of writing with keywords. Word of caution: No one truly knows how search engines determine keyword density.
Search engine representatives typically say a keyword density of 3 to 8 percent is acceptable. One keyword density tool might say a page has 22 percent keyword density; another may say it has 7 percent. Search engines might use a completely different calculation.
Don’t treat these tools as SEO gospel. Rather, use them to help guide your writing to be more keyword-focused.
Balance HTML-Formatted Text and Graphics
An effective Web site design strikes a balance between HTML-formatted text and graphic images. If visitors prefer graphic images over text, designers should give it to them. A search specialist understands the various ways to position keywords throughout a page to accommodate different visitor preferences.
Site design can over- or underuse graphic images. At one extreme is a Flash site, with the entire site formatted as a Flash movie. On the surface, it may seem a Flash site consists of many separate Web pages. Unfortunately, this assumption is wrong. Many Flash sites consist of a single Web page with a single Flash movie.
Be honest. Would you create a one-page Web site and expect that page to rank for 150 separate keyword phrases?
At the other extreme is a site with too few graphic images. This is often a telltale sign of an amateur designer, be it someone who self-taught HTML or a programmer with limited design skills.
Lots of keyword-rich text might get visitors to a site, but a site with too few graphic images may not communicate trust, credibility, and professionalism. At least, not enough to convert a visitor into a customer.
Striking a balance between HTML-formatted text and graphic images is key both to search engine visibility and conversions.
Lack of Customer Focus
I’ve said it a zillion times, but it bears repeating: Write and design your site using the words your target audience types into search queries.
We can all appreciate the time, experience, and effort it takes to create an aesthetically pleasing Flash site. Likewise, we appreciate the amount of education and training it takes to program commerce and publisher sites. Yet a client site isn’t an art gallery piece. The client site must satisfy the target audience’s needs, not the egos of an artist, a copywriter, or a group of programmers. Not even a search engine marketer (SEM).
An SEM can help keep egos in check because her focus is the mind of the searcher. Her goal is to understand the searcher’s intent and create a site based on that intent.
Site design often has different functions: branding, direct sales, customer retention, trust, communication, and online visibility. A site must be persuasive enough to sell a product or service. Product photos must communicate the product’s look and feel. The site must be trustworthy. By making a site search-friendly early in the design process, everybody wins — customers, search engines, and site owners.
Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.