Design Matters

Many search engine marketers don’t understand how important design and information architecture are to search engine marketing (SEM). They may remember to throw in a link here, add some keywords there, mix it up, and (as Emeril Lagasse would say) — BAM! A fully optimized page that ranks a top 10 position in every search engine.

Effective search engine optimization (SEO) campaigns require effective site design. Keywords are useless if search engines and site visitors don’t have easy access to them.

What’s an Effective Web Site?

An effective Web site is user friendly, search friendly, and persuasive enough to convert. In other words, search friendliness is an essential component of site design. Usability experts such as Jared Spool, Jakob Nielsen, and Steve Krug stress the importance of creating clear categories and navigation hierarchies. Spool coined the term “trigger words.” The definition is very similar to the common SEM term, “keywords.”

Site visitors should be able to browse your site and easily find what they’re searching for. In an ideal situation, visitors would go directly to the page that contains the information they need. However, since no two people think alike, Web developers and usability professionals constantly test and determine better designs, HTML code, and programming to make delivering needed information as easy as possible.

Optimization is not only a marketing process. It’s also a design and usability process.


To differentiate themselves, search engine marketers present their own unique selling propositions (USPs) to close a sale. One of my esteemed colleagues publishes an online newsletter about search engine friendly copywriting. Her company feels the core of a SEO campaign is copy. The company’s USP is writing keyword-rich copy that sells.

It’s a great USP. Many copywriters don’t know how to write keyword-rich copy that converts.

Another SEM company has this interesting sales pitch:

As SEO is a specialty-marketing tool, you’ll want to be sure that you hire a company whose only business is SEO. Relying on a company who specializes in a variety of services will only detract from the services that you want most.

This company’s USP is it specializes in optimization only (though after reading its entire site, it appears it specializes in all types of SEM).

This USP is good, too. Many Web hosting companies offer SEO services. A company I use for hosting publishes a regular newsletter on the topic. I cringe every time I read it. Many hosting companies have discovered SEM is a hot topic. They want to cash in and offer it as a new service.

Here’s the flip side. At the last Search Engine Strategies conference, in the session entitled “Search Engine Marketing & Advertising Agencies,” one of my colleagues pointed out ad agencies have issues with search engine marketers. One pet peeve is search engine marketers make pages or sites ugly.

Maybe slapping a keyword here and throwing a link there can make a page search friendly. But it can ruin a site’s design, information architecture, and branding.

At the conference, a few of my colleagues approached my company’s CEO asking, “Are you still really doing site design?” The answer is a resounding yes. Guess what? Design matters.

I’ll repeat that: Design matters.

Design and SEO

Building an effective Web site requires a team. Copywriters and content managers can write persuasive, keyword-rich copy that converts. If search engines and site visitors don’t have easy access to that copy, the pages won’t appear at the top of search results.

Some site designs can be fixed by simply adding text-link navigation and a site map. Other design solutions aren’t so simple.

Many CMSs and shopping cart software pass too many parameters in the query string, resulting in a URL structure that makes search engine indexing problematic. Only a programmer or developer experienced in a variety of Web programming languages can analyze a site and fix the problem.

Sites must also generate or help generate revenue. To do so, the site must be persuasive. Both copy and graphic images can make content more persuasive. Likewise, an appropriate color scheme and layout can make a site more persuasive.

As stated above, ad agencies don’t like when search engine marketers make sites ugly. Unfortunately, many ad agencies deal with SEM firms with mostly programmers and other tech people for staff. Many programmers lack design, branding, and marketing skills.

In contrast, many copywriters and marketers lack technical skills. Sure, finding a person (or company) with technical, artistic, design, and marketing skills isn’t easy. But those are the skills needed for an effective SEO campaign.


Am I saying the most important SEM component is site design? Of course not. Copywriting is equally important, as is information architecture. But written content must be presented in a user-friendly, search-friendly, persuasive manner.

How’s that accomplished? Simply put, site design. Design matters.

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

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