By Marcus Miller
Source: Search Engine Land
Your website is the center of your digital marketing world — the place that all digital rivers run toward. And of course, the largest of its traffic sources is generally organic search.
Yet all too often, businesses don’t think about SEO until after having a website designed (or redesigned), and these sites are often sadly lacking on the SEO and digital marketing front. They may look shiny, but if the marketing smarts are not cooked in at design time, then you will be running the marketing race with a wooden leg. Or at the very least, faced with going back to the drawing board and wasting a whole load of time and money.
We have been thinking about the SEO and web design connection a lot recently at Bowler Hat and have just published a website design planning guide to help in what can be a complicated process. This is a companion piece to that guide that really covers the SEO considerations in far more granular detail.
In this post, I have a look at how SEO should be an integral part of your website design (or redesign) process. We are going to look at what you need to consider to have a site that is built for search marketing and lead generation — and how focusing on happy users keeps the Google gods on your side.
We will also take a look at some of the common pitfalls that can befall businesses looking to build a new website that is central to your digital marketing efforts.
In brief, I am going to help you ensure your next site is a lean, mean SEO and digital marketing machine.
What usually happens…
A phone rings at Bowler Hat HQ.
Marcus: “Hey, Bowler Hat here. How can we help?”
Caller: “Hi there. We have just had a website built and… we seem to have lost a considerable amount of traffic.” OR “… we don’t rank for the keywords we used to be visible for.” OR “… we are just not getting any inquiries.” OR “… we want to look at what we can do to improve our SEO.”
Marcus: “Ah, okay. If you can let me know your URL and a number to call you back on, I can take a look and make some suggestions.”
There is a problem here. SEO is not some band-aid you can just plaster onto an existing site. Website SEO is fundamental to succeeding online for the majority of businesses. And the same concepts that fuel solid SEO help with paid search, social and any other inbound marketing efforts. Get this wrong and you will certainly fail to hit your digital marketing goals.
Developing an SEO-friendly website
At a fundamental level, an SEO-friendly site is one that allows a search engine to explore and read pages across the site. Ensuring a search engine can easily crawl and understand your content is the first step to ensuring your visibility in the search engine result pages.
A search engine utilizes a web crawler for this task, and we are trying to work with the search engines rather than against them. Unfortunately, there are many ways to make a website, and not all technologies are built with search engine optimization in mind.
Building an SEO-friendly site requires careful planning and a structured approach to representing your business and the services you provide. For many businesses, this can be complicated — it’s not always easy to document exactly what you do.
As a marketing tool, your website should be built upon a solid digital marketing plan with a clear business model and value proposition. If that’s unclear, then you need to revisit that first.
Assuming you have all that good stuff in place, let’s dive in.
There are a few core elements that set the stage for a well-optimized website design process.
Your business may use example.com as the primary domain. But you may have others. Ensuring your domain makes sense and relates to what you do is super-important. Ensuring that all variations and subdomains correctly point at the main site and redirect to a single canonical version of the site is important.
Our business is called Bowler Hat. We operate in the UK. We are a web-based business. It naturally follows that our domain is www.bowlerhat.co.uk. All subdomains 301 redirect back to the main URL www.bowlerhat.co.uk. We have few domain variations that 301 redirect back to the main URL. This all makes sense.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that having-my-keywords-in-my-domain.com helps. It just looks daft. It can help a little for local businesses, but ensure you are mapping to the real world. Be sensible.
Your hosting is also important. A slow site makes for unhappy users. Your hosting should follow common-sense rules. Be situated where your audience is situated. Be fast. Be platform-specific, if necessary. WP Engine is a great example, as it provides a platform tailored to WordPress websites.
The CMS (content management system) you choose for your business can hugely influence how successful you are. WordPress is a great option in many situations, but it’s not the only one. It certainly is wired up at a basic level in a way that Google can understand. This is not to say it is the best choice for all situations, but certainly, it’s a good starting point for most businesses. Just be sure that the CMS you choose is the right one for your situation, rather than the one your chosen web company prefers to work with.
Crawling & accessibility
The first step is ensuring a search engine can crawl your site and understand what it is that you do (and where you do it).
To understand your site, they have to be able to read the content of the page. This means that the main content of your site should be text-based behind the scenes. Not images. Not flash or video. Even in this ever-advancing world, your main content should still be text-based. There are some great tools, like web fonts, that mean you can still look the part, and your images have a place, but be sure to talk in clear language about what it is you do so the search engine can read and understand your offering.
Images, videos, PDFs and content are also important and can be a source of search engine traffic. Again, these need to be discoverable and indexable.
To index your content beyond the home page, you need internal links that the search engine can crawl. Your primary navigation, search engine directives and tools like XML sitemaps all help the search engine crawl your site and discover new pages. Tools like Screaming Frog can help you ensure that your site can be easily crawled by a search engine.
Information architecture and structuring your site
I have always like the filing cabinet analogy for website structure. Your site is the filing cabinet. The major categories are the drawers. The subcategories are the folders in the drawers. The pages are documents in the folders.
- Cabinet: your website
- Drawer: high-level category
- Folder: subcategory
- File: individual document/page
Context is indicated not only by the site it exists on but also by the position within that site. Our own site has a drawer for services, and each service has sub-services in folders. Your site will be largely the same.
If we consider the following structure of the Bowler Hat site as an example:
– – Service Area
– – – Individual Service
– – SEO
– – – SEO Audits
So, there is a page in this information architecture that is simply /audits/.
The /audits/ page exists in the SEO folder in the services drawer. Nice and organized. This can follow through with other SEO elements to clearly indicate context far beyond that which can be indicated by the document alone.
This is relevant to blog posts, articles, FAQ content, services, locations and just about anything else that is an entity within your business. You are looking to structure the information about your business in a way that makes it understandable.
Some sites may take a deep approach to structuring content. Others may take a wide approach. The important takeaway here is that things should be organized in a way that makes sense and simplifies navigation and discovery.
A three- to four-level approach like this ensures that most content can be easily navigated to within four clicks and tends to work better than a deeper approach to site navigation (for users and search engines).
Context is further indicated by the URL. A sensible naming convention helps provide yet more context for humans and search engines.
Following are two hypothetical sets of URLs that could map to the Services > SEO > SEO Audit path laid out above — yet one makes sense, and the other does nothing to help.
Of course, the second set of URLs is a purposely daft example, but it serves a point — the first URL naming convention helps both search engines and users, and the second one hinders.
Your navigation is equally important. When a site is well-structured, the navigation works with the structure, the URLs and other components, like XML sitemaps, to help solidify what each page or piece of content is about.
Navigation is more than just the menu at the top of your website. It is how you signpost users to the most relevant part of your site. Navigation can be a tool to raise awareness of additional services and includes not just text links but content on all pages and in the templated design elements of your site.
I have always liked the signpost analogy. I walk into a supermarket and look for the signs to find what I need. Your website is no different. If a user is referred and searches for your brand name, then they will land on your home page. They then need a signpost to get them to the relevant service. And it had better be easy to find!
It is very easy to get this wrong, and careful thought must be applied — before you build the site — regarding the needs and wants of your users. A website is a digital component that should execute the strategy from your marketing plan. Understanding users here is crucial so you can ensure you are meeting their needs.
Navigation should not need any real cognition — it should not make the user have to think. The following image is a sign from my local home improvement store. Which direction takes you to the car park and which direction takes you to the deliveries entrance?
My brain follows the “customer car park” line from left to right, so I of course turn right. However, the customer car park is to the left. There is nothing there to clearly illustrate which is right or wrong.
I have to think. Or in practice, I go in the wrong direction a few times before I learn. However, if users don’t find what they are looking for on a website, they will return to the great ocean of competition that Google search results represent.
Ensure your navigation is crystal-clear — if one user can make a mistake, many others can, too.
There are many potential issues with content that can’t be found or can’t be understood by the search engine that can work against you. For example:
- Orphaned content that can’t be found
- Content only available via site search
- Flash files, Java programs, audio files, video files
- AJAX* and flashy site effects
- Frames — Content embedded from another site can be problematic.
- Subdomains — content split into subdomains rather than sub-folders
* Google has gotten a lot better at reading AJAX pages, but it is still possible to obscure content with pointless effects.
Be sure that important content is easily discoverable, understandable and sits in the overall structure of the site in a way that makes sense.
If everything is done well, a human and a search engine should have a pretty good idea what a page is about before they even look at it. Your typical SEO then just builds on this solid foundation that is laid out by your information architecture and site structure.