Design, SEO, and Usability Laws?

    November 28, 2006

You read and hear it all the time. Somebody tells you to do something a certain way because it’s the only correct way.

So, you do it, only to learn later that your original way was fine or an even better approach. You may grow tired of being lectured too. You may not know whom to trust.

I thought Aaron Wall’s SEO Book blog post called Bad Advice That Sounds Good was thought provoking. Last I checked, it had garnered 40 comments. He struck a nerve. He wrote things like, “People talk in terms of ideals because they buy into white lies that put themselves or others at the top of social networks”, and “Professionals want to make their profession seem more complex than it is”, and “Many people with authority only consider their worldview.”

Then he goes on to list certain advice statements that he dislikes. Each of them is common. Like “Create your website for users, not for search engines.” Aaron and others have quite a list of advice peeves. One is the never ending battle over fixed or fluid width layouts.

What has always not sat well with me, in user centered design circles as well as search engine marketing, are those black or white, this way or no way kind of rules. I suppose that people want to be told what to do and how to do it. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all world. How can anyone hope to design as if it is? I prefer to look for guidelines and a common ground first. Then, I can adapt to business requirements.

Requirements Based. Not Ego Based, Not Search Engine Based, Not User Based

I can usually tell when a website was designed for engines. It makes no sense to people. Then, there are web pages that make no sense to search engines or screen readers, but are visually appealing to target groups who not only can see, but thrive on the visual experience. We often hear the mantra, “Avoid FLASH because search engines can’t handle it.”

Search engines aren’t always the target market. What is the first priority for the website? Use that as the guide. There are ways to market websites that use FLASH and images. Rather than being afraid, or creating limits based on rumors, I like to investigate options.

I cringe at the “create for users not search engines” too. By all means, design for people. But, let’s figure out whom you are targeting and deliver what will work for them. Chances are good that what works for people also works for search engines, especially with accessibility.

Design considerations become more of a challenge on global sites that must not offend different cultures. When faced with this, more time is spent studying accepted user habits and acceptance criteria by different groups. For example, if the date is displayed in a certain way, will it infuriate 80% of your readers? Are there solutions designers can try that meet the needs for different groups of people, while still being optimized for search engines?

Sure, there are. The white lie that has never been true is “web design is easy.” This is true only for those who aren’t experienced. If you hear someone say it, and offer to do it for $100, run. Chances are good that designer has never heard of requirements based design.

I was asked today by someone, during a conference call, if I critique site design. I said no. I don’t care if a site designer chooses black and has animation in 5 places on a homepage. If this meets their business requirements, it’s fine. It it satisfies the demands and needs of the target market, fine. If it converts and ranks well, fine. I am not a judge and jury.

I do, however, present the business cases for web standards. I will point out things they may not have considered, like mobile device users, poor vision, those who can’t use a mouse, and a whole host of other common issues that are often ignored. You may be satisfied with the sales and traffic you have, but what if I told you that if you implemented a few new things, sales and traffic would soar? You might even find you have interested a new target market because you no longer exclude them.

Advice that limits your design or pigeon holes you into doing something without offering data and sound reasons for doing it are what you want to avoid. Always keep in mind your priorities and goals for your website and hold them firm as your protective totem. Techniques and practices that help you achieve those goals are the choices you want to make.

Not someone else’s rules for their sites.



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Uability Consultant, Kimberly Krause Berg, is the owner of,, and Cre8asiteForums. Her background in organic search engine optimization, combined with web site usability consulting, offers unique insight into web site development.