Picking An SEO-friendly Web Designer

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As an SEO we get two kinds of sites; those that were designed in the past and where the designer is no longer involved, and the sites where the design is either ongoing or we are working with the web designers from the start.  Both of these have their pros and cons as an SEO but there is a clear advantage of one over the other for the client.

First, let’s discuss the pros and cons to the SEO.  If we are coming in after the design is completed there are more than likely (and by that I mean 99.9% likely) some structural and or major design issues that will need to be addressed.  Unless the web designer is skilled in SE-friendly design we are going to have our work cut out for us just dealing with structural issues.  On the positive side of this scenario, we’re left to just work on the site with no designer taking it personally when we tell them we need to make changes (and that can lead to some issues).


Now let’s look at the other scenario.  Working with a designer has it’s cons which is generally – we’re going to have a designer taking it personally when we need changes made to the structure of a site or challenging us when we’re arguing that while an all-Flash site is visually appealing, it leaves something to be desired from and SEO standpoint.  This conversation generally goes something like this (and all you SEO’s out there can sing along): SEO – Flash cannot be properly read in the same way as HTML and we need to have easily spidered content for the search engines to see.


Designer – Flash can be read by Google.


SEO – But not in the same way.  We need multiple pages of optimized content and Flash just isn’t going to provide that.


Designer – Well I disagree (probably read in some forum somewhere that a misc. guy had no problem ranking for “bob wyverniuschuck artist” with a Flash site) but even if that’s true – it’s the conversion that counts and this Flash site is going to convert.


SEO – Yes we understand that conversions are important but so is traffic.  If we can’t get traffic to the site then a 100% conversion ratio is irrelevant.


Designer – There are other ways to get traffic.


SEO – <big sign> Yes I understand that but this is what the client has hired us to do and has asked that we work together to build an attractive site that ranks well.


Designer – I’m going to have to talk to them about this …


SEO – <another big sigh in preparation to talk to the client about the fact that you DIDN’T say conversions are irrelevant, etc. etc.>

So this is the down side and an extreme example of it (for humor as much as illustration).  But there’s a big upside and that comes when you have the opportunity to work with web designers who know how important SEO is (as an SEO who knows how important a good design is).  Working to balance the two can be a daunting task and having the skills of the SEO matched with the skills of the web designer can be a true blessing.  For example, I may have a great idea to make a site more easily navigated by search engines but an ugly solution to implement it whereas the designer may have a more attractive solution in mind if they know the problem and the technical solution.

Such a scenario has recently come about in our dealings with Moonrise Design.  Moonrise contacted us in advance of their starting work for a client, had us sit in on conference calls to understand the client’s needs and has since had us helping structure the site properly from the ground up.  There is no resistance and we don’t tell them what to do, we indicate the functions required – provide any technical background as necessary – and they implement it in a way that leaves the site FAR more attractive than if we had had to do it ourselves.  Expert designers doing what they do best and understanding that what we do is SEO and the client wants to rank highly.  Ah, it’s a beautiful thing.


It is this experience and reflecting back on other web designers we’ve worked smoothly with in the past that inspired me to write this article.  The article is more for potential clients of designers than for the designers themselves.  So for those looking for a designer – if you want your site to rank highly and/or you’ll be hiring an SEO – here’s what to look for.


Picking A Web Designer


There are two main considerations that you’ll need to make when you’re picking your web designer.  The first is, can they build an attractive site and the second is can they build a search engine friendly site?

Building an attractive site:

I am probably the last person to ask about what’s attractive and what’s not.  When the Beanstalk site was up for a redesign a couple years ago I hired a professional web design company to build it.  I can’t create pretty things but I know how to test and I know how to monitor statistics to see if the traffic is behaving as I would hope. 

Here’s what to look  at:

When you’re choosing a designer take a look at their portfolio – put some of their designs past people in your target demographic and see what they think.  It’s also wise to view the sites of the leaders in your industry to see what they’re doing (and maybe even who designed their sites).  Just because you like something doesn’t mean it’s effective to your target market.

You also need to know if your designer is skilled at conversion optimization.  Have they read such works as Enquiro’s eye tracking studies.  Have they done their research (or have you) regarding which colors make people act in which ways?  These are extremely important issues to be aware of.  If you look at the eye tracking studies –  the Beanstalk site places our logo, the Hacker Safe logo and main title in the key zones.  We also went with green giving a natural (easy on the eyes) feel that implies wealth and is strongly associated with money.  When we changed to our current design the effects were immediately detectable in how our visitors behaved visiting more pages for longer periods of time and, most importantly, increasing our communication with us significantly.


If your designer is not aware of these things do not despair, they may be a fine designer indeed and may have this understanding intuitively (though a little research to back up any intuition is always a sound policy).  That said, be aware of the information that is out there and ask questions when you’re asked to approve designs.


Building a search engine friendly site: 


This is crucially important but probably one of the areas we have to address most frequently.  I can’t possibly get into all the various areas of search engine friendly design so I’ll simply list off a couple of the most common issue we encounter and then provide references to other reading.

Enormous amounts of code on the page.  For some reason, even some new designs are coming to us as though they were out of 1998 as far as the page code is concerned.  All skilled web designers should have a solid grasp of CSS and should be putting all the main formatting into this file(s).  Way too often we’re getting sites with dozens of font tags, color tags, size tags, etc. etc. etc.  This just gives the search engines a lot more to dig through to find what they want – the content.  I’m not even going to get into tables as that opens a whole other can of worms.  If your site is table-based (your designer or SEO will be able to tell you this if you don’t know) there are some basic practices to insure that the code these tables add is minimized.  Unfortunately I can’t get into the myriad of different situations this can entail and will have to save it for a future article (so be sure to bookmark our SEO blog to keep up-to-date on that and other developments in the industry).


Bad internal links.  You want your internal pages to rank.  Most sites will generally target the highest priority phrases on the homepage of the site but the internal pages are the ones that will rank for specific products, services and long tail phrases.  To maximize the rankability of the internal pages you need them to be easily found by the spiders and you need to associate these pages with the keywords you’re targeting.  In short, you need to link to them with text and you need that text to include the keywords.  This isn’t some deep, dark mystery of SEO and has been well documented and commented on but we’ve seen tons of instances where internal links are image only or worse, an unspiderable script-based navigation system.


If your designer is using image or script-based navigation for aesthetic reasons that’s fine.  In fact, it’ll likely leave you with a more appealing site visually however you need to make sure your key pages are linked to in the content of you homepage or from text in the footer to insure they get found and spidered quickly and easily.


Over-optimized pages.  I love seeing websites that were developed by a web designer who “knows SEO” and has stuffed so many keywords and header tags into the pages that it reads more like an eye chart than sales copy.  I can’t list all the abuses that exist out there but here’s a quick sample of what your page shouldn’t read like (and I’ll use digital cameras as the example again): Digital cameras are very useful.  When you need digital cameras to take digital pictures you’ll want to look for our cameras first.  Our digital cameras are the best digital cameras you can buy online.  So when you want to buy digital cameras online be sure to visit our store and buy digital cameras online from us at the lowest prices. Can you see what’s wrong there?  Well so can the search engines.  Your pages should read like your writing for a visitor and not a search engine.  Yes you need to make sure your keywords get in there (which should be easy since that’s what the searchers is looking for information on) but you’re not looking to cram them in with a density of 30%.  If you can get a density of around 3% and kept the content easily read by your human visitors then you’ve done well. I mentioned that I couldn’t possibly list all the horrendous issues we’ve encountered from designers in the past but I also promised to list some other resources you can visit for additional information.  Here they are:


If you see your web designer doing one or all of these then know in advance, you or your SEO is going to have some major hurdles to jump through.

Picking An SEO-friendly Web Designer
Top Rated White Papers and Resources
  • http://www.rankbetterseo.com seo firm

    Its good to be selective with your web designer and follow guidelines when picking.  The best guideline I can offer is get some referals from other people in your industry

  • http://seowebdesignfirm.com SEO Web Design Firm

    Great advise of a very serious topic that not alot of businesses take into account.

  • http://www.bluewavedesignstudio.com charlotte seo comapny

    Well put.  This is a great article about choosing the correct SEO web designer.

  • http://www.highbeam.com/landing/journals_nursing.aspx Nursing Journals

    Great article, it is always hard to find a good web design firm to work on your site.

  • http://www.riversagency.com/ Advertising Agency NC

    Do you think that there needs to be a focus on SEO from a design standpoint when picking a designer as well?

  • http://www.MosaicWebsite.com Website Design Pennsylvania

    Firms which offer SEO friendly design and development are poised to take advantage of the industry. We have to find a way to make this subject easier to understand for our clients

  • http://www.riversagency.com website design chapel hill

    There definitly needs to be a harmoney of seo and web design with every design to maximize traffice and conversions.

  • http://www.hemroidshelp.com/ hemroids

    I deal with web designers alot of the time, and I find that poor internal linking choices are often made in design. Simple planning – using text links wwhich are using css driven images around a text link for decoration, page layout and navigation, internal linking structure and page code bloat all play important factors in today’s seo.

  • http://www.crbuses.com used buses

    I have seen gorgeous designs created by very web-savvy designers that used very little to no flash, and were very effective in the search engines.

    Lean code, optimized smaller images, use of CSS where possible, incorporating image loading into CSS, very little use of javascript even in headers.

  • http://www.carpediemwebsites.co.uk/ Web Designer Chester

    One of the best articles I have read in a long while, ty. I love the conversation between the SEO and the web designer… rings a few bells :) I am amazed by the amount of nice looking websites I come across that are designed with not even basic SEO tactics!

    Stuart, Web designer and SEO Chester Cheshire UK.

  • http://www.websitesforjewelers.com jewelry website design

    One suggestion I have is to always use div when possible.
    It allows you to position content for spiders and is much more lightweight, reusable and better for spiders.

  • http://www.swankigifts.com/ articles

    Great article Dave

  • http://www.animaroo.com puppies for sale

    Always make sure to use div where possible so that you can leverage content positioning in the template.

  • http://www.skintagsolution.com Div design

    I would tend to agree – DIV / CSS driven CMS systems are the way to go in terms of design and sEO.

  • http://www.adalmi.com Web design service

    Usually the designers at this moment must do their design to fit on SEO.

  • http://www.homeremedyhaven.com Home Remedies

    Many designers and SEO’s talk about div vs url for SEO friendly design, but tables are fine and work fine in 99% of ranking websites.

  • http://www.lowongankerja2009.com/ lowongan kerja 2009

    thanks for its article.. very helpful.. :)

  • http://www.m4s73r.com/ Internet Marketing Indonesia

    thanks for your article. Very help me. I will more like visit to webpronews site. :) Fantastic

  • http://web-designer-s.com/ Web Designer s

    This is great article. And you are right about many things. Mostly you will find web designer that can make visually nice looking web site, but that doesn`t know much about SEO.

  • http://www.siterevamp.com SEO Minneapolis Minnesota

    Great article! A lot of business owners assume that web designers can do SEO. In reality, web designers who are even aware of SEO are hard to come by. Web designers are trained with graphic design as their background. In order to achieve the right look and feel, they would compromise everything at any cost of search engine friendliness. SEO, on the other hand, is about algorithm and numbers, with little to do with graphics or visuals.

    We have seen many cases in which the newly designed site has to be completely rebuilt because it is built without any SEO consideration.

    Yes, there are companies out there who have talent in both areas. Working with one of them can save you a ton of money.

  • http://www.seoegghead.com/ SEO Egghead

    Like many things, this never changes. Dave is just as right today as he was a year ago =)

    We develop SE-friendly web applications, and people who understand that designing for the human and the spider is important come to us — usually only after creating a disaster.

    Thinking ahead still helps in 2009.

  • http://mdssolutions.co.uk Darlington Web Design

    SEO is pretty much an ongoing process though, so whilst it’s nice to work with the designers from the start, I try to see it as an ongoing relationship throughout the whole time that the site is live.

    SEO Darlington

  • http://www.dkssystems.com/services/Minneapolis-SEO.asp Minneapolis SEO

    A lot of companies will argue that you shouldn’t hire an SEO firm that also does web development… I couldn’t disagree more. These developers with in house SEO marketers learn some of the basic techniques associated seo and then it avoids arguments like in your article.

    Having access to the code as a web developer also allows you to make your on page optimization edits a lot quicker and efficiently.

    Thanks for the great article, i appreciate any posts that make you think intelligently.

  • http://www.essio-marketing.co.uk SEO Manchester

    Hi Dave,
    great post I dont think any SEO’s would struggle to relate to this article. We are lucky in some respects because we have our own designers, programmers and SEO’s so although we disagree on occasion it’s all in house and doesn’t have to involve the client. Of course more often than not we are still optimising sites built by other designers and in my opinion one of the most common issues is when designers claim to be SEO experts too when they don’t have a clue.

    So often a client approaches us having already paid a designer to implement On Page optimisation, okay so how did you choose your keywords er I gave them to him……here we go!

  • http://www.eztrip.com/ Hotels

    The secret is really about lean and mean code – specifically page code versus text.

  • jumi

    very useful guidelines.. thanks

  • http://www.getanybus.com Major Vehicles

    I like your point about hiring a SEO person that will help a site “rank well”. The common misconception in SEO is that a site can easily climb to the first spot in Google. Ranking “well” is the best solution and this means having a wide span of keyword ranks in solid positions.

  • http://www.eluneart.com Web design company

    Thanks for useful tips and guidelines.

  • http://www.topsecretcoatings.com Epoxy Paint

    You can have a huge site (many pages) and each page has laser focus content. Traffic coming in will be spread out on the website for the relevant content & visitor intent. (sorry, we come from an ecommerce background, so everything is about the sale)

  • http://www.tipa.in Tally Academy

    Great advice, I remember one phrase herer ignorance is bliss ,

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