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Web Designer’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization

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Search Engine Optimization or SEO is the buzz word you will see everywhere in the internet nowsadays. Designing a website today is no longer about aesthetics. It must not only look good, it must be visible to the search engines as well.

What should a web designer take note when designing a search engine friendly website? This article attempts to discuss some important pointers for web designers in creating SEO friendly web pages.

(Note: We are not talking about boosting search engine rankings as that would require a separate article.)

From a search engine point of view, the perfect webpage has no graphics, no scripting, no tables…etc but just alot of normal, plain readable text. You can just take it that plain text is the food for search engine spiders. Therefore, the more text you have, the more you will keep the spiders happy. However, from the design point of view, such pages are very boring but the fact is that everyone is more interested in keeping the spiders rather than us happy. The argument is that if search engine spiders cannot find your site, no one will. Based on this philosophy, we witnessed the fall of flash and sites with strong graphics over the years. Many sites that utilized heavy graphics where no longer found. Web developers become happy because they have an excuse to create less impressive websites…

The question is can we make both the saerch engine spiders and us happy? The answer is definitely a “Yes” provided that web designers can follow certain rules when designing web pages. They need to step out of their comfort zone and learn abit more about new web technologies.

Domain Name and URL Naming Convention
Having a proper domain and url name is quite often neglected. Many search engines actually put some weightage in the way you name your domain or url files. You will definitely want to include some juicy words in your naming convention. For example, if you site is about website critics and your url is http://www.sitecritic.com, this will definitely be better than a domain like http://www.bluecatfish.com. The same principle goes for hyperlinks. If you have 2 words as key words, you can use an underscore “_” or dash “-” to separate them.

Title
Do not fool around when writing the title. From my experience, this is the most important part of your webpage. Many designers like to put special characters such as ” * “,” | “, ” : ” or ” [ ] ” in the title to make it look unique. If you really want to make your webpage special, I advise you to do it else where such as in the body of the HTML document. You should include your keywords in your title. Like the previous example, if your web site focuses on website reviews, make sure you have the words “Website Reviews” somewhere in the title. Noticed that “WebsiteReviews” is not the same as “Website Reviews”. Spacing is important.

When writing the title, try not to write more than 8 words. There are no hard and fast rules on that but the fact is that more does not mean good. In fact, the more you write, the more your keyword density will be diminished. If you keep repeating the same keyword in the title, search engines will see your site as spam and you will be dead in no time. For example, a title like “Sitecritic Web Reviews” is much better than “Sitecritic Web Reviews, Internet Marketing, Web Design Ideas, Internet Directories, Budget Web Hosting, Melbourne”. I will have to stress again, do not fool around with your title.

Meta-Description
After the title tag is the meta description tag. Many people argued that meta description is no longer important. Based on my experience, they are still relevant in SEO rankings especially if your website is new. The principle in writing the meta description tag is the same as the title. The only difference is that you want explain abit more about the services that you provide in a friendlier format. You will also want to include your keywords in the meta description.

Menu, Content and Links
You should not use any javascript menus that hid the urls. Many javascript menus are fancy but actually not SEO friendly. What ever technique you are using to create the menus, make sure that the “a href” tag is visible. You might also want to include a variation of the keywords in the menus, links or text. Like the previous example, if your keyword is “Web Site Reviews”, you might not want to use the same word over and over again. You can vary it by using “Professional Web Reviews, Reviews of Websites, Site Reviews…etc”. Varying the keywords makes your content more interesting and is good for SEO as well.

When writing the contents, try to put the keywords in different areas of the document. Use tags like “b” or “h2″ to make the keywords stand out. Avoid urls that say “click here” or “view”. Though often used, they are not advisable for SEO purposes.

Text links are stonger than image links. It is therefore not advisable to use images as the main navigation menu throughout the website. If you would like to incorporate images in the user navigation experience, you might want to consider separating the text from the images. This can be achieved easily using CSS or the background image option in the table or td tag.

Images
Unlike many Search Engine Experts, I strongly encourage the use of graphics because I am passion about Web Design and is sad to see so many websites that are well optimized for search engines but look crap on screen. You need to balance between the amount of graphics used and downloading speed. Like I mentioned before, if your header banner or important images contains text , you could split up the text and use the images as a separate background or floating layer. That way, you can make the image size smaller and also make the text visible to the search engines. Transparent gifs are very useful for laying over other content or images. Appropriate use of jpegs and gifs can also cut down loading time by alot.

CSS Technology
CSS helps you to cut down your <table> tag and gives more room for the spiders to read your content. The problem with CSS is that it is not as straight forward as tables. At the moment, CSS is also inconsistent in different browsers, so before you publish your web page, you need to check the layout in different browsers. I am actually not against designers using tables especially if they find the time spend in creating a full CSS site not justifiable. The fact is that there are still cases when using CSS is not advisable. An example is when displaying tabular data; Tables still excel in displaying tabular data at the moment. Unless you are using complex nested tables, the table, tr or td tags should not pose too much of a problem for the search engine spiders.

Conclusion
Web pages should not be boring and web designers should not bow down to the Google revolution. A well designed site combines both form and function and yet, still able to be search engine friendly. I strongly believe that this can be easily achieved if website designers are able to follow very basic rules in designing their web sites.

Bernard Peh is a Web Developer based in Melbourne. He works with experienced web designers and developers everyday, designing and developing commercial websites. He specialises mainly in SEO and PHP programming. Visit his blog at Melbourne PHP

Web Designer’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization
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