Search engine optimization is an essential step in any initial web design strategy. While implementing SEO strategies on a website can boost its traffic, planning with SEO in mind before you even begin can pay off in better search results.
Key Initial SEO Considerations
Search engine optimization (SEO) involves a variety of content and technical improvements to your website to increase your site's ranking in search engine results. While your website can show up when using popular search engines such as Google and Bing, using SEO strategies can greatly increase the chances your site will appear at the top of user searches.
You can always make changes to your website to help improve your ranking, but considering the factors listed here at the very start will make your overall SEO strategy more effective. You won't need to make expansive changes in the future, which can save significant time and money in redesign and development costs. Not starting with SEO in mind can also slow down your site's rise in search rankings which means additional potential lost sales, memberships and users to your site.
Design a Quality Experience
A study of health-related websites found that how a website looked did more to bolster a website's credibility than the actual information presented. While you might not think the actual design has any effect on SEO, it can definitely detract from both your rankings and your visitors' time on the page.
A site that users mistrust or dislike visually is one they will not spend much, or any, time on. The first impression your site gets could be the last! Your design must follow good user design practices and leave a credible impression of your business in users' minds.
Mobile Friendly and Responsive Design
A key design factor that can hurt your SEO is the lack of a mobile-friendly site. Mobile use has surged over the past few years and more people now access the web from a mobile device than a regular computer. Because of this, Google in late 2017 began rolling out a change to their ranking algorithm. Sites will begin to be ranked based on their mobile content first and their desktop content second.
If the content on your mobile and desktop sites are different, such as a "mobi" or "m" version of your site, this can negatively affect your rankings. Sites that respond to different screen sizes without a change in content will not be penalized in searches. It's much easier and more cost effective to design a mobile friendly, responsive website from the start rather than having to do a redesign to make your site responsive.
Information architecture refers to a site's navigational hierarchy. In other words, if you are planning a site with many pages, how you structure the navigation affects SEO. When Google indexes your site, using a logical and relevant flow of information makes it easier for Google to "understand" what your site is about and how relevant it is in searches.
Site Navigation and URL Structure
How you name your pages in your navigation can boost SEO too. For example, many companies will use a naming convention based on the company's needs, such as with numbers or other internal data. These titles have no relevance to Google and users doing a keyword search.
If you have a company that sells computer widgets, naming a top-level item in your menu "widgets" would make one assume the subpages are related to the main topic. If however those pages are named after a product number (i.e., widgets4you.com/widgets/R387x.php), the last item in the URL is not helpful in a search unless the user knew the exact model number. If the page URL is widgets4you.com/widgets/widgets-for-motherboards.html, this page information "make sense" to Google and creates a more effective index for your site.
Another method of improving how Google can index your site is by using an XML sitemap. In the early days of website design, a sitemap was an important feature of any site. This has become less of an issue as the technology behind search engine algorithms and design trends have developed. With a proper navigation and information architecture strategy, you may feel that a sitemap is no longer necessary.
One benefit of including an XML sitemap is it can ensure that all pages on your site are found by a search engine, which is particularly important if your website structure and navigation become unwieldy. The best strategy is to design your site such that a sitemap is absolutely not necessary for Google to index your site.
Proper Use of Code
The correct use of "semantic HTML" can bolster your on-page SEO strategy by giving search engines a "framework" to follow when accessing your site. Just as with the navigation and page names that a visitor can see, the structure "underneath" the page hidden from your users provides a roadmap to follow to find information on your site. If your HTML does not follow the correct hierarchy, this can lead to lower rankings. Some SEO HTML best practices include:
- Header Tags: Titles and subtitles should be wrapped in header tags (<h1>, <h2>, etc.). These give search engines an idea that the information within is important and use of keywords in these titles is also of benefit. These tags also provide structure to the content for the web spiders to understand. If you use paragraph tags and bold inline CSS styles, it may seem important when viewed by the eye on the page, but it will be less so to the machines reading it.
- Page Titles and Meta Tags: Relevant and unique page titles assist with search engines finding your content. Other important meta tags are content type and viewport which both help browsers to display your site correctly and do not directly affect SEO, but they do affect use of your site. The description meta tag also does not necessarily improve your rankings but can influence whether someone clicks on your link or not. For example, if you have a website for a doggie daycare business and a description that reads "Puppy Palace is a full-service doggie daycare in Washington, DC that your dog will love to visit for play, grooming and all your high-end dog product needs," users are likely to click on the page when they see that under the link in the search results. On the other hand, if they see what is known as keyword spamming in the description (e.g., "Puppy Palace, Washington DC, puppies, dog, doggie daycare, dogs, canines, dog food, dog grooming, dog products"), they may be less likely to click on something that doesn't provide a clear, relevant description.
- Separate CSS Stylesheets: Using a separate CSS stylesheet, rather than inline CSS, can improve your SEO because it reduces the code a search engine needs to crawl through to find your content. It also allows a website to load faster in many instances, which can improve your Google rankings.
- Alt Tags for Images: Making sure every image on your site has an alt tag has two benefits. It increases the relevant content that a search engine can find on your site and it makes your site more accessible to people with disabilities who use screen readers. A search engine cannot "read" an image file and if the image has no alt tag, it will be passed over. If you placed a picture of a cactus with an alt tag of "Saguaro cactus," the search engine will be able to read the alt tag and see that you have relevant content. If there's no alt tag, there's no way for it to know that your image provides information the user is seeking.
- HTTP vs HTTPS: HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) is the standard first set of information in any URL. HTTPS (Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol) was created for sites that need data kept secure, such as e-commerce sites that take credit card information. In 2014, Google announced that they would promote the use of HTTPS for all websites and began checking for HTTP versus HTTPS during searches. In late 2017, Google began marking sites with HTTP as "not secure" and giving an edge in searches to HTTPS sites. If you still have an HTTP site, it's easy to switch to HTTPS with the installation of an SSL certificate which most hosts can even do for you.
Page Loading Speed
Many website owners and designers are not aware of the importance of a site that loads quickly. How fast your page loads can markedly help (or hurt) your rankings in Google. There are several websites you can use to check your page load speed for free. It's best to use a combination of them as you may get somewhat different results with each.
Relevant and Effective Content Strategy
Content, which includes copywriting, data, images, video and audio, is not always thought of as part of a beginning design strategy. However, content can truly "drive" the design of your site and if the site isn't user friendly and doesn't "fit" with your content, you will lose visitors. Your choice of colors, animations and iframes, and how you display your content all can make your website a place users want to engage with or one they will quickly dismiss and leave.
Some types of content that can bolster your SEO are regularly updated blogs, images, infographics, and video. A website designer should be aware of all the types of content your site will be using. He or she can then create a design that gives the user an easy way to access any of your content.
Quality content that makes effective use of keyword research, without "spamming" keywords in the text, is one of top factors in high search rankings by Google. A critical part of your design strategy must include a plan for content, including editorial calendars to ensure content is regularly updated and relevant to the user. Content strategy should also review the placement of links, another critical factor in search rankings.
Setting Your Website Up for SEO Success
There are many factors that go into creating an effective website. While properly implemented SEO is an ongoing process that requires careful planning and research to keep your site "on top" with Google, setting your website up for maximum optimization from the beginning will save you from headaches due to increased development costs for redoing your site and lost revenue from lower search rankings.