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Picking A Web Designer

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 sigh> 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

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.

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