The Intersection Of SEO & Web Design

As technology advances and web usage evolves, so do SEO best practices. Web designers now have more choices and technologies available than ever before. As we enter 2014, I expect we will continue to see advances in web design that bring even more options.

I thought it would be helpful to revisit the top SEO considerations relating to some of the latest website design trends, which include parallax, responsive, and HTML5 design.

Although I am a huge fan of incorporating all three design choices when appropriate; in all cases, site architecture and accessibility remain the primary SEO concerns.

Most people know that designing with the end user in mind also helps improve SEO rankings. There are technical reasons why this is the case and why it’s of paramount importance to design with the user in mind. This article focuses on this concept in more detail, and I provide actionable next steps for SEO professionals to consider when thinking about website interaction and user experience design.

Website Design Trends

Parallax design puts web content on one page, at the user’s fingertips, and can be a great way to lead a consumer through a storytelling process. Every site I’ve worked on that has adopted some type of parallax storytelling design has seen improvements in conversion rates.

But, as Janet Driscoll Miller’s excellent post discussed, although this type of design makes things easy for the end user, it can be a challenge from an SEO perspective. Having what is essentially a one-page website makes it difficult to leverage a variety of search terms and use SEO best practices to get visitors to your page. That said, I’m still a huge fan of this design choice, even as an SEO professional, because you can still develop fantastic parallax designed webpages that have more than one page.

Better yet, when possible, you might consider incorporating a few parallax designed pages as part of your main website experience versus creating a separate website.

Responsive design is Google’s recommended method of designing for multiple devices. There are tremendous user experience advantages to adopting responsive web design concepts that allow your website to perform optimally for multiple devices.

In addition to the user experience benefits of responsive web design, the primary benefit for SEO is that it does not dilute your link equity. In other words, responsive web design gives you one URL for both your mobile site and your main site, which means that you are more likely to do a better job increasing your external backlink count to each page versus having to drive links to two separate URLs.

I have heard of switchboard tags, but I am personally not convinced they pass 100% of the link value. However, as Bryson Meunier has pointed out, responsive design also presents some important SEO considerations to be aware of. Primarily, one URL could limit your ability to segment your keyword targeting toward keywords that are more appropriate for mobile users.

HTML5 has been touted as the next big thing in web design, but implementation can be troublesome for SEO. HTML5 designs can be amazing, interactive and inspirational, but if they aren’t coded properly, Google sees an empty page.

For example, in this post we can find examples of great HTML5 animation. However, here is what Google finds when it crawls the page:

SEO Web Design Javascript

Many websites that incorporate all the visually appealing aspects that popular HTML5 coding delivers also heavily incorporate JavaScript, which makes it difficult for search engine bots to understand the content. It is possible to show static content that represents your HTML5 content so that bots can better index your website.

Unfortunately, few website developers take the time to make a static version of the content for search bots. Of this showcase of 20 examples of CSS3 Animation, almost all of them are practically invisible to search engines.

When Less Is More

Normally when I hear the words, “We need to reduce some content,” I immediately think “SEO disaster.” When I am done shuddering, I remind myself that sometimes less is more. According to Columbia Business School researcher Sheena Iyengar, the typical American makes 70 choices per day.

In her TED talk “How to make choosing easier,” she sheds light on the value of providing fewer choices so that consumers have the ability to more easily make decisions.

Iyengar’s insights can be applied not only to the consumer product examples she provides, but to web design and SEO best practices, as well. People are overwhelmed with choices, and when a website design includes an abundance of categories and subcategories, audiences may disconnect — they’ll avoid making a choice if they are too overwhelmed.

Iyengar advises us to cut the extraneous and provide fewer categories/subcategories to help people narrow down their choices. This applies perfectly to web design and SEO.

As a result of recent changes by Google like Hummingbird, marketers are observing that placing too much emphasis on topical subcategory pages could be a bad SEO strategy. Historically, more categories were good for SEO because they meant that we had more content that could be ranked for body/torso terms.

Given Iyengar’s talk and the recent Hummingbird changes, though, perhaps it is time to rethink how many categories and subcategories you offer to the end user and evaluate the performance of these types of pages to ensure that they remain effective.

Cognitive Dissonance & Web Design

The theory of cognitive dissonance states that people have a drive to reduce dissonance to create consistency and a feeling of control — to make their expectations match their reality. According to the theory, when people are unable to do so, they will simply avoid whatever is making them feel out of control.

Similar to Iyengar’s idea that too many choices can make end users disconnect, cognitive dissonance tells us that when a website isn’t easy to navigate or offers too many choices, the user would rather leave than negotiate through an environment that feels too chaotic.

To provide the best website experience, we should let data and the user experience drive our design. Only by doing this can we ensure we aren’t alienating our target audience.

SEO professionals particularly need to be aware of the cognitive dissonance that can occur at the keyword-to-landing-page level. The keywords you optimize for must match the landing-page experience that a searcher would expect.

Because of this principle, I recommend routinely sorting SEO entry pages by bounce rate. Then, start with the pages with the highest bounce rate and double check the types of search keywords that were driving traffic to those pages to ensure that the entry page provided an adequate response to the top entry keywords.

Now that keywords are “100% not provided;” this can still be accomplished by checking keywords from Bing as a relatively good proxy.

Reasonable Surfer Patent

When we design our pages with the end user in mind, we should also be keeping in mind Google’s reasonable surfer patent. According to this patent, the most prominent links and the links that are clicked more frequently pass more internal page rank.

This means that if you are making changes to your website’s main navigation or if you move prominent links to less prominent locations, there is a possibility ranking declines will ensue. This is just another example of how closely SEO is tied  to website design.

There are many situations where website design choices can help or hurt your SEO efforts. Many of the trends in website design indicate that accessibility and website architecture best practices are still important considerations.

We benefit both our users and ourselves when we design webpages in a way that doesn’t overwhelm or confuse users, but leads them to links, categories or subcategories to find the content they need. Creating pages with our end users in mind and combining web design best practices with SEO best practices is a win-win.