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Designing for Google
Guest Editorial by James Cooney

Anyone currently working in online design has surely come up against the concept of search engine optimization, either through their own research or at the behest of a client. SEO refers to means both content and technology oriented to increase search engine page ranking for appropriate keywords. Today, when we speak of ranking, we’re really speaking of Google.

SEO is a major business, and one that is quite usually far removed from the design process. These companies tend to self categorize themselves into two camps, white hat and black hat. Anyone familiar with tropes of classic Hollywood westerns won’t be surprised at where these approaches fall on the ethical divide. Without going into great detail, white hat optimizers will focus on text versus black hats technology, and have strength in marketing versus information technology and programming. Put even simpler, white hats work within the search engine’s rules while black hats set out to circumvent them. The long term failure of black hat SEO isn’t something I’m interested in debating, even for the ethically challenged.

The bulk of white hat SEO falls under optimizing for a three pronged ranking process, which includes text that appears in links to your site, and on your site, text in your page title, and lastly text on your page. For the designer, only the later two are under your control. Primarily, an optimizing designer will structure HTML, specifically link content, in a manner which is conducive to keywords displaying prominently, clearly, and in context on both your homepage, and a search engine’s site summary. This is done by a combination of <title> tags, <h1>, <h2>, etc. tags, and meta content. All this is well and good, but do you, as a designer, need to be concerned with it beyond implementation, or is this something for the marketing department to worry about? Maybe not, but in all likelihood, you do.

At my previous position at a small, Massachusetts based boutique, we had a particular client who would call bimonthly with the same complaint, namely Google ranking. For the same keywords, his business ranked first on a Yahoo search and in the top ten for MSN. On Google, a human couldn’t find him unless searching for his specific business name. This, of course, was unacceptable. My explanation, which I was quite proud of at the time, would inevitably follow: “Google is essentially a popularity contest. They have numerous employees consistently refining their ranking algorithm with the express purpose of stopping businesses from forcing their rank. We’ve already optimized the site code. Now, you can buy ad keywords or hire an outside SEO company, which really has no guarantees. Otherwise, get more popular!“

Was I right? As to the core of my argument, I believe yes, but my approach was wrong. Major companies may have the luxury of separating design and SEO, as well as already having the market presences that makes them talked about and linked. As we’ve seen, for Google, talked about and linked on a large, previously legitimized scale, equals difficult to fake. This equals ranking. Small businesses do not have that luxury. Any firms or freelancers mining that client base have to be aware of that, and that should make white hat SEO a part of their design process for online.

My concern right now is that area where good aesthetic and information design and SEO are simply incompatible. One particular pitfall here is when working with an existing identity and print campaign to create a cohesive whole. One of the hallmarks of white hat SEO is the use of content sensitive links within a webpage. Text links. Image won’t cut it, even with the use of Alt-tags. Given a web-safe list of only nine fonts, the designer runs into a roadblock when the brief includes both keeping cohesion with an existing print campaign and SEO. Some SEO optimizers even might suggest, best to forego image or layout heavy sites altogether. This, coupled with ease of use, I believe helps explain the growing ubiquity of Wordpress-blog style pages and aggregator headline-line break-content sites. They may be boring or worse visually, but look at their Google ranking!

The response, some may say, is to ignore it. This is a fad which is going to pass when people get bored with dry presentation and/or when Google makes a radical alteration to their algorithm. After all, sensible designers have been ignoring or showing up “usability experts“ like Jakob Nielsen for years. The difference here, I believe, is that these results really affect a site’s traffic. As much as I hate the cliché, it doesn’t matter how a site looks, if nobody is looking at it. I’ve heard it before in meetings, and I don’t doubt I’ll hear it again.

My only response is to continue to integrate elements of white hat SEO into my design process. At its basic level, this is truly not a problem, but an asset. However, I do think it is something we need to keep an eye out for. Major media organizations may well continue to push for simpler and simpler design, not because they value a minimalist aesthetic, but because of the success of simple aggregator sites which are barely one step removed from the earliest days of pure text HTML. We’re beginning to move backwards.

Worse still, we’re adding content purely for the search engine’s spiders, which are constantly crawling sites online to update their indexes. Routinely today, I insert navigation links which I never expect an actual human user to ever follow. As we’re pushed to change navigation structures to add keyword repetition I feel at some point, we’re sacrificing the human user’s experience. We’re designing for Google’s spiders, not our customers.

And let’s not even get into the use of Flash.

James Cooney has come to design sideways, simultaneously working on underground music zine and sleeve design while pursuing a degree in electrical engineering of all things. A stint as a production artist at an alternative newsweekly and as much reading and self education as possible gave him a more traditional print background. These days, James spends most of his time in online design, though he still relishes the chance to do print work when it arises. He is also trying his hand at blogging, at totalitydesign.blogspot.com, though we’ll see how that turns out.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 2458 FILED UNDER Web Trends
PUBLISHED ON Nov.09.2005 BY Speak Up
WITH 50 COMMENTS
Comments
Joe Clark’s comment is:

Speak Up is never our first choice for advice on Web development, given the massive and endemic faults in the site's own code. However, while the article at least mentions that you have to use semantic HTML to get anywhere in "search-engine optimization" (even if the author clearly does not know the term "semantic HTML"), the entire discussion of how aesthetics work in SEO is bogus. Aesthetics do not work in SEO. Search engines are effectively blind users and cannot see your page. The entire premise is wrong.

For a more accurate explanation, read Andy Hagans' article at A List Apart.

On Nov.09.2005 at 09:33 AM
James Cooney’s comment is:

Joe: If I didn't make it clear, than perhaps that is a fault, but I think you miss the point. Search engines are of course blind users, but customers and management are requesting changes specifically for these blind users, at what I suspect is growing to be a detriment to non-blind users. For the purposes of this discussion, I am operating under a definition of design which includes more than just choosing color schemes and where to place images, but also navigation and site structure, naming conventions, etc. If you would argue that isn't design, fair enough.

Regarding the entire premise being wrong, I have personally experienced top down orders to make changes for the purposes of SEO that affect the design. An option that Andrew Hagan's article mentions, "Provide a text equivalent for every non-text element (e.g., via “alt”, “longdesc”, or in element content)..." I have specifically been told is not as effective as pure text links for Google SEO, and not to do it. If having such considerations specifically limited for said purpose isn't a case of SEO affecting design (and as such, aesthetics) I dont' know what is. If others aren't coming across this sort of thing, well, thats what a forum like this is for.

Cheers, James.

On Nov.09.2005 at 10:04 AM
Alice D. Millionaire’s comment is:

Wow, I am suprised you could "access" this site considering the "massive and endemic faults in the site's own code". Does that make it "accessible"?

On Nov.09.2005 at 10:08 AM
Armin’s comment is:

I don't think it's a secret and anyone looking under the hood realizes that Speak Up is not the most web compliant site out there nor it ever claims to be. One of these days, when all the planets align correctly, I will find it in my heart (and schedule) to fix the "endemic" errors. However, regardless of these errors that send Mr. Clark into fits of rage and can't help but make his feelings heard time and time again even though I have repeatedly told him that I am not interested in his opinion, Speak Up is extremely well received by Google and all search engines. Our ranking is really high and we come up in design-related searches in the top 5 constantly. (For example, before my review of Robert Brownjohn's book, Speak Up did not come up in any Google result; 3 days later and we are now the number two result.) Speak Up's traffic and relevance is what makes it a search engine darling, not its coding nor its design. In fact, I could even make Speak Up into a case study called "Fuck Accesibility and still be a Google Top 5".

All this to say that SEO is a shaky proposition and a hard sell - it's not an exact science and it isn't the savior for top 5 Google rankings. A couple years ago I worked on a web site for a university and they had hired an SEO specialist who was a nazi about the whole thing. He didn't care about the branding of the university or the layout of the site as long as he got his vision of SEO implemented. I think eventually his services were not required.

There are many steps to ease into decent Google rankings, but if you don't have the content or the relevance, it doesn't matter how many alt tags you write.

On Nov.09.2005 at 10:28 AM
Nathan Philpot’s comment is:

Oh what a taggled web we weave. The web sometimes reminds me of the US government. Constantly creating more and more, layer upon layer of rules, guidelines, fomats. And all at the same time having to keep the old inefficient systems and rules. Essential creating a digital bureaucracy.

There is still two divides in the web, and every design discipline for that matter. And that is form and function. In this argument form is user design and and function is SEO.

There is a place for both. Sometimes pure function solves the problem, sometime pure form solves the problem.

Of course our job is somewhere in the middle and this is what this article is about I think. Like any good design it requires intense collaboration, creativity and hard work from all parties.

And if getting ranked higher on google is all that is important, and if the design accomplishes that then it is a good design.

On Nov.09.2005 at 11:07 AM
Chris Rugen’s comment is:

White hat SEO methods just seem like common sense to me: make your content accessible to the maximum amount of users (even blind ones, because god forbid they'd want to be online), use clear and meaningful tagging, and don't fill your site with crap.

Sounds to me like a reasonable set of directives. Particularly that last one. If you can follow these without turning your site into a confusing mess or an unfriendly design, then why bother trying to hit every single maximally effective technique? Perhaps it's the desire to make up for lackluster content, or buy one's way to prominence instead of earning it? Some of this stringence sounds like trying to squeeze blood from a stone. Though I guess if SEO is your entire job that finicky behaviour makes sense.

Though, as with most things, this push-and-pull between the two extremes (i.e. debate) is what yields great solutions, not defaulting to one or the other.

On Nov.09.2005 at 11:46 AM
Adrian Hanft’s comment is:

James,

I take issue with where you say "SEO is a major business, and one that is quite usually far removed from the design process."

The "business" of SEO may be removed from the design process, but the design process is (when done well) very involved in SEO. I would also point to A List Apart as an example of the ideal web designer mentality. SEO isn't the end goal, it is the natural byproduct of the correct way to design a site.

I think the real problem with SEO and design is that a web designer very rarely has control of the content being presented on the websites they design. The key to SEO isn't tricking the search engines, the key is creating valuable content. I write about that here. When the algorythms change, good content will still dominate the search results. Since we usually can't improve the content of the sites we design, we end up doing stupid things like where you admit, "Routinely today, I insert navigation links which I never expect an actual human user to ever follow." That is a terrible strategy that you should abandon. It is disrespectful to the user. But what else can you do when a client expects design to add search engine relevance to a company's mediocre words? Improve the words and the search rank will improve. That is the only solution.

On Nov.09.2005 at 11:53 AM
Kyle Hildebrant’s comment is:

The web sometimes reminds me of the US government. Constantly creating more and more, layer upon layer of rules, guidelines, fomats. And all at the same time having to keep the old inefficient systems and rules. Essential creating a digital bureaucracy.

I could not have said it better myself.

The older this web gets, the less I want to do with it. Let somone else have that headache.

On Nov.09.2005 at 12:24 PM
Joe Clark’s comment is:

I am not in a fit of rage, and Google prides itself on bulldozing through nonsemantic formats, including tag-soup HTML, untagged PDF, Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, and the rest. It takes a whole lot of effort *not* be indexed by Google at all. So of course Speak Up gets indexed. Nearly everything does.

Ditto the whining by the amusingly-named Alice Millionaire (Toklas, shurely?!): Browsers have been engineered at tremendous effort and expense to render tag-soup HTML. How else could they even hope to display eBay and Amazon? This says nothing about the importance of Web standards, which is so established a topic that there are actual printed books about it, including mine.

The discussion is about improving search-engine rankings, and my remarks are unchanged. If you define "design" to include "gaming your already-tag-soup HTML and refusing to write alt texts," then you're not really talking about design anymore. Your hat, which you like to think is white, is pretty much blackened at that point.

By the way, did you know that poor, aggrieved Armin Vit, instead of actually improving his site, attempts to ban me from commenting?

On Nov.09.2005 at 12:49 PM
Christine’s comment is:

Adrian,

In terms of "insert[ing] navigation links which one never expects an actual human user to ever follow"... Does that not line up (somewhat) with "Provide[ing] redundant text links for each active region of a server-side image map", from the accessibility guidelines? I realize I'm being a bit cheeky here, but I see where James is coming from on this topic.

While I agree with you for the most part, I'm not sure it can be simplified to simply just "adding meaningful content" in all situations. I still feel a bit lost about how to proceed for say, a photography website, where the only text is a few paragraphs about the photographers.

On Nov.09.2005 at 01:00 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> By the way, did you know that poor, aggrieved Armin Vit, instead of actually improving his site, attempts to ban me from commenting?

That's how much you annoy me. And I would do it again. In a heartbeat.

Now, can we please move on and discuss the issues of the article, not Speak Up's code? Thank you.

On Nov.09.2005 at 01:01 PM
Adrian Hanft’s comment is:

Christine, I like your comment, and I see where James is coming from, too. But a redundant link that is useful to a website user is still better than a link that was created without the user in mind. My biggest beef is that SEO can end up targeting a robot rather than a person. I don't think that can be considered good design. Your question about a website who's content is photography is interesting. If a photographer wants to have a high search rank for words like "Landscape Photography" then their isn't any alternative but to write good content about the subject (unless the photos are so awesome that you have tons of sites linking to you). It seems certain that Google will get better at ranking photos in the future, though. Flickr tags come to mind...

On Nov.09.2005 at 01:50 PM
vibranium’s comment is:

mmmmm.....tag soup....

On Nov.09.2005 at 02:15 PM
James Cooney’s comment is:

A whole bunch of stuff I wanted to comment on:

Armin said: “In fact, I could even make Speak Up into a case study called "Fuck Accesibility and still be a Google Top 5".”

That’s true, and what I call the “popularity contest” portion of ranking. Right before the swimsuit competition. It’s like the Nigritude Ultrramarine contest. A popular blogger, Anil Dash, won, not any SEO firm. Of course, this sometimes leads to the belief that the solution to SEO is *tah-dah* blogging. And we circle again.

Adrian Hanft said: “The "business" of SEO may be removed from the design process, but the design process is (when done well) very involved in SEO. I would also point to A List Apart as an example of the ideal web designer mentality. SEO isn't the end goal, it is the natural byproduct of the correct way to design a site.”

Very true, and A List Apart is a nice example. But, unless I’m mistaken, they were a web entity first and foremost, which allows them to by-pass issues that arise when adapting existing identities/branding. I should clarify that I view this as an issue to deal with, not an excuse.

Adrian also said: That is a terrible strategy that you should abandon. It is disrespectful to the user. But what else can you do when a client expects design to add search engine relevance to a company's mediocre words? Improve the words and the search rank will improve. That is the only solution.”

I agree in principle, and I hate doing it. But when it comes down from on high… And, it worked. I can’t state the specific example, but the ranking jumped from something like three or four pages deep to somewhere in the top seven links. Improving content is the best solution, but unfortunately not the only one, and that puts us in a bind. Now, when Google switches up, we start over, but for now…

Joe Clark said: “This says nothing about the importance of Web standards, which is so established a topic that there are actual printed books about it, including mine.”

Books have printed about lots of unimportant topics, so I don’t know if that specifically says anything. That said, I’ve never dismissed something like the Web Standards Project, just view it as a target for the future, not a hard and fast guidelines for today. Speaking for myself only. Something like Kevin Airgid’s User Centered Manifesto addresses that as well. Of course, I routinely break that as well, so perhaps I’m just a hypocrite.

Joe also said “Your hat, which you like to think is white, is pretty much blackened at that point.” And a few thing before that...

I’ve thought this as well. Beyond an adherence to standards, when a client asks for more, what do/would you say? A flat out dismissal is possibly just going to drive them to a separate firm. Maybe that’s what they need to do, and so be it, but is there somewhere in between.

Christine said: “I still feel a bit lost about how to proceed for say, a photography website, where the only text is a few paragraphs about the photographers.”

A small enough photographer or something similar, and I just want to point away from worrying about ranking, if I can. Focus on building an audience through alternate means, if possible.

Cheers,

James

On Nov.09.2005 at 02:23 PM
RandomBoy’s comment is:

It is amazing how difficult it is to try and confrom to guidlines, master browsers and avoid pitfalls with web coding...

I concur with Nathan Philpots comments wholeheartedly.

It has been a constant struggle, after 3 years in a graphic design degree, to stumble into the big wide world and get slammed with all these restrictions!

The age old argument that design schools dont prepare students for industry is being constantly aggreviated by the schools reluctance to invest in proper teaching of web standards and guidlines (I am sure Jonathan Baldwin will have something to say about this)...

As designers are left picking up the coding end of the site more and more - how far should education go in teaching these skills?

While it is the duty of designers to ensure that thier sites confrom to this and that - should web development big wigs not take responsibility to provide a level playing field for us to show our work?

Yours

RB

On Nov.09.2005 at 02:36 PM
mason gentry’s comment is:

I think the equivalent to the SEO approach in the print world is junk mail. I get thousands of flyers a year that I just throw away because the content doesn't interest me. The SEO gurus and the Direct Mailers both use a shotgun approach to getting consumers attention, but this doesn't work if the content doesn't fill a need.

On Nov.09.2005 at 03:52 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

but customers and management are requesting changes specifically for these blind users, at what I suspect is growing to be a detriment to non-blind users.

This is just poor web design. The benefit of the web is the ability to create accessible content for an extremely wide audience. To allow aesthetics alone to trump that benefit is to not understand the basic premise of the medium.

Needless to say, SEO, accessibility, usability, aethetics, etc...this is *all* part of good design. Should one trump the other? No. They should work in a balance.

White hat SEO methods just seem like common sense to me: make your content accessible to the maximum amount of users (even blind ones, because god forbid they'd want to be online), use clear and meaningful tagging, and don't fill your site with crap.

I just wanted to repeat that. Well said. ;o)

“In fact, I could even make Speak Up into a case study called "Fuck Accesibility and still be a Google Top 5".”

Of course, that would be promoting bad design. ;o)

It has been a constant struggle, after 3 years in a graphic design degree, to stumble into the big wide world and get slammed with all these restrictions!

And therin lies the complaint that many print designers have when jumping into the web. It's like a painter taking a pottery class and being upset of 'all the forced restrictions of clay in comparison to paint'. They aren't restrictions--merely features of the particular medium. Embrace them...don't fight them.

The age old argument that design schools dont prepare students for industry is being constantly aggreviated by the schools reluctance to invest in proper teaching of web standards and guidlines (I am sure Jonathan Baldwin will have something to say about this)...

Most web design curriculum I've seen is shallow and really just an attempt at using Dreamweaver like QuarkXPress. For the most part, an education in web design is still very much an on-the-job/on-the-side proposition.

how far should education go in teaching these skills?

Probably not at all. It should teach the theories and concepts. The actual skills are so broad and diverse that that really should be left up to the individual.

On Nov.09.2005 at 05:26 PM
Keith Harper’s comment is:

for joe: don't be hatin'

It's really not a visual designer's job to put ALT tags in every image, a TITLE tage in all of the hyperlinks, optimize code, etc… their job is to organize the information and present it in an effective, engaging manner.

I think SEO is a bit overrated, does it really matter if your website can't be found in the top Google rankings if you are effectively marketing to a target audience? Maybe you have print promotions, TV spots, online ads, or other forms of getting the site's address out there. Nor does it matter if your site is not standards-compliant and still WORKS. If you have flash in your site, and you don't use a method that hides the code from the validators, supposedly your site is "not compliant." So, if it works, who gives a damn?

I think a lot of people get hung up on compliance, quite often forgetting about the whole visual design part of it.

As Armin states, RELEVANCE and connections to other sites also play a huge role. And every search engine indexes differently. There are a million factors, but when it comes down to it, most people and firms focus on whether or not the site WORKS. Not whether or not every image has an ALT tag. Because they still display on your monitor, don't they?

On Nov.09.2005 at 06:39 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

most people and firms focus on whether or not the site WORKS. Not whether or not every image has an ALT tag. Because they still display on your monitor, don't they?

Proper alt attributes are a big part of making a site work.

Joe is an accessibility person, therefore, that's his primary focus. Many folks in here are visual designers, therefore that's their focus. Many folks are SEO experts...that's their focus. Etc.

Good web design encompasses all of those roles.

You need a good looking site.

You need those alt attributes.

You need SEO ranking for the client.

To which extreme you need each of those can vary wildly, but all should at least be addressed.

On Nov.09.2005 at 06:49 PM
Keith Harper’s comment is:

Darrel:

1. I agree that proper ALT tags should be included. The point is, a site doesn't break if they are not present. Hardly. My point was to look at the bigger picture. Yes all the little details behind the code are great but they don't prevent it from functioning.

2. Yup, Joe's an accessibility guy. I even figured that out myself when I clicked on his link. But he writes about design, hence the relevance of my comments.

3. Maybe the Google ranking doesn't even matter for a business whose target market is local. Different clients have different needs. That's my point there. Not everyone is looking for the masses on the web to come to their website. Maybe they've already got the business card with the address on it, because they made a personal connection with someone. Or word of mouth, referrals are quite often the big way people attract business.

4. I agree there are a ton of issues to address. A great one would be the definition of an "optimized, accessible website." According to the W3C the use of Flash renders a site "invalid." I don't see this stopping business for sites that utilize this technology, though.

On Nov.09.2005 at 07:18 PM
Keith Harper’s comment is:

James says: We’re designing for Google’s spiders, not our customers.

If that is accessibility, then is it really worth it? Spending a client's money to satisfy a company's search technology isn't worth it. Let the search engines figure out how to better index relevant content. It's not our job to cater to them, but rather to create compelling content and experiences.

On Nov.09.2005 at 07:30 PM
Sheepstealer’s comment is:

There is no dichotomy between good design and good search engine. Put simple, design means to make something do what it's supposed to do. If it's supposed to appear at the top of google and it doesn't, we didn't design it, we decorated it.

Meanwhile, not all websites need to be googlable. Many of the clients I work with will have their website accessed after they hand someone a URL. Search engines never enter into the equation.

On Nov.09.2005 at 08:14 PM
JT III’s comment is:

Sheepstealer-

That's a mighty fine point you brought up in regards to handing over URL's. What kind of businesses really need that google presence? Who's searching for businesses in this manner?

Take Speak Up, for example. Is there someone out there thinking to themselves: Boy, I really love design and I really like to blog. Could I combine these two interests? Is there a place where I too can have a voice?

I imagine there is but, I wonder how many folks find out about Speak Up through other means (word of mouth, etc.) vs stumbling upon it on google.

Seems to me most folks find out about ol' Speak Up from other designers. What's the statistics on this? Would others disagree? Do folks find out about other websites through word of mouth? Am I asking too many questions?

On Nov.09.2005 at 10:58 PM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

I vote for seo!

I don't pretend to be a seo guru, but I'll add that in my limited experience that it is an important consideration when designing for communication now. If you can comprehend how people come to your site, those keywords count. You can become an expert very quickly. It's probably not as important for consumer brands, but for b2b marketing it's a lifeline that a lot of designers have never had experience with. Let's say someone has a technical problem that the business you represent can solve. How are they going to find you, they type a phrase into google and you're hit. If you know how to convert that clicker into a person, you've created a credible lead. At that point you send it to sales.

On Nov.09.2005 at 11:34 PM
Tan’s comment is:

> I wonder how many folks find out about Speak Up through other means (word of mouth, etc.) vs stumbling upon it on google

Actually, I found Speak Up through Google originally. At the time, I was having a friendly debate with another designer regarding the UPS rebrand, so I jumped on Google to do some research on related articles on the matter. Well, lo and behold, Speak Up came up third on relevance, and the rest was history.

>Search engines never enter into the equation.

With all due respect to my sheep stealing friend, I disagree. Google's relevance has permeated everywhere, not just mainstream consumers. It's just as relevant in the B2B space as in the B2C. Any company that's not interested in having their product, service, or any type of relevant information come up on the world's most used search engine is missing a prime opportunity.

Regarding this issue. Let's consider a few things. I heard an NPR report that search engine advertising was expected to be around $5 billion in 2005 (or 2004, I can't remember). The point is, that's some serious numbers, and speaks of the credibility of Google as a legit media channel. Of course, if legit online ad revenues can top $5 bil, then the SEO/optimization industry can probably yield at least twice that much.

But at the heart of it, optimization is a cheat. It's people trying to get past the velvet ropes without paying the cover charge. No matter the spin — call it smart programming, strategic online marketing, communications design — the premise is still basically built around ways to cheat the system. Is it not?

On Nov.09.2005 at 11:53 PM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

What is optimizing cheating Tan - art? Aren't numbers a system of credibilty?

On Nov.10.2005 at 12:02 AM
Keith Harper’s comment is:

Tan's point, if I am not mistaken, is that "optimization" is quite often built around some kind of weird hack to cheat the system. Like dynamically writing in the flash embed / object code with javascript. What is the point of that? The validator is flawed in that case.

On Nov.10.2005 at 12:24 AM
Drew Pickard’s comment is:

I sometimes find that some CEOs/Business Owners want their site to be at the top of the search list for any number of semi-pertinant words just so they can feel good . . .

On Nov.10.2005 at 03:24 AM
Tan’s comment is:

By cheating, I'm simply referring to the idea of coding strategically to take advantage of as many search engine rules as possible — instead of simply building the website for the robustness of its content and purpose. Optimization is tweaking, tagging, and using other artificial methods to boost rankings instead of just relying on the true content to establish relevance.

>...we’re adding content purely for the search engine’s spiders

Back to the author's original gripe. That's the cheat. It's the spiders' job to hunt for content based on relevance. Artifically tailoring content to boost rankings deceives the intent altogether.

On Nov.10.2005 at 09:34 AM
Jonathan Hughes’s comment is:

"I sometimes find that some CEOs/Business Owners want their site to be at the top of the search list for any number of semi-pertinant words just so they can feel good . . ."

This is very true, and is a big problem for web designers to overcome. I used to work for a company that, among other things, sold batteries (AA, AAA, etc.), and the executives were shocked that our site was nowhere to be found when you searched on google for "batteries." Of course, the fact that there were thousands of other companies who sold batteries who all had been in the business and on the web long before us didn't occur to them as a possible reason for this -- we sold batteries, so it was somehow our right to be on the first page of google listings. Sometimes, all the SEO "tricks" in the book won't do anything to help a site's ranking, and we need to make sure our clients know that there's no guarantee to getting any kind of decent ranking by google, especially if they're not offering anything different than any of their competitors.

On Nov.10.2005 at 09:44 AM
James Cooney’s comment is:

Tan said: "Back to the author's original gripe. That's the cheat. It's the spiders' job to hunt for content based on relevance. Artifically tailoring content to boost rankings deceives the intent altogether."

I pretty much agree with you here, but to play devil's advocate, some people could argue that artificially tailoring content to catch people's attention is cheating and deceives the consumer. And it often does.

As I see it, search engine spiders are reaching an importance to some businesses now that they are tailoring content towards said spiders. There is nothing wrong with this when using some "legitimized" techniques. These techniqes can be invisible to the end user and aren't really a cheat [proper use of H tags, etc.], often even of benefit to the end user [accurate, description rich links, when appropriate]. I have a problem when the legitimate techniques start to impede in the human users experience. I don't even consider illegitimate techniques, though its been stated the line between them can blurry. Way back in the mix, Nathan Philpot said "Of course our job is somewhere in the middle" and that is very true, and something I'd want to emphasize again.

If I was to have an honest conversation with a receptive client, I would tell them that the best way to both get attention and get a high ranking is to have a compelling product or content, be invovled with the community you want to target, both in real life and online, and present your information clearly. Of course, thats hard work - for them.

Cheers, James.

On Nov.10.2005 at 10:40 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

I agree that proper ALT tags

OK, I'm going to get pendantic. They are alt ATTRIBUTES. Not tags. Geeky pet peeve. Sorry.

The point is, a site doesn't break if they are not present.

If I am a person or a device that needs alt attributes to understand the content, then, yes indeed, the site is broken if they are not there.

My point was to look at the bigger picture.

That's exactly my point. Good web design is MUCH more than just good aesthetics.

Maybe the Google ranking doesn't even matter for a business whose target market is local.

Yep. You may be absolutely right. However, in general, making your site accessible is good for both users and google, so it's not something that should be written off merely because one doesn't think SEO is imortant.

If that is accessibility

SEO is a small nice side-effect benefit of being aware of accessibility issues. It goes hand-in-hand with making compelling content and experiences.

As for SEO terminology, which we also seem to be debating...good, semantic, relavent, accessible content will get you 90% the way there with SEO.

But, there are SEO firms who do go to an extreme and end up using various cheats/spam/hacks that can, indeed, end up being a hindrance to accessibility and overall quality of the site.

As such, SEO can be seen as an overrated buzzword. But one needs to be careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater and disregard good web design principals such as accessibility.

On Nov.10.2005 at 10:41 AM
Drew Pickard’s comment is:

I'd actually like to see some research on web accessability based on users.

ie: percentages of people who have special accessability needs vs the general population.

On Nov.10.2005 at 12:11 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

ie: percentages of people who have special accessability needs vs the general population.

This isn't terribly relevant on the web. The nature of the web allows one to design for a wide audience. One doesn't need to target minorities as much as they may need to in other media.

There's also a misconception that accessibility = designing for blind people.

Accessibility, simply put, is making sure more of your site is more easily usable/accessible to more people.

On the web, there really isn't any 'general population'. Everyone has different hardware, software, preferences, eyesight, coordination, peripherals, network connections, etc.

On Nov.10.2005 at 12:21 PM
Drew Pickard’s comment is:

This [accessability stats] isn't terribly relevant on the web.

So then the added cost (if there is any) is justified automatically?

I am still struggling to see a justification beyond the magic "It's just the right thing to do™" argument.

People can't/won't make decisions about usability based on nothing.

Numbers like these ARE relevant - it's why we have browser stats, resolution stats, OS stats, etc.

Accessibility, simply put, is making sure more of your site is more easily usable/accessible to more people.

But there is a cut-off.

There is ALWAYS a cut-off.

I feel like people who push accessability ignore that.

If accessability was so important a time investment then we would have large text-only websites that could be crawled by Lynx and could be downloaded instantly on 2400 baud modems.

I would argue that there IS a 'general population' on the web - it's exactly what we end up designing for - it's the 'target audience' for the site.

If no one is having accessability problems, why would we spend the extra time and money to support these supposed users/situations?

On Nov.10.2005 at 01:25 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

So then the added cost (if there is any) is justified automatically?

There shouldn't be much extra cost at all.

It's very similiar to building a building. Putting the wheelchair ramp in during the design phase won't add anything to the cost. Trying to add it 10 years later probably will.

And adding the wheelchair ramp isn't just for those in wheelchairs. It helps anyone with a stroller. Little kids walking. People on inline skates. The UPS guy bringing in the packages. Older people using walkers. Moving out the heavy furniture on dollies, etc.

Now, there may be very valid reasons *to* not implement a specific accessibility feature. But cost/visual design isn't usually a valid one.

Numbers like these ARE relevant - it's why we have browser stats, resolution stats, OS stats, etc.

Browser, resolution and OS stats are, for the most part, gigantic red herrings.

But there is a cut-off.

There is ALWAYS a cut-off.

I feel like people who push accessability ignore that.

No, they don't ignore that. They simply expect a decent, valid argument for putting the cut-off in. There are valid arguments...google maps decided that the use of AJAX for a smooth user experience far outweighed some of the accessibility/usability issues such as bookmarkability. Was it a good decision? I don't know. I don't know how Google measured success with their design.

What a lot of web developers are simply against is the typical 'I want complete control over my visual design as the designer' argument for ignoring the other aspects of good web design.

If accessability was so important a time investment then we would have large text-only websites that could be crawled by Lynx and could be downloaded instantly on 2400 baud modems.

Many sites that aren't accessible aren't accessible because they didn't implement some basic things that really would have had no effect on their visual presentation or implementation cost: resizable text, semantic markup, and lightweight page sizes.

And yes, there are always exceptions. Accessibility folks aren't saying the entire web needs to be text only (which is usually the anti-accessibility counter argument). They're saying a lot of sites are inaccessible simply due to bad web design.

I would argue that there IS a 'general population' on the web - it's exactly what we end up designing for - it's the 'target audience' for the site.

And it's really just something you pull out of the thin air. No matter what you are selling, there's likely going to be potential customers using a Mac. Or an older browser. Or reading glasses. Or their keyboard to navigate. Or a PDA. Or what have you.

Simply keeping that in mind from the start, will make for better web design than ignoring it outright.

If no one is having accessability problems, why would we spend the extra time and money to support these supposed users/situations?

That would make sense if a) you could actualy know no one is having accessibility issues and b) they actually costs more money and time to implement.

On Nov.10.2005 at 02:17 PM
Joseph’s comment is:

What's wierd is yahoo.com usually ranks sites we do a lot better than Google. Even wierder is when I'm doing searches in Google i get a mess of horrible website's returned. Quite frankly what good is "relevant" results when I don't even want to spend two seconds on the site because it looks like junk, the copy is hard to read and the content is just too overwhelming to know where to begin?

Hopefully Google will find away to open its eyes and rank websites based on cotent first, design in very close second. After all, informatin is useless if no one can or wants to read it.

On Nov.10.2005 at 02:20 PM
Keith Harper’s comment is:

And it's really just something you pull out of the thin air. (in regard to who your target audience is.)

You don't just pull this out of thin air, you think about it, research it, and discuss who the target audience is. There are always variables. Life is inherently variable and sometimes unpredictable.

There is a difference between a guess, and an educated guess.

On Nov.10.2005 at 02:29 PM
Drew Pickard’s comment is:

Darrel, I think you and I are more on the same page than I had thought.

I'm not sure if I agree that making things more accessible is always 'free' or really worth thinking about on certain sites.

(I do a lot of Flash - time investment for usability/accessability is VERY different)

I still would like to see stats or real numbers about people who use screen readers and other 'accessability' apps.

My point about spending the potential time/money on these alleged people is exactly your point: We don't know if people are having problems and we don't know how many people need the accessability.

What I was saying about the 'general population' is that it's something we choose - it's our target specs.

On Nov.10.2005 at 02:57 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

You don't just pull this out of thin air, you think about it, research it, and discuss who the target audience is.

In terms of marketable demographics, yes. In terms of what people's eyesight is, or what particular brand of PDA they use, I haven't seen many web projects go into that sort of research. And, even when they do, there's still many bits of faulty logic.

Ie, why should I make my site work on a Mac? None of my server stats show mac users! (Maybe it's because my site doesn't work on a Mac?)

There is a difference between a guess, and an educated guess.

And a difference between basing it off of red herring statistics. ;o)

I agree solid research is invaluable. A lot of the 'why bother with accessibility' arguments are often based off of muddy logic, though.

(I do a lot of Flash - time investment for usability/accessability is VERY different)

I don't consider Flash design 'web design'. It's very much it's own thing. And, yea, MM has been incredibly slow in addressing accessibility issues. Now, deciding when/when not to use flash is certainly something to consider.

I still would like to see stats or real numbers about people who use screen readers and other 'accessability' apps.

Again, that isn't the issue. Accessibility should not be seen as an attempt at catering to minority. It should be seen as catering to a majority.

One shouldn't think to target screen readers specifically any more than they should be overly focused on targetting googles spider. They should simply be going for the most accessible design that makes sense given whatever project paramaters they've been giving.

And, finally, on the web, minorities can often become the majority. While a minority of people may use a screen reader, there's also a minority that use reading glasses, and one that uses keyboard navigation, and one that uses older browsers, and one that uses Macintoshes, and one that uses text readers, and one that uses PDAs, and one that uses, etc, etc. In the end, it's often easier to just figure that your audience has a diverse way of getting to your site and not try to put up artificial barriers for them.

On Nov.10.2005 at 04:11 PM
Isofarro’s comment is:

Keith Harper says: "I agree that proper ALT tags should be included. The point is, a site doesn't break if they are not present. Hardly."

Some people tell me different. Especially people who have some difficulty in seeing. People who can't see have problems when information is supplied to them inside an image. So far, the technology to convert content inside an image into something more accessible is nowhere near remotely usable by anyone.

Now the alt attribute is specified as an alternative text for an image. That means a web designer can insert a textual alternative to an image. So when a person who struggles to get information out of an image, they can get it out of the alternative text instead.

Given that some people cannot use images as a means of obtaining information - because they have problems with their sight, for instance. An alternative text is absolutely essential to ensuring a website works under these conditions.

Open your browser, and disable images (Firefox with the Web Developer toolbar is a good set of tools to try this one). If you have the option of replacing images with their alternative texts, then do so. Now go to amazon.co.uk. Pretend you've been here before, and you want to see what's in your shopping basket. Find a link that takes you directly to your shopping basked (without re enabling images, of course). This is a very simple demonstration that having no alternative text to an image means your site does break.

You'll notice that Amazon have decided on the ghetto-like "Text-only" as a potential solution - its a great design idea to chastise your audience and pointing out their deficiencies, and then tell them to use the back door because they are wearing out your carpet.

Yet all Amazon really need to do is on the shopping basket image, add an alt attribute of "My shopping basket". It is really that simple. It doesn't affect the design, and 25 bytes only has a 0.6% chance of slowing down a page load by one extra HTTP packet. How much will you charge to add this one alt attribute to a page (which of course is a template, so that one change will replicate over the entire site)?

Drew Pickard wrote: "If accessability was so important a time investment then we would have large text-only websites that could be crawled by Lynx and could be downloaded instantly on 2400 baud modems."

And you'd be flat out wrong. Accessibility does not say "Don't use images", nor "Don't use audio", nor "Don't use colour". What it does say is "if you've got content inside an image, provide an alternative textual equivalent (because blind people can't see)", it says "if you use audio, please provide a textual equivalent (because deaf people can't hear)", and "if you use colour to convey information - like the houses listed in red are sold, then also use another means of conveying the same information - like the text 'sold' after an image (colourblind people sometimes have problems distinguishing between colours)".

What accessibility asks for is socially responsible, and mature web design.

Drew Pickard wrote: "If no one is having accessability problems"

There are none as blind as those who refuse to see.

Here you go: Why bother? and Accessibility Manifesto - which answers a number of questions you have on accessibility, as well as tackles a lot of the misconceptions you've raised about it.

On Nov.11.2005 at 03:40 PM
Keith Harper’s comment is:

Thanks for your comments Isoffaro… I find it funny that I focused on how the website VISUALLY works without alternative attributes, without really considering how it functions for blind / deaf users.

Whenever I do any html coding, I always put alt tags in there and such… however this whole discussion has caused me to think about being more aware of other users and their needs… good stuff.

On Nov.11.2005 at 07:07 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

What accessibility asks for is socially responsible, and mature web design.

Nicely put.

I find it funny that I focused on how the website VISUALLY works without alternative attributes, without really considering how it functions for blind / deaf users.

Yes. The biggest hurdle that 'accessibility awareness' has right now on the web is that it's way too often associated with 'blind people'.

There's a gigantic range of people and devices good accessibility practices can accomodate:

blind

partially blind

older people that need glasses

anyone with super-high-res screens

anyone with low-res screens (PDAs, phones, tablet PCs, etc.)

Color blind

Those with poor hand coordination

Those with arthritis

Anyone that just prefers to use the keyboard to navigate

Those behind overly restrive firewalls (ie no Flash)

Those that use browsers sans javascript

etc.

Point is that accessibility is really just taking full advantage of the web medium to allow people to interact with your site in a way that best suits their needs and/or preferences.

On Nov.12.2005 at 03:06 PM
Brad Wright’s comment is:

Sorry, a bit late to the party, but:

> According to the W3C the use of Flash renders a site "invalid."

is inaccurate. Only the default HTML that Flash renders when publishing is invalid. Please see Roger Johansson's Article for more information.

On Nov.13.2005 at 05:15 PM
RandomBoy’s comment is:

Even after all this - I think everyone is divided - the two camps seem to be split between design for everyone, and the restrictions can be ignored - cause it looks nice....

I wonder is this is an issue that designers should debate with programmers to get together an easy to implement and understand set of rules and guidlines.

(I am aware that I am about to get a bunch of links to these guidlines and rules and I appolagise for my obvious ignorance if they exist)

but dont know about anyone else but W3C it is still double dutch to me!

oh well....

back to my flash and ill concieved CSS then!

(thank goodness the design schools didn't teach it 'cause then I would have stood a chance!)

Yours

RB

On Nov.13.2005 at 07:05 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

I wonder is this is an issue that designers should debate with programmers to get together an easy to implement and understand set of rules and guidlines.

Programmers are designers. And the rules and guidelines aren't owned by either party. They're simply best practices based on technologies we have.

but dont know about anyone else but W3C it is still double dutch to me!

The actual spec's are difficult to understand...but do note that accessibility isn't necessarily a W3C standard. Accessibility issues are more or less 'best practices'

FYI, a few folks were asking for numbers. I thought this link summed things up nicely:

http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/001823.html

Specifically, the first paragraph:

49.7 million

Number of people age 5 and over in the civilian noninstitutionalized population with at least one disability, according to Census 2000; this is a ratio of nearly 1-in-5 U.S. residents, or 19 percent. These individuals fit at least one of the following descriptions: 1) they are 5 years old or older and have a sensory, physical, mental or self-care disability; 2) they are 16 years old or older and have difficulty going outside the home; or 3) they are 16-to-64 years old and have an employment disability.

On Nov.14.2005 at 11:18 AM
AdrienneA’s comment is:

"We’re beginning to move backwards. Worse still, we’re adding content purely for the search engine’s spiders, which are constantly crawling sites online to update their indexes. Routinely today, I insert navigation links which I never expect an actual human user to ever follow..."

Really, what a waste of time! SEO snake-oil salesmen aside, no self-respecting SEO practitioner would advise adding or modifying content purely to satisfy Google's bots. From my own recent reading, what's important is that one's site has GOOD CONTENT, properly presented. The "properly presented" part is open to some interpretation, but proper semantic markup is a given. (Or should be!)

Conventionally-trained designers (i.e. design-school grads) are, in my experience, very resistant to learning ANYTHING about code. Granted, it's difficult to exit school and realize that one's education has not prepared one to practice web design on the structural level. However, that fact does not exempt designers from needing to learn about the structure (code) of web design. A good design school teaches fundamentals like painting, mockup creation, etc--even if the designer never paints or makes mockups again, the background fundamentals are there.

Thus, I think design schools are much to blame for the current schism between "designers" and "coders". Even if a designer never makes a single web page, a designer should have working knowledge of semantic, valid HTML. It is as fundamental a skill as drawing, composition, and color theory. Right now, a classically-trained designer requires the skills of a coder to produce compliant and accessible web designs. In a large corporate or agency setting, this usually doesn’t present a problem. But for the independent designer, lack of coding skills is becoming a serious handicap.

As design schools incorporate basic coding skills into their curricula, there will probably be fewer debates over the importance of structural markup. Currently, only more highly-motivated designers take the trouble to school themselves in HTML, JavaScript, and other essential web-building skills. However, those who do are, in my experience, rewarded by being able to exert greater creative control over their web designs. Designers with good coding skills are more flexible, more employable, and better able to provide flexible solutions for their clients.

One more point—there’s more to search than web search. Desktop search is becoming an essential tool, as we loose track of our gigs and gigs of information. Google, and Yahoo, (and soon Vista) provide the ability to search all our files. One can only speculate at this point, but it seems likely that content with good keyword structure will be essential for ALL documents, not just web pages.

On Nov.14.2005 at 01:40 PM
Keith Harper’s comment is:

Brad, thanks for the link. I'm going to try Veerle's method… like he says, it does kind of stink that Macromedia won't author the html in a compliant way.

On Nov.15.2005 at 02:36 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

A timely article from ALAP:

High Accessibility Is Effective Search Engine Optimization

On Nov.15.2005 at 04:46 PM
darrel’s comment is:

I'm a moron. Joe posted that link in the very first comment.

On Nov.16.2005 at 12:04 AM