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.