How Web Design Can Affect Search Engine Rankings

Uniquely built web sites can create unique issues when being promoted on the search engines. From a basic 3 page brochure site to a corporate site with hundreds of dynamically generated pages, every web site needs to have certain design aspects in order to achieve the full effects of an SEO campaign. Below are a few points to take into consideration when building or updating your web site.

1. Size Matters.

The size of a web site can have a huge impact on search engine rankings. Search engines love content, so if you have only a few pages to your site and your competitors have dozens, it's difficult to see a top page ranking for your site. In some cases it may be difficult to present several pages of information about your business or products, so you may need to think about adding free resources for visitors. It will help in broadening the scope of your web site (which search engines like) as well as keep visitors on your site longer, possibly resulting in more sales.

2. Graphics-Based Web Sites.

While web sites that offer the visitor a more esthetically-pleasing experience may seem like the best choice for someone searching for your product, they are the most difficult to optimize. Since search engine robots cannot read text within graphics or animation, what they see may be just a small amount of text. And if we learned anything from point #1, small amounts of content will not result in top rankings. If you really must offer the visitor a graphics-heavy or Flash web site, consider creating an html-based side of your site that is also available to visitors. This site will be much easier to promote on the search engines and your new found visitors will also have the option to jump over to the nicer looking part of your site.

3. Dynamic Web Pages.

If most of your web site is generated by a large database (such as a large book dealer with stock that is changing by the minute) you may find that some of your pages do not get indexed by major search engines. If you look at the URL of these pages they can be extremely long and have characters such as ?, #, &, %, or = along with huge amounts of seemingly random numbers or letters. Since these pages are automatically generated by the database as needed, the search engines have a tough time keeping them up to date and relevant for search engine users.

One way to combat this problem is to offer a search engine friendly site map listing all your static pages just to let them know that you do have permanent content on your site. If search engines see links going to and from these dynamic pages within a good internal linking system, this may also lead to the pages getting indexed. The link popularity of your site may carry more weight in this case as well, so if you can't offer as much static content as your competition, make sure you have an aggressive link campaign on the go.

4. Proper Use of HTML.

There is quite a bit of sub-par web design software out there. Word processors usually have a way to create HTML documents which can be easily uploaded to a site via ftp. However, in many cases the code that the search engine robots see is mostly lines and lines of font and position formatting, not relevant content. The more efficiently written web sites usually achieve higher rankings. Our choice for web design software is Macromedia Dreamweaver, as it is an industry standard. It also makes using CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) a breeze, which can drastically cut down on the amount of text formatting in HTML code. Hand-coding HTML to design sites is also a good method if you are proficient enough.

There are some no brainers too: Web sites with abnormal amounts of hyperlinks, bold or italicized text, improper use of heading, alt, or comment tags can also expect to see low rankings.

5. Choosing a Domain Name.

The golden rule to web development of any kind is to keep your visitors in mind above all else - even search engine optimization. When choosing a domain name, one should pick either your business name (if you have a high-profile business name such as Chapters or Coca-Cola) or a brief description of your products. Domain names can always help with search engine optimization, as it is another area of your web site that important keywords can appear. Forget about long- winded domains such as www.number-one-best-books-on-earth.com as no one will ever remember it and it will be hard to print on business cards or in ads.

If you need to change your domain name for any reason you obviously don't want to lose existing rankings. An easy way to do this, and one that is currently supported by most search engines, is the 301 redirect. It allows you to keep your existing rankings for your old domain name, while forwarding visitors to your new web site instantly.

6. Using Frames.

Don't use frames. Frames are a thing of the 90's (and in the Internet world that is eons ago) and are not even supported by some search engines. The search engines that are able to index your site through frames will most likely frown upon them. Whatever you are trying to accomplish by using frames can usually be done with the help of PHP includes or CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). Some browsers are not frames-compatible, so there is the danger of some visitors not being able to see your site at all. Bookmarking of individual pages within a frame becomes difficult without lengthly scripts being written.

7. Update Your Information.

Not only does information printed two or three years ago look badly on your organization when it is read by a visitor, it is also looked down upon by search engines. Web sites that continuously update and grow their web sites usually experience higher rankings than stagnant sites. When the trick to SEO is offering visitors the most relevant information, you can bet that the age of web pages is taken into consideration by search engines. Consider creating a section of your site devoted to news within your organization, or have a constantly updated resources area.

Many shortfalls of web sites can easily be attributed to designers who just don't keep the user or search engines in mind. Search engine algorithms are quickly improving to try and list the most user-friendly sites higher, given that the content and link popularity are there to back it up. So first and foremost, know your target market and make your web site work for them before focusing on search engine optimization. If you build it (properly), they will come.

Copyright John Metzler of Abalone Designs, November 2004. This article may be freely distributed if credit is given to the author. Abalone Designs is a family-run Search Engine Optimization firm in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Visit http://www.abalone.ca for a free personalized analysis of your web site.

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