Designing Websites for Search Engines
29
June
2012

If you’re planning on getting a new website, one of the first things to consider is “how am I going to get traffic?” This is an often overlooked step of the web design process which is critical if you want your website to attract new customers and achieve an ROI on your investment.

Let’s face it … search engines are finicky. They change their algorithms several times a year, and in some cases, these changes can be pretty dramatic. Google stated earlier this year that their “farmer” update affected 12% of all searches. Some of the sites that were affected by this change saw a 50% drop in traffic. And you’d have to assume that they also suffered a 50% drop in revenue.

So how do you design a website that can rank at the top of the search engines, and withstand algorithm changes over the years?

An overview of website design best practices

Before getting into the individual web design tips, let’s first examine an overarching theme that should guide your decisions when you design a site. It’s pretty simple. “Am I providing the best possible user experience?”

Sounds like common sense, right? Unfortunately, web designers and search engines often define this user experience differently. And if you want to rank high in the search engines, you’d better pay attention to how the search engines define this experience, instead of going with your gut.

The following tips will explain how the search engines define user experience and how you can use this to your advantage when designing a website.

Design the website with speed in mind

I’m listing this one first, not because it’s the most important, but because so many web designers completely forget about it. Website speed matters. It matters to users and therefore, it matters to the search engines.

Have you ever browsed the internet and came across a site that takes 5 or 10 seconds to load? Even though 5+ seconds doesn’t sound like a lot, in our modern age of DSL and fiber optics, we’re used to seeing pages pop up instantly.

If you’re like me, you’ll hit the “back” button in your browser instead of waiting for the page to load. This is a frustrating experience for internet users and Google seems to agree.

Since the very beginning of Google, they have always shown how fast they can serve up search results. Check out this image below of a search I just did for “google.com” and the time it took for them to serve it up.

Additionally, Google Webmaster Tools has a section dedicated to showing your site speed, and they have also released a plugin for the Mozilla Firefox browser to help webmasters troubleshoot their websites and optimize them for speed.

Google is spending a lot of time and money to make it easy for webmasters to improve the speed of their websites. Doesn’t it make sense that they also consider site speed when determining search engine rankings.

Although I’ve never seen a study that definitively proves this correlation, it should provide enough evidence to nudge webmasters to optimize their site for speed. You’ve really got nothing to lose by serving up webpages as quickly as possible to minimize frustration for your customers.

SIDE NOTE: Choosing the right hosting solution for your website should go hand-in-hand with site speed. Sure, you can get hosting for pennies, but you’ll be sharing the server with thousands of other sites, providing ample opportunity for the bandwidth to hit a bottleneck and slow your website down. I don’t think Google will give you a pass here. A slow site is a slow site … period. I personally use a premium VPS hosting solution. It’s more expensive, but I believe that a slow site will cost you more in the long run since you’ll have a harder time getting to the top of the search engines, and you’ll lose more prospective customers who get frustrated with your slow site.

Create clear and simple navigation

When you design a site, you should ensure that all of your most important content is accessible in less that two clicks from your home page. Amazon.com has billions of pages, but they have organized these pages into categories and subcategories that allow you to browse these pages and quickly find what you need.

Additionally, you need to make sure that your navigation can be properly interpreted by the search engines. Some javascript menus look pretty cool, but when Google can’t interpret the code and understand how you’ve organized your site, it will KILL your search engine rankings.

I personally experienced this two years ago with a site that I designed using a “newfangled” menu system. It looked really cool, but when I dug into the code, I could see that every link was interpretted by the search engines as saying “click to page” instead of having descriptive keywords like “services” and “contact us.” From the search engines perspective, it looked click every single page was about “click to page.”

After I fixed the script (which was a pain in the ass), the site’s rankings immediately improved.

Don’t forget site canonicalization

Google hates duplicate content. I’m not really sure why, but my theory is that is has to do with copyrights and plagiarism. I could be totally wrong, but in my experience, I’ve seen that unique content always ranks better and withstands algorithm changes better that duplicate content.

Even if every page on your site has unique content, it can easily be interpreted as having duplicate content if you don’t look at it like a search engine. Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that your site’s homepage is located at http://website.com. If you don’t set up your .htaccess file correctly, Google may think you have multiple home pages, all with the same content. They will interpret the following four url’s as duplicate content.

http://website.com

http://www.website.com

http://www.website.com/index.html

http://website.com/index.html

When you’re designing a website, make sure that you don’t accidentally create duplicate content on your own site by overlooking the canonicalization of the site. Again, this is done by correctly setting up your .htaccess file on your server.

Create a different page for each keyword that you’re targeting

Yesterday, I went through the process of doing on-site optimization for one of my new clients. It’s a local small business. The first thing I noticed was that their services where all listed on a single pages on their website, which is not uncommon for a small business.

However, putting all of your services on a single page “waters down” the effectiveness of any single keyword phrase that you’re targeting.

For example, a cosmetic surgeon who offers breast enhancement, nose jubs, and tummy tucks puts all of their services on a single page with descriptions of each of these procedures. When Google visits this page at the url http://www.plasticsurgeon.com/services.html and sees information about all three of these procedure, they will be forced to give mediocre rankings for each of them. The reason they do this is because there isn’t a singular focus on one keyword, which leads them to believe that your page contains a bunch of stuff about different topics that the person searching doesn’t care about.

If this were my client, the first thing I would be is put each procedure on a different page, add a lot more content to improve the description of each procedure, include images, and create links to the different procedures from a single service page that’s just used to help with navigation.

Now, when Google visits the site again, they will find a page called “nose jobs” at http://www.plasticsurgeon.com/nose-jobs.html which is 100% dedicated to the topic of nose jobs. It has images that are optimized for the term nose job, the url says nose job, the page title, description, and meta keywords includes the term nose job, and there are now internal links from other pages on the site that use the “nose job” anchor text.

What do you think will happen? Each of these individual pages will rank much higher for the specific keyword phrases they are targeting!

How do I know? Remember when I said that I just did on-site optimization for a client yesterday? When I checked their search engine rankings this morning, every page on their site had a better ranking, and they achieved their first #1 ranking in Google … here’s proof from my rank tracking software that shows the current ranks for my client and the difference between yesterday and today.

Use internal links to help bolster individual page optimization

I just mentioned this in the section above, but it’s worth noting again since this should always be considered when designing a website.

After you’ve built individual pages for all the keyword phases that you’re targeting, make sure that you link all of these pages together in the navigation and within individual pages text using proper anchor text.

For example, if you have a page about “nose jobs” and at some point in the page, you mention that this procedure can be combined with a “tummy tuck” on the same day for a discount (I’m just making stuff up here), then make sure you link to turn the words “tummy tuck” into a link. Don’t just say “go to http://plasticsurgeon.com/tummy-tuck.html to learn about a tummy tuck” … make sure that the words “tummy tuck” are used for the link. It should look like this. “to learn more about a tummy tuck …” Can you see how the words “tummy tuck” are used for the link instead of just the url? That’s called an anchor text link and it’s exactly how you should link the internal page of your site.

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Mike Nacke | Tags: , , ,
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