Many misconceptions exist about what is and isn't search engine friendly website design, according to Shari Thurow, founder and SEO director of Omni Marketing Interactive.
Thurow, who recently spoke at the SMX West search marketing conference, says one assumption is that search engine friendly sites are, by default, also user friendly. Many people believe that for sites to be search engine friendly, they must use only text links for navigation. Others think XML sitemaps are essential, or that search friendly sites are inherently ugly.
We pulled information from Thurow's SMW West panel, and followed up with her and a set of additional SEO and SEM experts after the event, to clarify some of these false assumptions. We also came up with 10 tips and best practices to make sure search engines — and users — can easily find your website content.
What exactly is search engine friendly website design?
Search engine friendly design "is a user friendly website design that enables websites to be easily found via the crawler-based search engines, other types of search engines, and industry-related websites," Thurow says. "In other words, it's a website that is made for users but it also accommodates search engines."
"[It] is a balance between technology-centered design and user-centered design, with the user coming first," Thurow says. "SEO is optimizing for people who use search engines."
Ultimately, the key to ranking well with search engines is "to provide the best content with a good user experience," says David Sorenson, vice president of audience development at Everyday Health. "If you focus on the user, in most cases, the search engines will recognize and reward you."
“Technology, design, user experience, and search engines have evolved from ten years ago, and websites have gotten better at finding that balance between search-engine and human friendliness, but there's always room for improvement," Sorenson says.
Debunking 4 myths of search engine friendly website design
Myth: If a site is search friendly, it's also user friendly
Some sites are easier for search engines to crawl and index because they contain a lot of text. However, big chunks of text can be turnoffs for some users, especially those on mobile devices, and they don't necessarily help site visitors find the information they seek or complete desired tasks. Making a site easily accessible to search engines "is only one part" of search engine friendly site design, according to Thurow.
Myth: Search friendly design means all navigation is formatted as text links
The common belief that text-link navigation is key to search friendly design is inaccurate, according to Thurow. "Navigation is about enabling task completion," she says. Often, graphic- or image-based navigation menus can help site visitors easily complete tasks, and that's more important than simply trying to appeal to search engines.
Myth: XML sitemaps are essential for search friendly design
An XML sitemap, which is essentially a list of URLs for a site, "shouldn't be a substitute or a Band-Aid for poor site navigation," Thurow says. Instead, the XML map should be regarded as supplemental navigation.
Myth: Search friendly sites are text-heavy and ugly
Aesthetic design can greatly improve user experience, according to Thurow. "The site every SEO consultant trots out as being search engine friendly is Craigslist," says Susan Leopold, senior director of product commerce at Ziff-Davis. "While Craigslist gets the job done, the Internet wouldn't be nearly the interesting place it is today if everyone used that model."
10 best practices for search engine friendly website design
1. Search friendly sites have effective IA
The goal of information architecture (IA) is to ensure the information, services and products on a website are easy to find. Though IA and site navigation are related, they aren't the same, according to Thurow, because site navigation's main goal is to enable task completion. And IA relates to how content is organized, labeled, prioritized, and connected, in order to support usability and findability. A site with clear, consistent IA is easy to use and its content is easy to find.
The site-building process should begin with IA and then move on to navigation, site design and the site's development or technical architecture, according to Thurow.
2. Search friendly sites see the big picture
If site creators don't get the building blocks right from the beginning, they risk building "a sandcastle that you have to change every time there's a big search engine algorithm change," Thurow says. "Look at the big picture. Get marketing, technical and user experience people to work together and reinforce the same messages. It will help your site perform well despite algorithm changes."
3. Search friendly sites use good labels, formats and placement
How text, graphics and multimedia files are labeled, formatted and placed on Web pages communicates the content the site creator thinks is important to search engines, as well as to site visitors, according to Thurow. For example, search engines and users both consider text at the top of a page more important than text at the bottom.
4. Search friendly sites optimize 3 key labels
Content labeling includessuch elements as HTML H1 headings (which should be about 18 pixels or larger) and H2 headings (about 14 pixels). The Mayo Clinic's page about influenza is a good example of clear content labeling, according to Thurow.
Navigation labels provide a clear path to the content site visitors want. For example, the Mayo Clinic's flu page includes clearly worded navigation links to help users delve deeper into chosen topics (using vertical left hand navigation), jump to other areas on the site, or complete tasks (using links such as "Giving to Mayo Clinic").
Document labels include such elements as HTML title tags, which are still important because they tell search engines what Web pages are all about, and URLs. "Search engines want the shortest URL that communicates what a page is about," Thurow says. A site's URL structure is also important for making content more easily accessible to users, she says.
Search engine friendly site URLs are short but descriptive; they use natural word order; they have hyphens instead of underscores; they have only lowercase characters; and they contain no "stop words" such as "but," according to Thurow.
5. Search friendly sites use image-file content labels
It's important to use image-file names, Thurow says. "Graphic image search is very important for users," she says. "If they don't know the right name or keyword that describes what they're looking for, they do an image search." Image file names should be concise and descriptive, so they help both users and search engines find desired content.
6. Search friendly sites use quality keywords
There's been some talk in recent years, given various Google algorithm updates, that suggests keywords are no longer an important ingredient for organic, on-page SEO. However, keywords are still significant to both search engines and users, according to Thurow.
"Users follow an information 'scent' from the search engine to your site, and if they don't see those keywords in your labels, they may hit the back button," Thurow says. She recommends placing keywords in a number of places, including within HTML title tags; visible body copy, especially text at the top of a Web page; text in and around hypertext links; and in domain and file names. "Use keywords frequently on pages so that your content appears focused, but don't overdo it."
7. Every page on search friendly sites is a point of entry
When search engines send Web surfers to sites, they typically land on pages in the middle of the sites, not the home pages, Thurow says. So it's important to provide clear, consistent labeling and navigation on all pages.
8. Search friendly sites have contextual links for navigation
Contextual links help users navigate to other site content that is contextually relevant to the content they view, and the links complement existing navigation systems by giving visitors more navigation choices. Effective contextual links help your site gain "more stickiness" with users, which in turn can help compel them to share your content on social media, Thurow says. When used excessively, however, contextual navigation can "create clutter and confusion."
Lands' End's website makes good use of contextual links, according to Thurow. A company page focused on a men's polo shirt, for instance, includes clearly presented, vertical links to similar shirts other customers bought. However, Thurow says such contextual links would be even more effective on the left-hand side of the page.
9. Search friendly sites follow the 5 rules of site design
Thurow says the basics of good website design for maximum SEO impact barely changed during the past 20 years. Websites should be easy to read; easy to navigate; easy to find; have clear and consistent layout, design, and labeling; and be quick to download. (Google measures your site's actual download time and can use that in its ranking determinations.)
10. Search friendly mobile sites have space for finger scrolling
Many modern responsive-design sites, or sites that adapt differently to desktop and mobile screens, don't leave adequate space for navigation using a finger, according to Thurow. A good example to follow is the mobile site of Smashing Magazine, which leaves space for scrolling and offers clearly identifiable buttons for search and site menus.