SEO Friendly Web Design Guidelines
The de facto web design guide for webmasters seeking to build SEO-friendly websites with a strong SEO infrastructure.
[Current as of 2019]
For most companies, a website is not only a significant investment of both time and money, it also represents a significant opportunity to generate sales and to promote customer interaction. So when building a website, it is critical to ensure not only that your website can serve the people who find it well, but that it can also be found. A website that cannot capture strong search engine rankings is like a billboard in the middle of the desert… pretty, but no one will see it. In more simple terms, it is almost useless. Having been in the SEO industry for 20 years (since 1998), I’ve seen hundreds of websites that are designed in a manner that makes it very difficult to capture any meaningful search engine rankings. Below are SEO friendly webmaster guidelines to help web designers understand SEO a little better and to help avoid many design pitfalls that will doom their client’s website.
First, it is very important to understand how Google is evolving in response to websites. Over the past several years, Google has placed considerable effort into helping identify high quality websites, and biasing search results accordingly. Google realizes that they are providing a poor user experience for listing low-quality websites in their search results. By low quality, we mean sites that are not SSL secure, are slow, not-mobile friendly, disorganized, have lots of typos and, well, are simply ugly. Google can identify these problem… yes Google can identify an ugly website via their AI technology called RankBrain. Keep this in mind when you design and understand that a better designed, better planned website will have a strategic advantage over a low quality design, all other things considered equal.
The overwhelming problem with most websites revolves around content. However, there are many things that can go wrong with website design other than the amount of content or the words used in content. We’ll cover both the basics and more advanced website content topics.
Website Content Volume: Thin content can’t teach, inform, explain, answer, etc. So from the beginning, you must plan on having ample content on every web page that you intend to have capture search engine rankings. It is good for your users, and it is good for Google. Current website design trends have been moving toward highly visual sites with anemic content… don’t do that. As a web designer, it is your responsibility to coach your client to help them understand why content is important and to ensure that the website design has ample content. At SharpNet, we frequently test basic SEO factors including content volume and keyword density. Our studies show that content volume plays a factor in rankings, as does keyword density. There are many SEO myths out there that state that keyword targeting and keyword density are non-influential to SEO, however these assumptions are very wrong. The implementation of target keywords within a website design is instrumental for an SEO-Friendly web design.
Website Content Volume Guideline: Include a minimum of 200 words on any web page that you feel has SEO value. More is better, but don’t have so much content that the web page changes focus. You are looking for 200+ words that are highly focused on a single subject or some highly-related subjects. Ideally, you’ll want 300 – 600 words, but 200+ will do if you’re struggling to write content.
Website Content Focus: Each web page must have a narrow focus. Take a plumber, for example, who may offer a dozen different plumbing services from leak repair to emergency plumbing to installing a water heater. It is unrealistic to think that a single web page can capture strong rankings for all of the services that a business can offer. That said, each specific service offered by a business should have its own web page. Do not build a single web page that offers a punch-list of all services. Apart from the home page, the services pages are the most important part of the website, so why skimp here? This will allow there to be ample content focused on a specific service and will provide a significant opportunity to capture strong rankings for each service provided. Don’t get lazy with content!
Website Content Focus Guideline: Each specific service offered by a business should be represented by its own web page. Do not combine all services offered onto a single web page. The service pages should have 200+ words each.
Content Keyword Targeting: Google is a great reader, the best ever created by humanity with over 30 trillion web pages having been “read” by Google. This means that the words you use on a website are critical because that is how Google can determine what a web page is all about. This leads to keyword research and targeting. It is very difficult for a web page to gain meaningful rankings for words that are not on your website. If a plumber offers “emergency plumbing services” then their website better have the phrase “emergency plumbing services” within it. Moreover, if that plumber is in Chicago, it should have the phrase “Chicago emergency plumbing services.” This is intuitive if you think about it, but it is overlooked by the vast majority of website designers. If you want to rank for it, you need to say it.
Content Keyword Targeting Guideline: Integrate target keywords into your content and if the website serves a local audience, be sure to include the city it serves as a keyword. Your primary target keywords must also standout to Google. Don’t mention a critical keyword only once in your content, otherwise it won’t look important to Google. Rather, work in your target keyword several times into your content. Use the same target keyword each time: Don’t say “Home Loan” in one place and “Mortgage” in another place. Use the same phrase both times (“Mortgage” twice, or “Home Loan” twice).
“If you want to rank for it, you need to say it.”
CONTENT QUALITY & ACCESSIBILITY
Duplicate Content: There are two types of duplicate content: (1) content that is the same between pages of the same website and (2) content that is the same between pages of different websites. Content duplication between pages within a single website is not so bad and is fairly common within the footer, privacy statements or other disclaimers. As a rule-of-thumb, keep internal duplication under 20% of the total volume of content. Content duplication that extends between different websites is a big “no no” to Google and should be avoided. Google is so serious about punishing website with duplicate content, that they implemented a ranking algorithm change that specifically addresses this issue. Named the “Panda” update, Google will devalue any web page it finds that has copied content from another website. If the level of duplication is excessive, Google will extend the devaluation to the entire website. Many web designers get lazy and recycle content from other websites and most of their clients do not realize that their own content is plagiarized. If you do this, you will be sabotaging your client, wasting their investment and making Google angry. For an SEO-friendly web design, you must step-up and get unique content for every web page.
Duplicate Content Guideline: Duplicate content between web pages of the same website must remain below 20% of the content on each page. Preferably, duplication should be toward the bottom of the page. Duplicate content between pages of different websites must be avoided at all costs. Having small blocks of content is okay, like quoting a speaker or the title of an article that you are discussing. However, keep it to a minimum. Consider even screen-capturing the duplicate content and loading it up as an image so that Google can’t read it.
Readily-Accessible Content: This is an advanced SEO-infrastructure topic. Google likes content that is readily accessible, readable and does not require an action on the user’s part to see the content. Content that is behind a content accordion block that requires a user to click to see more content will be diminished in value to Google. Similarly, content that fades-in as the user scrolls down, slides-in from the side or otherwise requires some sort of a click or mouse scrolldown event will likewise receive diminished value by Google. Google will see it, and index it, but the ranking value of that content is largely lost. This is commonly the case with the infinite-scroll website designs that became a fad in 2015. As you scroll down, content is loaded, and consequently looked down-upon by Google. Many webmasters will argue this point, however we have run dozens of experiments that definitively show that this is a big issue. Google’s head of SEO Spam, Matt Cutts, publicly warns webmasters about infinite-scroll website designs. This was the first time I’ve seen Google speak out about a design style in over a decade, when IFRAMESs became a fad. It is your job to inform your client to avoid design fads that will hurt their website’s ability to gain competitive rankings.
Readily-Accessible Content Guideline: All content must load on a web page that does not require the user to take an action to see the content. Meaning: Click-to-Open or a mouse scrolldown event that caused content to fade-in or slide-in. It is okay if content is below the fold and you have to scroll-down to see it, but that scroll-down event should not invoke content to appear. It should load-up automatically even below the fold.
WEBSITE USER INTERACTION
Responsive Design: Late in 2015, Google announced that there are more mobile searches than desktop. This is nothing other than incredible, and also of dire importance to web designers. If a website is not responsive and adaptable to different screen resolutions, including mobile phones and tablets, then it will absolutely be negatively impacted. The negative impact is two-fold: (1) A significant portion of a website’s visitors will come in through a mobile device. If your website cannot provide a good user experience for these visitors, your sales conversion rates will diminish. Google also knows that people need a website to be mobile-friendly. As such (2) Google will diminish the ranking opportunity for a website that is not mobile-friendly. Not only will rankings be reduced for people on mobile devices, but also to people on desktop devices. If you’re not designing responsive websites for your clients in 2016, you’re wasting your client’s money. You must design for the modern era of the web.
Responsive Website Design Guideline: We strongly urge that all website designs are created as responsive websites. Responsive designs perform far better than websites that detect mobile users and then redirect that user to a separate website, like an “m.yourwebsite.com” subdomain. Subdomains are seen by Google like an entirely separate website. All of the momentum, rankings, pagerank and other factors that are a part of the main website are not transferred to the mobile “m.” subdomain. Consequently, the mobile website will rank much poorer than a responsive design. You will in essence have two separate websites that split pagerank. Responsive websites will also do a better job at adapting to screen resolution trends over time, giving them more longevity and also a better user experience.
User Behavior and Heuristics: Google knows if people do not like a website. Issues can be seen by people who visit a site for a short duration, view very few pages when they visit, or by having click-through rates that are low when your listing shows up in Google’s search results. Google wishes to present the best websites to its users. It makes Google look good, and the users are happier. Your website must compete with all the other business that have websites, it must provide value to those visiting it, it must be easy to navigate, easy to communicate with the business, easy to buy, easy to find help and address a myriad of other factors that make people like websites.
User Behavior and Heuristics Guideline: I cannot address why one website is great and why another is not. Just understand that a web page must compete against 3 trillion other web pages on the internet. If you put little effort into your website, you will get little reward. However, the more that you invest into a website, Google will reward you for your effort. But understand that by stating “effort,” I am not referring to losing a weekend to write a few blog posts. I’m referring to building a company culture of ongoing improvements to your website. A website should never be done, rather it evolves endlessly. After all, Amazon.com was once “just a website.”
Page Load Speed: The speed of your website is also a key factor that impacts both the user experience and Google’s search ranking algorithm. Many people do not realize that Google only considers the mobile-rendering of a website when it determines your search engine rankings. As such, web page load speed is critical and slow-loading websites absolutely will receive a ranking penalty. Avoid the temptation of host a website on a cheap web server that loads slowly. Most of the “big” web hosts are way too slow because they oversell their hosting space. Use common sense here… is saving $5/mo on a cheap web hosting plan worth risking search-based rankings?
Web page speed and mobile friendliness can be easily tested by Google itself by searching Google for the phrases “google page speed test” and “google mobile friendly test.” It is critical that you run these tests and make speed enhancements if you’re ranking in the “poor” realm. After you have made Google’s recommended speed-enhancement suggestions, and your website is still slow, it is time to find a new web host. This is mission-critical to the success of yours or your client’s website.
“Google knows if people do not like a website.”
WEBSITE META TAGS
Website META Tags: Meta tags include the page <title> and META Description tags, and every web page should have them. Moreover, each page <title> tag and META Description tag should be completely unique and directly represent what each web page is about. Your META tags should include the same target keywords that you use within the bulk content of each web page. Back to our plumber example discussed earlier, if you target a keyword like “Chicago emergency plumbing services” then the phrase “Chicago emergency plumbing services” should also be in your META tags. Especially so within your page <title> tag, but you can deviate a little in your META Description tag.
META Tags Guideline: Include unique page <title> tags and META Description tags for each web page, even if you do not feel like the page has good SEO value. Incorporate the same target keywords within your META tags as you use for the bulk content of each web page. All META tags should be unique to only the specific web page that it addresses. Your page <title> tag should be under 68 characters in length and the META Description tag under 160 characters. Do not underestimate the value of your page <title> tag, as it is “ounce per ounce” the most influential portion of your website in regard to content optimization. META Description tags do not directly impact search rankings, however they influence click through rates which not only drives more visitors to your website, but also impacts search rankings. Google likes to show websites that people click-to often, and your click through rates tell Google that people like your website.
SSL & SECURITY CERTIFICATES
Website Security: Google now prefers secure websites (SSL/https) over non-secure websites (http). This is especially important if your website has a web form that collects confidential information about a person or business, like a password, credit card info, SSN, etc. However, switching to SSL can cause keyword ranking losses on Google, because to Google it is the same as changing your domain name. Google appears to be working this through, but we are still seeing a ranking hit on websites that move to secure search. Sometimes, this can be an extreme negative hit, and it generally takes 2-3 months for your rankings to recover. Oftentimes, the recovery is not 100%.
Website Design Security Guideline: If you are redesigning your website and the page names and URL paths will change, then you may as well switch to SSL/HTTPS. Changing page names will have the same impact to rankings as moving to SSL, so there is no down-side to switching to SSL. Ditto for changing domains, or if this is the first design under a new domain. However, if your website does not collect sensitive information via a web form (your are not seeing a warning from Google when your website is loaded up in the Chrome browser), then you may not want to switch to SSL just yet. You can avoid the ranking losses on Google. At some point in time, SSL may impact search rankings more severely than it currently does with Google, so someday you may need to make the switch. But you can wait until you must switch. Everyone, including your competitors, will all have to switch to SSL too, so you’ll be on a level playing field.
This SEO-friendly web design guideline is not comprehensive, as there is much more to SEO than building a good SEO infrastructure. However, this will help you to avoid pitfalls that prohibit a website from the opportunity of capturing competitive search rankings.
We invite web designers and individuals to work with SharpNet to help produce websites that become amazing tools for businesses. We offer industry-leading SEO white label (reselling) solutions for web design companies, as well as SEO campaigns for businesses that work with us directly. Contact us today to see how we may work together.