According to a poll I conducted, just over 1 out of 10 people don't think SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is mandatory as a designer; and what really surprised me is about 24% don't even know what SEO is! If you’re among the quarter of people who don’t know what SEO is or understand how it can help you, you should really read this article. This is an SEO guide for designers who want to learn about making it easier for websites or blogs to be found by search engines. I'll explain the common mistakes made by designers and developers. Then I’ll provide some basic tips that you should be practicing to optimize your site for search engines.

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Why Should You Learn About SEO?

  • SEO isn't only for online marketers. As a web designer or frontend developer, most on-site SEO is your responsibility.
  • If your site is not search engine friendly, you might be losing a lot of traffic that you’re not even aware of. Remember, besides visitors typing in "www.yourwebsite.com" and backlink referrals; search engines are the only way people can find your site.
  • There are many benefits of getting a high ranking site. Let’s use ndesign-studio.com for example. I have, on average, about 14,000 visitors a day. About 40 - 45% of that traffic comes from search engines (about 6000+ referrals a day). Imagine, without search engine referrals, I would be losing thousands of visitors everyday. That means, I’m risking losing potential clients too.
  • SEO is also a value-added service. As a web designer/developer you can sell your SEO skills as an extended service.

The Basics: How Search Engines Work?

How search engines work

First, let's look at how crawler-based search engines work (both Google and Yahoo fall in this category). Each search engine has its own automated program called a "web spider" or "web crawler" that crawls the web. The main purpose of the spider is to crawl web pages, read and collect the content, and follow the links (both internal and external). The spider then deposits the information collected into the search engine’s database called the index.

When searchers enter a query in the search box of a search engine, the search engine’s job is to find the most relevant results to the query by matching the search query to the information in its index.

What makes or breaks a search engine is how well it answers your question when you perform a search. That’s based on what’s called the search engine algorithm which is basically a bunch of factors that the search engine uses to say “hey is this page RELEVANT or NOT?”. The higher your page ranks for these factors (yes some factors are more important than others) than the higher your page will get displayed in the search engine result pages.

Your Job As a Search Engine Optimizer

SEO jobs

Each search engine has its own algorithm in ranking web pages. Understanding the general factors that influence the algorithm can affect your search result position, and this is what SEO experts are hired for. An SEO’s job has two aspects: On-Site and Off-Site.

On-Site SEO: are the things that you can do on your site, such as: HTML markups, target keywords, internal linking, site structure, etc.

Off-Site SEO: are the things that you have much less control of, such as: how many backlinks you get and how people link to your site.

This is a guide for designers and developers. The main concern is the On-Site aspects. Secretly though, if you do your job right… and design a beautiful site… and/or produce useful content… you’ll get Off-Site backlinks and social bookmarks without even lifting a finger.

Top 9 SEO Mistakes Made by Designers and Developers

1. Splash Page

Splash page

I've seen this mistake many times where people put up just a big banner image and a link "Click here to enter" on their homepage. The worst case — the "enter" link is embedded in the Flash object, which makes it impossible for the spiders to follow the link.

This is fine if you don’t care about what a search engine knows about your site; otherwise, you're making a BIG mistake. Your homepage is probably your website's highest ranking page and gets crawled frequently by web spiders. Your internal pages will not appear in the search engine index without the proper linking structure to internal pages for the spider to follow.

Your homepage should include (at minimum) target keywords and links to important pages.

2. Non-spiderable Flash Menus

Many designers make this mistake by using Flash menus such as those fade-in and animated menus. They might look cool to you but they can’t be seen by the search engines; and thus the links in the Flash menu will not be followed.

3. Image and Flash Content

Web spiders are like a text-based browser, they can't read the text embedded in the graphic image or Flash. Most designers make this mistake by embedding the important content (such as target keywords) in Flash and image.

4. Overuse of Ajax

A lot of developers are trying to impress their visitor by implementing massive Ajax features (particularly for navigation purposes), but did you know that it is a big SEO mistake? Because Ajax content is loaded dynamically, so it is not spiderable or indexable by search engines.

Another disadvantage of Ajax — since the address URL doesn't reload, your visitor can not send the current page to their friends.

5. Versioning of Theme Design

For some reason, some designers love to version their theme design into sub level folders (ie. domain.com/v2, v3, v4) and redirect to the new folder. Constantly changing the main root location may cause you to lose backlink counts and ranking.

6. “Click Here” Link Anchor Text

You probably see this a lot where people use "Click here" or "Learn more" as the linking text. This is great if you want to be ranked high for "Click Here". But if you want to tell the search engine that your page is important for a topic, than use that topic/keyword in your link anchor text. It’s much more descriptive (and relevant) to say “learn more about {keyword topic}”

Warning: Don’t use the EXACT same anchor text everywhere on your website. This can sometimes be seen as search engine spam too.

7. Common Title Tag Mistakes

Same or similar title text:
Every page on your site should have a unique <title> tag with the target keywords in it. Many developers make the mistake of having the same or similar title tags throughout the entire site. That’s like telling the search engine that EVERY page on your site refers to the same topic and one isn’t any more unique than the other.

One good example of bad Title Tag use would be the default WordPress theme. In case you didn't know, the title tag of the default WordPress theme isn’t that useful: Site Name > Blog Archive > Post Title. Why isn’t this search engine friendly? Because every single blog post will have the same text "Site Name > Blog Archive >" at the beginning of the title tag. If you really want to include the site name in the title tag, it should be at the end: Post Title | Site Name.

Exceeding the 65 character limit:
Many bloggers write very long post titles. So what? In search engine result pages, your title tag is used as the link heading. You have about 65 characters (including spaces) to get your message across or risk it getting cutoff.

Keyword stuffing the title:
Another common mistake people tend to make is overfilling the title tag with keywords. Saying the same thing 3 times doesn’t make you more relevant. Keyword stuffing in the Title Tag is looked at as search engine spam (not good). But it might be smart to repeat the same word in different ways:

    "Photo Tips & Photography Techniques for Great Pictures"

“Photo” and “Photography” are the same word repeated twice but in different ways because your audience might use either one when performing a search query.

8. Empty Image Alt Attribute

You should always describe your image in the alt attribute. The alt attribute is what describes your image to a blind web user. Guess what? Search engines can’t see images so your alt attribute is a factor in illustrating what your page is relevant for.

Hint: Properly describing your images can help your ranking in the image search results. For example, Google image search brings me hundreds of referrals everyday for the search terms "abstract" and "dj".

9. Unfriendly URLs

Most blog or CMS platforms have a friendly URL feature built-in, however, not every blogger is taking advantage of this. Friendly URL’s are good for both your human audience and the search engines. The URL is also an important spot where your keywords should appear.

Example of Friendly URL: domain.com/page-title
Example of Dynamic URL: domain.com/?p=12356

General SEO Do’s and Don’ts

Let me tell you WHAT TO DO by telling you WHAT NOT TO DO:

Don’t Ignore Your Audience

Write about topics your audience cares about. Like what? Find out, by conducting a poll (like I did), scan some relevant bulletin boards or forums, look for common topics in customer emails, or do some keyword research. There are great free keyword tools like the Google Keyword Tool or SEO Book’s Keyword Tool and loads more. The plan is not to spend your life doing keyword research but just to get a general idea of what your visitors are interested in.

Don’t Be Dense About Keyword Density

Keyword density

Once you have a topic for readers; help search engines find it. Keyword Density is the number of times a keyword appears in a page compared to the total number of words. You want to make sure your keywords are included in the crucial areas:

  • the Title Tag
  • the Page URL (friendly URL)
  • the Main Heading (H1 or H2)
  • the first paragraph of content.
  • at least 3 times in the body content (more or less depending on amount of content and if and only if it makes sense).

Most people aim for a keyword density of 2% (i.e. use the keyword 2 times for every 100 words). But what if your keyword phrase is “SEO for Web Designers and Web Developers” how many times can you repeat that before it sounds just plain unnatural? Write for your readers not for search engines. If you follow the tips in this article you’ll be writing naturally for your readers; which works for the search engines too.

Warning: Do not over fill your page with the same keywords or you might be penalized by search engines for keyword stuffing.

Don’t Ignore Relatives

In this article, it makes sense to mention topics like “keyword research”, “search engine crawlers” and “title tag use”, but what if I mentioned a highly trafficked term like “cell phone plans”… kind of out of context right? So use other keywords and topics that make sense to your audience, the search engine measures keyword relations to determine relevancy too.

  • Cars and Tires (yes)
  • Web Design and Flying Monkeys (no…well sometimes)

Don’t Be Afraid of Internal Linking

Do you want the search engine to see every page on your website? Help the search engine spider do its job. There should be a page (like a sitemap or blog archives) that links to all the pages on your site.

Tip: You can promote the more important pages by inserting text links within body content. Make sure you use relevant linking text and avoid using "click here" (as mentioned earlier).

Don’t Ignore Broken Links

404 not found error

You should always search for and fix the broken links on your site. If you've removed a page or section, you can use the robot.txt to prevent the spiders crawling and indexing the broken links. If you have moved a page or your entire website, you can use the 301 .htaccess to redirect to a new URL.

Tips: You can use the Google Webmaster Tool to find broken links and your 404 Not Found errors.

Don’t Be Inconsistent With Your Domain URL

To search engines, a www and a non-www URL are considered two different URLs. You should always keep your domain and URL structure consistent. If you start promoting your site without the "www", stick with it.

Don’t Be Scared of Semantic Coding

Semantic and standard coding not only can make your site cleaner, but it also allows the search engines to read your page better.

Search Result Position

Coding and setting up your site to be SEO friendly can improve how well a search engine can access your website, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll end up at the top of the search engine result page (SERP). There are many factors in determining the search result position, but here are the basics:

PageRank

PageRank

Some professional SEO’s pay attention to Google’s PageRank and some don’t. In my experience it doesn’t hurt to have a high Google PageRank. It’s a nice little benchmark to let you know how important Google sees your web page as. You can improve your PageRank by following the tips above and building-up quality backlinks. If you want to learn how PageRank works, Smashing Magazine has a very good article.

Domain Age Before Beauty

You might be surprised to learn that domain age is also a factor in the search engine algorithm. Older domains have a history, and their content is looked at as more credible than the website that got started last week. Older domains sometimes get the edge in search results.

Be Patient

You may have done every single thing right., but your site is still not showing up in the search engines for your target keywords. Why? Because everything takes time. It takes time for the search engines to index and rank your site (especially for new domains). So, be patient.

Another reason — it could be the keywords that you’re trying to target are very competitive. Try altering the keywords on the page and you may have different results. Remember, you are competing with millions of web pages on the internet.

Resources to Help You Go Farther

Google Webmaster Tools

Google Webmaster Tools

Google Webmaster Tools allow you check the crawl statistics of your site. If you haven't been using this great tool yet, login to the Google Webmaster Tools, then add and verify your site.

After you've verified your site, you can find out:

  • When was the last time Googlebot crawled your site
  • HTTP errors
  • 404 Not Found errors
  • External link counts
  • What keywords people are using to link to your site
  • What are the top search queries to your site
  • And more.

Free SEO Tools

Here are some online SEO tools that you can use to check your PageRank, Link Popularity, Search Engine Position, Keyword Density, etc.

SEO Resources

Here are some external links where you can learn more about SEO:

Final Remarks

Please note that I'm not a SEO expert (although I manage to get very high rankings on all my sites: N.Design Studio, Best Web Gallery, and Web Designer Wall). The tips I share in this SEO guide are based on self-taught knowledge and years of web design experience.

Good Luck.