Web design versus SEO part 2 – does web design affect ranking?

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Web design versus SEO part 2 – does web design affect ranking?

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Put an SEO expert and web designer in the same room and they won’t necessarily fight, but they might push for different things. Web design affects rankings and the two disciplines should work together early in a project.

An SEO expert will view a website through the eyes of Google and Bing’s search bot (strange but true) and want a website setup to draw in traffic and rise up the rankings. Web designers will want to produce a website that they can be proud of with features and layout that are attractive.How Googlebot sees a web page

Despite the difference in emphasis, both will want the website to be associated with success. That means meeting client objectives of traffic, sales and other performance indicators. How that success is achieved is ultimately down to drawing on the best skills and knowledge of both disciplines.

There have been numerous studies into website features that affect rankings – so-called ranking factors. There are between 200 to 300 known factors some more important than others. Some are within your direct control (on-site), others you try to influence through cunning, tactics and strategy (off-site) . However here are the main rankings factors where there could be a conflict with web design. See our earlier post: Web design versus SEO part 1 – resolving the conflict

Website speed

It’s not the only ranking factor and we have seen slower sites rank above faster sites, but it’s something that search engines can measure and associate a fast loading website with quality. Here are some key issues:

  • Optimised images – Google does not know what your images look like but will read the Alt and Title tags and know if the image is too big to display quickly.
  • JS and CSS Code should be compressed and pre-load where possible.
  • Use good quality, fast and and reliable web hosting – Google will downgrade unreliable websites with poor uptime.
  • The use of large videos and audio files slows a page and must be justified – there will always be a hit on website speed and you need to judge whether it’s worth it.

There are other issues such as hosting type (shared, VPS or Dedicated) and operating systems that contribute to website speed. Your website visitors (particularly those using their monthly mobile data allowance) will appreciate your efforts to speed up the display of your web pages.

Technical SEO issues

Your web design needs to avoid using technology that cannot be easily read by search bots such as Flash, Frames, Java programs and Javascript menus.

If it does, then your website contents may not be indexed and the search bots cannot find their way around your website and index all the important content.

Your content management system should generate friendly URLs that reflect the contents of the page using keywords.

For example search engines find this type of URL easier to index:

www.example.com/services/

…than this URL which says nothing about the contents of the page:

www.example.com/s123/

Also your content management system should let you edit the important page tags such as the title tag and meta descriptions, alt and title text for images.

These are some of the technical issues that may require compromises between SEO requirements and web design that can influence ranking.

How web design affects ranking

Text and images

The search bots read the text on a web page and ignore layouts, fonts etc. Extreme layouts of text such as very small font sizes and line spacing can be interpreted as typical of spam sites and lead to your site being downgraded.

Low contrast between the font colour and background can also recall the bad old days of black hat SEO when unscrupulous web designers would pack invisible keywords into a page to trick search engines. This is not only unethical, but doesn’t create a good user experience if text is hard to read.

Responsive web designResponsive web design

It’s obvious but websites should have a responsive web design which means the website displays and works properly with all Internet connected devices: desktop PCs, laptops, tablets and mobiles.

This places limitations on the web design. The branding, colour scheme and other features must look part of the same family, whether you are viewing the desktop or smartphone version of the same website.

Some graphics, backgrounds and images may be stripped out for the mobile version of a website, leaving only a logo, matching colour scheme and text content. Buttons and other interactions will also have to change in a mobile or tablet version of a website as they will be touched rather than clicked on with a more precise mouse click.

User experience and content quality

Google places a lot of emphasis on a site providing a positive user experience. Generally it doesn’t survey users but it does use some key performance indicators to judge whether a website is delivering a good user experience:

  • Bounce rate – this is the percentage of users that leave your website immediately after arriving. Officially it is calculated single-page sessions divided by all sessions, or the percentage of all sessions on your site in which users viewed only a single page and triggered only a single request to the Analytics server.
  • Pages per session – the average number of pages viewed during a session on your website. More pages per session means that users are more engaged and exploring more of your site.
  • Average session duration – the average time spent on the site by a user per session.

Google judges user experience by noting this data for your website and using it as one of the factors that influence ranking.

A very high bounce rate (95% and above) means that very view people are staying on the website and engaging further. That is normally a sign of poor user experience or irrelevance to the search link or other channel that lead to the visit.

While it could sometimes be argued that a single page visit means that the user got what they needed from the page, this value to the user is corroborated by other indicators such as time spent on site etc.

See this link for what constitutes quality content: What is quality content?

Having useful, interesting and link-worthy content is one important issue, but there are elements of web design that can either enhance or lessen the overall user experience.

The layout, fonts, images plus what are called on-page micro-interactions are areas where SEO experts and web designers need to work together.  Both must recognise that the website’s success depends on the ability of its pages to engage and retain users which has a direct influence on the ranking.

Although it’s subjective, web design affects ranking.  SEO and web designers needn’t clash, but should work together more closely for the ultimate success of a project.

Further reading

Everything you need to know about web design and SEO

Google’s quality guidelines

How Google sees your website

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