The changing world of web design
The worlds of web design and online marketing are both notable for their constant flux and volatility. They are not professions that one can simply relax into, rather dedicated members of each must continually reinvent themselves according to the latest trends and changes to the likes of Google and their algorithms. Of course there is also the growing need for a strong symbiotic relationship between the two professions. Designers, as the title suggests are paid to design and if they are not aware of the required parameters then they are unlikely to tick all the boxes that the online marketer might consider vital. By the same token, the web designer can come up with things on the design side that the marketing team might not even know are possible and so you can see the need for great communication between the two teams.
Web design as an industry is 25 years old as this article is being written, with the first published website by Tim Berners-Lee in 1991. Since those early text-based sites a vast amount has changed. While the date only goes to 2010, 2016 remains the year of the mobile web in terms of design relevance and the trend looks set to continue for some time yet.
The rest of this article will look at 10 rather more specific web design mistakes that can hurt the SEO status of your small business, but in these opening paragraphs I hope there has been enough emphasis on how complacency and comfort can be the great mistake of anyone involved in this industry.
1 - Going minimal for design’s sake
Because of the background that many web designers come from they have it ingrained in their subconscious memory that ‘less is more’ and are often infatuated with keeping things very simple, sparse and airy. Since rising up in the late ‘50s, minimalism has more or less turned into the design ideal. Much of the time, we can make improvements to any given design by simplifying it: that is taken as a basic design rule. Unfortunately, search engines love nothing more than content and it would be wise to make this very clear to your web design team if you’re reading this as a small business owner. Perhaps you could quote the wise words of the immortal Jedi Master Yoda: “You must unlearn what you have learned.” In addition to the fact that search engines give more credence to websites packed with (interesting and relevant) content, there is also the simple truth that many websites are not suited to a minimal design. You need to bear in mind who the end user is and what they are looking for.
The word ‘cluttered’ has garnered a nasty reputation as a pejorative term and with a lot of merit, but the assumption has become that websites rich in content are ‘cluttered’ because they are not strictly minimal. Of course this is a misnomer as the ‘cluttered’ tag relates to (or at least should relate to) design not content. A design that is cluttered leaves little room for free or white space. Typography is not clean and simple or uniform enough, organization is poor and content is excessive and poorly spaced, not rich. In other words, the ideal from an SEO perspective is a content rich website that doesn’t feel or appear cluttered.
2 - Not paying enough attention to structure and implementing 301 Redirects
The importance of the structure of a website cannot be underplayed. Over time as page names are changed and locations shift, previously high ranked pages will become lost in the ether unless due care is taken to inform search engines of the moving of any pages using 301 redirects.
What is a 301 redirect, you might ask?
In quick, easy layman’s terms, a 301 redirect is a permanent redirect from one URL to another. A 302 redirect is merely a temporary redirect.
What makes 301 redirects so vital for SEO?
Think of a 301 redirect as a high-tech spring clean of your website with added benefits. It is absolutely crucial in the fight for SEO optimization as, if implemented properly 301 redirects will enable you to maintain your hard-fought search engines after URL transitions occur.
Search engines are easily confused and the existence of duplicate pages and content can send them into meltdown as can changes in URLs. If you can imagine a scenario in which a lot of websites were linking to your ‘landing’ page (www.whatever.com/landingpage) and a lot of other sites were linking to your ‘about’ page (www.whatever.com/about), this confusing scenario will cause chaos in the search engine world. That’s where a 301 redirect can come in to tell search engines to redirect all traffic to your high ranking page of choice. In the words of Moz.com, “A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect which passes between 90-99% of link juice (ranking power) to the redirected page.”
What are the ramifications of failing to implement 301 redirects for SEO?
If inadequate time and effort is spent on 301 redirects and website structure clean-ups then as a small business you are asking for trouble not only from an SEO perspective but also with regards to your user experience and ultimately reputation. If search engines are confused, then the users of search engines (your leads and clients) are going to experience this confusion through misinformation and clunky experience. Let’s take the dramatic example of your website being previously Google indexed and then you create a new site, forgetting those 301 redirects. Your old site will still rank in Google’s results and if the link is clicked, the dreaded ‘page not found’ or ‘404 error’ will result, massively impacting on your SEO and reputation. Traffic will grind to a halt and your rankings will be destroyed.
- Not optimizing a website for mobile use
If this article listed design errors in order of importance then this would arguably be cardinal sin number 1. In the 2010s there is nothing more crucial to the SEO health of a website than its ability to handle mobile browsing. So obvious is this that it would be a crime of serial killer proportions should it not be at the forefront of the mind of any given website designer, so we won’t spend too much time on this.
4. Failing to address on-page SEO
Ensuring that all of the pages on a website are optimized for search engines might sound simple and obvious, but it’s amazing how many web designers cut corners or forget to tick all the boxes. On-Page SEO refers to all the things that you can do on the pages of your website to help you rank higher, from page titles to internal linking, meta tags and descriptions.
Of all the key components for good on-page SEO, meta tags optimization is, perhaps, the one most designers are guilty of misusing. Many people forget to add meta descriptions for the pages of their site. These descriptions are vital for the insertion of relevant keywords for your specific content, because they are reflected in the search results after your page becomes live. As an example, if we are writing a page with a review of the latest Iron Maiden album titled ‘Iron Maiden – Book of Souls album review!’ Then, we might say “New album Book of Souls is a return to form of New Wave of British Heavy Metal legends Iron Maiden.” It is snappy, to the point and contains a good amount of specific and relevant keywords.
5. If it’s not broke…
One very big mistake is to tamper with a website that is doing really well – perhaps by giving it a design overhaul with the intention of boosting sales from your e-commerce website or lead generation from your service provider website. Unfortunately, this is often reflected in a major increase in the bounce rate of a site unless careful planning is undertaken. In case the term is new to you, the ‘bounce rate’ refers to the percentage of visitors to a particular website who navigate away from the site after viewing only one page. This is another reason why it is vital that great communication exists between the web designer and the person in charge of SEO. Of course, if a newly designed website makes marked improvements on its predecessor then you may well see a reduced bounce rate result.
6. Failing to ensure the ‘robots.txt’ file is correct
The robots.txt file is a simple text file that is put onto your web server to tell web crawlers like Googlebot if they can access a file or not. Unfortunately, failure to use this text file in the proper manner can severely impact upon your ranking. It is all too easy to use the wrong syntax in a robots.txt file and the results can reflect in a monumental nosedive in your site’s rankings almost overnight. Essentially, when poorly used, you can end up with a robots.txt file that prohibits Google’s bot from visiting some of your key web pages. These pages will then be missed out when it comes to Google’s rankings. It can be quite tough to correct as well, making it all the more important to make sure the file is used in the proper manner.
7. Failing to achieve an appropriate page speed
If you’ve ever sat there waiting for a site to load then you know how annoying it can be. It can be a major cause of a high bounce rate, as well as a massive boulder in the road to a high ranking in Google’s results. In fact, page load speed can be seen as one of the most important as well as the most overlooked factors involved in conversion optimisation and SEO. Use of speed test tools is highly advisable in order to check that your website is as fast as it could be. How fast a page is can be dependent on a multitude of factors, from the smoothness of your site’s design to your server hardware and data connection. Here we will focus on design.
There are three key tips that can address problems arising from poor website design when it comes to page speed issues. It is vital that the web designer:
A): Ensures that images and videos are as compact as they can be without causing a reduction in quality. Clever and appropriate attribution of PNG, JPEG and GIF formats can vastly reduce the space taken up by images on your site.
C:) Ensures that on sites hosted on WordPress there are no cumbersome, unnecessary plugins installed. Such plugins as well as external scripts can results in a massive reduction in page load speed.
8. Navigational woes
There are legions of sites that have been designed horrendously from an aesthetic point of view, which could in itself have made the top ten, but far more damaging is the fact that many of these inferior sites suffer from navigation issues. Menus are obscured by a hotchpotch of images and advertisements.
Clashes in fonts result in key headings and navigational clues becoming lost in a sea of poor taste. Content merges into content and advertisements and nobody has a clue where they are supposed to click. We’ve all come across sites like this and most of us likely contribute to the high bounce rate from which such sites are likely to suffer. In extreme examples when you eventually click to advance to the page you’re looking for it might not have a menu allowing you to navigate on from there, resulting in the massive ‘no no’ that is having to press back to return to the homepage just to advance.
It is vital that web designers take advantage of the plethora of information and tools available to ensure that navigation is simple and user friendly as it is one of the most important factors in reduction of high bounce rates as well as improved SEO. It is imperative that your site is designed in a way that makes navigation smooth and seamless so that users are not jumping ship in frustration. It's becoming increasingly popular for websites to hide their navigation off-screen, only revealing a menu when users interact with an element. Whether the interaction with such menus is a hover or a click it is brilliant for improving navigation without cluttering up the site boosting consistency and usability and reducing bounce rate over time.
A great recent example of a revitalized website design benefiting from such menus is the Guardian, in whose page most of the navigable content has been hidden behind a ‘hamburger’ menu (click on ‘browse all sections’) that always remains accessible.
9. Hiding contact information (really!)
In footballing jargon, failing to situate vital contact information in a prominent location can only be termed a ‘schoolboy error.’ Despite the sheer obviousness of ensuring that contact information is given pride of place on any website, many sites fail at this simplest of design hurdles. Google ranking takes the inclusion of contact information into account under the banner of ‘trust optimization’ and so ensuring it is there has benefits over and above the obvious. The inclusion of an address, telephone and email information across both your website and social media platforms is a very decent indicator for SEO. You are essentially giving Google the information they need to trust that you are a bona fide business run by actual people. There are sites out there who try to take the money of customers without having any contact details and this is a massive red flag for Google. Your website should have easy to find contact details on each page of your site as standard.
10. Failing to optimize images for search engine spiders
While we have touched on the importance of the robot.txt file we haven’t mentioned the other side of the coin, in that the spiders sent by Google and other search engines will look through your content to validate all facets of it. Googlebot, Google’s principal crawler or spider is unable to spot images or text embedded images. So, if images are not optimized for search engines then your rankings can be affected. It is absolutely imperative that each image added onto your site have ALT text, as this ensures that the spiders can understand the images and provide accurate SEO information for Google image searches, which are increasingly important for all businesses.
In conclusion, we have shone some light on some of the more common design errors still occurring today on many websites that hinder positive SEO results and through many of these examples we have highlighted the huge importance of designers, developers and SEO teams working together as a close knit unit so that their labour yields a result that is admired by both users and search engines alike.