Search Engine Optimization

posted by Manda 12 Comments

So, what can you do, as a designer, to make sure that your site (or your client’s site) ranks well on the big search engines?

1. Content: give them something to read

As designers, we oftentimes do our best to avoid designing with a lot of text. We all gravitate toward more image-heavy design (and who can blame us). But, in the end, if there is nothing to read, you’re not giving the search engines much to work with. When they stop by to index your site, you want there to be some content for them to look at. How will they know what your company, website, or online store is about if you don’t provide any information? You can’t expect your website to pop up on Google when a user types in “Custom T-Shirts” if you haven’t used the phrase “Custom T-Shirts” within the text of your website.

2. Content: give them something GOOD to read

You should be thoughtful about the words you use within the content of your site. You’ll want to use words that people are likely to use when searching for your type of company, product, service, etc. If I am a graphic designer, I might want to make sure that I am using the phrase “graphic design” in my text, as well as words like “brochure design,” “logo design,” and “web design.”

You can also make these key words stand out by making them bold or italic, putting them in your headlines, keeping them near the top of the page, and putting them in bulleted lists.

3. Content: give them something they CAN read

As designers, we tend to be perfectionists. And, as all of you who have worked with websites know, the web is no place for perfectionism. Every browser displays differently, every monitor displays differently, and user settings vary greatly. Manytimes, this leads us down very dangerous roads — at least when it comes to search engines.

At the top of the list is images as text. We may want to use an unusual font, or make sure that the kerning is just right, so we create an image instead of using actual text. We designers have been known to use images for headlines, navigation bar text, and even large blocks of body copy. In the end, your site may be beautiful, and it may look perfect in every browser, but the search engines can’t read any of it. Unless your text is actual text, the search engines don’t see it. As hard as it may be, try to avoid using images as text.

Another culprit is Flash. I love Flash as much as any of you. It’s fun, it’s interactive, and it’s easy to design something that looks consistently fabulous. The problem with Flash is that — even though the situation is constantly improving — for the most part, search engines have a hard time reading Flash sites. If you truly want to move to the top of the results pages, try to use Flash only on specialty sites — like your own portfolio — where the ah-factor will be worth the dropped search engine placement.

4. Think about your links

Search engines also look at links. Most of us seem to do one of two things: either we create links that are images (unreadable by search engines) or we put a “click here” at the end of a sentence. “To find out more, click here.” To make your links search engine friendly, you’ll want them to be real text and you’ll want to include key words within the link. For example, “Click here to learn more about Petals Bath and Body Wash.”

We also tend to use either images or complex JavaScript for our main navigation (menu bar). It is important that search engines can read your navigation links, and use them to move from page to page. If you do have a site that uses Flash, images, or JavaScript for the main navigation, you should also include text-only navigation links along the bottom of your page so that search engines can read and use them.

5. Incoming Links

The best way to move up on the search engine results is to have links to your site coming from outside sites. This is not easy, and there are some big guys out there that you will never be able to compete with. For example, if you type “Graphic Design” into Google,  you’ll have to click all the way to page four of the results list to get to an individual designer. Before that, there are many other large-scale sites such as Wikepedia, government sites, and magazine sites. Those types of sites will always win because they are full of content (useful content) and many people are linking to them. But, the more people that you can get to link to your site, the better.

How do you get people to link to your site? There are many ways including asking (friends, family, clients, co-workers, business partners, etc.), making reciprocal link requests (offer to link to a site if they will link back to you), placing your link (appropriately) in discussion forums and blog comments and advertising. Get out there and promote as much as you can.

In the end though, the thing that will bring in the links is creating a useful website that people want to share with others. Provide information that people care about, and update that information so that people want to come back. Make your site user-friendly, content-rich, and easy on the eyes, and the links will come flying in!

Now What?

So is there anything else you can do to boost your search engine ranking? Yes!! There are many things — too many for a blog, but just enough for a 400-page book. There are many SEO resources out there, but I have come across one book that I think does a great job of covering it all, and making it easy to understand. If you want to learn more about Search Engine Optimization for your site, or for your clients’ sites, I highly recommend Search Engine Optimization for Dummies by Peter Kent. Don’t knock it because it’s a dummy book — it’s an excellent reference and a must-have for any web designer.

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Chris February 24, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Hey Manda!

Here’s a blog post by David Shea that directly relates to point #3. You can actually use images to replace text if done correctly via CSS. The good thing about the Shea approach (for those who don’t click the link) is that even with images disabled, the end user will still be able to get the information they need.

I wouldn’t use this technique for paragraphs of information (I don’t think anyone recommends that), but for headers this a great way to use CSS and still have the site spider readable.

Manda February 24, 2009 at 4:51 pm

This is fabulous, Chris, thanks! It looks like in this case, the designer is setting up the links as CSS/HTML, and the images are background images? That is a FANTASTIC work-around for those looking for the appearance of image links, but the usability of text links.

Am I reading that right?

I believe that links that are completely images (even the text is part of the image) are still frowned upon as they are difficult for search engines to follow.

Or, does the Shea method work for full image links as well?

Kate February 24, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Great info. We just recently switched our WordPress blog over to using words in the URLs instead of just numbers… so like the URL would be instead of being

I think this could really start helping our blog pop up more in searches. Love your site design also.


Manda February 25, 2009 at 9:48 am

You’re absolutely right, Kate. That’s an excellent tip! Thanks so much!!

Andy A. February 25, 2009 at 10:29 am

This post was a good read. Kudos!
it’s def. something thats often overlooked!

(Arctic Fox)

Manda February 25, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Thanks Andy!

Chris February 25, 2009 at 2:22 pm


Hey Manda,

The Shea replacement method will work for links as well. Instead of Text Here tags you would use the Link here. It’s all based on using absolute positioning to place the image over the text.

Chris February 25, 2009 at 2:24 pm

I see my code tags didn’t work :(

Text here should be “h1” tags and link here should be “a” tags.


Chris February 25, 2009 at 2:42 pm

here’s an example page I did with the CSS commented out.
Shea Example

This is more useful for header tags, as an image as a link will still have the “a” tags wrapped around it so google will be able to follow it.

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