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.”
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!
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.