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Designing Search Engine Friendly Web Sites

"Search Engine Friendly Design"
by Karl Ribas

Search engine consultants and website designers are often called in at different times to work on a website development project. Rarely do the two ever work together, which is very unfortunate. With this being the case, many search engine marketing consultants have seen their client's rankings plummet without hope after a website redesign. Vise versa, many designers have seen their exceptionally created and beautiful website designs destroyed by an SEO-focused optimization. This does not have to happen!

The ongoing argument between search engine optimizers and website designers has always been focused around one simple question… who serves the greater purpose? The search engine optimizer will argue: what good are great looking, flash-enabled, and graphic-heavy websites if no one will ever find and appreciate them. The website designer will counter with: what good are websites capable of attracting 1,000 new visitors a week if not one visitor sticks around long enough to convert. The fact is that the search engine optimizer and the website designer are both correct and are both equally important in the website development process.

The process is simple. When an Internet searcher enters a keyword or key-phrase into Google, Yahoo!, or any other search engine, they demand that the search engine provide them with adequate and relevant results. That same Internet searcher, when entering a website, expects certain website characteristics, such as a design and layout that best represents the products or services it provides, an easy-to-use and understandable navigation, and a complete fully functionally website. Nothing less should be expected. So, if both are equally important than where does that leave us… with something I like to call “Search Engine Friendly Design.”

A search engine friendly design is nothing more than a well-balanced combination of both, search engine optimization and professional website design. In addition, a search-engine friendly website should also be in tune to the average visitor. It is very important that every page of the website be designed and written with its visitor's best interest in mind. Let’s face it, if you’re not appealing to your website's average user, than all efforts, including design and promotion, are lost.

A savvy designer, one who knows what search engines are looking for, can design websites without compromising their appearance and usability. Here are a few examples of how:

Text vs. Images - Its common knowledge within the search engine marketing community that search engines are blind to layout and pictures. Often website designers, trying to add creative elements to their website, will implement large graphics and flash files, not realizing that their actions may actually be inhibiting the website's promotion.

Seeing as search engines will most likely be the primary source of any website's traffic, I would highly suggest adding a search engine marketing consultant to your development team, especially during the beginning stages of your website design. As a good search engine marketing consultant already knows, it is very important to develop and maintain a website that has plenty of content, enriched with relevant keywords.

Navigation Menus - Website navigation schemes, such as JavaScript drop-down menus or Flash banners, can really help to create a unique and visually pleasing website design that is sure to help it stand-out amongst all other websites. Unfortunately, these same creative elements also make it extremely difficult, and in some instances impossible, for search engines to properly crawl the website, therefore limiting the website's search engine exposure.

There are, of course, solutions to this that will appease both the website designer and search engine optimizer. As a suggestion, consider using standard rollovers and/or CSS formatting to develop a graphically pleasing navigation menu. Unlike most JavaScript menus, neither standard rollovers nor CSS will "hide" your website's links, allowing search engines to freely crawl and index your websites pages.

If a JavaScript navigation menu is truly needed to attain the desired look and feel of your website, than consider adding text-based links elsewhere on your website's pages, such as the bottom. Bottom navigation schemes consisting of text-based links are becoming very common now-a-days, as they ultimately provide your website's visitors, and search engines, with another source for navigating. Another suggestion would be to develop and allow access to a sitemap containing all of your website's pages.

Flash vs. HTML - Flash is a pain in the sides of all SEO consultants... but it doesn't have to be. It is possible to mix Flash with HTML to create a search engine friendly website that still allows for a rich media experience.

My suggestion for when developing a website using Flash is to create separate pages, those in Flash and the others in HTML. Not only will you be giving your website's visitors a choice of which version he or she would like to view (which most will appreciate), but you will also be giving your website the chance to be indexed and ranked through your HTML versions. A very good compromise if you ask me.

Dynamic Websites - Depending on how your particular system is configured and how your website's dynamic pages are created, the use of dynamic websites can either be a great thing or a very terrible thing. Because dynamic web pages are data-based driven and are created on the fly, they are usually assigned URLs containing very large and strange looking parameters. These parameters, amongst other reasons, are needed in order to sort products and generate a central navigation for your website's visitors. At the same time, these parameters make it very difficult for many search engines to crawl, follow, or index your website's pages.

My suggestion to this problem is to consult with your development team, and your search engine marketing consultant, and have them consider developing your content management system using either ASP (Active Server Pages) or CFM (Cold Fusion). Either one of these "dynamic scripting languages" has the possibility of converting the URL's query string from "?" (which will usually stop a search engine from indexing the page) into "/". This process, and a few others, maybe all that is needed in order to give your dynamically driven web pages the opportunity to be indexed.

In my experience, designers who understand these and other common search engine friendly design issues are perfectly capable of designing around them, without sacrificing their design or future search engine rankings. As long as the designer and search engine optimizer come together in the very beginning, as opposed to after the website has been created, than finding a compromising solution to each of their needs should not be a problem.

About the Author
Karl Ribas provides up-to-date, valuable, and effective search engine marketing consulting to a wide range of small, medium, and large-size businesses. Besides being the owner and operator of his website, Karl, Karl is also the Project Manager at All Web Promotion, an industry-leading search engine marketing firm.

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