Top design missteps that will kill your website's SEO

Head of SEO and development at Barracuda Digital Luis Navarrete explains how you can save your site's SEO by following these basic guidelines.

Designing a website is a complex task. There are a multitude of elements to consider; usability, brand guidelines, user experience and good old-fashioned styling, to name a few. For designers and developers, sometimes, in the attempt to apply the latest and greatest technologies to a new website, it can be easy to forget the implications some of these techniques will have on a site's search rankings.

Analysing sites from an SEO perspective, we usually see the same problems cropping time after time. These missteps during the design phase can often be easily avoided by following some basic guidelines. Outlined below are the most common issues we come across with a few tips that, from a technical perspective, should help solve, or at the very least, minimise their impact.

01. Don't utilise old-fashion website building techniques

Today, it's rare to see websites made ​​entirely in Flash or using Frames to make up the layout of a webpage. However, it is relatively common to see websites adopt these techniques to show some content especially when a designer wants to use animations or other visuals to explain complex concepts.

HTML5 combined with JavaScript can, in most cases, do exactly the same thing and is more search engine friendly. Try to use the best practices recommended by the WWC and make sure that all content is visible to search engines crawlers.

02. Keep your content in AJAX

AJAX is amazing. It's a great technique to improve user experience and reduce page load times since you ask the server only to provide the information required without having to reload the entire page. However, it's worth being careful about how this technique is implemented in order to prevent certain content been hidden from search engine's view.

Google's official position on AJAX is that they are able to process Javascript and AJAX and they are certainly getting better at this, the reality is however, that at this point, nobody knows for sure how Google can process this type of functionality. Therefore, it's advisable to try and use AJAX only when there is a good reason from a user experience point of view.

A good way to see how Google interprets a website is by using the 'Fetch as Google' tool in Google Webmaster Tools. Check the source code and make sure the text you want Google to read is present on your site. Use the 'pushState' method to create different URLs so Google can crawl all the different versions of the page that AJAX scripts are creating.

03. Do not push your main content below the fold

Another common problem found, especially on websites with advertising as their only revenue stream, is having too many ads or images above the fold. This may work well to get more clicks on your ads but can have a highly negative impact on user experience.

Google has officially acknowledged that displaying the main content of a page below the fold can hurt your SEO. Therefore it's wise try to ensure content is as easily accessible as possible without having to use the scroll bar to access it.

04. Pages too heavy due to an excess of images

We all accept that images and graphics are an essential element in any web project. This is more relevant than ever as current technology allows almost endless possibilities when it comes to graphics.

Excessive use of images or visual elements within a website can render pages too 'heavy' and therefore slow load times to a crawl. One of the best ways to prevent, or at least minimize these problems is to use Google page speed insights, a useful tool that Google has developed to help webmasters to optimize load times of your web pages. If load times are lagging, it's worth considering the density of visuals.

There are also plenty of tools available to optimize images for the web including Photoshop optimization and - created by Yahoo - which offer lossless compression, removing unnecessary bytes from image files.

05. Keep an eye on your internal link structure

The way you link your website internally has a significant impact on how your website ranks. The link equity that a page has is distributed among its links, so a good navigation structure helps search engines to understand which pages of your websites are more important and therefore more likely to warrant good rankings.

The key is to try and maintain a balance between accommodating the links you need and distributing link equity to your main pages. As an example, splash pages or home pages which are mostly made up of graphics may lack the necessary links in order to transfer that link equity to other subpages.

Try to design a clear navigation for your users and avoid putting unnecessary links whenever possible to try to direct all your SEO value to the pages you want to promote on your website.

06. Think responsive. Act responsive

Wherever possible, website should be made responsive to the devices that are accessing them. There are several benefits from an SEO point of view for this practice; Google understands the structure of a mobile website (since it is the same as the desktop version) and the user experience is very similar to the experience you can have on a desktop device. Also, by keeping the same URL, all accumulated link equity will maximize the chances that the website will achieve favourable rankings.

07. And finally...

Do not forget to check the most fundamental elements of SEO: Make sure your site is crawl-able (Screaming Frog is an excellent tool for that purpose), do not use images to represent text, check that your titles, descriptions and headers are readable, useful and contain the keywords for which you want to optimize your website.

Many of the most common recommendations SEO agencies will have for websites will be around these simpler issues having not been properly addressed. For a client, to have a designer consider these elements and create a website properly aligned with SEO best practice, can undoubtedly Present significant added value when they come to start writing cheques for their online visibility.

Luis Navarrete is head of SEO & software development with London-based digital marketing agency Barracuda Digital. He has over eight years experience in the SEO industry, with cross-functional expertise in business and online marketing strategy.

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