Web design, development and creative agencies will usually shy away from offering Search Engine Optimization (SEO) as a service. And for good reason, it’s a messy trade plagued with snake oil salesman selling over-hyped talismans. It can be difficult for an agency to even know where to start when helping out their clients with SEO. At Pelago we don’t offer SEO as one of our services, mostly because it’s difficult to manage expectations. We do, however, inform our clients that the sites we design and develop will perform well organically on Google because we implement many SEO-friendly practices. And our clients are usually overwhelmed with their results. Needless to say, we’ve learned a few things about SEO along the way. Mostly, we’ve learned that it isn’t that difficult.
When you break it down to its basic elements, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is three parts common sense and one part voodoo. The good news is that the practical common sense approach will accomplish 90% of your client’s organic SEO needs. Here are some basic tips on what your web design, development or creative agency can be doing to design and develop more search-friendly web sites, as well as some tips you can pass along to your clients on how to keep the organic SEO goodness going.
Don’t be lazy
Perhaps the most important factor in developing any web site is to be thorough and consistent with the HTML code. This means using semantic markup — even if it means having to go back to your CSS document and adding a style for it — throughout the site and always fill in the alt and title parameters with useful information. In addition, make sure your page titles are unique to each page and that the meta keywords and descriptions are, too. When we get lazy we start leaving these items blank, or we fill them with lazy, spur-of-the-moment words, or we just copy and paste irrelevant content. Try to think like your client and put something useful in these SEO-rich areas of the site. Even if deadlines are looming or you don’t quite get what your client’s business is all about, take the time to figure out what content would further improve your client’s online presence. When we get lazy, we focus only on what we know the client is going to see. Search engines, however, see a lot more than the client and their audience.
Start with SEO-worthy content
Designing and developing a good web site can become a difficult and morale-killing task if the copy isn’t any good. Not only will bad copy detract from the readability of the web site, it will hurt your client’s SEO efforts. When advising a client to write better content for their web site be sure to give them some basic SEO tips. We usually advise our clients to come up with a list of specific keywords that they want to show up for in Google. Then we ask them to write content and sprinkle those keywords throughout their writing. But most importantly they need to be honest and genuine, writing first to provide their readers with useful content and second to be search engine friendly. It’s pretty easy to tell when a web site has reversed these two priorities because you won’t make it through the first paragraph. I am convinced that Google’s mystical algorithm is able to identify copy that is honest and genuine and reward it higher search rankings.
Keep on keepin’ on
High ranking organic search results can not be gained overnight, nor in a week, nor in a few months for that matter. It may take at least a year to see any return on your web site development investment. In that meantime it helps if the client is continually generating content and adding it to the web site. This can be in the form of a blog or a content management system installed on the web site. Persistence and patience will pay off in the long run. Google seems to have figured this one out, too. They will reward a client’s web site if it sees the site has history and relevance. Establishing site relevance in the online realm is not a fly-by-night operation. It requires a long-term commitment. Nurturing and growing web site content over time is one of the most powerful tools for increasing a web site’s search engine ranking.
Dabble in voodoo
Like I said above, a well designed and developed web site will naturally rank high with search engines. But what about that other 10%? What about the voodoo being touted by SEO experts to get you on page one? We’ve dabbled in enough voodoo to tell you that some of it works and some of it doesn’t, and we’ve had a lot of success getting on page one of Google without resorting to voodoo. The general rule of thumb is that if it feels wrong, it probably is and Google will penalize you for it. For example, trying to hide keywords in the background and stealing meta tags from other sites are tactics that just aren’t ethical and misrepresent what your web site is actually about. The goal here isn’t to trick the search engines, it’s to lead them. We’ve worked with SEO experts in the past and have tried all of their tricks and the ones that always worked best were the ones that didn’t require us to compromise the integrity of the web site structure or its content. Google is only getting smarter and more able to distinguish a quality web site from one generated at an SEO farm.
Optimizing a web site to score well with search engines requires a lot of time and effort. It’s not like the latest diet fad or get-rich-quick scheme that promises results in only days. To the contrary, it takes months, even years, of updating and tweaking a web site for it to do well on search engines. The fact that more and more businesses are dumping money into pay-per-click ads on Google only reinforces how important time is as a factor in the whole search engine equation. They are paying top dollar for sponsored links on page one because it’s a cheaper investment than getting on page one organically. As web designers, developers and creatives, we have the opportunity to be at ground zero when designing and developing a web site, and to build a solid organic foundation from which our client’s SEO efforts can be far more easily obtained.