Communicating Effectively with Your Web Developer

A rather stressful part of optimizing some sites can be working with a web developer who doesn’t understand the importance of search engine friendly design. Sometimes these developers can be frustrating or keep you from getting your work done right. This article contains a number of thing to keep in mind and to avoid when working in these situations.

Ideally, every web developer should have search engine optimization in the back of their minds while developing a web site. However, realistically, we know that this is usually not the case. This is evidenced by the number of websites all done in JavaScript, or in only images. As a search engine marketer, this makes me cringe. Every once in a while, however, I get a company that is developing a website at the same time that they want search engine optimization. Even in these cases, I can find I am missing some hair by the end of the day, because I’ve ripped it out in total frustration.

More and more, I try to be proactive, and work along side of the developer, instead of against the grain. So how do you, as an SEO, communicate effectively with the web developer? And how do you do this in such a way as to not butt heads with him or step on his toes every afternoon?

Teach him the basics of SEO.

You will have to have a meeting with the web developer. You may have to have several meetings with him, but the first meeting you should have is to clearly map out your goals and what your job as an SEO is, and simply ask him to work with you on it. Do not make it sound as if he will be doing extra work, but rather find out what he knows about search engine friendly web design, and what you might have to educate him on. Ask him his plans for the web design, and take notes. Once he has outlined the plan for the website, you might simply point out to him how a certain point or two will be difficult for search engines to find or index, and how you might have a different solution. You may want to ask him “permission” to work on a solution to this task, and get back with him.

First, let’s cover the basics of optimized web design that you could teach the web developer. The first step in website optimization is search engine friendly design. 

I could easily go into specifics and make this list many times longer than this, but to a web developer who doesn’t deal with search engine optimization every day, these are the basics that you should communicate to him clearly.

Here are 7 basics:

Text content

Since text is what is read by humans and search engine spiders alike, this is the most important thing you should have on your site. For a web developer who wants to develop, or has been told to develop, a site in all Flash or with nothing but images, it is important that you steer him the other direction. What you are attempting to do is to make him understand your perspective, and that a site can still look great while having text. Make sure that you have keywords and phrases planned ahead of time, and build your content around them.

Small images with alt tags

Every website has images. Let’s face it, the internet would be a boring place without them, not to mention that a picture is worth a thousand words, yadda yadda…Humans are visual animals. We are great at visualizing in our heads, but we prefer not having to do that. What we must do as SEO’s, when communicating with the web developer, is that even though people want to be visually stimulated (which, by the way, the developer understands perfectly), search engine spiders are not motivated by images whatsoever. That is why they need to utilize that “alt” tag. This tag will clue the spiders in on what the image is about.

We must not get carried away, however, and put a whole bunch of keywords into that “alt” tag. Some search engines disregard this tag altogether, due to unscrupulous webmasters that practice keyword stuffing, so images should never replace what good text content should be saying. Images should be kept to a size under 15KB. Yes, there are still those folks out there that use a 56.6K modem, and may not ever go with broadband.

Easy to read text

Avoid silly fonts that might look really great in your HTML editor, but are unreadable on the internet; also avoid busy backgrounds that obscure the text. If site visitors have to slow down to interpret your text, you’ve just lost an audience. Search engine spiders take note of the way text is laid out on a page.

Headline tags, bold text, and emphasized (or italic) text are important to readers and search engine robots alike. If your text is so small that people have a hard time reading it, you should also consider that the size of the font may bear some weight with search engines. Some spiders are programmed in such a way that 8 pixel fonts are seen as less important as 12 pixel fonts. Further, placement of text on a page is important as well. If your spiderable content is in the last one fourth of the page, there is a good chance that this will be regarded as not important content also.

Title tags

A site with no title tag is like a book with out a title. Even worse, a site with the same title tag for every page can be perceived as spam. Many times, a web designer will use a template page for all the pages in the site. They need to make sure they don’t forget to utilize it. Even a vague title tag can hurt a site: if a site doesn’t match a search engine query that a visitor makes, they will disregard the entire site; also, if someone bookmarks the site for later, and the title tag is vague, then they won’t remember why they bookmarked the site to begin with.

No broken links with clear anchor text

You should never give up the opportunity to use keywords and key phrases. If you want a visitor to view your page on how to make lemon meringue, then you should have a link anchor text that says, “View our easy to make, delicious lemon meringue recipe” instead of “Click here”.

You should check and double check for broken links. Many times, web developers are fast typists, and could be prone to typos. A simple solution to this is to proofread the site. Also make sure you understand the difference between permanent 301 redirects and temporary 302 redirects. Pages get moved or renamed all the time. If those links moved or renamed pages result in 404 errors, then they won’t get indexed, and the chances of your pages being completely crawled the next time are slightly smaller.

Easy site navigation

Every page on your site should have clear navigation, including a sitemap, so that visitors or search engine spiders don’t come to a brick wall, and then don’t know where to go. Chances are that if your visitors get lost in your site, then spiders will have a difficult time following the navigation pattern as well.

Meta keyword and description tags

Meta keyword tags should be handled carefully, and they should not be a substitute for your content. Don’t fill your tags with irrelevant keywords that have nothing to do with what your site is about, to try and capture some traffic. This is search engine spamming, and will likely not get your site indexed at all. Rather, choose your words carefully, and don’t over use them. In fact, using a word more than three times can be perceived as spam, too.

The information in the description tag can influence how search engines perceive your site. If I am searching for a lemon meringue recipe, and a result comes up with a description that said, “Come to our site. It’s great, and we like it very much,” it doesn’t tell me what I want to know, nor does it tell me if it’s what I’m really looking for. Chances are I will just go to the next one that says, “Yummy, easy to make tangy old fashioned lemon meringue pie recipes, just like grandma used to make! This recipe only takes 20 minutes to make. Plus, dozens of pie recipes for all occasions…”

Show him examples of what you are talking about.

Web developers are people too, and people are visually stimulated. Show him physical examples of what you’ve done in the past, or things he’s done previously that you thought was a good idea. You could even show him graphs and statistics. This might be a good way to let the web developer feel like he is a part of your project, just like he is a part of yours.

Be willing to compromise.

From time to time, you are going to run into some issues. Some of these issues may be caused because your client wants their website to look or behave in a certain manner, some of which just cannot be accomplished with simple HTML. However, some of these issues may be presented simply because the web developer is trained in a particular web language, or isn’t used to using massive amounts of text, or just won’t budge in an area that you are having a hard time getting him to see your way. You may have to compromise, and relent on a few points. You could take the opportunity to bargain for what you want, as well. You could say, “Ok, Jack. I’ll back down on my position of your using JavaScript mouse-overs for links, as long as you use a Cascading Style Sheet to help eliminate those font tags.” You may find you are both in a win-win situation.

Be prepared with a comparable design that is search engine friendly.

If you choose to challenge the web developer’s design, you should have another suggestion to substitute in its place. There is nothing worse to a web developer than to have his design attacked and torn apart, then leaving him to pick up the pieces and just sort it all out. If you show him a section of the design that search engines may be resistant to, be sure to give an alternative suggestion that he could use in its place.

Let him believe he thought of it first.

This is almost childish in its simplicity, but it often times works. You might make a comment or two about how it would be great if this feature could be incorporated, and let the web developer tell you it can, and how he plans to do it. By letting the developer believe he came up with the idea will allow you to steer the web developer toward search engine friendly design without his feeling manipulated or coerced.

Keep him in the loop.

SEO’s are used to having to give reports, and it’s a good habit to get into. Letting the web developer know what you are doing is a good way to make the web developer feel like he is really part of your work, and an important aspect of the project to you. Email him an outline of your project, and ask for his input on the time frame of the outline. Checking with him regularly to see if there were any concerns he had, is a good idea. You never know, he might even reciprocate!

Encourage him when he does something you agree with.

Sometimes, a web developer will catch on to the plan very quickly. When he does, give encouragement. Everyone likes to feel appreciated. It’s a simple thing to say, “I really appreciate how you added those alt tags to all the images on the product pages,” or “You really have a knack for content that’s full of relevant keywords.” A little goes a long way. This can also help you. By trying to find the positive things in your work, you will find that work is less stressful, and people are far more productive when they are less stressed and more positive.

Go over his head, if necessary, but be cautious.

No one likes a tattle-tale, but ultimately, you have a job to do, too. If the web developer is behaving in such a way as to make your job completely difficult, or is totally disregarding your advice on important aspects of the site, then more drastic action might be necessary. If you and the web developers work for separate companies, you might be able to appeal to your client, but do it in such a way as to not tear down the developer. He is there to do a job, as well. You should simply show your client how ways he is developing the website may conflict with the job you are being paid to do, and how it could mean more work for your client later on, or how the website design might affect their position in the search engine results pages.

Your client may feel if you are talking about the developer in a negative way, that you may talk about them that way as well. At best, it is unprofessional. Simply give your concerns to your client, and the possible consequences of you’re not being able to perform your job functions, such as poor performance in search engine results pages, and let your client handle it from there. Be ready to offer back up suggestions.

If you work for the same company as the web developer, then do not drag your client into the middle. Rather, go to your boss, and seek out a suggestion there; you may even be able to go to the web developer’s superior. Just remember, by doing such, you will probably not make any friends with the web developer.

Just remember, you are a professional SEO, so anyone one else not in the field may not be as enlightened as you are in the area of optimization and search engine friendly site design. But you don’t have to fret if the web developer does see things exactly from your perspective. As long as you stay on top of things, you should do just fine.

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