The Subtle SEO Aspects of Site Design

So your website isn’t performing as well as it used to or as well as you hoped it would. You think the SEO might be to blame. So you ask for a review on an SEO forum and you’re told that your site looks horrible and needs a complete redesign. But that’s not an SEO issue! Or is it?

I’ve covered the question of whether you should choose a plain or fancy website design recently. This issue, however, is a bit more subtle. A site can look horrible for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with whether it includes flashing features or a confusing layout. Maybe its dated design turns off visitors, or it looks too amateurish to be taken seriously as a professional website.

Which brings me to the first thing you should consider when designing your professional website: what does a professional website look like in your field? If you sell bait and tackle, for example, your website will not look the same as one that sells photography equipment; for good or ill, visitors will probably hold the latter site to a higher standard of appearance, simply because photography is an inherently visual field. You can also expect that the website for a company selling a service will look different from one selling a product.

“Why should I make my website look like all the other professional websites in my field? I want to stand out!” If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s a good sentiment, but it’s NOT an excuse for sloppy or unprofessional design. Visitors following links to your website carry certain expectations as to what a professional website looks like. They may not be able to articulate them, but when they see your site, they know right away if you meet their expectations, or look like an amateur or hobby site. If they see what they take to be a hobby site, they’re going to hit the bounce button so fast that your head will spin.

A bad site design that causes visitors to bounce creates issues in several ways. First, of course, a visitor that bounces won’t convert. Second, Google can tell when visitors click through to your website and then click back; if they do that a lot, the search engine will assume that you don’t provide a good answer to that particular query, and lower your site in the rankings. Third, if your website looks unprofessional, other webmasters will not want to link to you, because such a link will reflect badly on THEM with THEIR visitors. Since we know links still play a major role in Google’s ranking algorithm, your website’s design can lead to it not ranking as well as it truly deserves.

Now do you begin to see the more subtle SEO implications of your website’s design? As one of our SEO Chat forum members recently observed, “web design is SEO because it affects user behavior and Google can see it.” Sadly, this may mean that you need to rethink your entire layout and site design; it might not be a simple change or a minor fix like adjusting your font or the colors you use.

If you haven’t redesigned your website in a long time – and I’ve seen some sites that haven’t been redesigned since the 1990s! – you might want to look at your competitors’ websites, or sites in a field related to yours, for some ideas. Think about how these sites present their content, lay out their links, and offer visual appeal to their visitors. What does their design accomplish that yours does not? What would you like to achieve with your website’s design? “Conversions” may be the obvious answer, but think about what a visitor to your website needs to see to convert. That’s going to be different for every field.

You may find yourself tempted to copy your competitors. Don’t copy them exactly; you’re trying to achieve a certain look and feel that’s consistent with your field, not a slavish carbon copy. And you will want to show your visitors why they should shop with you and not your competitors – which means that you should put your value proposition front and center. Do you have more knowledge and experience than anyone else in the field? Show it by serving up original content, and linking to it all over your website. Do you offer a wider selection of goods than anyone else? Make those goods easy to find, in multiple ways. As long-time respected SEO Chat forum member EGOL pointed out, “You will not win by mimicking your competitors. You will win by doing something that is far superior.” 

If you’re an expert in your field, “doing something that is far superior” to what your competitors offer means creating original content. Those who sell many different kinds of items may publish original content on their websites at well – but it’s worth keeping in mind that not all original content is created quite the same. When you publish something online, you need to figure out how it’s going to reach its audience – and certain kinds of content find the right audience more easily than others. As EGOL pointed out, “If you are publishing product sales pages then you are the only one who will promote them. However, if you are putting up high interest content and have done a great job at it then it will promote itself.”

So I started with website design and ended up talking about content, links, and promotion. It’s hard to separate these out, because they are all related to and support each other. But perhaps now, if someone tells you that your website looks horrible and needs a redesign, you won’t automatically assume that this advice does not apply to your website’s SEO issues. Good luck!

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