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SEO has gone too far, web designers need to fix the balance


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Poll: Has SEO gone too far? (0 member(s) have cast votes)

Has SEO gone too far?

  1. Definitely, we need to redress the balance (2 votes [15.38%])

    Percentage of vote: 15.38%

  2. Maybe we should use a bit more restraint (1 votes [7.69%])

    Percentage of vote: 7.69%

  3. I'm not sure either way (0 votes [0.00%])

    Percentage of vote: 0.00%

  4. If everyone else is doing it, I'm going to do it (0 votes [0.00%])

    Percentage of vote: 0.00%

  5. No, SEO is just part of good design (10 votes [76.92%])

    Percentage of vote: 76.92%

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#1 Scratch

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Posted 03 December 2004 - 12:18 PM

Following some recent experiences, I've come to the decision that SEO has become a golden calf that's given undue weight in the web design process - so much so that I'm worried it can actually compromise the overall success of a web site.

Please read this article, and let me know your views.

Also, I'd be very interested in hearing anyone else's experience, from other professionals or from clients, of SEO factors being directly detrimental to site design / success.

I propose that we go back to designing sites with a moderate amount of honest search-engine friendliness built in (meta tags, sensible writing, alt tags etc.), and leave search engines to do their stuff, without trying to trick the SEs into putting sites higher than they deserve, or ought to be.

What do people think of this "Search Engine Friendly" campaign?

Peace,

Scratch

#2 Ransak

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Posted 03 December 2004 - 01:13 PM

Hi Scratch,

I am not sure I experience the problem as you have. I rarely come across sites that are so SEO'ed that they become unusable. Of those that I do stumble upon, I quickly leave. I am talking about sites that are loaded with keyphrases and keywords in the copy, so much so that it is ridiculous.

Reading your article:

Point #1: Search Engines aren't the only way people find your site: This might be true for some, it is not true for others. It's great you get most of your traffic from people following other peoples links, but how did those people find you? Myself, I came across your site via search engines well before I put 2 and 2 together and placed you as the site's creator.

I think there are many site owners who rely 100% on search engine traffic. Perhaps this is not the best business strategy out there, but it is what it is. As long as you have these kinds of people, you will never have a fair playing ground with SEO. They will do everything in their bag of tricks to get their site listed high in the rankings.

Point #2: Footfall means nothing if you fail to satisfy your visitors is a great one. I think most astute site owners/developers realize this point. Those that don't are the kinds of sites I leave in a hurry, and I imagine many others do as well. Those that follow this philosophy probably are less interested in gaming the SEO system anyways since they understand sales and marketing and probably have other plans in place.

So really, I see there is little the 'design' community can do to battle over SEO'ing of sites. There will be always those that will take any advantage offered, and those that have enough guile to avoid relying totally on search engines for traffic will not be over concerned with SEO in the first place.

Frank V.

#3 Respree

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Posted 03 December 2004 - 02:28 PM

Hi Scratch:

I think it might be useful to help illustrate your point by giving some specific examples of how SEO has been given undue weight in the design process. It might help to give people a better understanding of some specifics of what you're talking about.

I myself and neither a SEO nor Designer, but have a few thoughts on the subject.

I think it's about balance. Both are important and neither should be taken lightly.

In your article, you say "Footfall means nothing if you fail to satisfy your visitors." SEO professionals will likely argue that the converse of this is also true -- "What good is great design if nobody can find your site." Just as their are many components of what makes up good design, in the broader scheme, SEO is one of the important components that make up a good site. I know you were careful not to dismiss SEO as being unimportant in your article, but should it be de-emphasized as much as you suggest?

Can SEO live harmoniously with Design?

I suspect you may be trying to describe a situation where a designer disagrees with onpage SEO decisions. Given the choice of one over the other, unless the nature of the SEO decision makes the site 'very' unfriendly, I'd almost always have to side with the SEO decision. I'd rather be found and have a 'slightly' unfriendlier site, than not.

My 2 cents.

#4 peter_d

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Posted 03 December 2004 - 05:21 PM

I would encourage designers to continue ignoring SEO. Makes it much easier for the rest of us :)

My experience has been the other way round. Most web designers I've come across, especially at agency level, don't consider SEO at all. I have long since given up banging my head against a brick wall trying to get them to take a holistic approach, and instead make more money selling them the same traffic they would have had for free if they had managed to get a clue.

True, search traffic isn't everything, and if you don't want/need search traffic, then you don't need to design for it.

However, the project should be dictated by your clients requirements. If the client wants free search traffic, then end of story - it's your job as a designer to incorporate SEO, not to fight it.

PS: I do wonder what problems you're having, though. SEO shouldn't compromise aesthetics if the SEO knows what they're doing.

#5 Ron Carnell

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Posted 03 December 2004 - 06:27 PM

We have to view site success in more ways than pure footfall, such as the conversion rate of visitors to sales, visitors to requests for information, or repeat visits.

A successful visit for a typical site involves someone...

1. Finding your site (through one of many routes, one of which is covered by SEO)
2. Understanding what your site is for, trusting the site, and thinking they might find what they want there
3. Being able to find what they want
4. Being able to complete their activity successfully (find information, book tickets, make a purchase)

Steps 2, 3, and 4 don't involve SEO in any way.

I think if you stopped the man on the street and asked him, Ben, he would likely contend those steps don't have anything to do with web design, either. "Design," I suspect you'd hear him say, "Is about picking the right colors and where you put the pictures and stuff."

Of course, you and I know that the average man on the street doesn't really understand, nor fully comprehend, the role of a designer. Right?

You might want to ask yourself, Ben, if perhaps you similarly lack a good understanding of SEO?

Those steps DO involve SEO, Ben, at least when it's done right. On the flip side, the meta data and alt attributes you reference have increasingly little to do with SEO. I'm afraid if those are your perceptions, you're making the same mistake that average man on the street has made. You and he are gazing into deep pools and seeing only a surface reflection.

I'm guessing you ran into some really bad SEO work, Ben, and perhaps reached some hasty conclusions about its practitioners. A business man who watched his income plummet because of a bad site design might reach the same conclusions about those prima donna designers not knowing where their priorities should lie.

Ted Sturgeon is rightly famous for saying, "Sure, ninety percent of science fiction is crud. That's because ninety percent of everything is crud."

It follows, I think, that we shouldn't judge a whole field based only on that ninety percent crud ratio. Look at the best in the SEO field, Ben, and I think you'll agree they are just as concerned about effective communication as the best designers are.

#6 Scratch

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Posted 04 December 2004 - 06:55 AM

I'm not saying that SEO is bad. I'm saying that it's part of Design, and needs to be given the appropriate weight on a project by project basis.

So, my article's complaining about two things:

Firstly, I think there is an ethical line between making a web site accessible to search engines, which helps everyone, and cooking sites to try to trick search engines into placing higher than the evidence deserves. I'm all for optimising for SEs, I'm against the practice of spoofing site content for SEs.

Secondly, I'm calling for constraint with SEO issues in Design (as a multidisciplinary problem-solving discipline). I get this sense that SEO has become an idol, and suddenly one voice on the design team can pull out the SEO trump card, in a similar way that developers used to be able to suck their teeth and pull out their trumps, or branding people or whoever.. I think the way forward there is for everyone to get wise and understand the proper contribution of each sub-discipline. That comes with time.

Ron, I'm not claiming to be an SEO expert. However, if as you say *unseen* content (e.g. meta data and alt tags) have increasingly little to do with SEO, then it must be *seen* content that makes the difference. And I do have a problem with SEO considerations pushing sites into weak information architecture / navigation / page layout / copywriting. I haven't gathered lots of examples of this happening, which is partly why I wanted to open up the discussion.

#7 Respree

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Posted 04 December 2004 - 01:37 PM

And I do have a problem with SEO considerations pushing sites into weak information architecture / navigation / page layout / copywriting. I haven't gathered lots of examples of this happening, which is partly why I wanted to open up the discussion.


Again, Scratch, I'd like to suggest you give 'some' examples of the specifics you're talking about, to help further illustrate your point(s). I really think it would aid in having a more meaningful discussion. :wink:

#8 peter_d

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Posted 04 December 2004 - 04:03 PM

Consider that the search engine business is a two way street - bandwidth isn't free and search engines require content.

If website owners didn't provide both bandwidth and content to the search engines for free, then there wouldn't be any search engines. Social considerations aside, there is no value to the website owner in being just "search engine friendly" i.e. crawled, but not ranked. If you are being crawled, but receive no relevant traffic, then block the crawler - the search engine is costing you money in lost bandwidth. If you want to make yourself more deserving in terms of attention, then you need to find out what the search engines reward, and do it. The same goes for designing a site, brand or logo - find out what people will pay attention to, and do it.

SEO is as much about information architecture as anything else. One example: search engines return pages, as opposed to sites. So, the more pages a site has indexed, the more chances it has to generate traffic. Consider splitting content over multiple pages. The three page optimisation technique is a design strategy that incorporates SEO strategy and usability strategy. It is within the search engine guidelines - no trickery involved. And that link wasn't a trick either ;)

Again, we need to see examples of what you're talking about in order to have a meaningful discussion. Are you talking about keyword stuffing?

can pull out the SEO trump card


Ask yourself why SEO is considered a trump card. Perhaps it has been shown to add more value than the Flash Intro card. Replace every instance of the term "SEO" in your article with the term "web design/er". As Ron points out, some web designers go overboard, but that doesn't mean all web designers should be told to sit down and shut up. Isn't it best to hear all angles, then to balance objectives? If the SEO, or graphic designer, has gone overboard then that is a failing of the project leader, surely.

Once again, I encourage all designers and stakeholders to ignore SEO. Less competition suits me, and the search engines who sell PPC, just fine :)

#9 thirstymoose_2000

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Posted 04 December 2004 - 08:27 PM

I've been in the advertising/marketing/design business for about 15 years. Designers used to design inspite of things like legibility, readibility and overall communications strategies as well --- to their detriment. Any design project you come across has its own set of goals and criteria, be it an annual report, brochure, web site or video production.

The reality is that over 80% of the people who find your site --- find it because of a search engine. And a properly executed SEO strategy can be fairly transparent to the user anyway.

Being a designer isn't about disregarding rules and doing things inspite of convention --- it's working within the rules but doing it in a fabulously creative and effective way. You don't optimize a site to be searched and you are doing your client a diservice.

I'll go back to my college days and a very popular saying my prof used to tell us to live by --- it ain't creative unless it sells.

I'm with Peter, I find that designers who pay attention to SEO are still in the vast minority. And also agreeing with Peter, they can keep it up as far as I'm concerned. :)

#10 Scratch

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Posted 05 December 2004 - 07:40 AM

One example that springs to mind is: www.uk-hotel-accommodation.co.uk.

This is clearly one of those sites for which search engine traffic is key, so I understand the bias there (as long as it's fair)...

Define "fair"...

#11 Scratch

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Posted 05 December 2004 - 07:42 AM

And a properly executed SEO strategy can be fairly transparent to the user anyway.


I'm all for that, moose. That's when it's done properly. I'll repeat: what's bothering me is people with a bit of information taking it as gospel that they need to force their content to fit a certain shape, without thinking what's best for the end user.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

#12 DianeV

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Posted 05 December 2004 - 08:32 AM

Actually, they may have more information than you know, given the high competitiveness of those types of terms. ;-)

I'm sorry that you're having trouble, but I'm also not quite sure what you're asking us to do here. Are you suggesting that we simply all agree, and then perhaps launch an anti-SEO campaign?

If it's commiseration you want, then I can understand. But there are issues no matter what the industry. What about web designers who don't design well? Or who use FrontPage with all the geegaws turned on -- or, worse, turn Word documents into HTML pages? Or designers who couldn't sell their way out of a wet paper bag?

When you're working with a team (which could be as small as you and your client) and the site belongs to the client rather than you, you have to find a way to communicate well and to be part of the team, knowing all the while that the final adjudication is not yours to make because it's not your website.

Your client may actually know something. For all we know, your client knows just how expensive those phrases would be in terms of PPC, and may know that his/her ROI simply does not support that kind of expenditure ... in which case, it doesn't matter how beautiful, greatly coded or usable the site may be if the cost of half the equation (getting people to visit in the first place) simply overwhelms any profit margin.

Usability or SEO or design are not ends in themselves. I think if you were able to drag it out of any client, you'd discover that underneath all the discussions that what they're really after is a marketing vehicle. With all that that implies.

#13 peter_d

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Posted 05 December 2004 - 03:32 PM

www.uk-hotel-accommodation.co.uk


As a user, my problem with that site is the font is too small.

fair...


Academic A cites Academic B over Academic C because Academic B is a close friend. Fair?
Coke has a substantially bigger marketing budget than Ms Miggins pie shop. Fair?
Site A publishes a lot more revenue generating content than site B because site A hired a more competent web marketing team. Fair?

There has always been, and always will be, cronyism, competitive advantage, and competitors who play a hard game.

I suspect the requirement for "being fair" is code for "can everyone play the game by my rules"? Don't get me wrong, I would love that to happen, too.

But it won't.

#14 sanity

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Posted 05 December 2004 - 06:36 PM

Can SEO live harmoniously with Design?

Hell yes!

Any SEO worth their salt knows that a site needs to do more than rank highly in search engines. It needs to sell and in order to do this the SEO needs to drive targeted traffic to a site that is able to convert. Hence requiring good design, usability, copy, CTA's etc. All these elements should be taken into account when working on a site.

And I do have a problem with SEO considerations pushing sites into weak information architecture / navigation / page layout / copywriting.


I totally disagree. Quite fankly I think ensuring search engines can index a site has helped improve many site's information architecture / navigation / page layout / copywriting.

I'm with Peter, I find that designers who pay attention to SEO are still in the vast minority. And also agreeing with Peter, they can keep it up as far as I'm concerned.

I'm with you both! :wink:

#15 projectphp

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Posted 05 December 2004 - 10:35 PM

And I do have a problem with SEO considerations pushing sites into weak information architecture / navigation / page layout / copywriting.

In Autstralia, the government instigated a Goods and services Tax, aka the VAT in the UK. This came with a bunch of annoying bunkum, like filling in quarterly statements so the tax collectors could get their cut.

Many complained that it was forcing businesses to keep bad records but rreally, the opposite was true, and for the first time many businesses actually kept accurate records, organised quarterly. Many businesses realised quickly how unprofitable they were.

SEO and design are very similar, in that they add purpose to the organisation, and that usually has a very positive side effect.

It is very rare that SEO makes any of a site's information architecture / navigation / page layout / copywriting worse. infact, the copywriting usually gets a bit of cred out of SEO, and navigation is usually cleaned up.

But again, YMMV, and th SEO/SEOs that you work with may be no good.

#16 Scratch

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Posted 06 December 2004 - 05:55 AM

Thanks for all the interesting comments, guys.

I'm genuinely surprised to hear so much support for SEO practices actually strengthening the user experience!

I'm learning that I have a weak appreciation of SEO when practiced well, which is good news. I haven't in fact worked with any SEO specialists in the past few years. As I said in the article, very little of my own traffic comes directly from search engines. But - maybe a lot more of my overall traffic comes from SE's, directly or indirectly, e.g. people who've followed links from people who found the site via a search engine... Mind-boggling.

My thoughts were a result of keeping half an eye on newsletters and forums (stuff along the lines of "is this practice ok, will it get me blacklisted?", which smelt bad to me).

I'm also surprised to hear no stories about detrimental effects of this kind of approach, or people generally not getting it...

Personally, I took a decision in about 1998 that SEO was going to specialise significantly, and that as such I wouldn't try to stay expert in it, because it would be dominated by specialists and jacks of all trades wouldn't be able to compete - better to use specialists. I have kept a passive eye on its growth. (I also decided not to try to continue to develop Flash skills, for the same reasons).

I'm thinking now that I need to broaden back out, and re-join the SEO party. If I follow my own argument, we all need to appreciate each other's roles and skills better, so that we can better collaborate to produce the best design solutions.

So, I commit to going back to SEO school :-)

#17 Adrian

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Posted 06 December 2004 - 09:54 AM

we all need to appreciate each other's roles and skills better, so that we can better collaborate to produce the best design solutions.


I think that's a pretty good way to look at it. You don't need to be expert in a particular side if you can get someone else to help you with it. But in order to work well together, you both need to understand some of the others point of view.

I know the kind of stuff you're on about, the kind of sites where the creator has thought about nothing BUT SEO. The site looks appaling, doesn't work nicely, the navigation is probably technically fine, but useless in the way it's presented to the person. You may find it in the SE's easily, but most reactions are to hit the back button and choose one of the competitors.

But that's not what all SEO is about. The more integrated stuff does generally improve the copy, the navigation, the usuability and even accessibility at times. If you've got a large site, and want the bots to crawl it well, and find lots of juicy content to pick up on, you need good easy navigation and lots of good content.

Making pages accessible to SE Bots can also make them accessible to people with various impairements. The reason a lot of people have used alt attributes is for the SEO reason (regardless of how much benefit they give now), but it has a knock on effect for accessibility if done properly, and not just keyword stuffed. It's certainly the SEO reason that I took the time to put in alt text when I started learning about SEO 5yrs ago, before I'd ever heard of any accessibility issues :) Now I'd tend to think I focus more on the accessibility issues than the SEO, but I still want to be found in results :P

Aside from which, you're never going to get anyone here agree what is and isn't spam as far as SEO is concerned, let alone get the whole industry to work it out.

Hopefully some steps to help understanding between the SEO world and Design world are underway though. I don't know if you saw any of the heated debate resulting from a blog post a while ago that Eric Meyer talked about? It was someones view of an SES session and developed quite quickly into a designers bashing SEO fest. Then some points about SEO were cleared up, Danny Sullivan was involved in the discussion and I believe it ended up in inviting Eric to co-present a session at an SES (not sure which) with a view to discussing some of the issues a bit more. Depending on how it's done, that may be well worth seeing/hearing!

#18 Black_Knight

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Posted 06 December 2004 - 11:32 AM

I think this thread could be useful, which is the discussion of the 'bashing' Adrian referenced.

#19 Adrian

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Posted 06 December 2004 - 02:07 PM

Would've been useful if I'd linked to that eh :) I actually kind of forgot we had that discussion!

The comments to the original blog are probably worth reading too. The first 10 posts are ful of some hasty moans, but after that, Danny and some other names you may recognise, get involved as well as a couple quite knowledgable people not involved in SEO as far as I know (I've spoken with Isofarro before and he's very hot on the accessibility stuff for example) and it turns in to a pretty good discussion itself.



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