There was a time when Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) was seen as some mysterious black art. Developers would pit their wits against search engines to get their sites high in the rankings – usually higher than their content warranted. This often involved trying every trick in the book to shoehorn keywords into a site – exhibit a: endless lists of keyword links at the foot of each page. Sometimes it actually worked, but it came at a cost to those actually using the site.
When I refer to SEO I primarily mean on-site optimising. As the name suggests this covers work within the site code to ensure maximum exposure to search engines.
Off-site SEO includes link-building, aspects of social media and online advertising. I like to leave that side of things to the SEO and Social Media experts
Unsurprisingly, and thankfully for users, Google saw through this and improved its algorithm (the method it uses to rank content), causing guilty sites to drop down the rankings. In some cases sites were blacklisted altogether – the web equivalent of being barred from the best club in town.
While the worst techniques have all but disappeared the attitude of ‘designing for search engines’ is still widespread. Which is disturbing, as the attitude is both unhelpful and unnecessary. It’s unhelpful because users suffer when design focuses away from them. It’s unnecessary because you can optimise your site without compromising user experience.
User-friendly SEO is a simple case of organising content into a clear structure. To illustrate this I’ve outlined a few pointers:
A web page is just like any other document and as such clear headings are crucial for helping users identify content quickly and easily. Use your main page heading to summarise the content (think newspaper headline), and then sub-headings to divide the text into logical sections.
Links help users navigate round your site and search engines are no different. I covered sensible navigation and linking in another article so won’t repeat the tips. Suffice to say ‘click here’ helps no one (including Google), so use clear labels for your links.
Meta tags provide information about your page. There are two main tags you should remember when optimising your site: title and description.
The title tag should match your main page heading as closely as possible. The description tag should summarise the page. Note that, while Google doesn’t give much weight to keywords in the description, it often uses it in the Search Engine Results Pages.
Oh and ignore the ‘keywords’ tag, it serves no purpose other than informing your competitors of your keyword strategy.
User-friendly SEO should be a priority because it encourages a more thoughtful design process. But the biggest benefit of a user-focussed approach is you keep visitors happy as well as search engines. And since it’s (human) users who buy into your business, not machines, they should be your priority.
If you’re still not buying it…
You may be interested to know that Google has recently updated it’s algorithm to reward quality content – a step to encouraging a better web! This means it’s no longer enough to just fill your site with relevant content, now you have to make sure it’s worth reading. The specifics are too vast to discuss here, but for a helpful summary check out the video (transcript also available) on SEOMoz