Saturday, November 20, 2004

Can SEO be a nightmare for the designer?

At times yes!

I had a visit to a web site which i designed sometime back. This one was an instant hit among the online hotel booking industry and it had got good reviews then; people liked the site because of its good looks, simplicity and straight forward navigation. We had gone through lots of similar web sites at the time of this web site's development and had found many hotel booking sites crowded with text and clutter which confused the visitor, also some of them were outright bad looking ones. We also came across a web site which had an unbelievingly long url. We had clear ideas that our web site would be sans all those clutter we saw in other web sites
But the recent visit showed me a cluttered version of the site. Martin, the client, had employed a SEO expert and its him who has put the keywords in the pages with a bizarre layout. As a designer it was a nightmare come true for me. One of my favourite web sites is no more good looking. But then i noticed its comparatively less bad looking in the inner pages, which was indeed a relief. Martin has considered the fist page as the search engine gateway page and so crowded it with the keywords.

It might have given him a better ranking in google. But i believe in maintaining a balance between all the aspects. In a web site i believe that showing up on the top of the search engine is not the only thing which can win a customer. It is just one of the aspects. A web site has to also impress the visitor with its good looks, which in turn makes him to explore the site more. I have seen many sites coming on top of the search engines which is ugly looking and I don't even bother to see more of it. Creepy looking web sites also gives an impression that the services offered by them are of substandard quality. If they cant even keep their web site neat, how can one expect a good quality service from them? So in short a bad looking web site doesn't impress the visitor and in turn might convey a negative impression.

Some of my favourite hotel booking web sites are Hotels.com, Travelnow.com and Travelocity. Neither are these web sites cluttered and bad looking nor are they avoided by the search engines. They are listed mostly on top of all the search engines. One look at them you will get a feeling that they provide quality service. I'm not endorsing these web sites. I haven't used them myself to know about them. But at least they convey the feeling that they are doing well, well maintained and offer good service. The other bad looking ones (I don't want to name them) might be giving better rates, better service, better quality etc. But the first impression of the web site, make them lose out in the rate race. Remember there is lot of competition on the web and you have to do whatever you can to attract visitors to you site. Once he is gone, he wont come back. At least I'm like that.

Balance your act

Search engine optimising is one of the unavoidable aspects of web designing today. Keep in mind that there is a lot of competition on the search engine front also. Every engine has their own style and way of working. We cannot expect the same search result in all the search engines but all we can do is to make our web site easier and friendlier to the search engine spiders to crawl and find the keywords. At the same time we should make the web page pleasant looking, neat and easier for the visitor. Maintain the balance. The more the visitor, the more chance of your web site being shown on top of the search engines. Now does that ring a bell?

Keywords Secret

Keywords has to be filled up on the web site, of course. But how? Try to find out a better way to present them. Dont stash them across the home page just for the heck of it. Make good looking sections, use images to make the sections attractive. Now you have heard that images are not search engine friendly. But we are not putting the keywords in the images. Images are used to make the layout look better. But the keywords, header, body text everything has to be in text. But if you have to use images, you can. We said we have to balance the act. name the image file properly. e.g., a picture of a hotel in the home page can be named as "hotel_picture.jpg" or"hotel_lobby.jpg" according to your image. Stick to the context. Remember that there is also a image search facility in the search engines now a days.

Provide the image an alt text which describes the contents of the image. I have seen keywords pushed into the alt tag of images. How does that help your visitor? Now a days the search engine spiders are intelligent enough to find this abuse.

One of the best of ways of incorporating your key words is to make a FAQ page in your web site. Try to identify the keywords you want the search engine to pick from your web site and formulate questions on them and some answers to it. Make it convincing. Isn't that a good idea? This also can be achieved through the "about us" page. You can of course go for a gateway page. But think about presenting it in a better way. Make it convincing and useful at the same time.

Web Standards

Try to make your pages sticking to W3C web standards. Keep the pages light in weight, separate the design from the page using CSS designs and code the pages in XHTML. I regularly refer W3schools and read articles on the new web standards movement in alistapart, stopdesign and zeldman.com.

There is a new style of designing web pages by totally avoiding tables and only using div tags and controlling them with CSS. The reason behind doing that is to make the pages light in weight,and make it easy for the spider to get the text in its proper meaning and as a chunk without the intervention of a td or tr or a table in between. Also its easier to maintain the code. Of course there are WYSIWYG html editors around, but don't get drowned behind them. Know what you are doing. Go through the code. It will help you in many ways later in fixing most of the cross browser non compatibilities or the non closure or a bad formation of a nested tag. Try to avoid using tables whenever possible. But of course as i said earlier, maintain a balance. If you think by not using a table you are missing out an effect, go on and use it. But it is important that the tables don't come as a hindrance to the free flow of the contents in the code.


Look beyond google

Now a days i'm seeing more web sites listed and more results in yahoo than google. According to me, a search engine has to list the results for our search, be it whatever. Google has standards and tough guidelines to follow to decide whether the site has to be included and listed. But if i'm searching for a web site which is comparatively low profile, there is nothing much of a keywords for them to flaunt across, its not shown in google. But they are also a part of the world wide web. The search engines are bound to show them too for the searcher. I recently had an experience. I searched for the web site of a IT company which had their office near my place. My search was pretty straight forward - "tellus" "software" "pune". Google showed me a page which had the words tellus, software and pune in the page, on top of the search result. The target web site didn't even feature among the first 10 results. Now, Yahoo showed me http://www.tellustech.com/ on top which was indeed the web site i was searching for. Who has to be blamed for this? Google or Tellus?
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