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SEO For Designers And Front-enders. What You Need To Know

/ Tutorials & Advice

I used to think SEO was a load of ruddy nonsense. I was a designer and front-end developer who wrote solid HTML code, understood that content was important, and that if a site was structured well enough with loads of keywords crammed into every corner, it could get listed, and shabam, optimisation! After all, SEO is just an afterthought. A dark art. Something people try and sell agencies or clients to skin them for a bit of extra cash, right?

WRONG. (obviously)

Since starting at QueryClick a few years ago – a search marketing agency (which is performing very well for what I previously assumed was nonsense) – I have come to realise that SEO is absolutely integral to almost every part of the design and development process. I implore you to set aside all previous misconceptions (because that is what they are) about SEO and what it entails, and listen very carefully as I inform you of what you NEED to know about SEO as a front-ender, and how you can employ it to your advantage.

Most of you will already do some of these things without realising, and some of it is common sense. Some of you will, however, be making grave and harmful mistakes, rendering your hard work on design and development utterly useless when it comes to trying to perform in any capacity for your clients.

The Power of SEO

It’s likely that you think SEO is just about getting yourself to the top of Google, or getting some more hits on your website, at which point you can employ UX to help users find what they’re looking for or convert them to sales.

Most people (designers and front-enders especially) underestimate the power of SEO and the differences it can make to their project. Perhaps as a designer it’s not your responsibility to make sure people find the site, but it IS your responsibility to make sure the site performs its intended purpose (conversion or information delivery). If the right people are finding the site then that goal becomes SO much easier.

Imagine you could say to your client: “Not only will you get an updated website which works when people find it, but people WILL be able to find it.”

What people think of SEO

Back in May 2009, “Web Designer Wall” conducted a small poll [1] and concluded that “just over 1 in 10 people don’t think SEO is mandatory as a designer”. Interestingly back then, they also found that “about 24% don’t even know what SEO is”. They wrote a fairly comprehensive post about SEO for designers which highlights some excellent points.

More recently, in December 2012, Paul Boag wrote a rather disappointing article on Smashing Magazine [2] about SEO and what he termed “The Inconvenient Truth” where he perhaps slightly missed the mark in assuming what some SEO agencies were up to. The article interestingly created quite a backlash for him and Smashing Magazine, and he ended up publishing a further article to clarify, which Smashing Magazine appended to the original piece.

His corrections aside, I still think he’s wrong to assume the SEO company shouldn’t be brought in from the outset on most jobs since there’s far more value to be had from SEO at the strategy, information architecture and early UX stages than I think Paul believes.

Interestingly though, the whole affair goes some way to highlighting that SEO is very much full of misconceptions, false promises, and there is still a great lack of understanding on the topic. I have already tried to promote a better understanding of SEO through a Simple SEO Guide [3] but I feel there is still much work to be done.

What SEO is NOT


Just getting your site to the top of the rankings in Google

This is one of the biggest problems. Companies are promised rankings, as opposed to beneficial return on investment. They are told that getting to the top of Google is the goal. It isn’t.

It’s easy enough to have a website rank for some obscure keywords, so an agency can deliver on their claims – but what about keyword research? What about tying it in to goals? Where’s the strategy, user consideration and so on? What about when the user lands on your site? Do they find what they want? Do they convert? Can you track that?

Keyword stuffing to get rankings

Did you know there should really just be one primary keyphrase per page? Do you know how to focus the structure of the site to perform well across a range of keyphrases that are RELEVANT? This isn’t an exercise in cramming keywords and phrases in everywhere. It’s about getting relevant content in relevant volumes in the right place.

Consider the user, and write for them, not for a crawler. Google is cleverer than you think, and since it can detect page structure, it will see your stuffed content and potentially penalise you.

Sneaky link building or spamming comments and forums

There’s always mystery surrounding “link building”. A practice which involves building inbound links to a website so that Google understands its relevance and source of expertise. Provided you have content worth linking to, this should build your profile within Google, and help you gain relevant visitors. The problem here is companies which buy links to their site, become associated with bad “neighbourhoods” and, ultimately, fall when Google realises this. Association with lower value websites is often detrimental to your performance.

Any SEO company worth their chops will avoid this sort of behaviour like the plague. There are better ways to build value through creating valuable content which people find engaging, and genuinely want to share and link to. Resources that provide something to users, things of interest, and real reasons for people to link to your site. It’s a slower process and involves more resource, but it’s far more valuable and less risky than slapping a handful of links on a sketchy web forum, or paying some dodgy back-alley dealer to hook you up with their link-farm.

Adding loads of extra or unnecessary content

Relevance is paramount, but SEO doesn’t involve just cramming loads of content onto the page. The assumption tends to be that SEO practitioners just bash stacks of content on pages for search engines, but the reality is merely that some cleverly focused content will work wonders. Not too much, since the importance is on relevance, clarity, and readability as opposed to stuffing or cramming lots of keywords in.

An Afterthought

This is one of the worst problems SEO agencies face. Lack of insight early on in the process. Too often, SEO agencies or consultants are just brought in at the end of a job, and when they suggest structural changes that would benefit things like site-depth or hierarchy, those crucial changes that would have made a big difference get completely ignored, or cast off as too expensive. Changes which, if highlighted early on, wouldn’t have made any difference to workloads or time scales.

Detrimental to design

Worried that your site will look like Craigslist when an SEO agency is done with it? This should never be the case. SEO should barely affect layout, design or look and feel if it’s been integrated properly and carefully considered. If you, as a designer and front-ender are making sensible decisions about markup and content, then in turn, any SEO consultant should have an easy job suggesting alterations and updates.

Try To Remember…

Proper hierarchy should be inherent to your design process

If you’re following the design or re-design process properly, then you should be putting lots of consideration into your hierarchy and structure anyway. This is something that should come naturally, so when faced with SEO advice, it should be taken on board and integrated at this stage. SEO isn’t going to ruin your site. It’s really just about knowing what to do and what to avoid.

Good HTML markup should be inherent to your build

You should be writing properly marked up semantic code in any case, so if you’re not using images for text, or any Flash based navigation, and you’ve got your head screwed on in that department, then you shouldn’t have too much to worry about – or should at least be able to easily adapt to any required changes.

Microformats and Microdata stuff should be something you do anyway

If you’re in any way intrigued by the Internet of Things [4], then you’ll likely be using microdata anyway, so that your information can be used to its fullest potential. Google happens to like microdata and so you’re at an advantage if you use it. Next stop: enhanced listings!

Content should be relevant and appropriate

You’re not writing for search engines, or for some sort of algorithm busting page. You’re writing for people. Your users. Write for them, and Google will like you for it. Don’t try and get clever.

Common mistakes front-enders are making

Putting the logo in an H1 tag

Stop this. The only place this is remotely permissible is on the homepage, but even then it’s not the greatest idea. H1 tags are for the page’s lead keyphrase and title.

No meta description

Why on earth would you even miss this out? This is your page’s calling-card. The chunk of text that sits under the title in your search listing. It’s likely to be the first piece of text someone reads before they even land on your page. If you’re missing it out, then you’ve missed a serious trick here.

Duplicate meta titles and descriptions

Using the same title across the entire site? Bad move – Google’s going to start thinking it’s all duplicate content and demote pages accordingly. Same goes for the description tag. Get it sorted.

Poorly written meta titles

Your title tag is a key ranking factor, don’t waste it. It should have your main keyphrase, which should describe the page anyway, but please don’t stuff it. Google will hate you.

No canonical tags

This is slightly more technical, but if you’ve got duplication issues, you’re likely going to come into contact with the canonical tag. It’s a meta tag that points to the definitive version of a page.

Both www and non-www sites working

If both and resolve, then you’ve just duplicated the entire site. One should redirect to the other. Choose one and stick to it. Get your htaccess skills on.

Loads of H1 tags

One per page please people. Let’s not get silly. If there’s a good argument for one or two more primary keyphrases on a single page, it’s probably not going to kill you, but do try and focus things!

Keywords tag

Why are you bothering with this? Stop stuffing it full of nonsense. You can probably forget it unless you’re targeting China or Russia, or somewhere where Google isn’t top dog. Both Google and Bing aren’t interested in your keywords tag, so unless you’ve not got anything better to do with your time, get shot of it. (NB: This one is my personal advice. QueryClick as a company might suggest it’s worth hanging on to.)


It’s easy to be dismissive and apathetic towards SEO as a craft. It’s easy to cast it off, but those who realise that there’s value in the SEO process will definitely benefit.

Image based menus

Seriously, I think we’re all past this now, but just for those making rollover buttons with text in the images – maybe stop that now?

“Click Here” or “Read More”

This is another one we should all have left behind. From both an accessibility point of view, and an SEO point of view, this is bad practice. Make your links less dependent on context.

Separate mobile websites

This one isn’t always going to be relevant, but in some cases you’ll be needlessly duplicating the site to style a mobile version. Remember, if it’s not required for mobile users, is it definitely required for any other users? Are those two platforms facilitating completely different user groups? Mobile first isn’t new, but it does focus your goals and objectives with the site, and that can only be a good thing. You should try and avoid making a completely separate site for mobile users and try harder with those media queries!

More on this from Chris Liversidge, head honcho at QueryClick [5]

Unfriendly URLs

I lose track of how many times I see URLs being abused, or ignored. The URL is an important ranking factor, and even if you don’t have that elusive TLD you wanted, there are other ways to keep your URL structure in check. Avoid using query strings, or canonicalise what you can. Don’t go overboard length-wise, and be aware of keyword density.


This post was originally written for the QueryClick blog.

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Alex Cowles

About The Author: Alex Cowles

A largely cynical and often sarcastic designer and front-end developer by day. Unknown international DJ & music producer extraordinaire by night (and at weekends). You probably won't like him.