Direct Marketing, Mail Order, and E-commerce News from the National Mail Order Association

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How Web Design Can Affect Search Engine Rankings
By John Metzler

Uniquely built web sites can create unique issues when being
promoted on the search engines. From a basic 3 page brochure
site to a corporate site with hundreds of dynamically generated
pages, every web site needs to have certain design aspects in
order to achieve the full effects of an SEO campaign. Below are
a few points to take into consideration when building or updating
your web site.

1. Size Matters. The size of a web site can have a huge impact
on search engine rankings. Search engines love content, so if
you have only a few pages to your site and your competitors have
dozens, it's difficult to see a top page ranking for your site.
In some cases it may be difficult to present several pages of
information about your business or products, so you may need to
think about adding free resources for visitors. It will help in
broadening the scope of your web site (which search engines
like) as well as keep visitors on your site longer, possibly
resulting in more sales.

2. Graphics-Based Web Sites. While web sites that offer the
visitor a more esthetically-pleasing experience may seem like
the best choice for someone searching for your product, they are
the most difficult to optimize. Since search engine robots
cannot read text within graphics or animation, what they see may
be just a small amount of text. And if we learned anything from
point #1, small amounts of content will not result in top
rankings. If you really must offer the visitor a graphics-heavy
or Flash web site, consider creating an html-based side of your
site that is also available to visitors. This site will be much
easier to promote on the search engines and your new found
visitors will also have the option to jump over to the nicer
looking part of your site.

3. Dynamic Web Pages. If most of your web site is generated by a
large database (such as a large book dealer with stock that is
changing by the minute) you may find that some of your pages do
not get indexed by major search engines. If you look at the URL
of these pages they can be extremely long and have characters
such as ?, #, &, %, or = along with huge amounts of seemingly
random numbers or letters. Since these pages are automatically
generated by the database as needed, the search engines have a
tough time keeping them up to date and relevant for search
engine users.

One way to combat this problem is to offer a search engine
friendly site map listing all your static pages just to let them
know that you do have permanent content on your site. If search
engines see links going to and from these dynamic pages within a
good internal linking system, this may also lead to the pages
getting indexed. The link popularity of your site may carry more
weight in this case as well, so if you can't offer as much
static content as your competition, make sure you have an
aggressive link campaign on the go.

4. Proper Use of HTML. There is quite a bit of sub-par web
design software out there. Word processors usually have a way
to create HTML documents which can be easily uploaded to a site
via ftp. However, in many cases the code that the search engine
robots see is mostly lines and lines of font and position
formatting, not relevant content. The more efficiently written
web sites usually achieve higher rankings. Our choice for web
design software is Macromedia Dreamweaver, as it is an industry
standard. It also makes using CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) a
breeze, which can drastically cut down on the amount of text
formatting in HTML code. Hand-coding HTML to design sites is
also a good method if you are proficient enough.

There are some no brainers too: Web sites with abnormal amounts
of hyperlinks, bold or italicized text, improper use of heading,
alt, or comment tags can also expect to see low rankings.

5. Choosing a Domain Name. The golden rule to web development of
any kind is to keep your visitors in mind above all else - even
search engine optimization. When choosing a domain name, one
should pick either your business name (if you have a
high-profile business name such as Chapters or Coca-Cola) or
a brief description of your products. Domain names can always
help with search engine optimization, since it is another area
of your web site in which important keywords can appear. Forget
about long-winded domains such as
www.number-one-best-books-on-earth.com.
No one will ever remember it and it will be hard to print on
business cards or in ads.

If you need to change your domain name for any reason you
obviously don't want to lose existing rankings. An easy way
to do this, and one that is currently supported by most search
engines, is the 301 redirect. It allows you to keep your
existing rankings for your old domain name, while forwarding
visitors to your new web site instantly.

6. Using Frames. Don't use frames. Frames are a thing of the
90's (and in the Internet world that is eons ago) and are not
even supported by some search engines. The search engines that
are able to index your site through frames will most likely
frown upon them. Whatever you are trying to accomplish by
using frames can usually be done with the help of PHP includes
or CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). Some browsers are not
frames-compatible, so there is the danger of some visitors not
being able to see your site at all. Bookmarking of individual
pages within a frame becomes difficult without lengthly scripts
being written.

7. Update Your Information. Not only does information printed
two or three years ago reflect badly on your organization when
it is read by a visitor, it is also looked down upon by search
engines. Web sites that continuously update and grow their web
sites usually experience higher rankings than stagnant sites.
When the trick to SEO is offering visitors the most relevant
information, you can bet that the age of web pages is taken into
consideration by search engines. Consider creating a section of
your site devoted to news within your organization, or have a
constantly updated resources area.

Many shortfalls of web sites can easily be attributed to
designers who just don't keep the user or search engines in
mind. Search engine algorithms are quickly improving to try and
list the most user-friendly sites higher, given that the content
and link popularity are there to back it up. So first and
foremost, know your target market and make your web site work
for them before focusing on search engine optimization. If you
build it (properly), they will come.

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John Metzler of Abalone Designs. Abalone Designs is a family-run Search Engine
Optimization firm in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Visit www.abalone.ca
for a free personalized analysis of your web site.
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