SEO is Killing Website Design

Misguided “Search Engine Optimisation” is the harbinger of a website disaster, and after the ‘sensationalist’ headline above, I’ll do my best to explain why.

The Logic of a Good Search Result

Websites should be optimised for search engines but you have to remember one important fact. Search engines care about delivering good results to their users. Users can very quickly identify good results by considering the relevancy of service, and quality of content present on the ranked website.

Search engines find it incredible difficult to identify good results. The algorithm Google and the like uses will mix everything from basic text analysis to social profiling. It’s a billion dollar business that employs some of the smartest tech engineers in the world.

Let’s break down what a good search result should include from the users point of view when clicking through to a website:

  • Relevancy: does this website offer what I need? If a product, is it in my price range and locality? Do I agree with the company’s business ethics? Is it a brand I know and trust or one that appeals to me? Have I heard good things from friend or stranger recommendations?
  • Quality: does the product/service meet my expectations? Does the website answer my questions? Is the website fast and simple to use? Can I get human help easily?

What do search engines consider a good result? Exactly as above. To keep their users searching, search engines need to offer a relevant and quality service of their own, i.e. good results as measured by the users’ criteria above.

How does SEO fit into this?

Does SEO answer those questions of relevance and quality? No, but it does give search engines an easier task of predicting those answers.

Search engines and their users will always answer “no thanks” to a poor website. One that’s badly designed, dreadfully built, and populated with horrendous content.

Let’s break down what a good website is:

  • Well designed with usability in mind.
  • Well designed with accessibility in mind for those with disabilities.
  • Well designed with aesthetics in mind for brand recognition.
  • Well built using web standards.
  • Well built for use on all devices, from smart phones to desktop monitors.
  • Well built on the back-end for powerful and speedy functionality.
  • Well populated with readable and informative content.
  • Well populated with a navigable content structure.

That list could be expanding to tens of thousands of words but you get the point. Finally, what do all these factors of good website design mean?

  • Users and search engines can qualify the value of your website.
  • The perceived value of your service/product is boosted by a good website. If your product _is _your website, well, it’s everything.

And the big one:

  • Search engine ranking will improve. *

A well designed, built and content-populated website is everything you need.

**SEO techniques are simply snippets of what should already be included in good website production. Every white-hat SEO technique will be a bullet point within these three areas.

If SEO fits into this grand design, what’s my problem with it?

* It’s worth noting that nothing mentioned above can help a fundamentally poor product & service.

The Great SEO Swindle

The reason SEO is killing website design is that it’s often taken out of context of what a good website is, and what search engines are trying to achieve.

SEO is not _the _solution to poor ranking. SEO is a selection of good website production techniques that can be cherry-picked to implement individually, and of which the effects can be measured metrically. This is not a bad practice in itself; if you can improve a website by tweaking it post-production then go for it, that’s the beauty of the web.

What is a problem is that SEO is being marketed as a separate entity and all logic as to what makes a good website and search result is ignored. The majority of “SEO experts” aren’t going to explain this logic because they have neither the talent nor the knowledge to implement the major areas of good website production, only those cherry-picked techniques.

Now, what really gets to me is that this smoke & mirrors act is confusing website owners. Not only are they getting conned, but they’re allowing over-hyped, out-of-context, sometimes black-hat SEO techniques to outweigh logical decisions. Short-term ranking may be tricked, but users & customers know better. Traffic and conversion are two different matters (something that is often learnt the hard, expensive way).

All this misdirection is chipping away at the quality of websites which is crazy, since quality is the ultimate factor for good ranking. We know it, and search engines know it.

How do we solve this problem?

We can’t put SEO back into its box. What we can do is continue to educate website owners on what good website production really is. Web agencies should make three things very clear to new clients:

  • SEO is not a separate entity and treating it as such is dangerous.
  • There is logic to good search results and ranking.
  • If your business sucks, there’s only so much that can be done.

Competent web agencies already take the correct strategy from day one. The sites they produce should already include everything that is packaged as “SEO”. Agencies should have the optimisation knowledge in-house to address all areas within design, development and content. If you’re an independent SEO expert—for heavens sake—explain to your clients what is really going on.

A well produced website with all the signs of quality and relevance will lead to happy visitors, and that is what search engines and their users want, not SEO.


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