5 Signs Your Web Designer Knows Nothing About SEO

July 19, 2010

Or doesn’t care.

Hi! I’m Christina. I’m an SEO. It’s what I do full-time for a living. You know why? Because it takes one person (me) at least 40 hours a week to do all that’s necessary for 5 or so clients. It’s all I can do to keep up with the daily demands on my time and makes sure I am doing all that’s necessary on-page and off-page to make sure my clients rank higher and get the kind of quality traffic I told them was possible.

My BF (best friend, or boyfriend? OR BOTH? You decide!) is a web developer. Full time. 40 hours a week (at least) of taking assets from a PR firm and converting them into working awesome websites that are perfect regardless of which browser you’re looking at.

Yet another friend of mine is a graphic designer. He spends about 60 hours a week taking the vague, nebulous "I kinda like bricks. Can you create for me a background that’s sorta brick-like, but not TOO brick-like," requests from people and codifying that nonsense into awesome well-thought-out, engaging designs for websites. AND he now leaves room for blocks of text in his designs!

So when some web designer comes along and says “I Build Search Engine Friendly Web Sites And Specialize in Usability and Graphic Design,” I say “You and what army, buddy?!” Because, honestly, each one of those separate elements is one person’s full time job.

The most egregious cross-crafting claims seem to come from web development/design firms. I’ve seen a rash of it lately, and it’s ticking me off, so I’m going to embark on the web-designer-disparaging rant that every SEO seems to indulge in at least once in their career.

If you’re a small business owner or indeed anyone shopping around for web designers/developers, this post is for you, so listen up. If you wouldn’t ask the following questions, listen way harder, ’cause you totally should.

Sign #1 That Your Web Designer Knows Bubkus About SEO:

During the web designers sales pitch, you say “I’m concerned about the Search Engines’ ability to access and properly index my site. Consequently, I’d like to know what kind of code you’ll be using to render the major design elements of my site.” and they answer:

a. Flash
b. Javascript
c. It doesn’t matter
d. I am be coding very well, it’s ok.

No! No! Bad web developer! Bad! Search engines are crappy at indexing stuff in Flash videos, they don’t execute Javascript and it TOTALLY matters that you use correct HTML and CSS to create major design elements!

How would it be if you launched your site, only to discover it can’t get indexed because the HTML navigation was triggered by JAVASCRIPT and couldn’t be accessed by the search engines. Really crappy, as one unfortunate client of mine recently realized.

Sign #2 That Your Web Designer Knows More About the Flight Patterns of African Swallows than SEO

After the first answer, you start thinking, damn I better quiz this guy a bit more. After all I can stipulate how I want my code written, right? Maybe they’ll still prove acceptable. So, you ask “What would you recommend for home page content?” and they smile knowingly and say:

a. A splash page that asks the user whether or not they want the Flash version of the site or the HTML version
b. A splash page that is a one-time intro and that is bypassed after it has planted a cookie in the user’s browser
c. A copy-less page with huge, high-def pictures of your products that play on an embedded flash player, and one link to the “contact” page.
d. I am making you very good a home page with many links and picture movies.

Swing and a miss you naughty developer you. Splash pages are an SEO nightmare. Doubly so when they lead to two different versions of the site. Forget the duplicate content issues, think of total void of index-able copy that most of these types of pages suffer from. Also, Search Engines don’t download cookies, so in the case of suggestion B, the SE will never get past your crappy splash page or index any internal pages on the site. If the SEs have nothing to index, THEY WON’T INDEX ANYTHING!

Sign #3 That Your Web Designer Wouldn’t Know Good SEO if it Jumped Up and Bit Them on the…Face.

By now, you should be running far, far away. If the dude or dudette who told you they do web design AND SEO has given you any of the previously mentioned answers, for the love of little green apples, find someone who can do better. However, if you feel like torturing yourself or just getting a good laugh, ask them the following question: “What’s the difference between a 301 redirect and a 302 redirect?” You’ll likely get the following answers:

a. Nothing. They accomplish the exact same task: taking the user from a defunct page and sending them to another.
b. Did some crappy SEO set me up?
c. Ever heard of a meta refresh redirect? Duh, everyone’s using them now.
d. I am seeing no need to worry about redirecting. We’ll take care of it.

Wrong, wrong, wrong and ugh. Firstly, although the user experience is the same for both kinds of redirects, only one passes on the SEO benefit of any inbound links: the 301 redirect. Secondly, Yes, I, the SEO, totally set them up to protect themselves against frauds who claim they know SEO. Thirdly, the world wide web consortium has completely deprecated the use of the meta refresh tag and suggests using javascript in the VERY VERY rare event that you’d ever need a page to refresh automatically and often. The refresh redirect is of the most abused forms of redirect out there right now.

And fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, don’t ever let someone tell you redirects are unimportant especially if you’re switching over a site that ranks great to a new design with different URLS. It will totally, totally screw you over.

Sign #4 That Your Web Designer Knows Less about SEO than my 95 Year Old Grandma

The question “What will the URLs look like?” is answered any of the following ways:

a. It depends on how the user got to the page. There is a bunch of parameter stuff and you don’t need to worry about it.
b. They’re dynamically generated. The search engines won’t care. Lots of sites have dynamically generated URLs.
c. Look at this cool session id…

FYI, all of you out there in search of SEO knowledgeable web designers who are about to get seriously messed up by bad URLs, it is almost always to provide the static-appearing, keyword rich URLs that the search engines prefer. There is no good reason for a session id anymore- that’s done with cookies these days, and search engines do care a lot about how clean the URL is. It should also have keywords in it. So there. ?

The 5th and Most Irritating Sign That An Untrained Monkey Knows More about SEO Than Your Web Designer

If, when you start querying your designer about SEO concerns, they condescendingly shake their heads and say any of the following, stand up and equally condescendingly slam the door on your way out of their office:

a. SEO can be done effectively after the design process is completed, so don’t worry yourself about it now.
b. SEO is easy. We do it all the time. Don’t worry about it.
c. SEO is as complicated as web design and I don’t’ think you’ll understand what we do even if I explain it to you.
d. I guarantee you that if we do your design, you’ll rank #1. Cross my heart and hope to die.

If I ate a carrot every time I heard answer #1, I’d be able to see in the dark. You have to take SEO into consideration from the very beginning of the web design process. You’ll get the most bang for your buck later if the foundations of the Site are SEO friendly.
SEO is not easy. I swear to god, it’s not. It’s hard, it takes oodles of time and it’s constantly changing so even if your web designer knew what he was doing 5 years ago, it doesn’t matter because it’s probably wrong now. SEO, however, is not rocket science, or even molecular biology. You can understand the fundamentals at least enough to make an educated decision as to who to have design your site. And lastly, if anyone claims that they can guarantee rankings, they’re simply full of it. Period.

Disclaimer that will keep me from being flamed by Web Designers (hopefully)

Now that I’m done with my tirade, let me give some caveats that should do at least a bit to put out some enraged fires:

1. I don’t actually think that web designers have to know anything about SEO. That’s what SEOs are for. However, I do take issue when someone CLAIMS to know SEO and marginalizes an entire industry into an add-on to a web design package and then screws it up.
2. There are a lot and I mean a LOT of web designers who can answer all these questions flawlessly. These individuals who somehow balance their knowledge of design with their knowledge of the requirements of the search engines are priceless and awesome and you should hire them when you find them.
3. There are even more web designers and web design firms who know they don’t know and partner with SEO firms to make sure their finished product is awesome and SE friendly. This is commendable. If I were a business owner looking for a web design firm, I would choose this kind of setup.

So don’t flame me, mkay?

Have a web designer horror story of your own? We’ve got a sympathetic ear and a character-limit-free comments section; tell us all about it below!