Web design and SEO are often considered to be separate entities with SEO experts focusing on keyword research, metatags, content writing and building quality backlinks. While these are undeniably essential components for an SEO campaign (with Google stating that content and links are joint first in terms of how they rank websites), having an inspirational web design will also improve your SEO, and in the best case scenario your SEO and web design will complement each other.
Google introduced a new algorithm in October 2015 called Google RankBrain to handle the 15% of unique searches they receive.
RankBrain rapidly gained importance and is now Google's third most important ranking factor.
RankBrain, an artificial intelligence algorithm, modifies the weighting of other algorithms over time to place more importance on some than others. It also plucks out the important keywords from questions or longer searches to be able to ‘understand’ questions and answer them as accurately as possible.
From 2011 to 2016, Google bought 11 companies specializing in artificial intelligence, including DeepMind in 2014 for an estimated $400 million. Given how quickly RankBrain went from being introduced to being Google's third ranking factor and how much they're investing in artificial intelligence the trend in their use of A.I. will only continue in 2017.
How will A.I. impact the way Google measures web design?
At present Google measures several components of visual web design directly (detailed later in this article) but can’t directly measure the overall quality. Put another way, Google can't tell if a website looks great or looks terrible. To judge this, it uses user feedback. If too many visitors to your site quickly press the ‘back’ button, then go to a competing site in the search results, for example, your site will drop in the rankings.
A website with an inspirational design will hold your visitor's attention, encourage them to stay on your site longer, generate more shares and reduce the bounce rate. Google's indirect measurements of these factors will cause your site to gradually move up the search results.
When you look at an image (or a website) you immediately make a judgement of how beautiful it is, probably without quite knowing why. Artificial intelligence closely resembles this unconscious decision making process, and RankBrain analyses at least two thousand factors to decide which website to put first. Google is also investing heavily in image recognition technology and can already tell what most images represent.
It's only a matter of time before Google merge their RankBrain technology with their image recognition technology and start to make SEO related judgements on how beautiful a website is and how relevant the images are, rather than relying solely on user feedback. When this happens, it could change the following aspects of SEO:
- Sites with a good design will get an immediate boost when they first go live.
- Having relevant images, based on the actual image, rather than the ALT tag, will be a ranking factor.
- ALT tags will need to more accurately describe an image (as was their original purpose), rather than just being used for SEO.
- Google may introduce a penalty for deceptive images (e.g. if you use a stock image for an author profile that appears on other sites with different names, indeed, it's possible they already do this).
- Google may add functionality like 'Shop by image' where you upload an image of the product you want to buy (they already have 'Search by image' functionality).
Responsive web design in 2017
Google already determines whether a website is mobile friendly or not and gives those that have a mobile friendly design a boost to visitors on mobile devices. Google recently announced that they will be dividing their index between mobile users and desktop users in 2017, suggesting that they will be giving responsive websites a further boost in the future, as well as potentially measuring user experience (via duration on site, bounce rate, etc.) separately for visitors on mobile devices and visitors using desktop devices. Having a responsive web design will be even more important going forward.
On average more than 50% of web traffic is from mobile users and it's not clear if Google will divide their results, or just use the mobile version of a site for its whole index. This means if you're currently not showing some parts of your site to mobile users, you may want to reconsider, as otherwise it won't be indexed by search engines either.
On a similar note after 10 January 2017, Google will penalize sites for annoying pop-ups or "interstitials". This will also affect sites where the top half of the page is dominated by the equivalent of an "interstitial", even if it's not a pop-up. It won't affect pop-ups that display legal information about cookies, age restrictions, etc.
Currently, a lot of sites use pop-ups to request emails for newsletter subscriptions, if yours is one of them, then for best SEO practice in 2017, change it to a smaller, on-page subscription request instead.
What else does Google measure directly?
In addition to the indirect measurements of bounce rate and visit duration, Google also measures several aspects of website design that directly impact your SEO.
Using images and video
A study by Backlinko shows that web pages with at least one image, or with videos tend to rank better than those without these obvious visual elements.
If your site is slow then Google is likely to penalize it. The faster your site is, the better your user-experience will be the better your SEO will be.
You can improve your site speed in various ways, including:
- Ensuring you resize images to the correct size before putting them online. Many websites use html and CSS to resize images, this might mean that an image is 1000px x 1000px but only appears as 300px x 300px.Resizing images will vastly reduce download speed.
- Compressing images and CSS files.
- Removing unnecessary code.
- Not using too many adverts.
- Upgrading to a faster host.
A user-friendly link structure
Just as backlinks from other websites play a major role in SEO, internal links from your main menu or footer menu also help. It’s best not to think of your main landing pages as separate entities that only matter for SEO, but instead to also include them in your overall site template so that every page on your site links to your most important landing pages.
Google’s user guidelines also tell manual reviewers to rate sites more highly that have links to an ‘about us’ page and a ‘contact us’ page that are clearly visible.
Content ‘above the fold’
Google places more importance on content that is immediately visible when a site first loads (before scrolling down) and penalizes websites that have excessive adverts, particularly where the adverts are prioritized over other content (this is equally true even for sites using Google AdSense).
When Google switch to treating mobile versions as their primary index, it's likely that 'above the fold' will refer to content on mobile devices, not desktop devices, therefore check this on mobile too!
Hidden or hard to read text
Google expects texts on sites to be clearly visible and if you hide links or more than a few words of text by making it too small to read or hidden via any other means, you’re risking a Google penalty.
As Google Glass and other devices designed to view websites on the go develop and gain popularity, having a site that's easy to read will become more important still. To achieve this:
- Use at least 16px font size
- Use good contrast between the font color and background
- Use plenty of white space
Other ways to create an inspirational design
Overall having an inspiring web design has many benefits, so how do you create one?
Choice of color
Choose a color scheme that’s in keeping with the overall topic of your site:
- Green is a relaxing and healing color and is good for health and nature focused sites.
- Blue is the color of community and trust, often used by banks, insurance companies and social media sites (there’s a reason why both Facebook and Twitter have a blue logo).
- Red and black are often used with energy and passion and are popular on bras and cars sites.
- White symbolizes purity and is also a good choice for image-rich sites where you want visitors to focus on the images, not the background.
You’re best off choosing a color that will inspire your target audience and complements the overall feeling you want to communicate with your product or service. Avoid using more than one or two dominant colors on your website or in your logo, unless you want to say “We do everything”; this is why Google’s logo is multi-colored.
Most websites target an international audience and whether they originally intended to or not, many webmasters find that a remarkable percentage of their traffic comes from other countries. Discover what your website’s international potential is.
When designing for an international audience, do your best to check whether the colors you’re using and the symbolism in your logo or header is appropriate for different countries (it’s also important that your domain name works in multiple languages, but that’s another story!)
The 68 actionable web design tips provide some excellent suggestions in addition to those above.
Planning your SEO
There will always be elements of a website that are important to SEO and when you're designing a website it's important to ensure that you include all the essentials like:
- A main menu
- A h1 title for every page (the main visible page title)
- A sufficiently flexible design to allow copywriters to write as much content as they want for each page
- Footer links
- Any other blocks or navigation options that you desire
Even in a wireframe the most important keywords for your website should appear once or twice. This ensures visitors know what your site is about and that your all-important keywords appear on every page.
A note on Splash Pages
The Splash home page is perhaps one of the most widely contested aspects of web design between SEO experts and graphic designers. It typically consists of a single background image with an ‘Enter site’ message on it, but no other content. This is bad for SEO because:
- Search engines need enough information to tell what a page is about. No information means the page isn’t about anything!
- If you only link to one other page from your splash page (your real home page), then you reduce the benefit of the links going to your site, so you won’t appear as high as if you deleted your Splash Page and went immediately to a standard home page instead.
- They’re not user-friendly. Most people hate Splash Pages even if designers love them, on average 25-30% of your website visitors won’t get past the Splash Page, but will click ‘back’ and go somewhere else.
Is it possible to create a Splash Page that is SEO friendly?
Just about! If you want visitors to your website to be met with a large image on the home page, then ensure that you include your logo and main menu above the image, so visitors can navigate to the rest of your site if they wish and place the rest of the content underneath the image, so if visitors scroll down, they see the rest of the content.
This gives you plenty of room to add text, footer links and other items that are best for SEO, to create a more user-friendly design and to still use the visual design aspects of a Splash Page.
Improve conversions when you improve design
Having quality written content and backlinks will always be essential for SEO, however having an inspirational web design will also help tremendously, not just to improve conversions once visitors arrive on your website, but also to increase your position with Google and other search engines before they even get there.
As Google gets smarter in 2017 and beyond, the advantages of an inspiring design will only increase; it’s therefore worth making the graphic design of your site a core part of your SEO strategy.
In-post illustrations by Allison Carmichael