Try a Little Tenderness – The Relationship Between Designers and SEOs

Try a Little Tenderness – The Relationship Between Designers and SEOs

18th July 2013

From the outside it would seem that designers and SEOs are working towards a common goal; to create beautifully built, fully optimised, high converting sites, yet the reality is often somewhat different.

Designers and SEOs are not always bosom buddies, rarely in fact. We all know that design is fundamental in attraction and usability, plus it has a strong impact on conversion potential. To the same ends we all know that a well optimised site maximises its opportunity for traffic and conversion.

So what’s the beef?

It’s Elementary

While our priorities are the same at the top level, as you dissect our two roles, some components become increasingly disparate, leading to the false belief that they need to be thought about as separate elements when it comes to design and build. A pretty site does not mean a well optimised site; but a well optimised site can still be a pretty one.

There are many definitions of web design, so for argument’s sake I’m sticking with the old favourite, Wikipedia:

“Web design encompasses many different skills and disciplines in the production and maintenance of websites. The different areas of web design include web graphic design; interface design; authoring, including standardised code and proprietary software; user experience design; and search engine optimization.”

So SEO is part of the job of a designer? Hmm. I’m not convinced that there are enough designers out there with a complete and up to date knowledge of SEO that it should be considered part of their job description on one of the world’s largest knowledge bases. Nor am I convinced that this idea is strictly where the argument lies. The two main elements of web design and optimisation I have witnessed bring designers and SEOs to metaphorical blows are the following:

  • Code

Clean, simple, W3C compliant HTML and external CSS and Javascript is the SEOs weapon of choice in most cases. Not because they want to limit the designer of course, but because this is the simplest, therefore fastest, and most readable way for search engine bots to scour and index the site. Please use all the proper tags too, Google love them.

In order to place the site in SERPs for the correct terms, search engine robots need to understand what the site is about, so make it easy for them. They are also big fans of quick sites, slow ones risk dropping in rankings if they fall behind their competitors in speed and other areas. Which brings me to Flash. Urgh. Yes, it’s pretty, sometimes, but it’s an SEO nightmare. Here’s a few reasons why…

  • Just one main URL to optimise for
  • Slow loading time
  • Lack of basic tags and attributes
  • Harder to measure results

It’s like trying to fix a car with nothing but a hammer and some Party Rings. I’m exaggerating of course, there are ways to get around a number of these problems, but Flash is not a friend to the SEO. If, as a designer you choose to use Flash, and you split your site into multiple files, or integrate HTML elements into the site, your SEO would be most grateful.

  • Usability

Form follows function and all that jazz. Usability is an area where you may think we’d all get on, but this is not always the case, especially in particularly minimalistic sites, and those with a large amount of pages.

Websites need to make the conversion process as quick and simple as possible, while aesthetics remain pleasing and help instil trust in the user.  The design of the interface has a direct and fundamental impact on how easy it is and how long it takes for a user to convert and it is imperative that this is a primary objective in the early stages of designing the site.

Usability can be a huge bone of contention if an SEO is brought in at the end of a project, causing delays, distress, and cost to all involved. In my humble opinion this is the area when designers and SEOs need to get their heads together the most, right from the start of the project.

  • URLs

A simple thing, but is so much better an option than Ideally URLs should have a clear meaning and act as a breadcrumb trail for the user to follow.

Search engines prefer static URLs, and Google recommends using hyphens instead of underscores; they see phrases with underscores as all one word so ‘bootcut_jeans’ would be ‘bootcutjeans’ to Google, but ‘bootcut-jeans’ would be translated as ‘bootcut jeans’. Knowing what you mean is pretty important to rank for your key terms, and a good URL structure can really help.

These two elements are merely the symptoms though, not the cause. So where do the problems really lie and how do we fix them?

It’s Education

“Trying to understand you is like trying to smell the colour 9” – Anon

“Education is a Progressive Discovery of Our Own Ignorance” – Will Durant

Without getting all happy-clappy, or too quotey, let’s help each other understand what exactly it is we do, and why we do it, instead of letting them assume. I swear there are designers out there who think SEOs are only on this planet to pull their work apart and make life difficult, and I know more than one SEO who thinks designers are intentionally fussy just to wind them up. It’s likely that neither is the case, we just don’t fully understand each other’s role yet.

The only thing to be careful of is where you pick up this education. There is some incredibly unhelpful misinformation out there such as this little gem I picked up on SERPs page one when searching for SEO for designers. This guy has over 60,000 followers on Twitter:

Ignore Most Meta Tags: A long time ago meta tags were the secret to SEO. Those days are gone. The only meta tag that really matters now is the description tag. Search engines may use it to provide the text under the link to your page in their results. Make sure it describes the page in a way that explains why a user searching for your content would want to look at your page.”

Sit down properly with your designer or SEO, you may just learn something.

And Mostly, It’s Communication

SEO is often an after-thought for a client, something tacked in to the end of a site project, a particularly painful situation for both parties. This often leading to squabbles between the designer, who has spent months building ‘the perfect site’, and the SEO brought in too late in the day who comes in to delicately/not so delicately tear it to pieces.

This is not the only problem, but historically, it’s not hard to see why the two haven’t always seen eye to eye.

To me, communication is the key, and I asked my lovely designer/developer friend Sii Cockerill for his opinion, to which I received an very insightful response:

“I’ve worked alongside SEOs as a Web Designer and Developer since 2002 and it’s fair to say that it hasn’t always been the easiest ride. But over the years, I’ve found that I have developed great relationships with Digital Marketers and the key to success in those relationships has always come down to the same thing – communication.


In my experience, conflicts between an SEO and Designer often revolve around a lack of appreciation for what the other party has to do / is doing in order to get the job done. And there’s the key – getting *the* job done. Not different jobs. The same job – with the same result. Which is invariably to produce a website or page that is easy to use, loved as much by Google as it is by the Customer and satisfies all the criteria set out for it by both the Marketer *and* the Designer.


 Ok, I know – that all *sounds* great. But how do the Marketer and the Designer agree on the criteria?


 If you’re asking yourself that question, you’re actually half way there already. Agreeing the criteria means that the Designer and Marketer will actually have to discuss the project – massive win! Digital Marketers are often on the front line of a business, they’re making decisions that can really affect the bottom line and as they are under pressure to get stuff done, they often fall into the trap of perceiving Designers as the resource they use to achieve their goals. This kind of attitude will leave you missing out on all kinds of opportunities for success”

And Finally…

How Can Designers Help SEOs?

  • Involve your SEO in the decision making process and agree a plan of action together
  • Keep your SEO aware of new developments every step of the way right from the start – you won’t always know what impact a relatively small change could make
  • If you don’t understand why your SEO requires something, ask. The more understanding we have, the better equipped we are to deal with hurdles that will inevitably arise

 How Can SEOs Help Designers?

 Sii: “The biggest recommendations I can make for SEOs working with Designers are:

  • Take time to discuss your project with your Designers & Developers
  • Empower the Designer with knowledge – explain to them what you are trying to achieve
  • Listen to them – really understand what they want to achieve and why
  • Compromise – some criteria you discuss may have short-term benefits, others long-term – weigh up the value of each and plan a schedule for achieving them all”

Ultimately, think of yourselves as a team – you’re trying to achieve the same goal and you’ll do a better job together.

Every digital marketer and every designer has experienced different working relationships and enviroments, have you picked up any tips along the way that might help grease the wheels of design/marketing departmental relationships?


Written By
Laura is a Digital Marketing Consultant with Aira Digital & Advance Promotions. With search experience in a large number of industries both in-house and agency side, Laura has a strong interest in conversion optimisation and web psychology.
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