Website owners often request the services of a web positioning firm after they realize that their websites are not achieving the desired results. It turns out that in many cases, inherent programming issues, or the website architecture itself may keep optimization efforts from ever becoming 100% effective. Therefore, the best way to improve the indexability of a website is by involving positioning experts during the initial design phases. That is when certain aspects of a web design must be properly considered and nailed down to avoid costly web positioning efforts later on, or worse yet, to not make positioning an almost impossible task once the site has been published.
Once a website has been completed and published, obtaining a good ranking from an Internet search engine –Google, MSN Search or Yahoo- usually becomes one of the highest priorities. Oddly enough, during the conception, design and programming phases of a website –in other words, during its creation- that same priority does not seem to be present in a developer’s mind, nor is requested by a client when ordering the site. And even though a web developer, with very good intentions, may use the most advanced programming techniques and the most refined graphic designs, and a webmaster may also host the site on the most modern and sophisticated web servers, the website may experience problems at a later time when it fails to appear within the top search engine results. The reason for this is typically tied to the fact that the designer never took into consideration the most basic indexing aspects of a website and also ignored the fundamentals for web usability, accessibility and compatibility throughout the design process.
Interestingly, our consultants often run into this type of situations when clients come to us asking to improve the positioning of their websites. Sometimes, clients may even be struggling with the easiest of all scenarios. In other words, their website is failing to appear on a first page of results when very specific search terms, intimately related to their line of business, are used. In such cases, the website should almost automatically appear on the top results returned by a search engine. A solution to this type of problems may be as simple as teaching a client how to properly include a title on each of their pages, or could involve a more complex and expensive approach, especially if a website has already been published. In extreme cases, we find discontented clients that after having invested significant resources and money implementing a website, they realize that their site has a difficult time competing and obtaining the expected results.
Building “search engine-ready” websites: born to compete
Are athletes born or made? It seems evident that the best athletes are those that have hereditarily received a privileged set of genes and after applying themselves through a rigorous and continuous training program are able to obtain the utmost from their natural physical abilities. Applying this concept to the implementation of websites, it has also become clear that by providing web positioning consulting services from the very beginning, that is, from the moment that the web design is conceived, we have the opportunity to ensure an end-result that is optimal and search engine-ready. By starting from a solid base, the design will not only guarantee a high level of indexability for our website, but it will make possible later on to apply more refined techniques that will improve the positioning for those search terms that can deliver the best returns in each case.
Therefore, if your company is considering implementing a website at this time, and you are convinced that one of your objectives is to achieve good rankings later on, make sure you order a “search engine-ready” implementation. To assist you in this endeavor, we offer the tips below as some guidelines that should be considered before embarking on a project to produce a “search engine-ready” website.
1. Flash: should only be used when absolutely necessary
Those websites developed exclusively with Macromedia Flash technology are at a definite disadvantage compared to the more traditional, HTML-based sites when it comes to web positioning. If animations are not essential for your website, consider using Flash only in certain areas of a page. In most cases, you will find that the end result is pretty much the same as if the entire page had been programmed in Flash. You may also develop specific micro-sites inside your main HTML-based website to capture those aspects that are best expressed using the interactive and animated capabilities of Flash. But always make sure that both the primary website structure and the structure of all individual pages are HTML-based. By following this approach, the search engines will know where and how to index your site. Finally, you should eliminate any animated corporate logos that get displayed before accessing your home page.
2. Frames: perhaps no longer a very good idea
Frames were introduced years ago primarily to expedite the download of web pages and to facilitate the navigation. Today, their disadvantages far outweigh the original benefits. If your web is currently using frames, you will notice that the title is the same in all pages (corresponding to the frameset title), that the URL address is the same for the entire website, not allowing a user to add one of your pages to their list of favorites. Finally, you will notice that occasionally, your website registers visits to internal pages that a user may have seen outside their corresponding frame, possibly without navigation menus or company information. Frames, in general, pose a great challenge to the positioning of individual pages.
3. Beware of PHP programming elegance
A number of PHP-based websites have recently been emerging that unfortunately share most of the same disadvantages that were identified for frameset structures, making the positioning of their pages an impossible task. These websites are kept inside a single URL. Software in the only dynamic page loads the appropriate set of contents by evaluating the variables associated with each link. However, from a browser’s perspective, and unfortunately, from a search engine’s perspective as well, the entire website consists of a single home page. Therefore, all the dynamic content becomes invisible to both the browser and the search engine, seriously handicapping the possibilities to compete with other websites. Regardless of how elegant a programming style is, the marketability and usability of a web design should never be sacrificed.
4. Content Management Systems (CMS) must also generate search engine-ready results
Websites of medium complexity may offer CMS capabilities, thus allowing users with no programming knowledge to add, delete or modify web pages. CMS systems are very efficient and can help decentralize the efforts associated with updating and maintaining a website. However, some of these systems were created without taking into consideration the indexability of the pages that they generated. If you are planning to let users update pages on your website, either through a CMS system, or through dynamic pages, you must ensure that the system you are putting in place requires these users to specify individual page titles, descriptions, and a different set of keywords for each page. In addition, the system should allow pages to include ALT labels for all images (this is the text that appears in lieu of images when the browser does not download them, or when a browser for the blind is used) and TITLE labels for each of the defined links (this is the text that appears inside a small yellow box when the pointer is on a link). That is the minimum set of prerequisites that should be met. Although, it would be ideal if the CMS itself automatically generated the appropriate HTML code: correct use of header labels Hx, W3C validated code, accessibility-compliant code, etc.
5. Internal search engines: do not hide your web content
Websites that specialize in e-commerce, real estate, and others that may offer a fairly large number of products or items usually include a local, internal search engine. Typically, these engines consist of a small form where users can enter the criteria that they are interested in and the system returns all available items that meet those criteria. Even though this form of navigation is extremely efficient from a user’s perspective, it makes all web content that sits behind this local search engine practically invisible to the external search engines. The automated search engine crawlers are unable to fill the small forms and therefore can never reach the resulting content. Due to the fact that many potential clients will enter very concise search terms (“bungalow in Miami”, “golf balls”, “Bose speakers”), it will be necessary to optimize and position each individual page, or product spec sheet, in this case. An effective technique that will let a search engine reach the hidden content consists of including on the home page, links to various product category pages. For example, links such as “New bungalows available for immediate occupancy”, “Discounted golf balls”, or “Speakers on sale” could be included on the home page. All these links use pre-canned search criteria to reach the corresponding content. These product category pages will typically reflect the most commonly used search criteria and therefore will be very important for our website. External search engines will be able to reach these pages and subsequently, via links such as “More Information”, will also be able to reach each individual product page. The goal is to provide paths for search engine crawlers to reach the content of our entire website.
We only selected a few examples, among the huge number of potential scenarios out there, to illustrate how decisions that were made during the conception phase of a web design can seriously impact our ability to properly index the website later on, thus handicapping its ability to compete.
Avoiding the application of sound design principles in the early phases of a web design will always require the investment of additional time and money afterwards since the repairs will have to be done on an ill-prepared and less optimized base. A website’s indexability (a must for being properly indexed by a search engine and therefore have the potential of being highly ranked for predetermined search criteria), usability, accessibility and compatibility are all fundamental aspects that must be taken into account while implementing a web design. This task could be facilitated by bringing together web programmers and specialists in search engine positioning.
It is interesting to note that the best Internet rankings are achieved even before a website is formally published.