To appeal to both Google and your users, marry design with SEO.
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In fact, to do both correctly, they have to work together. Google cares about how your site looks and feels more than you might think it does. Even if it can’t “see” it the same way a human user can, there are benefits to building a responsive website that will make your SEO more solid than ever.
Building rapport with Google takes more than keyword frequency. Here’s how you can make your website show up higher on search rankings and stand out from the pack:
1. Mobile matters.
At the end of 2017, Google announced on its webmaster blog that it was going to start indexing mobile sites first. Previously, the desktop version of a website was the one that would get indexed. But from then on, Google slowly began rolling out a mobile-first program.
Google knows what it’s doing. According to a Quartz report from media agency Zenith, 70 percent of all web traffic came from smartphones in 2017. And that number is only expected to climb.
If you want to optimize for Google when you design or redesign your site, spend some extra time working on the mobile version, since that's the one its algorithm is going to be looking at. How responsive is your text? Your pictures? Is everything tagged the same way it is on your regular site?
Using the mobile version as your main test bed — as Google will — is the best way to ensure you get all the elements right. Designing your site carefully for mobile devices will make your SEO better.
Related: 10 Fundamentals to Understanding SEO
2. User-friendly is Google-friendly.
When someone comes to your website, browses around and leaves because they can’t find what they’re looking for, you might call it a lost sale. Google calls it a bounce.
It’s getting clearer than ever that as its algorithm improves, what’s good for users is good for Google and vice versa. When you’re designing your site, if you have a clear design that’s easy to navigate, your users will be able to find what they’re looking for. That means more time on site, more engagement, more backlinks — all things Google loves. And they happen because of design.
“User-friendly, intuitive design is an underrated component of SEO,” said Damon Burton, president of SEO National, in a recent email conversation with me. “Google basically says, ‘Treat us like you treat a regular customer.' Therefore, when your site is hard to navigate and not responsive (mobile-friendly), it’s just as much of an issue for Google as it is for your users. Design and SEO aren’t separate things. If you’re doing it right, they combine to make a good user experience, which can also lead to an increase in rankings.”
3. Slow and steady doesn’t win the race.
Good design should load cleanly and quickly. Keeping your design simple and your page clear of clutter helps with page speed, which is one of the key components Google measures when it’s indexing.
As Moz’s Fundamentals guide on page speed points out, pages with longer load times tend to have higher bounce rates and lower time on page. And as an iCrossing study shows, slow pages lower your conversions.
4. Good content is good SEO.
Is your content clear, concise, intuitive and to the point?
Google loves sites that have clear and intuitive content structure, with pages that are easy to follow, keywords that are in the right places and content that makes sense.
As Copyblogger’s Brian Clark shows, if you build cornerstone content that’s clear, relevant and tailored to common user queries, you might even wind up on the Google snippet. And as Search Engine Journal notes, how-to posts, FAQs and other user-friendly pages are the easiest way to get there.
Good structure and relevant content make you rank higher and might even get you to the coveted “position 0” of search results. What’s not to like?
5. Your site map should make sense.
When you map out your site, what does it look like? Is it some sort of octopus with arms flailing in every direction? Or an overgrown hedge, with dead wood sticking out here and there where forgotten branches have died?
If your internal linking structure doesn’t make sense to you, it won’t make sense to your users either. And it definitely won’t make sense to Google. That’s why you need to put some time into making your link structure make sense. Look at your anchor text and make sure it follows best practices (Joshua Hardwick of Ahrefs has a great guide).
Make sure you’re not leaving dead ends your users will get hung up on. Is your design intuitively leading people to the right places? Your site map is just as much a function of design as SEO, so getting your design team and your SEO people in the same room to work on it is probably a good idea.
Even though SEO comes off as a very technical art, it’s indistinguishable from great web design. Google’s smarter than it’s ever been, and gaming the system is a lot harder now. To make pages that appeal to both Google and your users, marry your design to your SEO.
You might see results like this Search Engine Land example, where one firm took a site from nothing to 100,000 visitors in a few months — and they started with good-quality content and design first, before doing any SEO.
Use good design with your SEO. You can’t divorce them from each other. But if you marry them together, you’ll see the results both now and in the future.