Does an SEO redesign have to suck?
March 23, 2008 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Does a website that has had the full SEO treatment have to suck?

Sorry if this goes long...

I have a small client for whom I do all their print collateral. They have a nice, smallish website. It's not a cutting-edge site, by any means, but it's nicely designed and seems to get a lot of compliments from their clients, who find it very easy to navigate and find what they are looking for. The design nicely reflects the company image the owner wants to reflect...soft, friendly and personal.

In the past couple of months, the owner has gotten involved with a local marketing shop that touts their SEO expertise. They studied the website and gave the owner a page-by-page detailing of all the changes they want to make to the website. The owner, in turn, asked me to look it over for her and give her my opinions. This is causing me a lot of grief.

After reading through the recommendations, it seems to me that, at least for this particular SEO firm, the ideal they are shooting for is some circa-1998, text-only website. I understand the whole "repeat key words over and over and over" concept of SEO, but at what point do you say "no" in order to retain some semblance of uniqueness and personality?

This client's website uses images for page titles, incorporating typography that reinforces the company personality. Each image does include quite good alt tags for the images and it's my understanding that these should suffice in lieu of a text-only approach. The SEO firm, however, wants to get rid of these title images and do everything in plain text. This is one of the bigger issues I am having with my evaluation as this will really kill the personality of the site.

Browsing through some of the SEO firm's "successful" website remakes, they all seem to be built on the same standard template with absolutely no individuality or identity save for different color combinations and a company logo slapped in the upper left corner. IMHO, they suck. I fear that this is what my client will end up with if they accept all the SEO firm's changes.

This is putting me in an odd position. I've been working with this small firm for many years and have worked hard to project their image through my print work. My fear this SEO re-make will sacrifice their online image in the search for the holy grail of a higher Google position.

So, I guess my question is...Have any of you been in this position? At what point do you say "no" to optimization and opt to retain personality? How comfortable are you at providing feedback for another firm's proposal when you really have no idea just how much of this stuff is actually critical to the goal? Does a website that has had the full SEO treatment have to visually suck?

Obviously, I want to retain the print work. I don't want to be in the position of offering opinions that might torpedo what they are trying to accomplish and piss everyone off. And, in general, I don't like being in the position of criticizing another shop's work in a project I am not a part of. But, the overall tone from the SEO firm seems to be an "all or nothing" position. Make all the changes or you will epic-fail. I guess I feel I need to be able to suggest alternatives to the full-text redesign that will still improve the site's visibility. I mean...she is asking for my opinion.
posted by Thorzdad to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Specifically regarding the issue of images vs text, you should investigate the many techniques for having it both ways. A common practice is hiding an element's text using the CSS display, visibility, or text-indent properties and displaying an image instead using background-image. SEO-friendly text-based semantic markup, but pretty images displayed in the browser.
posted by emmastory at 8:16 AM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thorzdad:
"My fear this SEO re-make will sacrifice their online image in the search for the holy grail of a higher Google position. "

Personally, if it was me, I would just tell them that. I understand your apprehension to criticize another firms proposals, but your opinions (to me) sound pretty legitimate and educated. If you make the (above) argument, you'll want to be able to backup your opinion with as much evidence as possible. Have the owners of the website seen the other projects the SEO firm has worked on ? (if not, they should definitely see them, along with your analysis of how similar they all are). Another angle you might want to emphasize is that having a unique and personal website can be as (or more) effective than SEO, because their customers will remember a positive mental image of the website, and be able to describe it to potential clients easily.

A few years back I was involved in a project to redo a school districts website. The firm they hired started proposing a whole slew of CSS based designs that were all horribly "boxy" and text based. I'm no graphic artist, but I threw together some rough Photoshop examples of things I thought were better, and proposed them (even sent copies to the design firm). They were considered, (but not chosen).. but neither were the first round of proposals from the design firm. Eventually, after about 6 months of back and forth.. they settled on a half-way decent design.

My advice.... dont back down if you think you have good ideas. Even if they arent chosen, your client will appreciate that you are so passionate about helping their business make the right (well informed) decision.
posted by jmnugent at 8:23 AM on March 23, 2008

Give her your opinion.

I don't know anything about SEO. And I'm generally skeptical about "all or nothing" pitches (fear may be a great motivator, but using it as a business tool is terrible way to behave).

So maybe there's a way you can add some "optimization" to the copy without sacrificing the client's other goals for the site.
posted by notyou at 8:24 AM on March 23, 2008

My suggestion is to recommend your ideas firmly and rely on your past experience with them.

If that doesn't fly, and I'm not sure how viable or cost-effective it would be, but an alternative is to create an SEO-optimized version to run alongside the primary site. This also allows the SEO site to have specific tracking URLs that may help target their market, etc.

A client of mine is doing this successfully - not for the same reasons you cite, but because they are targeting different markets with different sites.
posted by disclaimer at 8:31 AM on March 23, 2008

Best answer: Having done web-design/development for more than a decade, it's my opinion that a lot of SEO is snake-oil. There are some good firms and practices out there, but there are far more people who are taking advantage of people who don't realize how much guess-work is really involved.

I agree whole-heartedly with emmastory. If your SEO firm thinks you have to change the whole design of the site to optimize it for Google (as long as it's not some flash-only monstrosity right now), they're not very good at the technical design / construction and really all they should be trusted to do is give your real designers some tips on ways to make the site more search-engine friendly.

Stepping off the soap-box for a moment, understand that the Google PageRank algorithm is a trade secret. None of these SEO people really know what it is. Very few (I've never seen one) have done anything resembling "scientific" experiments to try to isolate or identify even little parts of the algorithm.
posted by toomuchpete at 8:37 AM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: SEO improvements can be made incrementally and you will see incremental improvements. We just got a google boost by introducing a site map, something that had nyet, zero, no impact at all on our users or what they see.

I am far, far from the SEO expert on my team, but based on my limited exposure to what we've been doing on the SEO front, it seems like our most successful SEO efforts are those that also help to surface content for our users. Adding better navigation to scroll back through pages of our results helped with our google indexing -- and made the site more user friendly. Adding proper alt-texting to images increases SEO, and enhances the experience for people with slow connections or screen readers.

There is no point in doing SEO things at the expense of providing a good user experience once people make it to your site. Just getting them there is not enough.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:50 AM on March 23, 2008

Best answer: This is my approach to SEO :

All the gimmicky shit that people try to tell you to do - like keyword density and things like that - is bullshit and should be avoided. In some ways, it's like an arms race. The SEO folks come up with something, the search engine people invalidate the tactic, the SEO people come up with something new, etc. It's a vicious circle, and there's no winning.

HOWEVER, there is a very clear way to make your site more SEO-friendly AND user-friendly. Work on accessibility. Anything that makes your site more accessible will make it more naturally SEO friendly. When you follow this path, you'll notice that the folks at Google, Yahoo, etc are actually trying to help you. They are in the business of categorizing content, and if you can do their work for them, all the better. They'll even encourage you to use these"white hat" SEO practices. For example, do you use meta tags? Are your URLs search-engine friendly? Do you use sitemaps? These are only a few things, I'm sure there's more.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:17 AM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

(on post, what jacquilynne said)
posted by Afroblanco at 9:18 AM on March 23, 2008

Best answer: A lot of the SEO advice you describe sounds like garbage. Remind the client that there are two ways to get to the top of a google search result:

1) Have the definitive site about a subject with a great design, good photography, and a good honest voice that draws people to it as a resource. People will like it, enjoy it, get something out of it, and share it.

2) Have a highly tuned and optimized site loaded dense with keywords, important text highlighted wherever possible, and is coded in a very specific way. All these techniques are to trick search robots into liking your site with no thought to what human visitors may think (which doesn't matter since it's really about the robots). Also keep in mind as Google changes their methods every few months, you'll have to continue to hone your site for their robots.

It seems obvious to me which approach is the best way, the easiest way, and the most honest way.
posted by mathowie at 9:42 AM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Trust your gut. Getting a higher ranking in Google results, only to look like complete ass when all of those Googling people come to your site, is not a particularly smart business decision. It smacks of near pathological despair. "I did this to myself for YOU!" I wouldn't trust an SEO firm with a small business' identity, and have seen once or twice how badly a site can be fucked by an owner getting the SEO religion from markers who are very good at marketing their own SEO philosophy if nothing else.

SEO is, in my opinion, something best performed in the broader context of a web team, where there's some balancing pull from the creative dept., the brand id people, the usability folks, business strategists, and whomever else has their fingers in the pie. Bringing an SEO firm in solo is destined to completely warp and distort their influence on aspects of the site that would be mitigated by people who know what nice things look like and how people like things to feel. So, what many others have said: DIY user experience improvement is the best path to search engine optimization in this situation. Thank the marketing wizards for their 10-steps to brand destruction document. Scour it for things that you feel comfortable implementing, discard the rest, and wave bye-bye.
posted by mumkin at 9:43 AM on March 23, 2008

Seconding Afroblanco's recommendation. If they're not selling Credit Card Consolidation or Online Poker Deposit Bonuses, then keyword density is much, much less important than just being very clear with the site's navigation, URLs, and metatags.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 9:44 AM on March 23, 2008

Response by poster: Wow.
Thanks everyone! You all really confirmed my thoughts about the whole SEO thing, and gave me some very good ideas/solutions to run by the owner. She is very protective of her business' identity so I'm pretty certain she will take a lot of this to heart.

Looks like I'll be handing-out "best answers" by the bushel today.

For the record, this is for an adoption agency.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:18 AM on March 23, 2008

Best answer: In some ways, it's like an arms race. The SEO folks come up with something, the search engine people invalidate the tactic, the SEO people come up with something new, etc. It's a vicious circle, and there's no winning.

To build on what Afroblanco said, when you are conversing with your client, help them see their project through the SEO firm's lens. Of course the SEO firm would try to recommend every SEO technique in the book and not consider other elements of the site (such as accessibility, user experience, quality content, etc.) Because that is not their expertise. Of course they wouldn't emphasize the vicious cycle of search engines constantly invalidating SEO techniques which leads to more changes to the site because that cycle makes them a profit. If you rely purely on the latest SEO trick to increase your rankings, you become locked into a business relationship with your SEO consultant who is feeding you new gimmicks. It makes complete sense that this company proposed what they proposed and it doesn't necessarily paint them as a "bad" company. It's their niche.

By delivering this evenhanded appraisal of the SEO firm, you change your position from adversary to advisor in the client's eyes. You can then encourage them to consider what they gain and lose in adopting a purely SEO site redesign.

In consulting, we used to call this "sitting on the other side of the table" with your client. It's a useful technique for helping them to drop their defensiveness or becoming less entrenched and seeing a different perspective. As well as changing your position on influencing them.
posted by jeanmari at 10:50 AM on March 23, 2008

Best answer: Echoing Afroblanco, the best SEO optimization you can give your site is simple - run it through a "common-sense machine." In other words, use all of the "best practice" rules for designing websites. The bedrock of this is to make your site valid (X)HTML. This alone goes a long way in helping your SEO for a couple reasons:

1) It "forces" you to separate code from design, which makes your code lighter and ultimately easier for search engine spiders to index, categorize, and sort. It's easier for Google to find the content it needs if it doesn't have to sort through blocks of 'code soup' to get to the essential data. So break all of your CSS declarations into external CSS files and harness the power of CSS to do MORE with LESS. Other benefits are faster download and rendering in the browser.
2) If "forces" you to use HTML tags the way they were meant to. For example, nesting header tags properly will help your SEO because it helps Google understand relationships between data, i.e.
<h1>U.S. Presidents</h1>
<h2>George Washington</h2>
<h2>John Adams</h2>
This begins to give semantic structure to your data, because you can infer that both Washington & Adams were U.S. Presidents because their sections are nested under the first header as dictated by the way HTML renders the tags.
3) It "forces" you to design towards greater accessibility - for example, requiring "alt" tags on all your <img> tags not only makes your site easier to use for the vision-impaired, it also helps your SEO.

There are many more benefits to making sure your site uses valid (X)HTML, but as you can see, doing so as a first step will improve your search engine score without doing any actual SEO magic. The benefits of having valid code cascade (mind the pun) all the way down and across your site by improving everything from bandwidth, rendering speed, easier-to-read code, accessibility, SEO, and more.

All of this should be done regardless of your desire for better search engine scores. Better scores are simply a byproduct of using standard best practices for designing websites. Icing on the cake, if you will.

You can validate your code at or use the excellent Firefox addon: HTML Validator for Firefox
posted by afx114 at 11:28 AM on March 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

This doesn't address your actual question (which has probably been answered well enough all ready), but you can probably compromise with the SEO people on the issue of using images as headings if you use some kind of image replacement. I've used sIFR on some CMS sites and it was pretty sweet. In theory it shouldn't effect the way your page is indexed one way or the other, but it would let you keep the fancy headings you like, and it might make the firm happy.
posted by Hildago at 11:59 AM on March 23, 2008

Google has some resources with "official" tips on optimizing your sites for the googlebot.
How can I create a google-friendly site? on successful site architecture
(and more)
If you can implement these recommendations without redesigning you site, do so. If the SEO guys try to push their methods, you can cite Google, whereas they can cite ... nuthin'.
posted by misterbrandt at 12:17 PM on March 23, 2008

Best answer: There's lots and lots of great advice here, so can I give you some advice about how to present it? Presumably you'll be sending her an email about your thoughts on the SEO firm's proposal, and as I re-read your question it occurs to me that you've already done a great job summarizing your position. Your question is clear, concise, passionate, and shows a true affection for your client. For a designer, you're a pretty good writer. (That was a joke; calm down, everybody.)

I'd recommend reworking this post into an email to your client, with additional (short) points plucked from this thread. You have something the SEO firm will never have: a personal interest in how the site does.

I'd keep the email relatively short--you don't want to rain an avalanche of facts down on her head--but make it clear that you can tell her a lot more about it if she's interested.

And, of course, the way you come at this is important: a screed against SEOs, no matter how well-deserved, could make her feel like you think she's dumb. I think your stance should be "I think it's awesome that you care about helping the site get discovered, but I'm not sure how useful this firm is..." etc.
posted by Ian A.T. at 2:49 PM on March 23, 2008

some very good points were made above, particularly afx114's comment, the stuff about accessibility and others. i totally agree that most of the best SEO is common sense stuff you would do to create a good site and be clear about what your site (and the pages therein) are about. typically this doesn't need to have a huge impact on the visual design of the site, especially if you're using css well.

that said, it seems like there's a lot of negativity about SEO firms in general in this thread which seems a bit much perhaps. there are bad SEO firms and good ones, but i don't think there's anything inherently bad about helping businesses/organizations/site owners get found by their target audience. and i'm not an SEO professional, i just find it a bit odd.
posted by snofoam at 4:20 PM on March 23, 2008

I can't speak for the web designers, but as a user, if I click through to a site that looks like it's from the 90s, I tend to assume it hasn't been updated since then and click away.
posted by happyturtle at 8:35 AM on March 24, 2008

All helpful comments above, here's a more technical note.

Keep the page titles as graphics, if they add to the visual brand and feel. ALT attributes are good to have in place, but not perfect.

Layer on top of that a technique in CSS called image replacement.

Without going into TOO much tech blah blah blah, the idea is to show the images to visitors, but show actual text to the search engines.


Welcome to our website
(this would be the page header, with actual text in the header tag. No image (yet)

Now, in the CSS (doing fast psuedo code here for illustrative purposes)
background-image ('file name of welcome page header text image)
set it to no repeat
text-index -9999

this pushes the text off the screen (9999 pixels to the left, very far!) and replaces the content with an image (the original graphic)

people and site owners are happy - they see nice graphics

search engines are happy - they see text in an H1 tag, which gives the page a hierarchy and topic.

Again, I'm zooming on a conversation level; your (qualified) web developer should be able to understand the details.

THat's just one aspect of organic SEO that does not involve ripping apart and starting over or reducing down to an all text site.

Hope that helps.

Mike T.
posted by MTCreations at 10:27 AM on April 30, 2008

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