SEO for the Property Sector: Part 3 – Web Design and Development
The design of your site and the optimisation of behind-the-scenes elements are two vital considerations when it comes to promoting SEO-friendliness, as well as giving your visitors a better experience.
Depending on the state of your current site and its architecture, undertaking an SEO campaign might necessitate some changes. This can range from a complete overhaul, to some relatively minor cosmetic alterations and anything in between.
There are a wealth of situations where choices in this regard can help or hinder your SEO campaign, but as this a beginner's guide, we'll shy away from focusing too much on the technical elements.
As mentioned previously, your website is not for you – it's simply another marketing asset. As such, it should be built from the ground-up with your prospective customer's journey in mind.
Usability should trump all other concerns, even in the infrequent cases where this could negatively impact how indexable a page is or detract from its search-friendliness.
There's a myriad of possibilities when it comes to the design of your website and as long as it's fairly standard in terms of layout and navigation (e.g. not an animation-heavy site that's set out like a book whose pages you turn) – there's few inherently bad choices.
There are choices aplenty to be made, however. Unless you've got some hefty in-house web development capability, you're likely to be outsourcing your efforts – so don't be afraid to ask for advice and guidance if you want to get hands-on when it comes to designing your site.
Picking a web developer: Web developers are a dime a dozen, which can make ferreting out the right one an uphill battle. There's no silver bullet for finding the best agency or freelancer, but some of our top tips include:
Ignore spammy emails
Peruse as many examples of their work as possible
Check case studies and if possible, references
Find out if they've worked with your sort of business before
Be clear on what it is you're getting and in what time frame you'll receive it.
Timing: Website redesigns and refreshes can take months to complete, depending on what needs changing, so it's vital to plan ahead. You can speed up the process by having a clear idea of what it is you're aiming for and quickly coming to an agreement on design elements once you have a mock-up or staging site.
If you don't engage with the design process in a timely manner or suddenly come back to your developer with a raft changes further down the line in the site's development, expect delays to mount up.
Content Management System: As we've previously stated, the key to being found online is producing genuinely good content that people want to use and share. A content management system (CMS) provides the foundation for this – enabling you to seamlessly update your site copy, blogs and news articles without having to go through your web developer.
There's a range of options in this regard and which you choose will largely depend on how technically hands-on you want to get. For the majority of SME-sized companies with no internal web development capabilities, however, we'd recommend investing in something simple like WordPress.
This CMS is by far the most popular of its kind – likely due to its ease of use, customisability and the fantastic support it receives from both its developers and third-party programmers, who create a wealth of themes, plugins and other assets that it can integrate with.
Design Elements: The Structure of your site
The first thing you'll need to decide is how your site will be set out, although if you're outsourcing, your agency should have some suggestions on this front. The pages you want to make most prominent should be informed by the keyword research and persona development we covered in part two of this guide.
The layout of these pages and the way they link together will not only determine the path of the visitor's journey on your site, but will also affect how search engines index it and how pages pass PageRank 'equity' (also known as linkjuice or SEO juice) – a measure of their perceived popularity – to other pages on the site.
If you try and cram too much on a single page, it can detract from its search friendliness. On the other hand, if you try and break down your site into too many sub-pages (especially if these take several clicks to reach from your homepage), Google might not be able to index these properly and the amount of equity they receive from your homepage (where the vast majority of external links point to) could be diluted.
Although it's worth noting there is some debate on how much of a role this plays in SEO and Google's Matt Cutts has said this doesn't pose much of an issue in terms of affecting your site's rankings in search results.
If either method is taken to the extreme, this can also have a negative impact on how usable your site is – putting off prospective customers and in some cases, detracting from its perceived popularity in the eyes of Google (if visitors quickly return to the results page after being bamboozled by your site for instance).
Therefore, as a rule of thumb, you should look to create a structure that's akin to a pyramid with your homepage leading to sub-directories, which in turn lead to pages. Some pages, like 'Contact Us' will need to stand-alone, however, and that's fine. Similarly, if you offer a wealth of products that are subject to change (e.g. residential properties), some sprawl is to be expected.
Design Elements: URL and Navigation Structure
To boil this complex element down to its essence, you want a URL ('universal resource locator' or the address of a particular page on a site) that reads something like:
As opposed to
While search engines have got exponentially better at 'indexing' (reading) the latter example (known as a 'dynamic' URL), there's still a range of issues that make 'static' URLs like the first example preferable in the majority of cases – particularly from a usability point of view.
Having said that, dynamic URLs can be unavoidable for some sites (particularly those that create pages for users based on information pulled from a database) so if you need to use them – don't worry too much.
Design Elements: Site Layout
There's a wealth of debate and resources on best practice when it comes to site layout, but in general – there's no such thing as a perfect layout for SEO and one layout won't generally perform worse than another (unless you've top-loaded a page with too many ads). However, despite recent updates to improve Google's indexing of non-HTML content, you may risk hindering your SEO efforts by hiding content away in ways that can't be indexed (e.g. in Flash animations, Java or AJAX).
Similarly, if you try to over-optimise pages or stuff in so many keywords that it becomes unreadable – this is likely to detract from your user experience and negatively impact Google's estimation of your site. There also are several elements that can affect your visitor's journey and in turn, traffic and conversions.
What design you opt for will largely be determined by the product or service you offer and the journey you'd ideally like a prospective customer to take. There are some general points that are likely to affect the user's journey, however:
Above-the-fold versus never-ending scroll: First impressions matter and for a long time, sites focused the brunt of their efforts on optimising 'above the fold' – which is the portion of the website that a visitor would first see when a page initially loaded without having to take any action.
However, more and more people are accessing the web via mobile phones and tablets, meaning where exactly 'the fold' is can differ between devices. Similarly, the rise of stream-style sites like Facebook, where users can scroll endlessly, has arguably conditioned people to want more, further down the page.
Which you opt for will hinge on how you expect your customers to access your site (e.g. desktop versus mobile), the type of people you expect to visit your site and personal preference. There's compelling research for both sides of the discussion – so read around and make up your own mind.
People Read in Fs: Eye-tracking research has shown that when people interact with the web, they tend to read in F-shapes. This layout is evident on Google's search results and other popular websites – so be sure to take advantage of this information and set out your site accordingly.
Breadcrumb Navigation: Breadcrumb navigation enables users to keep track of where they are on your site via a friendly trail that shows them how they got to their current location and enables them to backtrack by a single page or multiple steps at a single click.
Breadcrumb navigation is almost always a good idea – even for those with a vast range of constantly-changing products, so if your design agency of choice has opted not to include it – make sure you understand the rationale behind this choice.
Design Elements: Use of Links
How you use links on your site is a vital consideration in terms of both usability and making your pages as visible to search engines as possible. While we could easily take up an entire guide with this one topic, some of the most important considerations include:
Cross-linking – This refers to the way you link related internal content. It's a vital consideration for those aiming to make their site search-friendly and can also make it easier for visitors to navigate between pages.
Internally-linked pages pass value in the eyes of search engines (a quality known as 'equity' or sometimes 'link juice') and can help enhance their ability on relevant search engine result pages.
Anchor Text – The way you link between pages is also well worth paying attention to, especially for those with sprawling sites. The text that is clicked on to activate a hyperlink is known as 'anchor text' and can be an essential asset in promoting search friendliness.
We'd always advocate designing primarily for the human user as opposed to search engines and if it makes sense to use 'click here' from a design point then do so. However, using descriptive anchor text is an easy way to enhance a page's relevancy in the eyes of search engines, so it's well worth bearing in mind. For example:
Most users will be familiar enough with the way links work to forgo the prompt, but don't try anything fancy in this regard. Be wary of hiding hyperlinks within confusing colour schemes or concealing them with any of your design choices.
Design Elements: News/Blog
I'm not exaggerating when I say the way you should set out the news and blog style content on your site is a paramount concern in terms of both SEO, the general usability of your site and whether or not your content gets read.
It'd be impossible to sum up the intricacies of such a complex issue in a couple of paragraphs, but fortunately, you can check out our stand-alone resource on Neglected News Sections for a full breakdown.
From the Horse's Mouth
Since we're not designers ourselves, we thought it'd be good idea to get the perspective of an industry veteran on how site development can impact usability and SEO. To that end, we petitioned Xavier Riley, web developer at OpenCorporates – the world's largest open company database – to share his thoughts:
"When looking for good user experience, I've found it pays to go with three simple ideas:
1) Tried and Tested designs: The top and left of the page are still the most important areas, as proven by numerous usability studies. Readers will scan your content in an 'F' shaped pattern looking for information that's relevant to them. If your prime content isn't positioned prominently or is below the 'fold' you'll be losing potential customers.
3) Don't rely on Search: whilst having a great search is an asset to any website, you need to match it with a comprehensive linking structure, especially if you have thousands of products or links to display. Make use of facets and filters to allow people and search bots to drill down into your site easily. You'll benefit through increased sales and SEO.
In addition to all of the above, don't overlook real user testing before launching your site. There are great solutions out there that don't cost the earth and you'll fix problems before they get shown to your customers and readers."
Do you have any thoughts on web development and its role in SEO? Or have you had any experiences – good or bad – when undertaking a site refresh that you'd like to share? If so, be sure to give us a shout on Twitter or leave a comment below – we always love to hear what you have to say.
Join us for part four of our guide to SEO for the property sector, when we'll be discussing the massive role that content plays in an SEO campaign, or check out parts one and two to learn more about the theory and planning behind it.
But if you're looking to learn more about SEO and online marketing in the meantime, don't miss out and download our definitive beginner's guide for property companies now.
Images used courtesy of Efraimstocher and K2_UX on Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons.
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