There are many design considerations when creating or re-designing a Web site.
- Corporate branding.
- Providing quality content for your visitors.
- Ensuring that the site is accessible via a range of different devices to users with varying needs.
However, all of this is going to be pretty pointless unless people have a reasonable chance of finding your site via Google or another search engine. Enter the art of Search Engine Optimisation or “SEO” for short.
First of all, you may be surprised to learn that web accessibility and SEO are linked. Although web accessibility is primarily focused on supporting your disabled site visitors, an accessible site also gains distinct additional benefits — including opening up the site to those accessing the web using portable devices (PDAs) and mobile phones; those using different software, hardware, platforms, or low speed connections. To understand why this is and how it affects SEO, we need to look at one of the basic principles of accessible web design - namely that an accessible site is designed to be machine-readable. Since accessible designers do not make any assumptions about what devices will be used to access the site, they will create an underlying page structure that works as well in a text-only browser as it does within a screen reader or a cutting edge graphical browser.
Search engine spiders are also software and share fundamental similarities to browser rendering engines or any software which first parses markup and then renders, or analyses, the resultant data, according to its own internal rules. So it follows that accessible sites have SEO benefits built in right from the start.
If you find that explanation difficult to follow, just remember one key point: Google is blind and deaf. So if you cater for these user groups, you will also be optimising your site for Google at the same time.
For example, Joe has a Flash dependent web site. It looks great but disabled users cannot access its content. Similarly the search engine robots have problems crawling and parsing the content because, like visually impaired site visitors, they cannot directly extract any meaningful data from purely graphical content. In Joe’s case, he needs to create a non-Flash version of his site which, although he might not find it visually exciting, would, at least, be readable by search engine spiders and users who can’t view Flash.
So what can you do to simultaneously extend your audience and optimise your site for search engines? Here are 10 steps to boost your site’s search engine attractiveness and increase your audience of real people at the same time:
Step 1: Provide equivalent alternatives for auditory and visual content
If you use images or videos that contain information, ensure that you provide a text equivalent via the
alt attribute for images or using captions for videos. Neither blind users nor search engine spiders can “see” your images, so make sure that they can access the same information using other means. If you have sound files, offer text transcripts for your deaf users. The search engine spiders will happily grab those too.
However, don’t feel that you need to provide a text equivalent for every graphic on your site. After all, who benefits from knowing that the little graphic next to a list item is a “button”? No one. Not your blind users. Not the search engines. This isn’t data –- it’s “noise”, so don’t burden either of these groups with useless data that might distract them from your primary content. When marking up decorative images, use a null (
alt attribute which is the web equivalent of making these images “silent”.
If you’re having problems deciding whether an image is informational or decorative, imagine reading out the page to someone on the telephone. Would you describe every graphic and image? If the answer is “No”, then every image you would omit can be safely defined as “purely decorative” and of no interest to the engines.
Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to use the null alt attribute on decorative images to pack in a few more important keywords. The engines aren’t stupid. They are getting far better at recognising this type of “engine spamming” and may downgrade your site as a result. General rule of thumb: don’t try to “cheat” - it’s not worth the risk. Good SEO is like cricket - you should play by the rules.
Step 2: Do not rely on visual presentation alone
Use headings. In fact, this is such an important point that I’m going to repeat it - use headings!
HTML comes with 6 different headings (
H6). Some non-sighted users skim through a document by navigating from heading to headings, so it is important to use headers logically to convey document structure. For example,
H2 elements should follow
H3 elements should follow
H2 elements, etc. and you really shouldn’t “skip” levels (e.g., jump from
H1 directly to
H3). Search engines, meanwhile, weight text differently depending upon where it appears on the page and what markup has been used to enclose it. Since there is an implicit assumption that headings will summarise the text that follows them, the engines will give greater weight to anything enclosed in a header element compared to normal text.
The same applies to bold and italic text. Use the
em tags rather than
i. The latter have no semantic meaning to a machine so the additional importance of any text that they contain will not be communicated effectively.
Step 3: Use valid markup
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) produces formal grammars (document declarations) for both content developer and software publishers. The principle here is that both content authors and browser developers should be working from roughly the same song sheet.
OK — so this laudable principle isn’t 100% reliable in reality (who hasn’t wrestled with Internet Explorer at one time or another?) but it is still possibly the single most effective way of ensuring that your site will be as accessible as possible to all visitors - including the search engines. W3C also provide an online validation tool that allows you to check your pages against these documents. Use it and try to ensure that all of your web pages validate.
Step 4: Use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)
Specifying colours, formatting and other presentational aspects within your page markup is just so much pointless noise from the search engine’s view. This information conveys nothing about your primary content which, ultimately, is what the search engine wants to index but it does create a great deal of extra material that the bots have to navigate in order to extract meaningful data. Use XML principles to separate content from presentation and place the latter in an external style sheet. The search engine spiders will have much leaner, cleaner, data to work with and, as a side benefit, you should significantly reduce your site maintenance overheads longer term.
Step 5: Create front loading pages
Front loading is the practice of summarising the important information of a section of content in the first paragraph of the text. This has the effect of educating the reader on the content that follows, generally making it a lot easier to read and understand. As a nice side effect, many search engines will apply greater weight to the first 25 or so words on a page with any subsequent weighting reducing as they traverse downwards.
Step 6: Provide a site map
Engines love site maps. One page from which, in theory, they can access all other pages on a site. This is the SEO equivalent of handing it to the engines on a plate. And guess what? Some of your site visitors will also use a site map as their primary method of browsing your site. So create a site map, keep it up-to-date and ensure that it can be reached from every page on your site - preferably via the site navigation menu.
Step 7: Ensure that pages featuring new technologies transform gracefully
Do not assume that every visitor to your site will have the latest web gizmo loaded and ready to run. The spiders certainly won’t. They may eventually be able to extract some data from that “bells and whistles” page but well-structured and presented information will beat fancy gizmos every time from their perspective. It’s also my experience that real visitors tire of web novelties fairly quickly but will always gravitate to pages that offer clear information quickly and effectively.
Step 8: Design for device and browser independence
Don’t rely users having a mouse — or indeed any specific client-side functionality — to activate or access site features. Enhance the user experience by all means but remember to ensure that, when all the bells and whistles are removed, your content is still perceivable, operable and understandable. Whilst search engine technology is continually being improved so that it can deal with rich media, it makes sense to minimise the amount of work that is needed to extract meaningful data from your site. If your site is still usable without a mouse or a graphic display, it’s reasonable to assume that it will also be accessible to a blind, mouseless, search engine bot.
Step 9. Provide clear navigation mechanisms and links
Is it relatively easy to find every page on your site? Do you have a clear and consistent site navigation menu? Do you cross-link between pages whenever possible? If the answer to any of these is “No”, why not? It make sense to make site navigation as easy and as painless as possible for all of your site visitors - including those all-important spiders.
Swap contextual links with other complementary sites in your sector. Creating a Links page and then simply adding every reciprocal link you can get (relevant or not) will not help you or your site’s visitors. Examine your page content. Are there points within your page content where you could provide off site links to support your visitors? Do these links use generic text such as “click here” or do they give some indication of the resources that you’re linking to? Both Googlebot and your human visitors place greatest value on terse links that are meaningful enough to make sense — both as part of your page content and when read out of context. Neither will place much value on a link that offers no explicit indication of where it will lead or one that leads to a resource that is completely unrelated to your page topic.
Encourage your link partners to adopt the same approach when linking back to you. Think of it as offering added value to your visitors by creating a small network of related sites through strong, contextual, links. Google, in particular, will check how many sites link to yours (inbound links) when it calculates your site’s overall Page Rank (PR). The higher your page rank, the higher up the result listings you’ll be.