If you’ve ever worked on a new website project or received a proposal from a web developer, you may have seen a claim like “SEO-friendly websites” or “search engine optimized design.” But can you really expect your website’s search visibility to increase just from a new design?
Phrases like “SEO-friendly web design” are a bit ambiguous, and developers’ attention to detail with SEO can vary dramatically depending on their proficiency and team. We’re sharing a list of “SEO-friendly” website considerations below so marketers can better understand what to expect from these types of claims. It’s crucial to ensure that SEO best practices are included in the scope of work or contract, so hopefully the list below can serve as a checklist to help you understand what SEO needs are included with your new site.
We also covered this topic on our agency’s podcast: The Crux. You can check out that episode by clicking the player below.
Beware the Idea of “Built-In SEO”
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that even the best web design is only going to lay a solid foundation for your SEO strategy. SEO success is dependent on your website’s content architecture, copy, keyword-oriented landing pages, and the continuous creation and iteration of content. For that reason, I tend to be wary of any web developers claiming they offer websites with “Built-in SEO,” as it’s a bit of a misnomer.
If you’re being sold a new website that has “built-in SEO” or “SEO-friendly design” and expect your search visibility to improve, you’d best make sure that the contract covers keyword research, content strategy, and most of the technical aspects listed below.
What “SEO-Friendly” Web Design Usually Includes
Basic Best Practices
You can generally expect basic SEO best practices from reputable web developers or agencies. That includes things like ensuring pages are indexable, the use of legible HTML headings and text, a properly formatted robots.txt file, and the use of a standard content management system (CMS) to allow for managing the website. You should also expect an appealing, usable design that can engage users browsing the website and prompt them to take a desired action.
Having a mobile-friendly website has long been a ranking factor in the eyes of Google, but mobile versions of websites are more important than ever for SEO. In 2019, Google started evaluating the mobile version of websites for indexing and ranking. Luckily, even most free website themes or block-builder designs are responsive to mobile devices at their core, but having a website that passes the basic standards of Google’s Mobile Friendliness Test does not necessarily mean it’s engaging on mobile devices or intuitive.
HTTPS & TLS/SSL Certificates
HTTPS (hypertext transfer protocol secure) has been a ranking signal on Google search since 2014, and it’s a crucial component of providing secure browsing experiences to a website’s users. Configuring a TLS/SSL certificate and enabling HTTPS is the norm for any solid web developer or agency, but surprisingly, nearly 30% of websites don’t use https as default protocol.
What It Might Include
The following elements can make or break the effectiveness of your new website launch. It’s important to look for these types of details in your scope of work, especially if you’re redesigning a website that already has strong organic activity.
Fast Page Load Speeds & Visual Stability
With Google’s Core Web Vitals update looming large, page speed and user experience metrics are more important than ever for SEO. SEO-conscious web developers typically focus on minimizing the amount of time it takes to load the website by properly formatting images, avoiding inactive scripts or render-blocking resources, or preventing bloat from third-party plugins or modules. With Google’s focus on Largest Contentful Paint becoming more prevalent, some developers are cutting down on excessively large, full-width hero or banner images at the tops of pages.
There’s also a renewed focus on visual stability with Google’s introduction of the Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) metric. If you’re hoping your new website will provide a fast and stable user experience, test it for yourself using tools like Google’s PageSpeed Insights or WebPageTest.org.
“Metadata” fields are HTML elements that provide high-level information about your web pages for search engines. Simply put, metadata is the text you see in search engine results, and it’s manually controllable using HTML or your website’s content management system (CMS).
Meta titles (the clickable links with bigger text in search engine listings) are major ranking factors for search engines, while meta descriptions (the smaller text below the titles) aren’t a ranking signal, though well-written descriptions can help to improve click-through rates for your website’s listings. Some web developers will offer basic metadata creation as part of new website projects, but it’s important to ensure that the text is well-written, oriented toward relevant keywords, and adherent to the length limits on search engines.
Accessibility Best Practices
If you want to maximize your chances of SEO success, it’s important that all users are able to comfortably and intuitively use your website. While accessibility isn’t an all-encompassing ranking factor for search engines, many web design best practices like descriptive alt text for images and properly ordered heading structure support accessibility, SEO, and content marketing efforts. Assistive technologies rely on these features to help users with disabilities navigate and interpret websites, so ensuring your website is accessible can help to improve user behavior metrics, and there is some overlap with search ranking factors.
XML Sitemaps are structured data files that provide search engines with a list of all site URLs for pages, images, and other assets. Properly structured XML sitemaps indicate to search engines which pages to crawl and can help with indexing reliability and speed. However, they’re often created through third-party plugins or modules, and may not be included in a standard website scope of work.
Scalability and Flexibility
So often with new websites, they’re built in a static fashion where content and navigational elements aren’t able to easily be expanded or modified. SEO is all about the evolution of content and compounding traffic with new, keyword-rich landing pages.
While blogs can help to supplement organic traffic, that shouldn’t be the only flexible area of content on your website. If you’re not able to easily duplicate page templates, add internal links, or expand or modify the website’s menus, you may not have the flexibility to develop your SEO strategy in a timely or cost-effective manner.
A Way to Track Success
How can a web developer make good on the claim of an “SEO-friendly website” if there’s no way to monitor traffic and activity sourced from organic search results? Many web developers will implement or maintain the use of an analytics platform or CRM so that you can measure any search activity post-launch, but that’s not always the case. If you depend on platforms like Google Analytics or a CRM like HubSpot to monitor your website activity, make sure implementation is included in the scope of work for your new website.
What’s Usually Missing From “SEO-Friendly” Websites
Website design alone won’t account for SEO success – creating keyword-oriented website content and preserving existing search equity can be even more important. If you expect your website’s organic traffic and lead activity to increase, the following services should be included into your new website project:
Keyword Research & Content Strategy
If your new website project doesn’t involve some element of keyword research or discussions about what searches your target market might make, it’s not likely that the new design will be a success from an SEO standpoint. Organic success hinges on having relevant, keyword-rich landing pages that can satisfy the search intent of your target audience, so it’s important to research search volume and identify target keywords.
From there, you’ll want to ensure there are corresponding landing pages for all of the keywords or queries you hope to rank for, and organize these pages in a way that’s sensible for users. This is where it can get tricky, especially for companies with diverse products or services, multiple target markets, highly technical offerings, or content needs unrelated to SEO. Unless your web development agency has in-house SEO expertise, the content architecture of new websites can fall flat.
Comprehensive URL Redirects & Archiving
When redesigning a website, it’s often essential to make improvements to URL subfolders or slugs, but that can occasionally backfire and cause a nosedive in organic traffic. Deleting or modifying URLs without checking for existing organic traffic, search rankings, or backlinks can result in disaster. It’s crucial to have someone knowledgeable of SEO riding shotgun throughout the project to help archive existing URLs, preserve search equity, and map 301 redirects.
For older websites, there are also often difficult decisions to make about transferring over older content, blog articles, and media files. By reviewing traffic, rankings, and backlinks and taking a data-based approach, it’s easier to determine whether URLs are worth saving, scrapping, or redirecting.
Some people may perceive “SEO-friendly websites” as being optimized to their max potential, but the only way to continuously increase your organic traffic is by expanding and iterating your content over time. Considering competitors’ SEO campaigns, ever-changing search algorithms, changing language habits, and the constant evolution of web design, SEO isn’t a “one-and-done” effort. Expanding (or even maintaining) your visibility on search engines requires ongoing optimization, A/B testing, content creation, and compounding organic traffic from new pages and keyword targets. Most new website projects won’t cover these long-term needs unless there’s an ongoing retainer included in your contract.
It’s All About the Scope of Work
The level of SEO detail you’ll get with your new website should be clearly spelled out in your contract or scope of work. If you don’t feel like there is sufficient detail on what SEO needs are included in your agreement with your web developer, ask for clarification on whether the following elements are included in the scope, or who will be responsible for them:
- HTTPS & TLS/SSL Certificates
- Page Load Speed/Core Web Vitals
- XML Sitemap(s)
- Robots.txt File
- Keyword Research
- Content Strategy
- URL Architecture
- 301 Redirect Mapping & Archiving
- Writing Metadata & Implementation
- Initial Content Creation and Input
- Ongoing Content Creation and Iteration
- Analytics or CRM Configuration
- Scalability and Flexibility
If you have any questions about the SEO status of a new or existing website, or if you’re looking to redesign your website, please reach out to our agency for a free consultation. Our SEO team loves working on new website projects as they provide a great opportunity to set a strong technical foundation, determine the overall keyword strategy, and map out the corresponding content architecture. We’d be happy to help ensure that your new website expands your company’s search visibility and reach and that it is scalable for years to come.