Businesses and marketing professionals alike have wondered for years, does design play a role in SEO?
Design is one of the three legs that makes your marketing platform stand. The other two being quality content and UX/development.
Instead of presenting a mere opinion about the influence of design on SEO, I’d like to offer evidence that design affects your search engine results.
Keep in mind that SEO is more often than not about improving a hundred little things rather than one or two large things.
Google Still Uses Humans To Help Guide the Ranking Algorithm
The first piece of evidence that design affects SEO is the Google Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. (By the end of this article, you’ll understand why).
What many people don’t realize is that Google still uses human search quality raters to evaluate web pages. These human raters look at web pages and see if they meet a certain set of criteria.
While these search quality raters do not directly influence search rankings, their findings are then given to Google engineers, who then try to incorporate human preferences into the search algorithm. Though Google’s ranking formula uses machine learning (an artificial intelligence known as RankBrain), this is still learning which results are most satisfying to your real-life, human customers.
What is important to realize is that humans still have input into what types of search results are preferred over others, and pleasing human visitors to your site should be your top SEO goal.
Google Search Quality Guidelines
The concept that Google hammers home in the Search Guidelines is called E-A-T, which stands for expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. Search raters are told to evaluate each site for these three characteristics. Expertise: does this organization know what they are talking about? Authority: is there evidence other people believe this organization knows what they are talking about? Trustworthiness: do I trust this site?
Human evaluators spend a few minutes examining the main content of the page before drawing a conclusion. They read the article, watch the video, look at the images, and make sure the functionality of the page is working correctly.
In other words, human raters look at the page as a whole, and not just the content in isolation.
The Google guidelines show example sites that have a clear hierarchy, expertly created content, and a positive reputation.
What Are The Characteristics Of A High Quality Page?
Interestingly, Google makes a distinction between a high-quality page and the highest quality. Best-in-class pages not only have high-quality content, but the reputation of the publisher and website are also impeccable. (Yes, your off-site reputation can also affect your rankings).
One tidbit in the Search Quality Guidelines is that web pages are shown to be very high or of the highest quality “when created with a high degree of time and effort in particular expertise talent and skill”.
Could the design of the site play a role in being evaluated as “highest quality”? You bet it can.
Can Poor Design Hurt Your Rankings?
Let’s look at the Google considers low-quality pages. According to their guidelines, page quality is low when:
- The author of the website does not have enough expertise for the topic.
- Your website is not trustworthy or authoritative.
- The quality of the main content is low.
- Whenever the site is difficult to use because it is distracting.
- The website has a negative reputation.
Google evaluates not only the content, but also the way the page functions, and how much time, effort, expertise, and talent have gone into creating the page.
Objectively, it seems like Google is saying that a high-quality page will not only have the best content, but also have a publisher with a good reputation, and the overall experience of the site will be high-quality.
It’s interesting to note that they make it a point to say that the amount of talent, skill and expertise that went into the creation of the page should be a factor in evaluating the quality of the page.
Time For Some Anecdotal Evidence
Here in Sacramento, I talk to a lot of small business owners at various business events. Occasionally, I’ll run into people that talk about how they used to rank very high many years ago, but don’t rank at all now. When I check out their website, almost every single time, the site itself looks old and dated, like a relic from a time gone by.
My theory is that Google looks not only at the content on your site, but also how much effort you are putting into updating your site on a regular basis. This means not only the content, but also the user experience, and the overall design.
Trustworthiness and Design Are Intertwined
Remember how Google looks at the trustworthiness of the site? Your customers look at your site and through the same lens.
When you look at your website as compared to the websites of your competitors, you may notice a pattern. The sites that usually ranked the highest not only have the best content, but usually have an up-to-date design.
Companies that pay attention to all aspects of their website, and continually work on improving it for customers, over time, will rank higher in search engines than companies that do nothing to improve their websites for customers.
Keeping in mind that it takes content, design, and user experience, let me ask you a question.
When all other factors are equal, what website would you rather make a purchase from: the one that looks like it’s straight out of 1995, or the one that looks like it’s from the current year?
Humans have a tendency to avoid things that look risky, and trust things that look safe. When the design on your site is old and outdated, a customer may wonder what other aspects of your business or outdated. When they look at a shiny new website, that feels more trustworthy and less risky to them.
So, what does this have to do with SEO?
Google Measures To Determine If A Page Satisfies a Search Query
Google measures are how long you spend on a site, how many pages you visit on a site, and whether you bounce a from a site, meaning you visit only one page and then leave.
When people come to your website and spend longer on your site then they do a competitor site, Google notices.
When people visit more pages on your site and they do a competitor’s website, search engines notice that.
When people do a web search, and go to a website, and then go back and search again, what conclusion would the search engines draw from that?
You can have the best content in the world, but if it’s on a website that looks like it’s a blast from the past, you should be worried about your search rankings.
The website that has the most complete information, and looks and feels like it’s current, and has the strongest brand is probably the best choice to rank above it’s competitors.
What’s More Important in SEO: Content or Design?
Here’s a good question — if you only have enough budget to invest in content or design, but not both, what should you do first?
If it was me, I would invest in content first. You can have a pretty design, but you’d if you don’t have any information on your site, it’s useless to your customers. Your customers don’t come to your site to look at your new web design. The presentation is important, but the without the depth of information and content, it’s going to be an uphill battle to rank well in search.
That said, if you and your competitors are equally matched on content, the search rankings will come down to other factors. One of those factors is going to be how much people like your site once they get there.
Investing in good design should be the same thing as investing in your production facility or showroom. Make it a priority to always be improving on your website design, and how easily customers can find information on your site.
How Often Should A Company Redesign Their Website?
After building 80 websites in the last five years for several different types of businesses, I believe four years is the maximum time you should hold on to a specific website design.
Most businesses that I’ve seen have new initiatives, new products, a new marketing that needs to be implemented in a shorter time frame than that.
Companies that are growing, and have a internal marketing team should probably bump that number up to every two years. Depending on your vertical, your competitors may also have an aggressive schedule for redesigning their sites. When it comes to redesigning the site, you should always be looking at how the website it benefits your customers, and how It can help you drive more traffic and more sales.
I believe that businesses tools should be using tools like Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and Crazy Egg to see what is working on your website, and what isn’t. This information should then be used to help guide the design of the new version of the site.
Perception Is Reality
Just like you wouldn’t open a showroom in a dilapidated building on the bad side of town, your website should also strive to have a sense of professionalism.
Perception is reality. How your customers perceive your site is how they perceive your business. And how your customers perceive your website is how search engines also perceive your business, and they will rank you accordingly.
What Most Generalist Web Agencies Won’t Tell You About SEO
This is one of the things that most generalist web design and branding agencies do wrong.
Many agencies that specialize in visual design view SEO and inbound marketing as a dirty word, not as a honorable way to drive revenue. As a result, they pay attention only to how your site looks, and not how it appears to search engines.
These. Things. Matter. When it comes to SEO.
Any website redesign should take SEO into account. If your agency doesn’t have a comprehensive plan for dealing with SEO in your website redesign, or doesn’t have a great SEO partner agency they are working with, find yourself another agency.
At the end of the day, targeted traffic is why your website exists. You can have the most beautiful site in the world, but if it doesn’t drive traffic, then it really doesn’t matter, does it?
Final Thoughts on Design and SEO
I don’t believe that great content alone is enough. Kick-ass design by itself is not enough. But when you put those two components together with a mobile-friendly, user-friendly website on high-quality hosting, what you’re going to get is good on-site SEO.
A website, and the SEO you do for that site is like any other business asset. If you don’t reinvest in it, your competitors are going to catch up to you. If you continually reinvesting it you’re going to build a solid brand that attracts customers, through search and other channels. This is the main objective of good SEO.