Tuesday, August 16, 2005

SEO and Effective Web Design

by Stephen Harris of www.sph-associates.com

HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU been approached to perform search engine optimization (SEO) magic on a Web site? It would seem that a lil' dab of content density adjustments, a dash of linking strategy, and an H1 tag make-over is all that is needed to give a Web site that spark. Sales will certainly follow, right? I need SEO! When I hear this, my first instinct is to take a step back and review the person's Web site. Often it is apparent that the answer to that question is, well, no. It will take more than SEO to bring on the sales.

Is SEO important? A resounding yes, of course it is. For many Web properties it's a critical element for a site's overall success. However it is not the only element for a successful online experience. Absolutely, a well optimized site, under the right keyword(s), delivers enhanced branding and establishes credibility and ultimately the coveted "free" clicks. However, what some Web site owners fail to realize is that a well crafted title tag is just one factor for success.

When discussing SEO, I first explain what SEO can do and then step back to view the complete online marketing landscape. An analogy often works best:

Think of an effective SEO as an advertisement for your coffee shop, which is well placed at a train station. Your sign for fresh brewed coffee is the first one a commuter sees, and it's enticing enough that all other coffee shop advertising is bypassed. However, when the visitor arrives at your store, they can't easily find your selection of coffees and are distracted by signs for lunch specials. Not to mention, there is no one at the cash register.

In other words, effectiveness doesn't come just from having a No. 1 ranking. It also takes an effective destination.

To create an effective Web site, marketers should, at a minimum:
Create a well integrated and seamless experience from the search phrase entered by the visitor to the first message they see when the site is displayed. Imagine the coffee shop now with a large sign displaying the available coffees and the smell of fresh roast.

Establish credibility and provide basic information on the main Web page. It's like having the local newspaper do a great review of your coffee shop prominently posted on the walls.

Provide easy and intuitive navigation; make it very easy for your visitor to find what they are seeking. A clearly defined area where you can learn more about the available coffees and someone who can answer your questions.

Establish a strong call-to-action, well positioned on the Web page. Make it easy for your well motivated, and caffeine starved consumer to purchase that fresh cup of coffee.
SEO and a poor Web site experience are like buying a cup of stale coffee. Of course, an effective SEO dictates effective use of content, but it doesn't necessarily require intuitive navigation and a strong call-to-action strategy. Further, there are some SEO practitioners that focus on the behind-the-scenes or black-hat methods, which do not aid in providing a quality user experience. High ranking perhaps, but what about the conversion?

Combining effective search optimization with an effective Web site creates a strong synergy that may well deliver the sales that the site owner is ultimately seeking. Online marketers can use SEO to leverage a better overall experience and relationship with the client by delicately pointing out that a high ranking is nice, but selling more coffee is so much better.

Stephen P. Harris is managing director of SPH Associates. He can be reached at
stephen@sph-associates.com.

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