Last week I participated in a panel discussion about SEO hosted by AIGA Vermont,  the VT chapter of the national organization for design professionals.  Together with my counterparts at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Gardener’s Supply, Tom Funk and Joe McHugh, we examined the topic “Designing with SEO in Mind,” sharing information about how to design a website that will look fantastic, attract search engines, and generate lots of targeted traffic to your website.

Many of the take-aways we shared with our audience of designers were, in fact, great advice for anyone with a website.  It’s important to build a site well from the start, but it’s equally important to put careful thought into the way you maintain and improve your website throughout its lifetime.  Below are some points we touched on at the AIGA Vermont event that will contribute to a great experience for both your website visitors and the search engines.

1.  Strike a good balance between content and graphics

This is key.  Your website needs to inspire trust, and an attractive, professional-looking design is important to that end.  However, search engines are much better equipped to digest easily readable text than beautiful pictures.

Make sure each page on your site includes 300-500 words of descriptive text about the page’s central theme, and include a few keyword phrases that best summarize that theme.  Avoid long blocks of text by breaking your content into short paragraphs and including bulletted lists where appropriate.  (Note: Home page text may need to be shorter in some cases, depending on layout. Give visitors what’s most important up front, and link to interior pages that elaborate on key themes.)

2.  Optimize your media

Uploading images and videos?  Don’t forget to fill in the fields provided in your CMS (and on YouTube, etc.) that allow you to describe the media.  Include a brief, descriptive phrase about your photo in the alternative (alt) text field.  And when you save your file, name it with a descriptive keyword whenever possible. These are clues for the search engines to help them understand your images.

3.  Be mindful of load time

Because they’re focused on user experience, search engines take into consideration the amount of time it takes to load a web page.  If someone’s going to have to wait five minutes for your home page to load, chances are they’ll be sent to a different site instead.  Before you upload a photo, make sure you’ve reduced the size of the file as much as possible without sacrificing quality.  Rather than uploading a video to your site directly, consider uploading it to YouTube or a similar video service and embedding it on your page.

Google Analytics

4. Use your data

Analytics tools such as Google Analytics, an excellent free tool from Google, provide great insight into how visitors are finding and interacting with your website.  Set aside time to look at your performance data on a regular basis, and use the results to make improvements to your site.  Are a lot of search engine users coming to your site via Keyword X?  Consider building a page with more detailed information about Keyword X.  Are people not finding your site through highly desirable Keyword Y?  You may want to build out more content that includes Keyword Y.

5.    Provide direction

Help visitors and search engines find the most important pages on your site by adding internal links to your content.  Search engine robots or spiders will follow links as they come across them.  People will, too.  Make sure your home page intro directs people to the page with your current offerings (for example) or the form they can use to contact you with questions about your area of expertise.  Add relevant internal links – both image and text links – on pages throughout your website.

6.    Integrate social media

You’ve probably begun to notice: The Internet is no longer about websites. People spend their online time reading email, watching videos, catching up on news, downloading music and apps, researching products, blogging, and, especially, making connections through social media.  Search engines have responded accordingly by integrating videos, images, news headlines, and even social media into search results.

Think about ways to take advantage of this as you work on improving your site.  For starters, make sure you add Facebook and Twitter logos to your website, and link them to your profile pages. Add a Facebook ‘Like’ button and a Google+ button to your site or your blog post, so that people can easily share it with their friends.  Add a Yelp! link so that past customers can write a review. Consider adding a feed of your latest Tweets or blog posts to your website. People have come to expect, and even look for, social media opportunities to reference the websites they visit.  Establishing a strong social media presence will help expose your business to new networks of potential customers and provide more opportunities for search engines to learn about your site and gauge its value to Internet users.

Usability is one of the cornerstones of good website design, and it’s also closely examined as search engines evaluate the sites they index.    By making it easy for visitors to interact with and gain value from your website, you’ll be giving yourself an edge in the search results.

Are there other design-related practices you’ve found to positively or negatively influence your website’s performance in the search results?  Please share!

Interested in learning more about effective ways to maintain your website?  Check out past posts How To Tune Up Your Landing Pages, Understand and Enjoy Your Analytics Data!, and Social Media in the Context of Overall Web Strategy.