Harnessing internet search - Part 2. By Stewart Twynham
In this second part of three articles, Stewart Twynham offers three important rules of good web design, and reveals the fact that Google is actually blind.
One caveat to the article that follows is that size matters. There are plenty of examples of hugely successful sites which break or bend the rules below - often because it’s too damned expensive for them to change anything. They win hands down by their sheer size - the size of their site or the millions of pages that link back to them. Smaller businesses with smaller websites cannot afford to break these rules in the same way.
Standards compliance is poorly understood by many web developers - especially those involved in the software side of websites, and always in “home grown” sites. Standards compliance, put simply, means to design your website’s underlying code (for example HTML or XHTML, to meet certain agreed international standards.
Compliant websites perform better across multiple browsers and platforms, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that this affects how search engines deal with websites. Even if it didn’t have an impact, standards compliance is a precursor to the next two rules, which are themselves essential if you want great results.
You can test your site’s standards compliance right now by visiting: The WC3 website validation service.
Rule 2: Structured, quality content is King
Traditionally, content has always been King: a site packed full of information will always do better than a handful of largely empty pages. Today, the quality along with the semantic structure of that page is also important.
We all know that Google can spell. There is now growing evidence that Google is also measuring the quality of web pages - including spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence length, and even the distribution of keywords - making blatant “spam” attempts futile.
Semantic structure, on the other hand, is how the various headings, paragraphs, meta tags, anchors, and other components of your page are all arranged.
Search engines use semantic structure to determine the relative importance of the words on the page, and hence how they will appear in searches. Without it, you’re already losing valuable points.
Many websites feature no semantic structure at all! Typical problems include a complete lack of headings (for example "h1" and "h2", poor use of the title element, of anchors, and a lack of supporting information on images, tables, forms, etc.)
If your web designers cannot develop a site which follows a sound semantic structure, then find someone who can. If your web designers can, then take heed of any advice they give you regarding the structure and layout of your site’s pages and templates - it’s that important.
Many websites contain content which looks very similar to search engines - and Google will largely ignore and/or penalise content that looks almost the same. You can test this by typing site:www.yourdomain.com into Google - duplication will be picked up if only a handful of pages are being displayed followed by:
In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the X already displayed. If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included.
Rule 3: Accessibility
Often misunderstood, misquoted, and seriously abused, accessibility is probably the single most important aspect of good website design for the future.
In principle, accessibility is primarily targeted at disabled users - blind people, those who cannot use a mouse, or even those who simply cannot read your website’s tiny bright yellow text on a flashing pink background.
Meeting the needs of disabled users is clearly essential if you want to include the whole of your target market. For those who still doubt its relevance, I would also like to point out that one of the most disabled users on the Internet is actually Google, after all:
- Google cannot read Flash animation.
- Google cannot see what images mean (including images used to make up headings on web pages).
- Google cannot make sense of tables used to layout pages, as this generally puts everything in the wrong order.
Google, in fact, sees most web pages in exactly the same way that a blind person would using a screen or Braille reader. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
When building your website, there are clearly things you should avoidL
- Flash animated menus
- Content embedded within Flash
- Content embedded in graphics
- Using frames.
Don’t worry - websites can still look great and be accessible - but you should expect to pay a little more if you want the very best results.
The subject of Accessibility is too vast even for several books, but helpfully, you can test your own website’s accessibility at WebXACT .
I will look at the last three important rules of good web design, including a small change which recently increased one client’s “hits” by over 400% in just two months.
Bawden Quinn Associates Ltd