As a designer, learning SEO may seem off-beat. I hear, you, I truly do.
However, if you’re working on anything to do with websites, it’s unavoidable that you will impact the SEO success of the site.
Even if you’re not even thinking about keywords or even trying to do SEO, your UX and web design decisions still affect it. And probably more than you may realize.
Designing a site for yourself where you don’t really care about SEO is one thing. But, if you’re working on client sites, it is your duty to ensure you’re not messing up their ability to build their business online.
And a lot of the time, it’s usually a designer’s or developer’s decision making that means SEO isn’t really set up properly during a website build. As a result, clients miss out on the chance to drive organic visibility to their business. This often means the site has to be rebuilt from scratch or significantly re-developed down the track.
As a designer, you can prevent this from happening just by improving your SEO savviness. You don’t need to learn all the SEO things. Not by a long stretch!
Here are a handful of skills that are crucial for you to look into. These are the things that have a big impact on SEO and are also a part of your process as you build a site.
Do All UX and Web Designers Need to Know These Things?
It depends on your process, your clients and your goals. So I’m going to present a few scenarios which apply to most of the designers I have worked with and you can choose what fits you best from there.
None of my suggestions have anything to do with just “ticking the right boxes” in a one-size-fits-all checklist or getting a 100% score in your SEO plugin. That’s not the biggest mistake designers make.
It’s the deeper stuff. The stuff that requires strategic thinking or an understanding of SEO research. And also the stuff that requires an understanding of how search engines actually work.
You don’t need to be the person doing all the SEO to create an SEO-friendly site. You just need to understand your points of impact and how to ensure you steer things in the right direction.
Essential SEO Skills for UX Designers
If you’re a UX designer you won’t have to worry a great deal about too many of the technical components of SEO. This is especially true if you mainly focus on front-end designs and persona or user research.
It’s more about using SEO data to make your job easier and more effective. These skills can be absolute gold for you!
They can also help you uncover deeper psychological insights about your target audience and how they think when they are on the hunt for the product or service you’re designing for.
As a UX designer, you may find that you spend a decent portion of your time figuring out what people want and how to use design to influence a particular action.
This is why I believe that the SEO process of keyword research can in fact be your secret weapon.
You can uncover a goldmine of info about the psychological and demographic profiles of your target personas. You will also see exactly what they are looking for, how they think when they are in the act of searching and how they respond to certain results.
SEO data allows you to see how many people search for something each month, and better yet, what actions they take after searching.
This information is an absolute treasure trove when designing a UX-friendly website. Whether you do the research yourself or whether you work with an SEO pro, it makes no difference. The key is in getting your hands on that data one way or the other!
SEO-Friendly Informational Architecture
There’s a lot of work that goes into designing an informational architecture that’s useful and intuitive for website visitors. SEO can actually make your job easier.
Understanding the way people think when looking for information is what keyword research is all about. By using the keyword research data, you can also create an information architecture that matches the psychology behind how your target personas think.
It’s all about understanding the intention that triggers the search behavior and the searcher’s journey from that point. From there, your information architecture just needs to provide the information that meets the intent.
In plain English, it’s about understanding what people want and then giving it to them through design and content.
Core Web Vitals
For a long time, there was no standard way to measure “good UX” on a website. Sure, we had a number of user behavior signals such as bounce rate, time on page and the stickiness of content. We also had some performance metrics such as page loading speed.
But we didn’t have a standard benchmark of what good UX was.
That’s why Google’s Core Web Vitals initiative is breaking new ground in the web design space.
The signals measured are what Google has identified as being critical to ensuring a good web experience and it’s all based on real user behavior.
From May 2021, the Web Core Vitals signals will be integrated into the ranking algorithm Google uses.
Thereby, UX will become an official ranking factor, bringing UX and SEO that little bit closer together! If you’re brushing up on the web vitals, it’s worth going that little bit extra to learn how these signals will start to impact SEO in a more direct way.
Layouts For SEO Content
SEO sure is a content-hungry beast. There is just no point tiptoeing around this fact. To the dismay of many designers, this means that your super sleek and sexy designs will at some point need to factor in content.
Lots of content.
Sometimes over 1,000 words. Other times over 2,000 words. And sometimes over 5,000 words of content.
In general, you can bank on good SEO content being around 750 – 1,300 words.
Rather than avoiding this sad yet unavoidable reality, the best thing you can do is to have some pre-designed templates on the go. Design them for ~1,300 words broken up into sections.
Have a handful of designs to match up with different content types. For instance, service page layouts will need to be different to blog post layouts!
Content Crawlability & Discoverability
This one here is definitely about you understanding how search engines work and how they develop a relationship with a website.
For search engines to successfully access content, they need to be able to discover and crawl it. The discovery part is fairly easy with most designers ensuring tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console are connected to the website.
Submitting a sitemap goes a long way as well.
Even if these weren’t set up though, search engines have other means for discovering content. Namely, hyperlinks. Search engine bots follow links across the internet and discover new content every day.
The bigger issue designers face is whether all of the content in their layouts will be able to be crawled by a search engine after the discovery phase.
Once a page is discovered, can you guarantee that a search engine bot can read all the content on there?
Hidden content sections are the number one design element that can get in the way here.
Understanding how search engines work and what kind of designs are accessible to them will ensure your front-end designs are SEO-friendly.
The Bare SEO Basics All Web Designers Should Know
If you do more than just designing the front-end and testing out the UX, you will find value in learning the following SEO skills in addition to the above.
Web designers and developers can get more hands-on with the technical setup of a site and there are some extra SEO considerations here too.
The URL structure of a site represents the back-end folder structure. It may not seem like it, but the way you label and organize these do indeed impact SEO and UX.
Learning how to properly use keywords in URLs is worth its weight in gold. It’s also one of the biggest SEO mistakes web designers make, either by:
- Not using enough keywords
- Having vague and obscure URLs
- Going overboard with keywords
- Leaving ugly, CMS permalinks that aren’t user-friendly
This skill is reasonably easy if you have practice designing an informational architecture from scratch. If you learned web design without doing a proper UX design course, however, it can seem a bit difficult since there’s a lot of strategy involved!
Having access to the keyword research for a project can help you decide on more appropriate URLs. If you’re working with an SEO pro, chances are they’ll even make the decisions for you.
If you’re not working with an SEO pro, knowing how to do keyword research, even a quick version, will certainly make this process MUCH easier for you and save you from the traps of “guesseo”!
Targeting The Right Keywords To The Right Pages
Hands down, this is the biggest SEO mystery to any web designer who has gone through the process of trying to optimize a website.
It’s one thing to just pick a keyword and to try to get 100% in the SEO plugin you’re using. It’s a whole other kettle of fish to know whether you’re targeting the right keywords on the right types of pages.
To master this skill, you’ll need to feel comfortable doing keyword research (or at least understanding the data). Then it’s about unpacking the searcher psychology.
To make sure your pages are targeting the right keywords though, you’ll need to go one extra step and ensure your design and content actually fulfills the intention. Is your page providing the thing people are looking for?
As an example, let’s say that someone is searching “what is graphic design”. That keyword is not appropriate to add to the homepage or to a service page on your design website. Rather, you need to go into some detail unpacking definitions and theory so a blog post format is the best way to go.
If you find yourself having to make decisions about which keywords go where on a website, honing in on this skill will save you a lot of headaches. You can trust me on that!
Fixing Technical Errors
This last SEO skill I’m going to leave you with is more on the technical development side. As a designer, you may not be the one responsible for getting into all the tech. But you can certainly work with a developer who can fix things for you!
In any case, if you’re offering “SEO-friendly” websites to clients and you actively advertise this in your packages, you have a responsibility to your clients to dot your i’s and cross your t’s before handing over the site.
You can use free tools to run a technical SEO audit over the whole site. The top tools I recommend include:
- Screaming Frog SEO Spider (my personal fave but can seem data-heavy)
- Ahrefs Webmaster Tools (an awesome tool with a much better UI)
- Google Search Console (awesome though has less depth on all the tech things)
The types of issues you want to look out for include:
- Content quality issues (like thin or low-value pages)
- Missing SEO information (often because developers forget to add it in)
- Broken links and broken pages (leading to 404 errors for users)
- Slow loading pages (leading to increased bounce rate)
Server issues (site downtime, authorization or timeout issues)
- Malware or hacked content
- Any other issues flagged as critical (often color-coded red in most tools)
Basically, anything that affects the site quality and trustworthiness impacts SEO in a number of ways. Running a technical SEO audit before handover is one of the best ways you can ensure that there are no issues from your end.
Competitive SEO For Designers Who Want to Rank
If you are doing SEO yourself and want your website to perform competitively in search engines, you’ll need to go beyond the skills mentioned above.
Of course, it depends on how competitive your industry is on search engines. In general, you’ll want to learn the following:
- Understanding what factors on and off a site affect rankings
- Creating SEO optimized content (and a lot more than you may think you need)
- Striking the perfect on-page balance in your content
- Promoting your content through digital PR or link building
- Building the authority of your website
- Harnessing E-A-T factors on your site (expertise, authoritativeness and trust)
- Doing competitor research and reverse engineering their strategies
There’s a lot here! BUT this is only for you if you want to go down the road of learning how to do all the SEO things so that your website can rank. If you take it all one step at a time, it’s not as hard or complicated as you may originally think!
If you made it to the end, nice work and congratulations on being one step closer to becoming an SEO savvy designer!
Remember, you don’t have to be the one doing all the SEO things. Just understanding your impact on SEO as you’re working on a site will be enough to see you improve the SEO-friendliness of your sites. And also to stop you butting heads with SEO peeps you may be working with!
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