Top design mistakes that will destroy your website’s SEO

Elementary blunders can undo all the time and effort you put into augmenting ease of searching for your terrific content. Here’s what not to do—and how to fix what’s wrong.

You just launched a website design full of stellar JavaScript navigation, a mind-blowing Java splash page, and fancy imagery throughout the website.

Last month, you had an average of 10,000 visitors per week, and now you have only 100. What the heck happened?

Whether the site is for delivering daily news or selling fire protective clothing, it must perform well in search engines to be successful. After every redesign, it’s important to perform a site audit to find design errors that might hurt your website’s SEO.

A highly skilled designer can do brilliant things with a website’s design, but search engine optimization must be taken into consideration when shaping a new look. This doesn’t mean you have to go back to the Stone Age designs of the ’90s. Designers should work on a team with wireframers, developers, and SEO specialists to create a website formula that will be eye-catching for both viewers and search engines.

Unfortunately, most Web designers like to ignore SEO when building sites because they want to express their artistic abilities. Below is an explanation of commonly made design mistakes that will ruin your SEO:

Using splash pages

Have you ever tried reading a book that sits on the opposite side of a brick wall? It’s just not going to work—and asking Google to read a website that hides behind a splash page is not much different. Your astonishing, psychedelic Java splash page may seem like the cool thing to do, but take my advice and don’t do it. The only thing you will accomplish with a splash page is to erect a massive barrier between your website and search engines.

The reason Java splash pages create a barrier is that search engines can’t read Java. You’re basically creating a home page with no content or navigation. This will cause the home page to be indexed improperly, stranding the rest of the website from proper indexation. If you absolutely must have a splash page, then add plenty of textual content and global navigation links in the body of the page. This is still a horrible idea, but at least it will give search engines something to read.

Building an all-Java site

Ever heard the saying, “It’s like talking to a brick wall?” If you build an all Java website, search engines will be talking to a brick wall when trying to find out more about your website. When I explained the horrors of a splash page, I mentioned that it creates a home page with no content or navigation. Imagine an entire site with no content, no internal linking, and no real navigation. Basically, you have a piece of art, not a website.

On top of being completely SEO unfriendly, Java sites are annoying to use. Nobody wants to wait for pages to load. The worst Java sites are the ones where the applet is only 500×500 pixels—which seems to be a common trend with these types of sites.

Here are some words of advice if you still think a Java site is a good idea: If people and search engines can’t read the tiny, Java-embedded text, navigation links, and have to wait 30 seconds for each page to load, then you will end up with a dead website.

Using Frames

Unlike the Nike commercials, just don’t do it. Any smart designer will agree that frames are totally 1996. On top of being atrocious visually, frames will also make it extremely difficult for search engines to read your website. All that nicely written content you spent dozens of hours writing is now buried in the markup by the big, bad frame monster that wants to hide your content from Google.

Why does the frame monster keep Google away? Framed websites use three different html files to create the design. A normal website only uses one html file. This causes a major conflict with the indexation of the website, and only one file gets indexed properly.

Many framed websites won’t get indexed by search engines at all. It’s like taking all the internal linking on each of the three files, and throwing them in the ring for a royal rumble.

Using images improperly

Do not use images as your primary form of navigation. Google will get caught up admiring the vibrant colors in the pictures instead of trying to figure out what they are supposed to mean. I’m not saying to use pure text links for navigation. That would be a sin against modern Web design.

Using text-over-image techniques with cascading style sheets is the best solution to the dilemma between SEO and design. Designers get their pretty, colorful images and SEOs get their juicy text links. Everybody is happy, right?

Aside from navigation, your website probably also uses images in the content area of most pages. While Bing is gazing at your glorious imagery, it will want to know more about the main images related to the page. You can make this very easy by optimizing the image. This practice will give words to the image without sacrificing the beauty of the design. Read my article on image optimization best practices for a complete guide on optimizing images.

Forgetting about breadcrumbs

While hiking in the woods, you forgot to leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Now you are hopelessly lost and can’t find your way back home. Does this sound like your website? Breadcrumbs not only help make the website more user-friendly, but they also help search engines figure out the hierarchal navigation structure. They also reduce the need to overly expand the navigation bar with unnecessary categories.

If properly implemented, breadcrumbs create an internal linking matrix which will greatly improve search engine performance. Flashy Java-based breadcrumbs may look cool, but nothing performs better than good old-fashioned text links. Text links are easily read by search engines, and they allow for anchor text.

Use one of your targeted keywords for the page as the anchor text for the breadcrumb. This will help search engines determine, “Oh, hey, this page talks about respirator fit testing equipment.”

Using images in place of content in headers

Going back to the section about using images properly, don’t replace content with images. Using cool graphics with text for headers may look awesome, but it will hurt your SEO.

The purpose of using header text is to emphasize the importance of keywords in the content to search engines. If you don’t use proper h1 tags, you will be depreciating the value of your content. This brings me to my next point about not using header text at all.

Not using header text

Using header tags establishes the hierarchy of importance of content sections within a page, enabling search engines to determine the importance of text. The h1 tag tells Google that the text contained within is the most important, overlying idea of the page—which is why you will want to include a keyword in it.

An h2 tag tells the search engine that this is a section describing the h1 tag. The h3 sections are read as subsections of the h2s. Any decent designer should be able to easily come up with a creative, eye-catching method of displaying header text.

Using pop-ups

Pop-up windows are the most obnoxious design error a designer can make. Not only will most browsers block pop-ups, but most users will close the window immediately because it is annoying. Search engines also find your pop-ups to be annoying; they won’t even index pop-ups as part of the website. Do you really want to infuriate visitors and Google? If it looks like spam, reads like spam, then it probably is spam.

Using inconsistent layouts on the site

Even if you think a backpacking trip to the middle of the Mojave Desert without food or water sounds like fun, don’t do it to your website. Every website should implement global navigation and footer links on every page. A global navigation bar is the main navigation bar that is on each page. By adding this, your viewers and search engines will never get lost on the website. If you decide to omit this suggestion, take a gander at your analytics. The exit pages with the highest number will probably be the forgotten pages you stranded out in the middle of nowhere. Search engines will also look at this neglect as poor internal linking structure, which will hurt your search engine rankings.

Using geo-redirecting

On multi-language sites, nothing is more convenient than adding in automatic geo-redirecting to the correct language. Geo-redirects read the geographic location and language of your computer to determine what language the website should be displayed in, and redirect you to the proper language-bearing website.

If users are automatically being redirected away from the home page, you will lose 50 percent of the link juice from your back-links. Most inbound links point at the home page, so why would you want to tell Google and Bing to go somewhere else? Sure, it’s very convenient and makes perfect sense to automatically redirect, but it will hurt your SEO.

The least inconvenient solution to this problem is to have a “pick your language” option on the home page. By having users manually pick their language, you get the full strength of your inbound links. BMW does a good job at directing traffic to the correct geographic website with a drop-down menu. BMW also has a different domain and website for each country, and does their SEO separately for each site.

Embedding videos improperly

Videos are a great way to engage your audience in the subject matter. Custom pop-up media player scripts are an impressive way to capture the attention of viewers, but they won’t help your SEO. Again, custom media players are usually done with Java—making it impossible for search engines to read. It may sound a bit tacky, but embedding videos directly from YouTube will give your videos optimal search performance.

Using proper metadata, optimization, and embedding from YouTube will create a cinematographic atmosphere that Google can understand. Yes, YouTube does convert video files into Java, but Google acquired YouTube not too long ago, and has set up options to make the videos crawlable. Read my article on YouTube video optimization for a complete guide on how to do this properly.

Botching the 404 error page

Implementing a custom 404 error page is a must-have for any website, but it must be done correctly. If you take the time to make a 404 error page, spend the extra few seconds it takes to add links to help users return to the website. Forgetting this very simple task is like throwing someone over an electric fence then telling them to come back.

Use our custom 404 page as an example. It’s humorous and has nice graphics, but it also includes global navigation, footer links, and a button to return to the home page. Don’t strand your audience or search engines.

Having broken internal links depreciates the value of your internal linking structure, which search engines don’t like. If you don’t include links in your 404 page, Google will place more weight on broken links as being a website error during indexation.

Skipping the footer links

Proper internal linking structure with text links is mandatory if you want your site to perform well. Think of the footer links section as a secondary form of fully optimized navigation. This is the place where you can really smash in that juicy anchor text, and very few readers will notice it.

This is also a place where you can include links to pages that you don’t want to place any emphasis on like the sitemap, terms of use, and privacy policy. If you can’t think of any better places to put social media links, this is also a great place to insert them.

Not writing optimized content

Am I repeating myself? Am I repeating myself? Does this sound like the content on your website? Duplicate content is a huge no-no from an SEO standpoint. If Google, Bing, and Yahoo have to read the same content over and over, they will grab your website from their cupboard, throw it in a frying pan, and cook it up like the spam it appears to be.

Write original content for each page on your website. Don’t scrape content from other sites, either. It will not help your SEO. Also, make sure you are optimizing the content properly, so search engines and users read your content the way you want them to read it.

A version of this article first appeared on the Straight North blog.


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