SEO and the Simple Website

Alfa romeo

Does your website have a nice paint job, but no engine?

“I just want a simple website.” I’ve heard that plea from small business owners so many times over the years, and I always want to answer: “Don’t we all, buster. Don’t we all!”

“Simple” is usually a reference to the site’s front end design, but I’ve learned that it also indicates a resistance to the perceived complexity of creating a good website and, of course, to price.

As Albert Einstein said, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” So how simple is too simple for a website?

The same business owner who wants a simple website will also invariably say that the primary purpose of the website is to drive new business. To drive new business you have to draw targeted traffic, and few websites will do well as lead generating machines if they are not showing up for relevant keyword searches in Google.

The backend of a website is invisible to most site owners, but it’s where many elements critical to search engine optimization must be properly configured. Unfortunately, that invisibility also makes it easy for developers to fudge on the SEO and technical issues of site developtment.

The basics of SEO are not rocket science, but if you don’t get them right, that rocket won’t take off. These days most designers and developers know the buzzwords for search marketing and claim to create “SEO friendly” sites, which is why I’m amazed at some of the colossal SEO blunders that are still being made.

A Simple Website Gone Wrong

Last year the owner of a small but prestigious professional firm contacted me for advice on a long overdue site redesign. I had helped with a bit of SEO consulting on their current site, which was ranking very well for them. “I just want a simple website,” the owner said. He ultimately found a developer who created a nice-looking site and who claimed to have the SEO elements covered. Nine months later the owner contacted me to ask why their rankings had dropped.

A quick look at the site revealed startling technical lapses.

  • the developer didn’t redirect old urls to new ones thus forfeiting years of link building work and loosing rankings permanently
  • the text logo and keyword rich tag line were displayed as an image rather than text, hiding them from the search engines. The developer seemed to realize this was a missed opportunity since they then used hidden text to code the keyword phrase instead!! This is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and could result in a penalty – something no website owner wants to incur
  • The correct Google Analytics code was not installed on the new site so nine months of data was lost
  • Because of poor site structure, one of the key landing pages had not even been indexed by Google.

In this case, much of the damage was irreparable. By the time the client contacted me, the old URLs had been removed from Google’s index so it was too late to set up 301 redirects. Google Analytics tracking code only collects data from the date it is installed so if it is not in place when a new site is launched, no data will be collected to measure the impact of the redesign. Luckily, Google had not yet penalized the site for the hidden text so that could be changed, and the logo and tagline could be recoded.

By the time all of the errors were researched and fixed, and new measures taken to make up for lost ground (I.e., in order to restore rankings, the owner would have to work to build new links to the site), the costs to the owner were much higher than they would have been for a full SEO consultation up front. The opportunity for increasing search engine exposure was also missed, not to mention nearly a year’s worth of lost leads.

Another SEO Disaster

I recently witnessed another SEO train wreck: a business owner who spent a princely sum with a large agency for a site redesign. They were pleased with the look and feel but noticed a dramatic drop in web related leads. Once again the developers had rebuilt the site with no thought given to SEO. URLs were not redirected, and the site was not optimized for targeted keyword phrases, even though the firm claimed SEO as a specialty. As a result, the site lost all Google rankings within a few months, and almost a year after the redesign Google traffic had only reached 25% of its prior level. Most of that search traffic was for branded keywords. This was a staggering loss in marketing impact for an expensive and newly designed website.

Successful SEO whispers

Successful SEO whispers

Listen Carefully. Successful SEO Whispers.

When SEO does work well the site owner and the visitor may not even notice. A client called last week excited about two new leads that came through her website. They looked like they would lead to significant new business for her firm. A savvy marketer, she asked the prospects why they chose to call her firm. The main reasons were the professionalism of the site’s design and the fact that the content made the firm seem like a good fit. Neither the site owner, nor the prospect, mentioned how the lead found the website in the first place. Their focus was entirely on what happened after the visitor landed on the site, which is understandable. The conversion process has much more psychological impact.

But this exchange struck me as a good example of how SEO can be mistakenly devalued. We learned from Google Analytics that both leads came through search and used very targeted keyword phrases. Without SEO these visitors never would have found the firm in the first place. It takes both traffic and good site design and content to create conversions, but our focus tends to be on the immediate cause of the conversion rather than the source of the traffic.

Know what you are paying for

The point of these examples is not to reinforce the old truism “you get what you pay for.” It is to encourage you to know what you pay for. Unfortunately, all the factors that go into creating a successful “simple” web site aren’t immediately apparent to site owners. Even more unfortunately, not all web developers pay attention to the back end factors that are so important to site success.

Why? One reason is that if they did, they would need to charge more for the extra time. Another reason is that since their clients don’t see these things, they can remain happy customers, thrilled with the look and feel of the site and never noticing what’s missing. Even months later, when the website just doesn’t do as well as they had expected, they will probably be unable to connect the performance problems to the development of the site.

Ask your developers specific questions about their knowledge and implementation. If they claim they will build an “SEO friendly” site, ask what they mean by that (for some, it just means they won’t build your site in Flash). If in doubt, get an SEO consultation. At the very least, read up on SEO and SEO for site redesigns so that you know the right questions to ask. Create a beautiful, simple website, but make sure it’s got the engine to drive traffic and leads.