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How To Avoid Clunky Web Design With Holistic SEO & Usability

There has been a dramatic increase this year in exploring the close relationship between website usability, web page search engine optimization and internet marketing. While some of you still meet resistance from site owners, far more of you report that clients now insist on a site designed for the best user experience that should also rank well in searches. It’s easy to say, “Hey, I want that stuff for my website,” or “I want my website to look like that one,” and still not truly understand what that “stuff” is for or why a design looks the way it does.

What is the essence of this “stuff” everyone wants for their website? What makes us want to use an application or download another mobile app? I think we may most like a website that makes it clear we as users are welcome guests.

Holistic SEO And Usability

I’ve referred to the “holistic approach to seo and usability” since the 1990’s while working for a web design company that built, maintained and optimized for search hundreds and hundreds of websites. In the process of producing such a huge volume of websites, I learned valuable lessons regarding search results, ease of use, conversions, information architecture and more. Top rankings were easy to get in the days of AltaVista and HotBot. User experience design, on the other hand, was a nightmare. Fifteen years ago the saying was, “Build it and they will come.” That myth is shattered because site owners were building websites that they liked and called it a day. They didn’t understand that a website has many parts and each one has to be taken into consideration to create a unified, centered and “present” site. Sure, that sounds a little nutty, but when it comes to down to it, conversions happen when a website is “healthy.”

Many websites get the elements and parts in place but later realize this isn’t enough. What are they missing?


The Parts Of A Website

The anatomy of a website reminds me of a human body. The head is what we call a “header” in website design speak. Just as our first impressions of a person typically start with their head and face, the same goes for a website header. The body of a website is as complicated as a human body. Anyone with a manufacturing website or one with a large inventory such as clothing or books knows how complicated the information architecture is to understand and design for. I think of the first level of a site as the “heart center.” Most of the information and site energy flow resides in the top level. This is where pages such as about, contact, products and services are placed. The first level is where users learn if they’ve reached the correct website. It only takes a few seconds for site visitors to decide if they’ll stay on a page. A common design mistake is to not fully utilize the first level. There are many areas that can be optimized for both search engines and persuasive design within the first level (and hubs) and header of a website.

The holistic designer will make sure global navigation and top level navigation links are crawlable and accessible for those who require assistive technology to use websites. This means they are thinking about organic search engine optimization and applying techniques to help search engines and special-needs users understand the content on the website. Drop down menus with sub-levels require discussions on ease of use and crawlability especially in cases where there are more than two levels to follow.

The designer will also be writing navigation link labels that appeal to us or make us want to perform a desired action. Usability is tied to human factors and human behavioral studies rich in data about how we use and interact with websites. A holistic designer is keenly aware that every link should fit SEO requirements and motivate action.

A recent article, The Psychology of Content describes this well:

“Click behavior, click triggers, logical impulses, common sense… it’s all part of the psychology of content. The amazing thing is how much actually goes into this psychology. Words have more than just a dictionary meaning… They create imagery, emotion and most of all a connection.”

When presented with a design that looks like the drawing above, an SEO may want to fiddle with it a bit.


Organic SEO is content-driven, so the holistic designer is looking for ways to optimize content and links. Their goal is to write links that support the topic, subject or site’s purpose and make it obvious to both search engines and people. The links inside a page are divided between navigation and embedded links to inside pages. There are guidelines on how many links should be on a page and marketing logic for what pages are linked to. A form is often a main activity and will include a “call to action” prompt in either an image or text. Rather than wasting valuable space, an SEO will add content around the form to help convey a page’s topic.

For the user experience part, this same drawing would have arrows, notes and possibly thinly veiled scolding over the placement of some elements. Usability improvements are best made at the same time as SEO tweaks so they don’t conflict or actually ruin something. For example, an SEO will work out the actual wording of link labels or content, but if someone decides to make the links a color that doesn’t contrast well with a background color, this is a usability issue. A holistic designer knows how to write optimized content and choose colors for links, content, headings and subheadings, while also working out which will be header tags.

Examples of a breakdown between user experience design and organic SEO can be found everywhere. In the Kmart site below, they need not worry too much about rank or brand. They do have to be concerned with conversions coming from their website. Why? Because an enormous amount of money goes into paying for their web design, landing pages and internet marketing efforts.


I marked up part of the homepage because I wanted to show an example of how a website can make you feel emotionally. Red is a harsh color. It’s their brand and a holiday color. My first reaction to the page was to recoil. Not everyone will do that of course, but I’m one of those users who likes to browse shopping sites and I like calm, soothing colors. Maybe I want to emulate a solo trip to the mall with no kids. I like to be able to read text. There were some odd things I found such as links to their other corporate sites at the top (do they want you to leave and go there?), to an information architecture that will confuse someone looking for baby clothes (shall we select clothing or baby stuff?) and my favorite: the cart icon directly to the right of the search “go” button. Why is it there?

Link labels are important. This page has a “give feedback” link. I would add an incentive to do so and explain what we’re supposed to give feedback on. A tab at the very top says “See it all.” I would describe what “it” is and add something to motivate that click. They use a gray font color which is not a people pleaser because it’s hard to see. There is no content and no invitations to inside pages other than all the promotional areas. And finally, where is the lead task? Ecommerce sites are famous for offering too many choices with little guidance.

Not every site is a complete washout with usability problems. The Kmart site handles the store locator in a fast and visible way (although because of the layout I would be one of those who fill in every field because I missed the word “or”). One of my pet peeves are sites that have a variety of links in their navigation that could be lumped together and put into a customer service hub to make them easy to find. Kmart has a simple little menu for customers that’s easy to find (if you can read the tiny font and light gray text).


Social marketing may rely on holistic SEO and usability because the mission is to essentially throw a gigantic net around a huge variety of people with vast interests and funnel them into specific sites or landing pages. Conversions are the end goal for this type of marketing. Would you hire a social media marketing company that doesn’t offer to make sure the website they must promote is designed for conversions?

Holistic design can enhance your website by embracing a coworker approach that unifies various skills. We want websites to indicate they can practically read our minds while we effortlessly and comfortably scan a page that a search engine properly sent us to.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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