I dug around a little recently because I wanted to see how many small time web designers really knew how to optimize websites for search engines. (By small time I don’t mean people less talented than large firms, but really just free lancers and localized firms – because some local people I found put some of the large firms to shame when it comes to talent.)
After some research, I found that a few in different parts of the country do. But a lot don’t. In fact, a lot seem to think that search hasn’t changed much since 1998. This was very disappointing to me because I’ve been very impressed at the level of quality and affordability some of these small firms have when it comes to web design, but then they just fall short when it comes to search.
The fact is, SEO and web design are not the same thing. It’s normal to assume that they are; you go to a nice looking website and you immediately imagine that it’s bound to be more popular over the long term than a site that looks horrible – like the Druge Report. The two require different skillsets and it’s not surprising that some of the best web designers don’t have a clue about search and some of the most talented marketers get freaked out when they see HTML. If you want to make sure your site is visible online, here are some questions (and answers) that you can ask the person running your website.
1. What code do you use?
Non technical people probably don’t know much about code. That’s OK. Here’s a quick break down. EzineArticles is stored on a computer called a server that’s connected to the internet. When you access the site, you use an internet browser which is referred to as a client. The client submits a request to the server which serves up files. Some of these files are interpreted and produced by the server, while others are manipulated by the client. Both the browser and the server determine what’s displayed on your screen.
Your web designer should be using HTML, PHP, or a language that outputs static text documents whenever they’re accessed on the server. If they’re not, your website can’t be optimized for search.
2. Will you submit my site to search engines?
There are some services that charge you a nice sum of money to submit to search engines. Some promise submission to Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Others promise submission to “200+ search engines.” More still say they’ll submit your site multiple times.
Don’t pay someone to submit your site to a search engine. If anyone highlights search submission as a featured service, it should be a sign that you shouldn’t depend on that person for SEO. They might be a great web designer, but search marketer they are not. Search engine submissions may have worked several years ago, but these days it doesn’t matter. My website was listed in major search engines without any submission on my end because other sites linked to mine. Search engines followed those links, then indexed my content.
3. What do you charge for robots.txt and XML sitemaps?
I’ve seen services that charge you to generate robots.txt and XML sitemaps. I look more favorably on them than submission services because these files do you some good. Robots.txt is a file named robots.txt that’s placed in the home directory of your website (so eBay has one at http://www.ebay.com/robots.txt ) that tells search engines what to index on your site. They’re a good way for blocking out sensitive directories and areas you don’t want people to have access to. XML Sitemaps are text documents formatted in XML (Extensible Markup Language), a semantically tagged language for documents. They are nothing more than long lists of pages on your site.
Most programs used to create websites these days automatically generate a robots.txt file for you and have easy to add extensions for XML sitemaps. If for some reason you don’t get either right off the bat, you can find sites online that will generate both for free.
However, neither should be relied on as a primary SEO strategy. All these documents do is direct search engines to either index or not index individual pieces of content. Though a sitemap verified with Google, Yahoo, or Bing will trigger faster updates of search indexes, it doesn’t do much to raise your individual standing on results pages. If someone tries to sell you these files as an SEO strategy, you should be a little concerned.
4. What standards do you follow?
A web designer worth their salt will be able to answer this one without a problem. Your solid designer will tell you they have valid CSS (usually version 2) and some kind of valid HTML. The W3C, or the World Wide Web Consortium, is an organization of people who discuss best practices for information on the web. They’ve come up with recommendations/standards for how HTML (text) and CSS (styles) should be formatted. At the very least you want a standards compliant designer because a bunch of jumbled code can actually confuse search engines or slow them down. Being standards compliant will reduce the time it takes to load your page and reduce the risk that your page will appear funky on other browsers. Both of those are good for retaining visitors and page speed will help your rankings.
5. What’s your price structure for SEO?
This is important. If someone charges you a flat fee for SEO work, don’t pay it! SEO takes time. It’s not something that can be set up and left to run itself. You need to monitor trends, publish content, generate links from other sites, perform keyword research, and try to increase site performance. It’s a process that’s suitable for a full time employee or a consultant you pay by the hour to accomplish specific goals. There are too many programs out there that promise you a number one spot on Google for some one time fee. These are scams and the people who run them are lying to you.
More generally speaking, and this (like some of these other issues) extends beyond just web designers, anyone promising you some secret way to game the system or a shortcut to success is lying to you. If there really was a secret way to beat search engines and this person actually found it, they wouldn’t tell you. Whatever you’d pay them for that knowledge is minuscule compared to the amount of money they could make exploiting the secret on their own.
Most people mean well. Depending on how long they’ve been in business, people who make these mistakes probably assume they’re offering legitimately helpful services. Make sure you research alternatives before settling with anybody.