Rant: SEO versus Design

The SEO versus design argument has been ongoing for years. It's been a given that design considerations must often be compromised in order to ensure that website pages rank well in search engines. Forget the frames, make sure your database URLs don't contain any (or, now, more than three) parameters, etc. etc. blah blah blah. Today, the SearchEngineWatch forums host just such a discussion: Sacrifice design for optimization??. Ignoring the more … lively … arguments there (and given that I've posted some of these comments in that thread), I will quote:

Pure design often gets in the way of pure seo (and sometimes common sense)

True enough. And probably the reason why some of the more design-only oriented web designers dislike SEO. Although I will argue that pages can be optimized well enough that the optimization itself does not destroy the look of the design, the actual cause of the problem is often overlooked; it is not optimization that causes these problems, but the limitations of the search engines themselves.

This entire argument is very similar to the Web Standards Project's argument that browser makers should ensure that their browsers display according to the W3C specifications they agreed to. A great example is that, in some circumstances, one can specify a margin and IE will double it. (I have no idea what they could possibly have been thinking. Who does something like that!? If I want a 40 pixel margin, why assume that what I really want is an 80 pixel margin?) Today, more and more browsers are displaying almost identically and according to standards; one is then forced to add hacks for silly and illogical IE display quirks, and to hope there will be no need to return later to remove them.

Here's the similarity between the Web Standards issues and that of design versus SEO: while one may deduce from their actions that almost all search engines would like to display free listings along with any paid ads they may sport, they simply aren't up to date enough to do much at all with some of the technologies that have been around for years now. Heck, people were excited when more database pages with URLs containing parameters were getting indexed. But Flash has been around for years; so have .gif and .jpg. Yet web designers have to remember always that "search engines can't read text in images" and "search engines can't read Flash" and …

So. Despite what some SEO's may think, it's not that design is bad or that web designers should *need* to compromise their work in order to allow search engines access to the content of a website; it's that search engines need to improve to cover the range of technologies extant today. The SEW thread above discusses competitors reporting competitors to search engines for having utilized "outside the box" (read: seriously risky) techniques to get, say, Flash sites ranked. Well, here's your answer, search engines: don't want all those people making "doorway pages" for Flash sites? Then start reading and ranking Flash sites. You'd do your users, and everyone else, a favor.

Actually, I'll go so far as to say that we're pretty early here with respect to the development of the Web, Web technologies and search engines. I'll even go so far as to assume that, one day, this argument will be moot because search engines will have improved to the point where they can read — and rank — just about anything. Or maybe there will be nothing but paid ads; who knows?

Yeah, I know. It's easy to sit around and kvetch (complain); after all, I'm not the one investing $millions/billions and years of my time and effort in developing and supporting a search engine. I am also, truth be told, entirely grateful for the assistance of search engines in making the Web more "cohesive" in terms of finding information; the idea of locating pages solely by following links from one site to another appeals not at all. In that, they've done a great job and have improved over the years.

It's just that … I want what I want, and I want it today. Or maybe 2005. <grin>

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