How Your Blog’s Design and Usability Influences SEO

Finding the right balance between aesthetic and function.

[This is part of the The Blogger’s Essential Guide to Search Engine Optimization Series.]

As we move forward through this series we’ve covered some pretty strategic stuff as it relates to keywords, meta elements, pagerank, nofollow, and a few other technical aspects. But what about design and usability? Do these things place a part of good search engine optimization?

The answer is a loud and definitive “Yes!” – and this is especially important with some of the more recent updates to some of the more significant search engines like Google. You see, in a recent update to their search algorithm (codenamed “Panda“) they shared how they have increased the significance in elements like design and usability for their SERPs.

Sure, a lot of these factors that have been included in the new algorithms can be viewed as subjective but one consistent element that plays a role in all of them is the idea of trust – do you (can you) trust the information displayed on the site? Does it look like it can be trusted?

Check out some of these search engine factors that relate to design and usability, either directly or indirectly:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  • Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  • Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
  • Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  • How much quality control is done on content?
  • Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  • Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
  • Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
  • Would users complain when they see pages from this site?

Fascinating, right?

Remember that “content” is much more than just the actual blog post itself but also the surrounding elements, the blog’s design, the blog’s whole architecture and how the elements work together, the site advertisements, graphics, and other related media, as well as the general flow of information.

Another knowledgeable source says it this way:

Let’s talk about a few of the specific things that we can be doing as SEOs to help with this new sort of SEO, this broader web content/web strategy portion of SEO.

First off, design and user experience. I know, good SEOs have been preaching design user experience for years because it tends to generate more links, people contribute more content to it, it gets more social signal shares and tweets and all this other sort of good second order effect.

Now, it has a first order effect impact, a primary impact. If you can make your design absolutely beautiful, versus something like this where content is buffeted by advertising and you have to click next, next, next a lot. The content isn’t all in one page. You cannot view it in that single page format.

Boy, the content blocks themselves aren’t that fun to read, even if it is not advertising that’s surrounding them, even if it is just internal messaging or the graphics don’t look very good. The site design feels like it was way back in the 1990s.

All that stuff will impact the ability of this page, this site to perform. And don’t forget, Google has actually said publicly that even if you have a great site, if you have a bunch of pages that are low quality on that site, they can drag down the rankings of the rest of the site. So you should try and block those for us or take them down.

Good to know, right? All these things impact your SEO in this “new” world of optimization!

Simple does it.

The Absolute Essentials to Good Blog Design for SEO

If we need to start somewhere we should at least start with some of the absolute essentials for good design and usability for your blog in terms of SEO. These are tried and true recommendations and most of them just make sense when you consider their obvious appeal and utility.

Here are some things that you must have if you want to be counted as a quality blog and content source for search:

  1. Your blog design makes it easy to use.
  2. Your blog design is easy to navigate.
  3. Your blog design has an obvious flow to it.
  4. Your blog design allows the user to find what they are looking for without frustration.
  5. Your blog design looks good in all modern web browsers.
  6. Your blog design showcases the blog posts in a meaningful and effective manner.
  7. Your blog design allows interaction without confusion.

Typically all of this is done through a methodology called “link analysis” since a robot or meta crawler can’t “view” a webpage or blog like a human can.

If the link structure is intelligently designed and gets the user to the information in an efficient manner (limits the amount of extraneous clicks) then the link analysis kicks back a positive value increasing the number of “votes” that it might get in comparison to competing blogs and websites and thus rank higher in search.

Makes sense, right? Perhaps one of the easiest ways to understand this principle is this: If the site looks like crap then there’s a high chance the visitor is going to leave. If this is true about the user experience then it’s also a very real possibility that a search engine crawler will interpret the experience in the same way and lower the value of the site as a result.

If users leave so will the bots – this is a simplified perspective but one that’s reasonable to use – and no one likes to look at a poorly designed website, right?

A beautiful minimal WordPress Theme by Jared Erickson.

Choosing the Right Blog Theme

I’ve already covered extensively how to go about choosing the right blog theme and you should take some time to review that post here.

But what I’d add specifically in terms of SEO is that you want to choose a blog theme that explicitly addresses the challenges (and opportunities) that you have to craft a killer SEO-powered blog, namely a blog that showcases your content with authority; front and center!

And especially for new bloggers and bloggers that are wanting to revisit their blog, give it a fresh look and refocus their time, attention, and strategy for search engine optimized content, it’s best to start with a theme that is uber simple in look and content presentation – you can always change it up later.

See, here’s the point: Start simple as you can always make a WordPress Theme more complex later down the line. But, it’s much harder (if not near-impossible) to make something that is complex today and make it simple tomorrow.

You may even want to start with one of the free WordPress Themes that I’ve got here that do just that:

  1. Starter WordPress Theme
  2. Simple WordPress Theme
  3. Content WordPress Theme
  4. Bonus! Jared Erickson’s Minimal Theme is Free and is killer!

Again, the point is to start with the right design elements in place to take full advantage of SEO and that sometimes means minimal design elements so you don’t muck it up from the get-go!

Of course, I’m not dogmatic about the WordPress Themes that I have available but I’ve created them for your use for free so you can start on the right foot out the door (or start over in the right direction if you’ve been blogging for some time).

But, if I were to put one theme out there it’s simply the one that I’m using for TentBlogger: Standard Theme. I built it with SEO in mind and I use it because it works. This blog is a testament to that!

A Few Additional Elements to Consider

Besides the obvious elements of clean and simple design there are definitely a few technical aspects that you might want to consider that will impact your SEO. We’ve already talked through them previously but it’s worth hitting them again for our own review:

And the rest is completely up to you. Your creativity, quality and kick-butt writing, use of strategic media, images, and more will create a compelling user experience that is sure to bring them back. Couple that with a killer design (or a simple one) and they’ll remember more than just your content – they’ll remember your brand.

If you want a sweet infographic to give you some of these tips in visual form check this out [click for larger view]:

Click for larger view.

Some good overall tips!

Creating That Killer Custom Design

Finally, if you’re considering creating a unique design for your blog then I only have a few tips for you at this moment and their best summed up in the following two images:

Don't modify your design forever!

If you continue to iterate and modify your design, especially by those that weren’t a part of the original creation, you’re going to come out with something ugly. Stay simple, focused, and dedicated to your original design!

Don't involve too many people.

The second big challenge of creating an effective blog design is having too many people providing input into the design of the actual thing. Again, same rules apply: Stay simple, focused, and committed to your original vision of your design as you work through it and don’t bend just because your mother hates the header color.

The point is that if you’re going to knock it out of the park in terms of SEO with design and usability you’re going to have to consider the above factors with that custom design and coach and/or teach your designer what elements need to be the focus of your blog.

I’d honestly lean more heavily in the direction of simplicity over ‘creative’ and overly-elaborate design every single time.

Hope that helps and keep your blog design and usability awesome (but usable and functional)!

[This is part of the The Blogger’s Essential Guide to Search Engine Optimization Series. Image via Creative Commons, kwl.]