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Last week I met with a client who had major concerns about not showing up in search engines.  While I don’t think that search engines should be the primary focus of your website (your actual users should be) there are many things that will hinder both your search engine rankings and your website usability.  The following is a list of things to avoid when building your website.

1. Avoid framesets

Yes, there are still websites out there that use framesets.  A frameset was an early way to include more than one web page on the screen, which was useful in the days before more advanced technologies to include elements that appeared on every page.  An example of a website using a frameset can be seen here.  The problem with framesets is that search engines cannot parse the content within the individual frames which severely limits your search engine rankings.  They are also problematic from a usability standpoint for many reasons including that users cannot bookmark an individual page.  Avoid them at all costs!

2. Avoid using images for text

While not as egregious as framesets I still see a lot of websites being built using images for text.  Websites are limited in the number of fonts that can be used.  To get around this many designers create images for navigation text, headlines and the like.  The practice is much less today than it was but it is still prominent.  By using images rather than plain text you are making it more difficult for search engines to parse this text and are also creating accessibility headaches for your users.  If you must go this route use a more modern image replacement technique.

3. Avoid flash

Any text in a flash file cannot be read by search engines.  If the text cannot be read you will not show up in search engines for any of the keywords embedded in that flash file.  Flash websites tend to be very design heavy and very search engine and user unfriendly (not to mention they can take forever to load!).  An example of a flash heavy website can be seen here.  Relying heavily of flash in your website will come back to haunt you.  Don’t do it!

4. Avoid poor website content

Writing for the web is not like writing for a newsletter or a brochure or a magazine.  People tend not to read as much as they skim.  I’ve seen many websites that have far too much content on a given page.  This has two effects.  First, it decreases the saturation level for keywords you are targeting, which lowers the likelihood that search engines will pick up your website for a given keyword.  Second, your users are not going to sit and read through dense, heavily packed text.  Take the time to have content written specifically for the web to eliminate these two possibilities.

5. Avoid poor website coding

If you’ve been reading my blog or listening to my podcast you know I am an advocate for standards based website design.  This means that design elements and content elements are separated and the content elements are coded to be semantically correct (for example, if something is a paragraph it is tagged with the html paragraph tag).  By doing this you are presenting only the content to search engines and doing so in a way they can easily understand (as well as maximizing website accessibility for impaired users).  Websites built with WYSIWYG and templates do not achieve this.  (For more on web standards listen to Episode 1 of my podcast.)

6. Avoid bad URLs

The URL is the website address that appears in your browser’s address bar.  Search engines use the URL in ranking a given web page for a given keyword.  Many content management systems will create odd URLs with codes that mean nothing to search engines (or your users).  For example if you are targeting the keyword “shiny widget” and your url for the page the shiny widget is on is http://www.mywebsite.com/index.php?23kmn4j3453lkj345 search engines (and your users) aren’t going to make sense of that url.  However, if your url is http://www.mywebsite.com/shiny_widget search engines (and your users) will thank you.  Make sure you avoid unfriendly URLs!

7. Avoid missing technical information

While visible page content plays a much bigger role in search engine ranking (and your user’s experience) there are also a number of non-visible items that affect your search engine rankings.  Meta keywords, meta description, the robots.txt file, sitemap files (both visible and xml files), alt text on images, title text on links … all of these and more play a role in maximizing your search engine friendliness and giving your user a good experience on your website.

Conclusion

Like I told my client who I met with last week there is no one quick and easy thing that is going to get you where you want to be overnight.  It is an incremental process.  However, by avoiding these common mistakes when building your website you can easily get a step ahead of you competition, have a solid foundation to build from and avoid putting up roadblocks both for search engines and your users.

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