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January 12, 2010

Designing Web Sites For Search Visibility

Designing enterprise Web sites for search engine visibility has been a major thread of this column since I started writing for MediaPost several years ago (side note: I will hit my 100th column in a few months).  URL structures, redirection plans, dealing with process obstacles, and putting research up front have all been topics I’ve previously covered.  Today I am going to build on a column that I wrote almost a year ago, entitled “How Search Fits Into The Redesign Process.” To start, a list of major considerations for designing an enterprise Web site for greater search visibility is provided below. (Please read that column for more info on each of the following points):

I was recently going through a discovery process with a Fortune 500 executive who was guiding his company’s Web site redesign, and I inquired directly about the search aspects of the project. His response: “Search is not relevant to this process.” Contrary to what he was saying, search was in fact critical to the overall process; he was just clearly unaware of his company’s campaign history and investment in the search channel. In light of this response, seemingly old and worn advice is worth another spin or two around the block, especially if it will help convey the natural search value of a legacy Web presence.

In enterprise marketing, it is not a question of whether your company’s site is going to be redesigned or not, it is simply a question of when. Most companies do some kind of major redesign or tweak every two years, and if they haven’t just relaunched, they are planning for the next one. So the “when” is most often “now,” no matter where you are in the process. The important thing to remember here is that search should be a key consideration at every stage of the process, whether it is selecting a provider, setting requirements, producing comps, coding or site deployment.

So how do you fit natural search into the process? Here are a few ideas to start:

Use site language and messaging that is consistent with the user’s perception of your product or service.
For the most part, search engines are still very literal, and truly effective semantic intelligence still lies far ahead. Position content and language that reflects the way users search, in order to rank for those terms. The path to understanding this language is through linguistic and keyword research, and also by studying and knowing your target. Language and keywords impact and guide information architecture and content strategies, among other aspects.

Read your log files (and/or review analytics reports).
If you want to know what you stand to lose in a site redesign, take a look at what you are currently gaining in terms of traffic, visibility, revenue, and conversions. Are there any particular Holy Grail terms like “travel,” “shopping,” or “banking” that may be giving you a lot of traffic? See a section of a site that is referring a ton of long-tail terms? You will likely find some areas that are worth preserving.

Ensure that RIAs are both crawlable and indexable by search engines.
Rich Internet technologies that are implemented without search engines in mind can instantly render a once-thriving natural search program into total obscurity. Flash and Ajax are key tools in the design and development toolbox, but considerations must be made for search upfront.

Avoid the creation of URL canonicalization issues.
When you change phone numbers, the phone company will leave a recorded message telling the new number to the person who called your old number. This is the effect a 301 permanent redirect has on a search engine — it applies the old URL and backlinks to the new URL; the search engine is happy, and your site is happy. A canonicalization problem occurs when 302 redirects are pointed to permanently moved pages. I have seen instances where clients have gone through four or five redesigns using 302s, and a string of six-to-eight redirects points to a single page, each with its own set of inbound links. This basically makes it difficult for engines to determine the “real URL” to show in results and apply backlinks to. How do you fix it? See the next point.

Set up a redirection plan.
In just about every redesign project, at least some content is removed, and URLs go away. Help the engines and your users by using a 301 redirect to point them to the most similar page on your site, or the site map, home page, or custom 404 page. Spend the time to map out which URLs are going away, and where they should be pointed. And don’t sit on the plan —do it on the day or evening that a site is pushed out of production.

Don’t remove content that supports coveted rankings without assessing risks first.
One mistake I see frequently is when content is removed from a site, with no replacement content to support the valuable rankings and visibility it has previously created. Before axing existing site content, determine how difficult it would be to re-attain the ranking, the ranking’s importance in terms of traffic and revenue, or if it is your CEO’s favorite pet ranking. Then create a plan for bridging new content, or leaving it alone.

Include search as both a business and technical requirement before planning has even started.
If search is not a consideration and priority early on, then it will be 10 times harder and more expensive to try to re-engineer at the end of or after the project.

Ensure that there is a voice for search within the Web site team structure.
Having a search specialist as part of the Web design team (and implementing their recommendations) will do a lot to ensure a healthy transition in the redesign and relaunch process, in addition to the potential for growth. The list above is useless without some subjective strategy behind it. Get experienced search optimization help that is fit to your company’s unique situation, needs and goals, and make it an integral part of the redesign process.

These are just a few considerations to get you started. Feel free to add your own thoughts and considerations for redesign at the Search Insider blog.

Rob Garner is strategy director for digital marketing company iCrossing and writes for Great Finds, the iCrossing blog. Contact him via email at,and follow him on Twitter at