Why SEO and Web Designers should work together

Since the beginning of my SEO career, I’ve seen the same recurrent theme throughout blogs and social media: The myth that SEO is just a bunch of snake oil con men who sprinkle some pixie dust on a website and then take the credit for your success without really doing anything. I find this sentiment laughable since I know very well the level of detail and strategy that goes into what I do every day, and the SEO community at large puts a great deal of energy into SEO mythbusting. It’s a robust and diverse industry, and certainly, obviously, a legitimate practice. We all work hard to help the average Joe understand what it is that we do and why we do it.

Enter Derek Powazek. This guy is apparently a well-regarded, high-profile designer, and well, he hates SEOs. He’s perpetuating the snake oil myth with a vigor and venom that makes you wonder if he was beaten up by a pack of rabid wild SEOs as a child. From my side of the fence, the argument is ridiculous – and saddening, and worrisome. The words of people like Mr. Powazek can carry a lot of authority, even when they’re so badly misinformed, and several prominent SEOs wasted no time in fighting back.

The SEO vs. Designers battle is nothing new, and I’m quite frankly puzzled by the whole thing since in my world SEO and designers are friends and work well together. The SEOs respect what the designers do, and the designers seek our advice on the best way to do this or that for the greatest SEO advantage. It’s a wonderfully symbiotic relationship, and the proof of its value is in the pudding – our clients are extremely successful under the umbrella of this free exchange of knowledge and ideas. The ongoing feud between designers and SEOs elsewhere in the industry is stupid, but I have a theory about it. One of the things that’s hard to understand sometimes about SEO is that there are no hard and fast boundaries. SEO bleeds into the design, the writing and so on. I think a lot of the designers out there who are crying foul are accustomed to having a clear line between what they do and everyone else, and so they feel like this relatively newish industry is stepping on their toes.

The principles of good design clearly do a great deal for SEO. Search engines like a clean, content-friendly design with clear navigation. It’s easy to crawl, and search engines like easy. They also like content. Design builds it and makes it pretty, and then SEO applies the polish. And unlike design, which is a one-time deal, SEO is ongoing. The algorithms change, we change accordingly. One constant, though, is the value of fresh content.

Here’s how I think of it: SEO is like chess. Anyone can learn the mechanics very quickly, but there’s an entire universe of strategy beyond the funny way a knight moves. I’ve never been good at chess. I’ve never won a game. My baby sister beat my dad, however, the same day she was taught the moves. Some people just get it. The point, though, is that there’s a lot of strategy to be found beyond the keywords and title tags. It is not a designer’s job to work in that more esoteric space, but good design goes a long way in helping SEO to come up with effective, game-winning strategies. Those strategies can’t exist without a functional board with a complete set of pawns, knights, bishops, and so on. When we play on a board that’s missing a queen, our game strategy is a lot less effective.

Another good analogy is that SEO is like music. Music has twelve notes: seven full tones and five half-tones, and, well, that’s it. And yet, music is an unbelievably creative medium, with infinite combinations, styles and harmonies. Those twelve notes are about as simple as it gets. Anyone can learn to do a piano scale in five minutes flat, but actually playing music requires time, training, and a modicum of talent. However, look at all that those twelve notes have spawned! Music theory is a well-respected field. Written music is a language unto itself, with several dialects. There are countless instruments on which music can be played. Universities the world over offer music degrees, straight up to doctorates! Likewise, the basic tools of SEO are not exactly rocket science, but there’s entire world of possibility – combinations, styles, timing, nuances – that exist beyond those basics, and we can’t play good music without a high-quality instrument.

So to all the designers out there who spit in disgust at the mention of SEO, please stop the smear campaign. There are good and bad SEOs out there, but it’s pretty easy to sniff out the difference. Listening to what we have to say will help you become a better designer. Trust me, SEOs are not trying to throw you under the bus. SEO and designers working together rocks bigger than Christmas.

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