What is the Responsibility of a Web Designer in Regards to SEO?

Search Engine Optimization is an ongoing process that cannot truly be accomplished by designing a website in a particular way, although a designer can cripple a site’s chances with a poor foundation. Building a search engine-friendly website should be the task of the designer, but there can be some gray areas.

First of all, what makes a website search engine-friendly? Things like optimized page titles, clean coding, proper use of header tags, alt tags, the location in the code of primary content, and anchor text are just some of the elements involved. Equally important, the designer should avoid using elements in the design that harm the site’s ability to be crawled. For a more in-depth look at the construction of search engine-friendly websites, see How to Create Search Engine-Friendly Websites.

When it comes to optimizing a website’s page titles, headers, and similar elements, we step into the gray area of the responsibility of the designer. Of course, the designer should make a considerable effort to build a site that is optimized, but what is the responsibility of the designer and what is the responsibility of the customer?

If you are paying a designer to build a site for you and you’re not giving him or her specific keywords and phrases that you would like to target, you are leaving it up to the designer to determine what words and phrases the site will be optimized for, and in many cases this is not in your best interest.

As a business owner, your website’s optimization is much more important to you than it is for the designer (that’s not to say that a designer doesn’t care, but the designer’s attention will typically be focused on the look and functionality of the site). You know your customers and potential customers better than the designer does, so shouldn’t you have some say in what words and phrases you target?

If the customer is not very knowledgeable about SEO and keyword targeting, and most won’t be, the ideal situation is for the designer and the client to work together on this issue. From my experience, one of the easiest ways to get a customer involved in this way is to simply explain that the words and phrases used throughout the site (titles, headers, etc.) will have a direct impact on the site’s ability to rank well. I typically will ask customers to give me a list of words and phrases that they think potential visitors might use in a search. This can be especially important when designing a site in an industry that I am not very familiar with.

Of course, some research may need to be done, and this can be another gray area. Should the customer take the responsibility to do keyword research or should the designer? My experience is that this research is usually more effective if the customer is involved, but that is not always possible. The designer should be knowledgeable enough to advise customers and should be willing to help, but ultimately it is best for the customer to be as involved as possible. Basically, if the customer is concerned with SEO, being involved in the process should be a reasonable expectation.

Setting realistic expectations may also be a responsibility of a designer. I’ve had some potential customers come to me and say, “I was told that you know how to make my website rank first or second for (insert ultra-competitive keyword here).” In this situation I obviously think it is important to point out that SEO requires ongoing work that can’t usually be accomplished just by creating the site a certain way. I often recommend that customers add a blog to their website to get more content and improve its chances for ranking well.

What is not the responsibility of the designer?

If the designer is simply creating the site, there are a number of SEO factors that really are not affected by the designer. Of course, there are some cases where the design firm is also providing some or all of these services, but that is not usually the case. When a designer is only responsible for creating the site, these SEO factors will not fall within his or her responsibility:

  • Link building
  • Link baiting
  • Content creation
  • SMM
  • Press release writing
  • Sales copy

What is your opinion?

How do you see the responsibility of a designer in regards to SEO? Are there specific tasks that you think a designer or a customer should be responsible for?

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