The industry of professionals that are concerned with the positioning of web sites in the results of queries in search engines and web directories has not yet found its comfortable role in the web design community. The lack of a settled name (SEO - search engine optimization, SE - marketing, SE - promotion) for the profession is perhaps both a reflection of, and a cause for, its uncertain identity.
SEO techniques have proven to have an extremely limited lifespan. The debate over the continued usefulness of meta keyword tags, sparked by a recent Traffick article, seems to acknowledge that SEO keyword services will no longer be needed. The question becomes ever more pertinent, just what exactly is the role of SEO?
Just as the Search Engine Optimization service industry has had to constantly recreate itself in response to the constant evolution of search engine technology, it must now adapt itself to the recent developments in the web industry, namely the emergence of a relatively stable set of web standards and design conventions.
Insofar as the SEO community is more closely associated with the marketing industry, it brings a welcome focus on the end-user. This marketing background enables SEO consultants to better identify target audiences, understand market segmentation and generally raise awareness of the importance of thinking about who the audience is when designing a web site.
Although the bottom has fallen out of the online marketing industry, in terms of managing banner and other placement campaigns, the growth of placing advertisements based on keywords in search engine results (e.g. Overture, Google Adwords, Espotting) has created a new mini-industry that only the SEO community is positioned to truly manage.
It is, however, the obsession with the mysteries of search engines and their algorithms that created this community and which will sustain it. The number one source of traffic to web sites is, and will remain, search engines and directories. Understanding the inner workings of search engines, analyzing log files, and putting that knowledge to work in the design and construction of web sites is an essential ingredient for the commercial success of any web project.
The evolution of web design
Given the current economic climate, designers can no longer indulge in their personal flights of fancy, but rather, every resource invested in a site must be justified for valid business reasons.
In recent months, a growing and vocal segment of the web design community has begun to espouse a design philosophy that heralds the importance of adhering to emerging standards. There has been a convergence towards a number of standards and best practices, including the relatively stable latest versions of HTML/XHTML/CSS issued by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), usability design patterns and web accessibility guidelines.
The pro-standards design philosophy has certain ideological and aesthetic roots, as this approach to design has a tendency towards simple yet elegant structures. A collection of sites that share this philosophy can be found on the Minimalist Web Project. However, an indirect consequence of following web standards has been the creation of sites that perform very well in search engine results.
As designers need to justify their choices to business decision-makers, redesigning sites according to the new standards can be defended on the grounds of improved performance (pages tend to be much smaller, thus reduced server load), better usability, ease of maintenance, and the ability to deploy content to multiple platforms. But one of the most important reasons remains the fact that by optimizing the site for search engines, the redesign can contribute to greater traffic.
The recent redesign of the Wired web site (see this Wired News article describing the redesign) has been hailed as a validation of this approach by one of the Internet industry's bellwethers.
SEO's potential new role
It is clear that the management of online marketing campaigns, whether in the form of traditional banner campaigns or Overture-type account management, will remain a necessary and useful industry.
If the Wired example is indeed a sign of things to come, then we will see more and more redesign projects improving the structure and code of web sites according to the new standards, with search engine optimization as one of the primary goals of the project.
Knowledge of marketing principles will enable the SEO consultant to intervene in the redesign process in a way similar to the "Business Analyst" role, who is responsible for identifying business objectives, target audiences, brand positioning and functional requirements.
However, one of the main focus of SEO techniques has been site content, and in this regard, the SEO consultant's role overlaps more and more with the "Information Architect". Just as many members of the SEO community come from an advertising and copywriting background, the IA community is populated by a large number of people with a background in Library and Information Sciences.
Information architects focus on the structure of content within a page, in terms of titles, headings and labels and they create navigation frameworks and overall site architectures. Finally, they are also specialized in the creation of classification systems, which will likely increase in importance as additional standards emerge (e.g. Dublin Core for metadata) in the wake of further developments in the many XML initiatives.
Until now, the search engine optimization community has been largely disconnected from the web design community, intervening only after a site has already been developed. As site optimization with an eye towards indexation within search engines becomes part of the mainstream of web design projects, SEO will need to find its place within the design process.
The recent emergence of a community of interest of web design professionals interested in supporting web standards and best practices has provided an ideal moment for the SEO community to engage itself in the web design process.
Andrew Goodman is co-founder and Editor of Traffick.com, a popular guide to search engine and portal trends. He has published articles in publications such as Internet Markets, The Globe and Mail, and Yorkshire Post Magazine, and is regularly cited in business and technology publications such as Business Week. In 1999, Andrew left his burgeoning academic career in political theory and policy studies to found a private consultancy, Page Zero Media, which offers search engine marketing services and strategic advice to companies seeking an online presence.
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