Over at the HighRankings forum this past week we've been having a bit of a discussion. Member “rolf” started it when he asked whether customers should expect web designers to know about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) as a matter of course, or if designers should presume customers know and will ask about SEO if they're interested.

Now some of y'all may know, I'm an in-house webmaster and a consultant, so I get to experience this issue pretty much every day, from both sides of the fence. And here's what I think: the answer to rolf's question is both yes and no.

I'm not trying to be a smart-aleck with that answer (despite what Stoney might think). I really believe those things are both true and false.

I think customers should expect a competent designer to know the basic principles of SEO. But I don't think they should presume their designer is optimizing their site for search unless they've specifically discussed it.

Likewise, designers certainly can learn what's needed to produce search-friendly sites (and, personally, I think they should). But they're free to offer whatever specific services they want, as long as they don't promise something they can't or won't deliver.

The problem arises when people on both sides of the question jump to conclusions, think they know what the other party wants or is prepared to provide and neglect to ask careful questions.

The Web Professional's Duty of Care

The way I see it, we as designers/developers have a responsibility to keep up with our industry. Search engines are an important part of the web landscape.

While we may not need to know how to fully SEO a site ourselves, my personal opinion is the knowledge of what it takes to make a site “SEO-friendly” should be part of the basic arsenal of every web designer out there. Of course, you're free to make your own choice.

Just be aware — often clients come to us with plenty of business knowledge, but not much experience with the Web. Just because a client doesn't say she wants a search friendly site, this doesn't mean she'll be happy with a site that's invisible to Google. Even clients who say “search engines aren't important” seldom mean they want a site that can't be spidered at all.

As professionals, we should provide clients with solutions that support their business needs, not simply those that allow us to use our favorite design tool or experiment with the latest awesome technology... no matter how cool the results might look.

It's just plain bad business to promise something you don't deliver. Don't allow your clients to assume sites you create will show up well in the search engines unless you understand what it takes to achieve search visibility. Don't tell them their site is search-friendly unless you've incorporated SEO principles in your site design and code.

And by all means don't sell them an “optimized” site unless you know what that means and you're ready to do the real work involved.

If you don't want to learn anything about SEO, that's absolutely your perogative. Nobody's here trying to dictate to you what services you should offer. But then at least have the guts to be honest about what your services include — and what they don't. It's disingenuous to allow your prospective clients to think they're getting an optimized site if that isn't what you sell!

The Client's Responsibility of Due Diligence

So, now, pardon me for a moment as I step over to the other side of the fence and put on my client hat... Okay, to my mind it is clearly our responsibility as clients to make sure we understand what we're buying. If more clients asked hard questions and kept pressing until they get a good answer, there would be fewer unhappy clients.

Yes, it's wrong for a designer to assume we don't care about search results and will be happy with an all-singing, all-dancing, all-Flash site that's all-invisible to all the search engines. By the same token, it's naive and foolish for us to simply assume our designer or developer understands what's required for search-friendliness (much less that our provider is actually optimizing our site).

Look, I'm not going to go in and buy a used car without checking the reviews in consumer magazines, running a CarFax report and having my mechanic give the vehicle a once-over. And yet, people will happily hand over hundreds or thousands of dollars for a website without taking so much as five minutes to do even the most cursory online research into what it takes to have a search friendly site.

You don't have to become a mechanic to buy a reliable used car, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to totally ignore all the resources available to help you make a wise car-buying choice. You don't need to become an SEO to hire a competent web professional, but it's wise to take advantage of the wealth of resources out there to help you learn the principles of search-friendliness.

We need to ask questions. We need to educate ourselves. We have to be clear what our priorities are, and yes, I think ultimately it is our responsibility to insure we understand what it is we're buying and that it's appropriate for our business needs.

Communication is the Key

Designers/developers: Make your own decisions about what you're prepared to offer, and be up-front with your prospects. Don't promise what you can't deliver. Listen deep to determine what the clients need, not just what they say they want. It's your responsibility to educate your clients and provide them with solutions that will benefit their business.

Clients: Know your business and be sure to discuss your priorities and goals with your designer/developer. Listen to your web professional's advice, be reasonable in your expectations and be sure you understand what they're prepared to provide. Don't let yourself be intimidated by technobabble. Insist on an explanation in terms you can grasp.

Bottom line, it comes down to open communication on the part of both web professionals and clients. Educate yourselves. Ask questions. Avoid assumptions. And together you can produce a site that shows off the designer's skill and meets the client's business objectives.

September 30, 2007

Learn more about the ways Diane can help improve the performance and profitability of your business web site, or request a no-obligation personal consultation, by visiting www.NineYards.com.


Right on. Sadly I can say that far too many clients expect that once they have a website they will have immediate search engine rankings. I think far too many people are only concerned with the design and not the functionality or efectiveness. Hence the whole project should be discussed highlighting these issues at the onset.

Oh, I definitely know what you mean, Robert! :)

I myself have been guilty in the past of not setting reasonable expectations with a client, and it came back to bite me. Likewise, any time I've assumed a developer or designer shared my "vision" and didn't explicitly confirm our understanding, what I've ended up with has been moderately to radically different from what I really wanted. Every. Single. Time.

Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

So who do I believe? My designer says my site is being built to be optimized-friendly. Other builders tell me it's not and they, of course, want to sell me a new and improved website complete with expensive seo services.
Do I wait 6 months to see if I'm getting any hits and sales to know if I'm optimized? I'm not a techy and just want to make and sell my groovy stuff. Who do I trust?

Ginny, it is a dilemma, isn't it?

My general advice is don't simply rely on *anybody's* word. Especially if they're trying to sell you something. You have to do your own research.

There are resources everywhere, on forums, in websites and blogs and elsewhere. This blog itself is chock full of articles with loads of information about search optimization. In fact, right there in the right hand margin of this very page, just a bit above where this comment will probably show up, there's an ad for an ebook, "The Small Business Guide to Search Engine Marketing," written by our own Jennifer Laycock, which would be an excellent place to start.

Do you want a site that's simply "search friendly" (that is, *ready* to be optimized) or do you want a site that's actually been optimized already? Could be your designer is going to create a site that's search-friendly, while the other folks are talking about a site that's fully optimized. Or it could be that one or the other (or both) of them is full of it.

The only way to find out is to ask. Ask these people to explain what they mean when they say your site is (or is not) search friendly and/or optimized. And don't rest until you get an answer you can understand. That's what I mean by performing "due diligence."

Anyone who knows their stuff will be able to explain it to you in simple terms you don't need a computer science degree to comprehend. Anybody who tells you it's too complicated or technical to explain can be safely ignored. So let's assume they both provide you with clear, easily-understood explanations. Once you get what they mean, you can decide what you want to do next.

(And, no, you don't want to just sit and wait for six months to see how your site does -- sitting around simply waiting for something to happen is a sure way to, well, spend a lot of time just sitting around. You should be spending those six months making your site even more awesome!)

Good luck with selling your groovy stuff, Ginny!

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Search Engine Guide > Diane Aull > Designers versus Clients?