Web Design and SEO

Category: HTML

An SEO Experiment – What Is Mesothelioma?

Someone asked me not long ago what would be a really good strategy for building an MFA site.  Personally I have never liked them. I think they make the Internet a NOT-better place.  But I knew this was someone who wasn’t planning on launching thousands of lame sites so I indulged.

Me: What is your domain that you want to do adsense on?

Them: Oh, I don’t have one yet. I was wondering what domain I should go get.

Me: Ok, do you care what subject your site is on?

Them: No, not really. I mean as long as it’s not porn or illegal or something like that.

Me: Ok, I would start out by researching the value of the ads that your site will be placing.  You need your site to naturally rank for the keywords that your advertisers will be targeting.  Let’s do a quick search.  (searching…) Ok, here’s a good list.  Number 1 keyword: Mesothelioma.  Do you know what mesothelioma is?

Them: No idea.

Me: Mesothelioma is a cancer that is caused by asbestos.  There was a few big class action lawsuits a while back and basically if you come down with mesothelioma you can get a big chunk of this money.  Lawyers are dying to get in front of you if you have mesothelioma so they are paying big bucks to get that keyword.  See, look at this. Keyword number 3 “What is Mesothelioma” They’re spending $50 a click to get that keyword.  Now keep in mind, they are probably not paying for non-Google domain searches.  That means that your won’t be getting the $50 clicks on your site. But that’s still a pretty good indicator.

Them: So let’s say I want to have my site be about mesothelioma.

Me: Ok, so next thing you want is to see if you can get a domain with one of these keywords in the domain.  So let’s see what’s available… wow, look at that! is available.  A .biz is no .com but still, that’s a pretty good domain.

Them: Ok register it right now before someone steals it.

Me: Oh you must have done this before on GoDaddy and come back the next day to get the domain that you wanted just to see that someone else had registered it hours after you had looked it up.

Them: Yeah. How did you know?

Me: I’ve heard that story many times.  That’s why I don’t use GoDaddy. (typing and clicking…)  Ok, so now it’s registered.  You have two choices at this point.  You can either develop your own unique content (which is better) or you can just put up a page with links and some easy copied mesothelioma stuff and not worry about it any more.

Them: I think I’ll develop my own content.  How do I do that?

Me: First, go research Mesothelioma.  Make a list of sites you want to link to.  Make your own notes and write some unique content about it.  I’ll setup a WordPress blog and you can just come add content when ever you want.

So the story doesn’t end there.  The site cleared the sandbox in less than 2 weeks.  It got its first real visitor about 3 weeks later.  And finally 2 months later it’s ranking for the keyword “What is Mesothelioma”.  Granted, it’s on page 31 but it’s still ranking.  With less than a total of 5 hours of work on it.  And it’s getting clicks.  It’s best click so far has been $2.94. That’s not too bad but you can’t make a living on it without traffic.  Now we’ll just see how much it really gets.

**Note: I also recommend going through the process of measuring potential traffic. We just didn’t happen to do it on this experement.

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RAD (Rapid Application Development) with WordPress

I can hear the developers screaming for my head on a platter already and I haven’t even began to explain.  Please sit down and put away the pitchforks, I think it’ll make sense.

WordPress is not a development platform. It’s a blogging platform, right? Right. It’s also pretty flexible.  With a little creativity it can do a lot.

Screenshot of the WordPress 2.9 adminstration
WordPress Admin Screen

I’m not going to suggest that you could use it for most web applications but I just had an idea Monday, and today it’s live in WordPress, for the most part anyway.

The Story:

I have always run into times when I wanted a page printed out with some sort of lines or graph or something that Iknow I could buy at Office Depot but I only want 3 copies of it so I sit down and crank it out in Illustrator in about 5 minutes.  I have amassed quite the collection over the years.  Then Monday my son brought some blank sheet music home from piano lessons and I caught myself thinking “hmmm, I could have created that in like 3 minutes.”  Then I looked closer.  It had a web address on it.  His teacher had just gone tothis website and printed out the paper templates for free. In less than 3 minutes I’ll wager too.

The Development: (and I use that term loosely here)

So that got me thinking… “Why couldn’t I take all my paper templates and launch a similar site.  I would like it to have the ability for random people to come submit their designs too.  But I want it to be a kind of community site, not a shopping cart.  And I want contributors to be able to just upload their stuff.  And why not run adsense on it to see if I could get it to make a little money.  Hey, I could do all those things in WordPress.  Right?  Yeah, I think I could.”

So I did it, I say down for 2 hours and did it all; register the domain, setup the host, install WordPress, install an appropriate theme, install some necessary plugins, setup a twitter account.  And presto, I have a new site where people can come contribute their paper templates and anyone can come download and print them for free.  In one night.  I’d call that rapid wouldn’t you?

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Naming Conventions as a Marketing Tool

No, I’m not talking about including your keywords in your files names, though that is a worthy subject for a blog post.  I’m talking about the designer being organized enough for someone else to make sense of their photoshop layers.  How is that marketing you say? Let me explain.

Shawn Borsky recently wrote a really good article covering the basics of design that help the designer excel and shine.  One of his suggestions is that we stay organized in our naming conventions and organization.

Stop and think about this for a minute.  Who is ever going to see your PSDs?  You typically send a flattened jpg or png to the client or if you are really serious about your image you present it to your client in person printed in high res and mounted on mat board.  You don’t show them your PSDs.  You will see your own files again some day down the road when you need to make a design change but don’t remember what you named the layer containing the clients logo.  Quite possibly the developer who takes your design and HTMLizes it will see the PSD but the client’s decision maker isn’t going to see them.  Or will they?

I’ve spent a lot of time working in both roles, designer and developer.  As a developer there have been numerous occasions where the decision maker has come to me and asked “What do you think of these guys?”  And usually I just answer without giving it much thought.  I base my answer not on how the designer has been able to handle them self in meetings and conversations, I judge by how easy they are to work with and how well they get the job done.  I have received PSDs with 20MB of layers that aren’t even being used.  That’s not saving me any time because it’s hard to tell at a glance which layers are really needed because they are named “layer 57” and “copy of vector smart object”.   The time spent sorting out the layers and figuring out what is supposed to be there can really add up if the designer hasn’t taken the time.  No one knows the file like the original designer so it takes the designer a fraction of the time it would take the developer just to figure it out.  I have also received files where the layers are organized into folders and cleanly labeled. It’s rare, but where it happens it’s a breath of fresh air.

So I respond to the decision maker, “Oh, these guys over at this agency really have their act together.  They are worth twice what we are paying them.”  And typically I have worked with decision makers that know when to take the developers advice.  They base 80% of their decision on my advice.  The organized designer gets the job, the raise, the additional contract.

Then in the last few years there have been the times that I have been the decision maker.  I always ask for the PSDs because I am looking for good designers with which to form long lasting relationships.  There’s a lot more to it than just having your files organized.  Organizing bad work doesn’t make for a good designer. But a good designer can often lose the bid if I can find one that is almost as good but keeps things organized.

So in a way, your organization skills are your marketing.  Any time you create an advocate within your client’s organization you have your marketing taken care of for you. It’s word of mouth, only better.

Old Technologies

I predict that by 2020 we won’t have printed phone books. Or newspapers for that matter but this post isn’t about newspapers. It’s about phone books.

We had a new phone book delivered to the house yesterday.  My 10-year-old son who loves books and has read over 1000 pages in a single weekend picked it up and gaped at it huge size. “What’s this? he asked with eyes big as saucers. I know he has seen them before.  I think so anyway. Pretty sure…

Then I started thinking about it, when is the last time I picked up a phone book with the intention of finding a phone number?  I honestly can’t remember but I’m sure it was years ago.  And then I got to thinking about how digital technology is killing many aspects of the print industry.  Newspaper, magazines, and phone books… the list goes on. Phone book companies for the most part have done a good job transitioning to the digital age.  I can’t wait until you only see phone books in museums and movies.

Having once managed the Internet department for Phone Directories Company, I know a little more about phone books than most people.  And it’s interesting to watch a company whose medium is passing try to figure out how to convert their old model to a new model. Some make it, some don’t.

And of course this just ties in with SEO.  It’s just not enough to call up your phone book company and buy a $3000 listing and expect to see some traffic to your business from it.  Now you have to optimize, localize, fine tune, design, redesign, maintain, and regularly update your digital presence.  And it’s funny, you find a company who used to spend anywhere from $5000-$15000 every year for their half page ad and they can’t justify spending the same for someone to manage their digital presence.  Then at the same time, they still pump that budget into the old dying medium knowing that it’s dying and not expecting but somehow hoping that they’ll continue to see an ROI like they would have 10 years ago.  It just doesn’t happen.

There are a few that get it.  They’re exploring new media and trying new things.  These will be the companies that grow and dominate the local markets over the next 10 years.  I went to a social networking event called a swarm last week organized by a little Hawaiian BBQ place that I never would have heard of.  If you’re on foursquare you probably know what a swarm is.  We tried for it but fell short of the required 50 attendees to get our badge. But it was a great experience for me as an internet professional.  It was an even better experience for Pounders Hawaiin Grill.  The place was packed.  I don’t think they could have handled the 50 people we were hoping for.

Now how much did they spend on this marketing? Nothing. Except for the time of one employee to get on Foursquare and do a little networking.  Now it might be a little more complicated than a traditional phone book ad. But not much.  And then let’s talk about the ROI.  How could the phone book ever compete?

Sketching – The Forgotten and Most Important Step in the Design Process

Although I have been doing SEO since 2001, I was a web designer first. I just read a really good post on whether to sketch or not to sketch in your design process. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the designers block that so often accompanies the non-sketching option or to take up the pen and paper against the seas of frustration and just get those ideas down on paper and out of your head.

I thought I would give our readers some details on how it works for me.  Keep in mind, this is an individualized process and you should tweak it to suit you.  This is just how I do it.

First I start out with thumbnails.  The idea with thumbnails is to get design ideas onto paper.  I use blank paper, sometimes graph paper, never ordinary lined paper.  When I have a bad idea come into my mind I can’t seem to keep it from effecting my others ideas until I get it on paper.  Once the idea is on paper I can move on without worrying about the previous ideas, good or bad.  I try to keep the sketching for each thumbnail under 10 seconds.  I also try to keep them smaller than 2 inches sqare. This doesn’t leave time or room to make them detailed or fancy but then, that’s the whole point.  Usually I find that I don’t find the idea that ends up being the final design until I have been sketching thumbnails for 20 to 30 minutes.  Not that the first ideas are bad, I may even come back to them and use them on a future project.

Of course there are the times when I can already visualize the perfect design in my mind before I sit down at the computer or to sketch. I still sketch anyway because even from one single idea, I get 5 to 10 very different sketches.  And even if I end up keeping my original idea, the sketching makes it much stronger than it would have been without it.

Sometimes I know it the second I finish the thumbnail. Sometimes I have to weigh the options and use the ol’ calculatus ellimatus to narrow down which ones are worthy of exploring further.

That’s right, thumbnails is just the beginning of the sketching process.  Next I move on to create roughs of the ideas that show potential.  Sometimes there’s 4 to explore, sometimes there’s 20.  I will try to get at least 4 roughs on an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper.  I spend a little more time on them but not that much.  The idea here is to add some detail and explore options within the idea. From each thumbnail I’ll sketch 2 to 10 roughs, depending on the current flow of the creative juices.

Once I feel like I’m done with the roughs, I go over them all and mark the things I like. One, two, or even three stars.  Usually if I give something three stars, I have found my final concept.

From there I go to a full sheet of paper. I take all the ideas I liked and see what works well together. I might even break out the colored pencils if I am feeling it.  Most of the time I can visualize the right colors with a simple B&W sketch in front of me but if you are going to show it to someone (a client maybe) the colors can help a lot. *NOTE Sketches are not usually for clients. But there may be some that you know will respond well and understand the design process.  These clients are usually recognized by their budget. Clients that pay more are usually much easier to work with.

Once I have found my final concept, the PhotoShopping goes quickly.  There’s little exploration on the screen and there doesn’t need to be. I know how I want it to look and I know how I don’t want it to look.  From there it’s a matter of picking the right font and images to accompany the design. But that’s probably better left for another post.

The Page Footer – an Indespensible Tool for SEO and/or Conversion Rate

There’s some fantastic information in a recent article on WebDesignerDepot.  I was just discussing this concept with a  client the other day.  The subject at hand was “How do you get the most mileage out of your footer?”

The footer of your site is one of the most critical and overlooked parts of the site.  The article at WebDesignerDepot offers many good points from a design perspective but I prefer a good combination of SEO and user-centric features.  Examples like the White House and Apple are what most SEO firms will recommend.  They’ll tell you to make sure you have links there to all your important pages and make sure you load your keywords into them.  That’s all good for the search engines but don’t forget about the user.  Mail Chimp takes the space in the footer and uses it to repeat its sales pitch. Chances are, if someone has read all the way to the bottom of a page, they are predictably going to be more interested in what you are doing/selling on your website than people that never make it to the footer.  But Mail Chimp also loses some SEO value.  So which is the right strategy?

At this point I would say take a step back and look at your analytics.  What are your users doing with your current footer.  Maybe it’s time to try some A-B testing with your footer and see if adding the sales pitch without the links makes a difference in your conversion rate.  I’m betting it will.  But every website is different.  It could be that you lose a couple spots in your rankings and the difference in traffic isn’t worth the gain in conversion rate. But then again, maybe it will be.

There’s also pretty good odds that you are using social media in your marketing.  You are right? You should be.  Social media icons and links could fit very well into your footer strategy.  But again, consult your analytics and do some testing.

Above all, remember the first rule of SEO.  If it’s useful for real users, the search engines have figured it out or will figure it out. Eventually

The First Rule of SEO: Keep it Real

SEO is half art half science.  If Google would tell us their algorithm, it would just be science but they don’t.  So we’ll continue with the art.

It seems to me that when people get into SEO, they realize how much data is readily available out there that can help you tune your site and some people tend to get a little carried away.  Many try to game the system but tricking Google into thinking they deserve a higher rank than they do.  We call that black-hat.  There’s also a lot of fuzzy gray area that I like to call gray-hat.

For everyone on either side of the white-hat/black-hat debate it’s really easy to get sucked into the science  and over analyze things.  There’s one thing that I always tell clients that they need to keep in mind.

“What is Google’s goal? To provide the best results for a visitor when they search on any given keyword.”  Their algorithm is far from perfect and constantly changing because they are trying to reach that pinnacle of search intelligence.  They are trying to find the results that are going to be the best match for a REAL person.  That means, the site that has been able to design things perfectly for REAL visitors will win. Theoretically of course.  When considering your search engine optimization goals, remember this simple philosophy, “Keep it Real”

When you design your site for real visitors, keeping in mind how a computer with limited intelligence is going to interpret your site, you have a much greater chance of attracting the visitors that you really want.

Do Flash and SEO Mix?

This has been on ongoing issue since the late 90s. Traditional graphic designers love to push Flash because it allows them more creative flexibility. Flash doesn’t have the same technical limits as HTML.

Sites that are built in all flash can still rank well in search engines but not as well as a similar page built in HTML. The reason? Google has over 250 parameters they take into account when indexing and ranking websites. Flash can still accommodate some of these parameters but not most of them. Even with the Google/Adobe announcement that Google would begin indexing flash files, they don’t behave the same way that HTML files do and are still treated differently.

Industry Leader Rand Fishkin (who loves flash) has come up with a great list of 7 reasons why you shouldn’t have a site created in ALL flash. (

  1. Different content is NOT on different URLs
  2. The breakdown of text (not formatted by importance like HTML)
  3. Flash gets embedded
  4. Lack of testability for flash optimization
  5. Flash doesn’t earn external links like HTML pages do
  6. SEO basics are missing
  7. A lot of flash still isn’t crawlable

Vanessa Fox of Nine By Blue has given the following reasons to be cautious when considering Flash:

  1. Search engines are still based on text, not Flash
  2. Even using XML to populate your Flash, you miss most of the SEO benefits of HTML
  3. Google can’t index javascript called from Flash (a common practice)

There are also many opinions about the correct way to use flash. Some say not at all, some say Search Engines don’t really matter. The general consensus is that flash is best used as a page element in an HTML based site. Even if you will have the bulk of the content be Flash. This is the best way to accommodate the edgy designers and the search engine sceintsts.

The big issue here is what really matters to companies concerned with reputation management.

To these companies, Search Engines do matter but not for the same reasons that one might expect. The main SEO push at these companies is to get good positive content on the 1st page of Google. They probably already have the top position, but also want the big detractors to not appear on page one. That will be accomplished by building SEO value in other web properties. Building the new company site(s) all in Flash will not help that endeavor, it will hinder it. Here’s why.

Links are widely accepted as the most heavily weighted factors in search rankings. Google doesn’t do well finding links from flash to other sites. The company needs to get its secondary properties to rank on the 1st page of Google for the main keyword (the company name). For example if had a flash link to, it wouldn’t get picked up by Google and MonaVie would be losing one of the most valuable links for that secondary domain. By putting the content and links in HTML, they gain those ever important links from to their other properties AND they also gain latent semantic keyword value by having the page text associated with the links on the page. Both of those benefits are lost in the use of an all Flash website.

How companies should use flash

Companies definitely need to keep flash, but done right. Flash isn’t the only way to accomplish the premium look and feel that they need on the website but it is very effective from a design perspective. What needs to be done is to use flash as a page element that is embedded into HTML. They also need to make sure to incorporate content into the design. Every page – especially the homepage needs to have textual content.