Web Design Practices That Frustrate SEO Pros – Search Engine Journal

What web design practices interfere with SEO?

Do web developers and digital marketers clash over webpage design decisions?

What issues face today’s website management teams?

If you have ever wondered if online marketers care about webpage design, the answer is yes, they do.

It can take years of work experience to truly understand how changes in web design practices affect search engine marketing strategies.

Someone who is just learning search engine optimization starts with the basics of learning how search engines rank webpages and deliver search query results.

There is a great deal to learn. It isn’t easy.

While the underlying foundation of SEO hasn’t changed much in 20 years, the technical parts did.

Websites can be mammoth-sized, with thousands of pages. The complicated information architecture creates navigation hurdles, with link logic to hammer out and instructions for search engine bots on what to do with them.

That is the back end.

The front end, which human users see and use, factors into the planning, too.

Without an understanding of why this is important, problems appear that clients are unhappy with. Website owners want their websites to be first and the best.

Large corporations hire senior level search engine marketers with both the technical SEO experience and an understanding of the importance of usability.

Small and medium-sized businesses may not be aware of the competitive nature of search engines and how web design plays a part in online marketing.

Budget restraints limit their chances to compete. Less experienced website owners become frustrated quickly because they are unaware of all the pieces of the puzzle.

One of the top lessons we have learned in the last two decades is that it takes a skilled team to build a successful website. And, they need to work together.

Holistic SEO & Usability

There used to be two camps.

You were either a web designer with a graphic design background wanting to design visually appealing, creative webpages, or you were a search engine marketer focused on optimizing webpages to rank well in search engines.

The missing piece for both was usability and a focus on user experience.

In 2002, I began to write about and teach what I called Holistic UX and SEO in an effort to build a bridge so that our efforts didn’t conflict.

Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg published several books about web conversions, starting with “Call to Action” in 2005.

They presented data and studies over the next dozen years illustrating the benefits of persuasive architecture and web design that helped user’s complete tasks.

Tim Ash tackled landing pages and became a leading instructor for marketers, beginning with his book, “Landing Page Optimization: The Definitive Guide to Testing and Tuning for Conversions”, now in its second edition.

He has a new book due out this year, called “Unleashing The Primal Brain: The Essential Field Guide For Modern Marketers”.

“I dislike any motion that isn’t initiated by the user. Web sites should not have auto-playing video, nor any sort of automatic slideshow or carousel. If people find a website annoying they are unlikely to link to it. You want to have a pleasing design that doesn’t frustrate the user.” – Jonathan Hochman

Eventually, SEOs discovered the benefits of applying a holistic approach to website design and marketing because they could test and track the results.

What Does Holistic SEO & UX Mean? How Does It Help With Marketing Websites?

The holistic approach by design focuses on the cause, rather than symptoms.

Rather than a narrow, limited perspective to website management and promotion, the entire process is considered. This process grows and changes constantly, which is why SEO skill levels are different.

It takes years and years to understand what causes rank to fluctuate, traffic numbers to nosedive, increases in bounce rates, poor performing pages, and webpage abandonment.

The Website SEO Story

When you look at your data, you may find trends with no story behind them.

  • Why is the bounce rate high?
  • Why does one page perform better than another?
  • What is the reason for a spike in referral traffic?
  • Can it be duplicated?
  • Who comes to the website?
  • What brought them there in the first place?
  • What computer device did they use?

Is there anything in your data that shatters your assumptions about who your website visitors are?

If you are paying attention, the stories behind the data not only change over time, but indicate where, when and how to adjust the web design itself.

When people arrived at the website what happened next? Why?

If your team created a PPC campaign and the results are not acceptable, what happened?

Connecting the Dots

Nothing stays the same in search engine land.

With each update in search engine technology, and updates to computer devices that allow people to access the web, human computer behavior changes.

If you want to deep dive into the neurosciences and human computer behavior, there are fascinating stories based on their research.

For example, we follow the gaze of an image with a face, so this is where the call to button is placed.

We respond to colors differently or if colorblind, may not see colors the way a designer hopes.

Human computer behavioral studies taught us that a landing webpage has 5 seconds to convince users to stay. And yet, if you look at most website designs, the layout does everything possible to force us to leave on arrival.

There are countless subtle improvements that can be made to webpages to improve conversions. Experienced SEOs know this and are frustrated.

The more advanced the marketer is, the more they demand user interfaces that enhance the user experience so that desired tasks are completed.

Marketers are paid to help make websites become successful. They can’t tackle this with a badly designed, poorly performing website.

Advanced level SEOs add basic WCAG2.1 accessibility guidelines because the code used for screen readers assists search engine bots too.

With each change to search engine algorithms and the display of search engine results, both visually and voice activated, the need to constantly refine and test SEO practices is ongoing.

Rank, traffic and brand competition are fierce on the web.

Marketers plan ahead by studying the alerts Bill Slawski puts out on Google’s search engine patents.

Astute marketers aware of website ADA accessibility lawsuits want accessibility site audits performed because they know the risks of a website or brand tied up in a legal battle.

Top online marketing agencies can tell when a website is not prepared for promotion strategies. They either have an in-house usability specialist or sub-contract website usability and conversions site audits.

The recommendations in these audits are intended to inject new opportunities for increased conversions and increase revenue.

What Web Design Practices Interfere with Online Marketing Strategies?

Certain web design choices interfere with crawlability, usability, readability, accessibility, and findability.

This makes the job of SEO much more difficult, especially when you see the same patterns and design conflicts repeated by your clients.

I went to two of my favorite SEO communities, Coywolf Community, part of the Jon Henshaw’s CoyWolf, and SEO DOJO Geeks, a Facebook group managed by David Harry, and asked:

“What techniques do web designers or web devs do on websites that absolutely drive digital marketers crazy? What interferes with your SEO efforts?”

“Working with Product Designers and Front End devs is really understanding their motivations and working with them to solve their use cases while making elements successful for crawlers and conversions.” – Eric Wu


  • Hamburger navigation menus – not intuitive.
  • Dropdown navigational elements that don’t link to the main category and force you to choose a sub-category.
  • Accordion navigation.
  • Mega menus.
  • Using search to build categories instead of filters.


  • Oversized images at the top of the page.
  • Infinite scroll.
  • Using font-awesome instead of SVG fonts.
  • Not including the alt text option for image uploads.
  • Lazy redirects (homepage redirects on site redesigns).
  • Session ids in URLs (dynamic single use URLs).
  • When site redesign decisions are made without consulting analytics. Poor decisions made based on opinions or feelings instead of relying on data.
  • Sliders slow down the page because all images from the slider have to load first.
  • Image in the slider will not carry the filename, title, nor an alt-text.
  • Using the H-hierarchy as design elements.
  • Putting the site logo as a H1.
  • Client side delivery even though it’s slower.
  • Assuming that responsive design is automatically the best mobile UI.
  • Not allowing admin or editorial control of page level SEO controls such as robots, Lang, canons, on page markup, link no-follow and image alignment.
  • Using the robots.txt for better indexation control.

“When site redesign decisions are made without consulting analytics. I’ve seen really poor decisions made based on opinions or feelings instead of relying on data.” – Joe Leyba

Invest In a Skilled Web Team

The holistic approach involves everyone associated with the website.

Any conflict or disagreement on the development of the website can result in unwanted symptoms later. This is why we start at the foundation.

Another way of looking at it is similar to working from your core.

If you exercise or have a personal trainer, they teach you how to perform each stretch, resistance or bodybuilding movement from your core. This is not only healthier and safer for your body, but it aids balance and optimizes the muscles.

If you ride horses, you may compare it to being told to work on your core to maintain better balance and it helps create more fluid body movements when communicating with the horse.

A team should be unified in this way because the final results benefit the website. There is no logic in skimping on skills.

“The more (technical) SEO your developer knows, the better. Even if you argue over specifics of implementation based upon cost, reward, scalability (e.g. are people going to bother continuing this process once we’re done) – it’s an argument worth having and the final result is better than it would have been otherwise. If they know nothing, they are arguing from a point of laziness or convenience.” – Stockbridge Truslow

While the techniques for search engine optimization are often precise and measurable, it is not so easy to predict how people will respond to webpages. There are too many variables.

What we have learned, however, is that people need to trust that the website has exactly what they most desire and there are no barriers preventing them from getting to it.

Today’s SEO professionals want this, too.