A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, December 13-16, 2004, Chicago, IL.
For as long as I have been involved in online marketing and specifically search marketing, there has been a rivalry between web designers and optimizers. What stuck me as a sign of hope was the composition of the "web Standards, Good Design and SEO: You Can Have It All" panel with their collective attitude that we can "all get along" to design web sites that are visually appealing, informative to the visitor and at the same time, be search friendly
In Danny Sullivan's opening remarks for this session, he told the attendees that one of the main reasons he created Search Engine Watch was because everyone was busily creating sites for Internet Explorer and Netscape and few were spending any effort designing for search engines which he referred to as the "third search engine."
Eric Meyer was the first speaker. Eric is a Consultant from Complex Spiral Consulting and gave a very informative presentation regarding web standards but did not make any specific ties to search engine optimization. He spoke about how following web standards can reduce page weights which save companies money. He also touched on browser incompatibilities, especially in IE but mentioned that transitional design (using a combination of CSS and table layout) can help to bridge the gap.
Standards help users by reducing load time. Other than that, users really don't care about the code. One point that Eric made (one that many large companies have already known but you don't see as often in smaller sites) is that by following standards, developers can streamline the creation and maintenance of a site saving the company money. For more information on web standards, Eric suggests webstandards.org, maccaws.org and of course, the worldwide web consortium
Matt Bailey from the Karcher Group spoke primarily about how web standards help accessibility, specifically for the visually impaired. He showed examples of how sites appear to people with various visual impairments and showed some screen reading programs (JAWS, Window-Eyes, HAL, and Out Spoken) and demonstrated how an over-optimized site would sound when read by one of these programs.
Shari Thurow from GrantasticDesigns.com followed with high praise of Eric and his work with CSS. She emphasized that good site design is most importantly user friendly and engaging enough to get users to convert. Shari reviewed a few case studies to emphasize the fact that your site needs goals and that you have to integrate search into your goal attainment planning.
Shari talked about the conflicting advice given by search engine optimizers and web standards professionals who advocate a limited use of graphics, and branding and marketing professionals who want to load up on graphics and flash to present a compelling offer to visitors. Shari is on the graphics side of the debate, advocating that graphics are better for usability and that too few graphics make a page appear unfocused. She echoed the advantages of CSS on site maintenance and reduced file size and explained one of the biggest problems with CSS is that not all fonts are available to users, causing problems for site owners.
Yahoo's Tim Mayer said speed is a major concern, and to ensure fast loading page the company uses standards to reduce file size. Tim went on to say Yahoo's crawlers prefer fast loading sites and that they really don't put a lot of emphasis on validation. They have not seen a correlation between validated sites and good quality relevant sites.
Though the divide between design and optimization will continue, this session went a long way to help close the gap and hopefully lead to faster loading sites and a wider adoption of accessibility functionality across the web