What's a web designer to do, then? And should websites completely ignore their design in favor of an almost unilateral emphasis on great content that attracts search users? The answer is a bit more nuanced than a choice between black and white, content or design, presentation or authority. Instead, website owners should focus heavily on content while ensuring that their site is easy to use and inspires additional clicks. After all, it is the design of the website that will entice users after they finish reading the content. There are a few simple rules to follow that can clarify this process and make it easier to balance content and aesthetics.
1. Identify and Think About the Content First
Content is king. This universal truth of website ownership and promotion doesn't seem poised to change at all over the next few years, especially with recent algorithm changes at Google that now make it even more important to have great content on virtually every page. With that said, though, merely having content for content's sake is a bit of a waste and it can lead to a cluttered site that offers no value.
Before merely creating content that revolves around a few pre-selected keywords, think about the content in a few critical ways. What is the content about? What is the content trying to accomplish? Who will be reading it? What will their goals be before, during, and after reading the content that is made available on this site?
With the content firmly in mind, set about creating a few basic, introductory articles. These articles will actually set the direction of the site and more clearly determine how it is designed and how heavily that design figures into the equation for search engine rankings and customer conversions. Keep the content safe somewhere, or post it to the site using an existing content management system.
2. Think Critically About How to Enhance the Content
Content might be king, but it can't exist on its own without a design that enhances it. A design should serve a few basic goals after implementation, and these are good to keep in mind as a design is being fleshed out:
- The design should focus centrally on the content, with few or no elements that distract from the message of a given post, page, or article.
- The design should enhance the content by providing engagement opportunities via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and on-site user comments.
- The design should communicate the "brand" of the site through colors, imagery, and other aesthetic cues. Make the design an attempt to "show" what the content is attempting to "tell."
With these three key rules put into place, the design will actually be built up around the content. It's much like when an established corporation decides to build itself a new headquarters and, rather than that headquarters setting the tone for the company's ideas, the new headquarters actually serves to reflect those ideas.
3. Don't Neglect Good Practices and Algorithm Rules
Google doesn't really like it when a website's design pushes the content below the fold. This is essentially the equivalent of a newspaper putting fancy graphics and mastheads all over the top half of their front page. Then, somewhere below those graphics, the paper features its top stories and its most meaningful content. If Google sees this in play, the site will be judged less authoritative and less useful. Its search engine ranking will suffer.
The goal is to make content an accessory, or an enhancement, rather than the star of the show. A small masthead with a branding mark gets things started. A contextual sidebar, designed to enhance the main blocks of content, keeps interest as the page scrolls downward. An informative footer that directs visitors to other key parts of the site finishes the job and keeps new customers engaged.
All of these things can be done without harming the central role of content and without offending the search engine crawlers at sites like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Many of these design elements are actually crucial ways to keep users within the site's reach, guiding them to other categories of posts, other popular articles, and areas that the site wishes to spotlight for search engine optimization purposes.
The Bottom Line: The Design Doesn't Matter if the Content Isn't There
The Internet is full of variation, which means there are plenty of cautionary tales to be cited when discussing the importance of content versus design. It's probably not very hard to think about a site that looked really great in a desktop web browser, with handcrafted graphics and unique fonts, which had no real material value at all. Its content wasn't "there" and the site suffered because of it. Even though the site's designer was uniquely talented, and had all of the right Photoshop or Illustrator skills to get the job done, their site couldn't seal the deal.
The inverse is not always true, though. There are plenty of sites that lack an appealing design but have plenty of visitors. At Craigslist, there are virtually no graphics or fancy elements in play. Content is king, and content is central, and the site is a massive success. This is because people don't often go to sites for the design, but instead they go to their chosen bookmarks for the available content. Most users are willing to ignore bad design for good content, but not the other way around.
Start with great content. Come up with between ten and fifteen great articles that use keywords a few times, convey authority to visitor, and inspire them to take some kind of meaningful action with the website. Use these articles to determine not only the message of the website, but also its overall mission. Create content that is uniform in theme, consistent in its approach to search engine optimization, and authoritative when read by others.
Next, Design a Site Around its Content
With content that will draw users in and give them something to learn, it's now a good idea to create a site that will captivate their imaginations and appeal to them in a more visual way. When creating this design, remember the message and mission contained within the written content. Remember that the design will not sell Google on the site's content, nor will it sell visitors on the site's authority. All it will do is serve as an accessory to the posts that are already bringing in dedicated readers and commenters.
Make sure that the design is consistent with the site's message. If the site is promoting eco-friendly business practices, ensure that the design blends business and the environment in a unique and meaningful way. If the site is about fashion, give the design that same prerogative. By being consistent, users will see and read exactly what they expect upon arrival. That type of predictability is what leads to a better conversion rate, placing the site in a more authoritative position at the major search engines online.
Make the Design an Excuse to Highlight Special Content or Features
Finally, don't forget to use the site's design as a great way to highlight the most popular posts, or the most used features, or the most popular products, contained within the site. Designs represent a great opportunity to blend promotion with the site's overall function, which should not be forgotten during the design process. By using visual cues and colors to "guide" users, the site's owner can actually make users do exactly the right things for search engine relevancy and business profitability.
On the Internet in the 21st century, design is the backdrop to authoritative, conversion-increasing content. It's an accessory to that content, a way to show what the content tells. Ensure that great content is available to customers and the design will follow naturally, intuitively, and with great influence over customers and new visitors.
By: David Walsh