Lee Odden

The Lowdown on Web Designers and SEO

“Why Shouldn’t I Have My Web Designer Do Our SEO?”

This is a question we often hear from companies that are playing devil’s advocate during a site redesign that also needs optimization for better visibility on search engines. It’s sort of a, “As long as you’re under the hood, can you fix that other thing” perspective. Since the site design and code are being reworked, why not sprinkle some keywords in there?

This is a logical attitude for business or site owners who think of search engine optimization as purely a technical discipline. Too often this perspective is fostered by people in the web design and interactive industry who consume outdated information about SEO.

A 3rd party vendor web designer asked on a recent client conference call, “What about the Florida update?”. All I could do is smile and continue talking about latent semantic indexing. Hah, just kidding. We don’t spew LSI nonesense.

What we do in those situations is tactfully explain the scope of how and when search engines make updates so that everyone has a better perspective on how outdated the “Floriday update” is without demeaning the web designer’s credibility. It’s a slippery slope sometimes dealing with the political side of client engagements. You won’t get anywhere bashing other vendors, especially if you need them for execution.

Today’s SEO is not just about the technical side or about “textbook” SEO. As an example, most web developers and/or designers are not often trained, tasked or interested in doing the kind of competitive marketplace, keyword analysis and creative content strategy that is required to create the foundation of a site optimization project. Web designers are more often than not an invaluable resource for implementing recommendations, but not for setting SEO strategy.

Many times, web designer SEO involves being given a list of keywords by the site owner or someone in marketing and asked to put them in title tags, meta tags, alt text, link text and possibly modifying code so that urls are crawler friendly.

A specialist in search engine optimization is going to have tools for analyzing a keyword marketplace, competitor web sites as well as content recommendations. Keywords are mined from the current client site, competitor sites, mining data from web analytics and the on-site search engine, tools like Keyword Discovery and WordTracker, Google trends and possibly interviews with client front line staff that interact with the target market such as sales people and customer support teams. Most web designers aren’t going to have time or the resources to do all that. But they will be instrumental in the implementation of those recommendations.

We employ web design staff on our SEO team and for the most part, we try to avoid doing web design projects because we’re so busy fixing web sites made by other designers. Most designers do not make web sites that are not search engine friendly on purpose. Rather, they make web sites that focus on the user experience without regarding the search engine experience. In most cases, the designer is not asked to make the site search engine friendly or optimized in the first place. The business owner doesn’t know any better and many times, the web designer doesn’t either.

Having a creatively and technically talented web designer is a tremendous resource. Having a creatively and technically talented SEO as well makes it a one-two punch. Now scale that up with a training program, viral marketing specialists, web analytics and top notch account managers skilled in the arts of client and geek diplomacy and you have one heck of a SEO firm.

Can a web designer do SEO? Some can, some won’t and some just don’t have the time to stay current with SEO methodology. The question is, can they do the kind of SEO that will help build your brand AND increase sales?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Avatar Peter Davis says

    I think we’re definately going to see some movement in this. Web design firms expanding into SEO, or even acquiring SEO firms. New firms launched that incorporate both. Bigger companies are going to start including SEO in their marketing department, more.

    I don’t think the question is really “Can a web designer do SEO” it’s more of a question of putting the right people together to excell at both.

  2. Hmmm…Not sure about this one…

    I think it’s a toss up between new school and old school. When I received my BA in Fine Arts and Media in ’01, they were still teaching us layouts with tables. Since then through my 9-5 job I have been fortunate enough to work for a company that is a leader in Internet Marketing for the medical, dental, and legal fields. As anyone knows, for ex: optimizing sites for “Dallas LASIK” is not an easy task. Since I came in as a designer, I have learned everything from tabless layouts to every benefit of semantic markup for SEO. During this time, I have also had the benefit of having an entire company teach me about marketing and SEO.

    I still keep in touch with all of my old professors and the kids that are coming out of school now know almost as much as I do about code for SEO benefits. Now all you have to do is teach them how to implement effective marketing and SEO.

    While I do agree with you about the extremely large shoes an SEO marketing person has to fill with all the analytics and data crunching that goes along with a quality SEO campaign, at least the new school designers are more in tune with that sort of information. You won’t have to fight with them to get rid of the large image just to put in a few H tags and decent amount of content. They seem to understand the big picture. Now whether or not they have the time to wear all those shoes is a different story.

    You bring up some good points though Lee. I

  3. Thanks Peter, I agree it’s a synergy that works best. That’s why we have both creative/technical design as well as creative /technical SEO people on staff.

    Drew, you make a good point. The people I see coming out of school now are more savvy, but the needs of SEO are often far outside the boundaries of what is reasonable to expect from a web designer no matter how good they are at code SEO. It’s good that more people on the interactive side are gaining more SEO knowledge though. It helps A LOT when we don’t have to battle with the web team on the on-site and code related SEO recommendations.

  4. Lee – this is a maddening topic for small business. Your company is in a nice spot – trust me.

    If I did a search today for companies who I could meet with about being hired to do SEO work, I’d find a ton willing to come in and tell me what they can do. When you meet with them you realize you’re talking to a design firm who is trying to get into the SEO space. On the other hand, well-establishe SEO companies who have a solid name and have more customers than they know what to do with can charge a premium.

    Unfortunately, unless the small company marketer is well-read on the topic, many will buy into one of the design firms who won’t get the job done.

  5. Hey Patrick, I have a feeling there’s more available to you than you know. I’ll email you offline.

  6. Avatar CallToAction says

    The timing of this post is incredibly ironic for me. I just got off a call with a (now former) prospective client, who explained to me that she needs a design firm (the kind that will only do fancy flash design) to fix her company’s site before she can even think about SEO. Her parting question…”When they are done, could you come out and do the SEO?”. I’ll take the blame…no matter how much I explained that the keyword analysis needs to be done upfront, that it is an integral part of the site and hence the business approach, that it links directly to the target audience, that it even helps shape & tout the products’ benefits and the site’s call to action…well…I obviously did not explain it well enough. So, in the end, she will spend a lot of money and get a pretty site that probably generates the same amount of revenue / profit that it does today. Days like today can be daunting! I’m off to have a glass of wine.

  7. Can’t agree more on the subject. When we create new web sites, I always have a marketing person do designing and site structure. Web Developer does the rest..

    p.s. love the “sum” question

  8. I think it will be a long time before web design agencies take on the grunt work of SEO or indeed internet marketing.

    I run a team of 40 dedicated, trained, native English speaking article writers whom offer marketeers and webmasters a low cost article writing and linking service. Web design companies are just not going to do that. It isn’t much fun.

    The articles produced are not simply run of the mill, hacks, written only to gain as many links as possible, regardless of content or quality. Rather, these are thoughtfully researched and carefully written, interesting articles, with provocative titles, all written by talented professionals. So much so that many of our clients use them for content in their own web sites.

    I think this service is essential for any internet marketeer, webmaster or person responsible for the competitive ranking of their company’s website on Google, Yahoo or MSN. Have a look at the http://www.seymour-james.com/linkpopularity/ for details. It really is worth spending a few minutes getting to grips with what the competition is most likely doing.

    Hope this helps….


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