Lee Odden

SEO Clueless Web Developers: Evil or Cash Cow?

Lee Odden     Online Marketing, Rant, SEO


I think it’s safe to say that everyone in the web site optimization business has experienced that unfortunate situation with a client where those responsible for creating the web site have done those nasty things that seem to make the site as un-search engine friendly as possible. While it’s not intentional, it can seem awfully ignorant to search engine optimization consultants brought in after the fact to “fix” things.

Common issues include:

  • URLs that are difficult or impossible for search engine spiders to crawl
  • Hard coding the same title tag on all pages, not allowing tags to be edited or no title tag at all
  • Putting most of the content behind a login and not offering “teaser” content
  • Not allowing direct editing of on-page text content
  • Flash or JavaScript navigation
  • All Flash or Ajax sites
  • Changing site design/architecture and not 301 redirecting URLs, or no redirection at all

Let’s face it, it’s not all the web team’s fault. In most cases they’re not trained to pay attention to search engines as a secondary audience or “third browser” as Danny Sullivan has often written about, nor are they tasked by the client (internal or external) to consider how their shiny new web site will do with search engines.

By no means am I saying that all web developers and designers are guilty of such “search engine unfriendliness”. I am surprised though, how often this kind of thing continues to occur. As a SEO consultant, should I mind? It keeps us very busy.

Another cause is that many interactive agencies seem to be driven to use Flash/Ajax in order to be “cutting edge” and win design awards rather than consider how such sites will fare getting crawled by bots. Eventually the web site owner asks, “Why do our search engine rankings suck?”. A popular agency answer? “You need to use Google AdWords”.

You don’t need to search far to find commentary in the SEO industry about the conflicts between SEO and web design. On the one hand, it seems completely avoidable and an unnecessary expense to the client if web developers and creators of content management systems and ecommerce platforms would just consider search engines properly as an audience.

On the other hand, as long as creators of such web based software and web sites continue causing these problems, technical site optimization will be necessary. It keeps us SEOs busy and pretty much perpetuates the need for code and server side optimization. The irony is that a lot of the web design/development community loves to hate SEO, yet their development and design practices perpetuate the need for it. At least for on-page SEO and code optimization.

In the end it does not serve the client well to create web sites that are difficult for search engines to crawl, index and rank. It also does not serve the client to compromise good design and user experience for the sake of ranking well.

The creation of well designed and search engine friendly web sites, content management systems and ecommerce platforms is entirely doable. What will it take to find some common ground between SEO and the web devlopment communities? Is education and awareness the key or is it something else?

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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. When I still worked at an agency, the Flash and javascript navigation thing was a constant struggle with our clients. In most cases they didn’t even understand the technology itself they just wanted to throw the terminology around.

  2. I think just like you and Andy commented on in your RSS Subscriber buttons post that there’s just not enough time. Companies don’t have time to focus on quality design, good web standard code, and effective SEO and SEM practices. One of these has to draw the short straw.

    Companies tend to, and for good reasons, focus on just a few aspects of business. My 9-5 job right now (until the end of this week) is a marketing company that focuses on SEO for doctors and lawyers. It just so happens that we have really talented designers and developers. If we didn’t they certainly wouldn’t search to find them. They would be completely satisfied with just regular/boring designers that get the job done.

    My next job is also a advertising and marketing company, but they focus more on quality design. Since I have been active in the SEO community for the last 3 years with my current employer I will be able to bring a lot of search knowledge to them which will hopefully broaden their search horizons.

    Thankfully, as a freelance designer I am able to bring the best of both worlds to my clients. Quality design and the know how to reach their search traffic goals. But the trick is just finding the right company that can do both for you.

    Personally, if I had to choose, I would rather go with a good SEO/SEM company that had some design skills vs. a kick-ass design company that doesn’t bring you any traffic. SEO and SEM changes incredibly fast, much faster than the latest design trend and since traffic is the name of the game. You have to go with the company that can bring it to you.

  3. I have to agree with beth: the use of high-end Flash content is specifically requested too often by clients that don’t care to understand why it is not such a great thing.

  4. So true. I dealt with a top tier design firm account manager recently that was so intent on creating an award-worthy flash nav on the client’s tab, he argued his way out of a job. Sad to watch.

    I also hate to discover background images used on divs instead of embedded images, because they inevitably end up burying h tags into them in order to make the images clickable. Bad idea to hide H tags.

    It’s fun to read your blog as you suffer through these real-world team issues, Lee.

  5. It’s the cost of doing business in this industry I guess. 🙂

  6. I was sweating it out coming to the bullet points for the initial checklist of “Evil Developer”, but I think we (our skillz and CMS) passed.

    -Our URLS from our CMS are OK, but we are rolling out SEO friendly soon, last phase of BETA: .com/widgets/coolwidget
    Custom so the CMS user can control them
    – All pages have editable meta data, titles, tags, description.
    – Hidden, who wants to find it? Tease em and please em.
    – Our CMS is full control of text, anchor text, image descriptions and more. Power to the people.
    – No flash navs ever, working on converting old menus to CSS drop-downs … and give em a sitemap link!
    – Flash or AJAX should only be an element (small one) on proper pages
    – 301, redirectors, yup.

    We spend a good amount of time researching (reading this blog and many others), networking, testing and evaluating our work within SEO. We are no TopRank, but we are not evil. With 85% of our clients being small business, we have to. Great looking websites are only that, great working websites delivering results, sales, leads and happy users … now that’s where it is at.

    Thanks for pointing out some entry level no-no’s Lee … what’s on the intermediate list … I want to pass that one too! 🙂

  7. It isn’t that most CMS systems violate SEO conventions so much as it is clients that have those same CMS systems customized so that they can still have their Flash header/nav and fancy javascript controls.

    We can make the CMS as friendly as you could ever want it, but that won’t stop it from being repeatedly degraded by forced use of Flash, etc.

    There will be a convergence of the two sides of the technology at some point, but it will have to be instigated by a company like Google that has the clout to enforce it.

    Figure they’ll either figure out how to search Flash, or Flash will figure out how to be more friendly.

    Either way, there is not going to be a solution until then except the same ole same ole:

    Tell the client the pitfalls of using their chosen technology and then try not to be smug about future SEO difficulties when they arrive.

  8. A standard client comment: “I’ve seen Flash used on dozens, even hundreds, of major sites, so it is obviously not a problem.”

  9. Avatar Zach Beauvais says

    Being quite new to SEO (and not being a developer, but the arch-enemy: a project manager) I find this blog extremely helpful in arming us for discussions with the developers. I would, however, like to know how our sites stack SEO-wise. They’re content managed (in my opinion badly) using a PageBuilder system which creates very long url’s with various %20’s and .aspx? bits added (I understand why they’re there, having some technical knowledge, but I don’t like them). Also, we use a java navigation and massive flash header… Fortunately, we are top ranked for certain searches, but only because we’re so niche and have a brand most people (in the UK) recognise. This makes it difficult to see how it works, however. Any help would be very much greatly appreciated.

  10. Avatar Jay Harper says

    I’ve seen some corporate developers do and say some really stupid things…

    One set up their server so there was no response on requests for robots.txt. The internal “web company” responsible for the site didn’t even notice the site hadn’t been indexed after being up for 6 months.

    I heard another internal web developer say “SEO shouldn’t even exist – Google should just be able to figure it out…”

    In the same company they have a domain that used to be PR8 (before they destroyed their PageRank with subdomains), but they set up a band new domain for a service they offer rather than host it on their 1996 domain where it would do so much better.

    But more common is the comment “Sure, we’ll SEO the site – that’s pretty much just adding keyword meta tags anyway…”

    Needless to say, it can be an uphill battle with some of these folks.

    As far as Flash – it can certainly be overused, but if you use it in small amounts (not the entire page), and use SWFObject to provide GOOD alternate content for the spiders and people without Flash, you can have your cake and eat it too…

  11. Zach, the situation you describe is the reason many companies hire consultants. Some will do a one time audit and others require ongoing consulting.

  12. Jay, I appreciate your comments in support of Flash. Too many people seem to be on a witch hunt for it, when used in small amounts as you say, it can work very well with a highly optimized site.

  13. @zach: Listen to Lee. That’s a very cost-effective use of an SEO consultant. The ugly URLs that bother you may be low-hanging fruit, or may be relatively minor as pertains to performance. Why guess?

  14. I agree Lee, the main Website of the Company I work for got into some crawling issues with Googlebot not being able to crawl it. The IT department was into developing a new platform and CMS for our Websites and now we get a 500 internal server error from Google Webmaster’s tools. Now they are in the process of fixing the bug. I sent them a document I found about “SEO for programmers – Creating SEO friendly Websites”.

  15. You have depicted the issue very well, And in Pakistan, most clients want to develop thier website with high graphics and Flash.
    Even for ecommerce website which rely on Search engines traffic, I have seen many pathetic design issues.
    Even most of design companies here doesn’t have a basic idea about SEO. But in last 5 months I have experienced an incremental increase in pakistani designers who are now doing their websit to create SEO friendly websites.
    I hope in next few years, i wouldn’t have to spend most of my time on design issues.

  16. Most developers here are using SEO techniques from 1998, if any. And we have heard some “Google will figure it out” (fingers crossed behind back, I’m sure) sort of responses, too.

  17. I personally dis-agree with Fargham. In Pakistan and India, The web designers have been aware about the user and search engines friendly websites than anybody in the world. Since we are dealing with 99% clients from other parts of world, and since we personally offer them the User and Search engines friendly websites or the same is desired by them. Design and Development have been the major industry in here and yes, we have seen a big increase in last an year time, but even then, I do not personally feel the need, You will need to spend your very rare time on the design issues. Designing in here is just brilliant. I am not really sure if you are talking about the Pakistani market or talking about some Philippine or Thailand based companies. Please do clarify..Thanks


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