What is the Responsibility of a Web Designer in Regards to SEO?

Search Engine Optimization is an ongoing process that cannot truly be accomplished by designing a website in a particular way, although a designer can cripple a site’s chances with a poor foundation. Building a search engine-friendly website should be the task of the designer, but there can be some gray areas.

First of all, what makes a website search engine-friendly? Things like optimized page titles, clean coding, proper use of header tags, alt tags, the location in the code of primary content, and anchor text are just some of the elements involved. Equally important, the designer should avoid using elements in the design that harm the site’s ability to be crawled. For a more in-depth look at the construction of search engine-friendly websites, see How to Create Search Engine-Friendly Websites.

When it comes to optimizing a website’s page titles, headers, and similar elements, we step into the gray area of the responsibility of the designer. Of course, the designer should make a considerable effort to build a site that is optimized, but what is the responsibility of the designer and what is the responsibility of the customer?

If you are paying a designer to build a site for you and you’re not giving him or her specific keywords and phrases that you would like to target, you are leaving it up to the designer to determine what words and phrases the site will be optimized for, and in many cases this is not in your best interest.

As a business owner, your website’s optimization is much more important to you than it is for the designer (that’s not to say that a designer doesn’t care, but the designer’s attention will typically be focused on the look and functionality of the site). You know your customers and potential customers better than the designer does, so shouldn’t you have some say in what words and phrases you target?

If the customer is not very knowledgeable about SEO and keyword targeting, and most won’t be, the ideal situation is for the designer and the client to work together on this issue. From my experience, one of the easiest ways to get a customer involved in this way is to simply explain that the words and phrases used throughout the site (titles, headers, etc.) will have a direct impact on the site’s ability to rank well. I typically will ask customers to give me a list of words and phrases that they think potential visitors might use in a search. This can be especially important when designing a site in an industry that I am not very familiar with.

Of course, some research may need to be done, and this can be another gray area. Should the customer take the responsibility to do keyword research or should the designer? My experience is that this research is usually more effective if the customer is involved, but that is not always possible. The designer should be knowledgeable enough to advise customers and should be willing to help, but ultimately it is best for the customer to be as involved as possible. Basically, if the customer is concerned with SEO, being involved in the process should be a reasonable expectation.

Setting realistic expectations may also be a responsibility of a designer. I’ve had some potential customers come to me and say, “I was told that you know how to make my website rank first or second for (insert ultra-competitive keyword here).” In this situation I obviously think it is important to point out that SEO requires ongoing work that can’t usually be accomplished just by creating the site a certain way. I often recommend that customers add a blog to their website to get more content and improve its chances for ranking well.

What is not the responsibility of the designer?

If the designer is simply creating the site, there are a number of SEO factors that really are not affected by the designer. Of course, there are some cases where the design firm is also providing some or all of these services, but that is not usually the case. When a designer is only responsible for creating the site, these SEO factors will not fall within his or her responsibility:

  • Link building
  • Link baiting
  • Content creation
  • SMM
  • Press release writing
  • Sales copy

What is your opinion?

How do you see the responsibility of a designer in regards to SEO? Are there specific tasks that you think a designer or a customer should be responsible for?

Published February 28th, 2008 by

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30 Responses

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  • Ronald @ RA Project, February 28, 2008

    The designer should only be responsible for semantic code, applicable meta data, and to a lesser extent, keyword usage.

    As far as a link-building/link-baiting strategy and content creation… If a designer were to take on such a role, I would think it would come at an additional cost that is rather substantial, since it would be more of a long-term support-type contract rather than a one-time design/development job.

  • Patrick Altoft, February 29, 2008

    The designer should make sure that the title tags, urls, meta tags and h1 tags are editable for every single page. The rest is down to the site owner or SEO company.

    Of course the site should be designed with correct use of Flash, Ajax, JS, CSS etc as well.

  • James Paden, February 29, 2008

    Excellent post and I believe this issue is not covered enough. The designer should be responsible for creating search-engine friendly pages where spiders can easily navigate the entire website. They should also use proper semantics (h1, etc) for the entire site. I believe for most sites the designer should strongly consider SEO when building navigation structures and sitewide links. What text do you use? Is this an image or text navigation? If image, do I use text for this page anywhere?

  • Cory, February 29, 2008

    As a designer and developer, I feel that it is my responsibility to produce semantic code, make the site totally free of browser incompatibilities, and construct things that will provide the best optimization for organic search results.

    If the pages that are built by me are search engine friendly, then anything beyond that is in the hands of the SEO experts and the company. By making sure that each page is built to strict standards, and everything is marked up semantically correct, you have boosted the SEO of that site greatly, without ever really getting into SEO at all. From there it is up to good copywriting, go keyword and link building, etc. which I don’t think should be in the hands of the designer unless that designer is specifically being paid to do those things up front.

  • Derek Edmond, February 29, 2008

    This is an interesting discussion and I guess it all starts with the relationship a designer has defined with their client(s). Specifically, how involved is the designer in the actual implementation of web pages, moving content from paper to web page, and routinely updating online material?

    Obviously, the more involved, the more valuable it could be for a designer to understand more about search engine optimization.

    Certainly link building, content creation and PR are the client’s responsibility (not a designer), but I tend to believe keyword strategy, web page copy, Titles, Headings, and even the coordination of internal link architecture are as well.

    A key point with design factors is that once the search engine gets to the website/web pages – there is a better foundation for indexing content and correlating that content to a particular keyword strategy.

    Being able to incorporate additional functionality – particularly the understanding of why to have 404 pages, sitemaps, flat architecture etc, may be just an additional selling point or a way to distinguish competitive advantage.

    Just a couple ideas and thoughts – I really appreciate the reference to my post and glad you found it valuable for your readers.

  • Tom Beaton, February 29, 2008

    I believe the basic tasks that many SEO firms make are simply correcting designers mistakes and things they have overlooked. Designers are creating a website, it should work well with search engines. Otherwise it is like building a car which doesnt do corners.

    SEO is a lot more than simply on page work though, and those tasks a designer should not and can not be held accountable for.

  • Vandelay Design, February 29, 2008

    Hi everyone,
    Thanks for the great feedback. It seems like everyone is pretty much on the same page, which I expected. I think this is a discussion that I don’t see much of, and even though most of us have very similar thoughts sometimes there are assumptions or ideas that don’t fit into this box.

    Derek,
    That is a very good point that it depends on the relationship with the client. Each situation is different and will require slightly different work. If the client is under the impression that the designer is doing something specific it can cause problems if the designer isn’t on the same page.

  • Martin Fleming, March 1, 2008

    Ive worked in some fairly sizeable web companies where each main stage of the process has a dedicated member of staff.

    For example the designer will produce the PSD, the developer will build the website from the PSD with a semantic structure and the copywriter will liaise with the customer on the keyword targeted copy.

    However, in smaller businesses this is not practical and it really comes down to each individual client. Whether the website has a joint effort of keyword rich content or just content supplied by the client, comes down to project cost at the end of the day.

    However, whoever is adding the content to the website should write decent page titles and meta descriptions if they have not been supplied this information as its not a major task.

  • Vinh Le, March 2, 2008

    I agree with most people here in terms of the responsibilities of a person who holds the title of web designer. When I offer my services as a freelance web designer, I only offer those of designing the website and coding it. While I like to believe I know above average cause I worked hard on it in the past in developing back ends, increasing functionality with javascript/AJAX, and improving the SEO of a website, I do not offer these services to clients unless they request it and I feel like doing it. I tend to only do them for my own sites or a small handful of clients as it is not something I like to do for every website I work on. That is a personal choice in my opinion and if its not in the contract, I am not responsible for it.

  • I think web designers that have knowledge of SEO would get more work/clients than those who doesn’t. Depending on the industry, the SEO part could be more valuable than the website itself.

  • Biodun, March 12, 2008

    A web designer should have the understanding of how a website needs to be structured in order to have a chance of getting search engine traffic.
    Though it’s not the web designer’s responsibility to do link building, link baiting stuff, unless its has been agreed upon. But the client is relying on the expert’s knowledge and experience for underlying code and techniques that he will build which the search engines can crawl.

  • Web Design and Development, March 13, 2008

    This is indeed very true. It is very important not only to design a website creatively but following the standards of the Search engine like optimum use of flash and image-size, avoiding frames, along with putting appropriate Title and Meta for each pages. Content Optimization plays an important role for any website to rank higher.

  • Sonja Ray, March 14, 2008

    I absolutely agree with your stance, and in fact I’ve blogged about it on my own blog. The structure and underlying code of the site are necessary (although not sufficient) for good search engine performance, and the web designer should not be producing sites that then have to be “fixed” by the SEO. It’s fine to blunder around committing search engine suicide on your own personal site, but when someone holds themselves out to be a “professional,” I believe they have a professional obligation to their clients.

    This is one of my pet peeves and has been for a long time now. I’m reinforced in my believe every time I get a new client whose site must be totally dismantled and re-built from scratch in order to have a chance of ranking in the SERPs.

  • Andy, March 17, 2008

    I believe the basic tasks that many SEO firms make are simply correcting designers mistakes and things they have overlooked. Designers are creating a website, it should work well with search engines. Otherwise it is like building a car which doesnt do corners.

    SEO is a lot more than simply on page work though, and those tasks a designer should not and can not be held accountable for.

  • jObs, March 21, 2008

    I see some really good tips of seo and i think i am going to use some of them.

  • Here i really come to know, that very designer is responsible for seo services, every designer have to take peer on web page design from page layout to W3C coding standard.

    The only designer can make the website as the search engines wants including user friendly.
    Exp: – Designer can manipulate or reverse heavy website to very light means to say Making web page in Division manner, instead of Table using in body tag.

  • I think the designer is responsible for the overall look of the site. He must make sure that the site he creates is a SEO friendly one. Which means that once seo starts, there will just minimal work to be done as far as on-page optimization is concerned.

  • tablo ravan, September 9, 2008

    I see some really good tips of seo and i think i am going to use some of them. تابلو روان

  • free domain, September 9, 2008

    This is indeed very true. It is very important not only to design a website creatively but following the standards of the Search engine like optimum use of flash and image-size, avoiding frames, along with putting appropriate Title and Meta for each pages. Content Optimization plays an important role for any website to rank higher. http://i2ir.com

  • ff-webdesigner, September 23, 2008

    I think it is the responibility of a webdesigner to be aware of the SEO-topic and talk about it before the project starts.

  • nicky, May 12, 2009

    As per my knowledge web designer has to follow best practices while designing the site and rest of the work is done by SEO expert.

  • sedat, May 12, 2009

    I see some really good tips of seo and i think i am going to use some of them.

  • Chotrul Web Design, December 11, 2009

    Really I think it depends entirely on what services you actually intend to offer. You could stop with doing all the on page stuff. Or you could stop earlier and say it’s the clients responsibility to provide the content for the on-site stuff. But who does the research to establish the right phrases to target? And so it goes …..

    What do you want to offer your client? Who is available to do it? Are you capable to doing it?

  • Stuart, March 6, 2011

    As long as a web designer is happy to take advice from a specialist in SEO then all is rosey in the garden! :)

  • Personally I do the basic SEO for a client with good website structure, Title tags, descriptions and basic keywords and proper internal linking.

    Any more on a advanced level then the client has to pay more. In this day an age with design rapidly moving along I feel that as a new age designer adding these extra bits is just part and parcel of our job.