Many people think that search engine optimization (SEO) primarily involves identifying and adding keywords to make a website show up higher in Google search results. Put the right words in the right order, the thinking goes, and your site will shoot to the top. In reality, SEO is much more complicated than that. Modern search engines consider hundreds of factors when compiling results. Keyword usage is still important, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

Another integral piece is website design. Well-designed sites generally show up higher in search results, even though search engines can’t “see” websites the same way humans do. Since search engines can’t directly evaluate design quality, they rely on clues from Internet users to determine which sites have the best design, and how much it should impact their search results. Two simple ways search engines learn from us are by evaluating links and website user engagement.

Links

Links are the synapses of the Internet. Search engine robots crawl the Web via links to find and index as much information as possible. Evaluating the quantity and, more importantly, quality of links pointed toward a website is a search engine method as old as SEO itself.

Since the Internet’s earliest days, search engines have viewed links as votes of confidence in other websites. If one site links to another, it means that the person behind that website views the linked-to website as a valuable resource for a given topic. Therefore, sites with a lot of links are probably worth showing in search results.

This all relates back to web design because web pages aren’t linked to simply because they have great text content. Design, information architecture, graphic layout, site navigation, and other factors all contribute to how appealing a web page is to a visitor. Pages with great design intuitively get more links than pages with poor design, even if the content quality is similar. Therefore, by factoring links into their ranking algorithms, search engines are also indirectly rewarding good web design as well.

User Engagement

Evaluation of web pages doesn’t end after a search is completed – search engines also analyze how users interact with search results, and then make adjustments based on which results they clicked and how long they stayed on those sites. If a top result isn’t frequently clicked, or those who clicked it quickly return to the search results page, then that page will likely drop in the rankings.

Web design doesn’t impact whether a search result gets clicked or not – that’s determined by title tags, URLs, meta descriptions, and rich snippets – but it’s a factor in retaining visitors who arrive at your site via search. A website’s design is its first impression, and many visitors make snap judgements – ‘Should I read more, or go back to Google and find a different website?’ – based on a site’s appearance. A site with poor or outdated design is likely to have a higher bounce rate (the percentage of visitors who leave a site without visiting another page) than sites that provide great user experience. For that reason, search engines reward sites with low bounce rates for search visitors, which is another indirect way of rewarding good web design.

Web Design Will Always Impact Search Engine Results

Google and other search engines become more complex by the day, and with that comes more advanced ways to evaluate website design. In 2011, Google introduced the Panda update to drastically improve its ability to measure content quality. Implemention of Panda includes website testing and grading by humans, which is used to teach Google common coding patterns of well-designed sites. Google also employs artificial vision technology to analyze images and videos, and it’s not hard to imagine how that could be applied to automated web design evaluation.

Despite these futuristic advancements, search engines won't leave behind fundamental concepts like link evaluation and user engagement analysis any time soon. Links are still tremendously influential, and providing users with an engaging experience is a core part of Google’s mission. Even if Google finds a better way to compile its search results that depreciates the SEO value of links, it won’t mean that great web design has lost its value too.

If you’re on the fence about refreshing your website, consider the wide array of benefits a redesign could provide. Improved search engine rankings are never a guarantee for a new website – you’ll want to make sure your web design firm is also well-versed in technical SEO best practices – but there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that sites with great design have a better chance at grabbing top spots.

Your website shouldn’t be just an aesthetically pleasing representation of your brand – it should be an active marketing tool that impacts your bottom line. Improving your search visibility is a great place to start.