Often, web design theory has got it all backward.
A web site is sometimes first conceived as an entity that reflects the company that publishes the web site. A mission statement, that is given an online form.
The harsh reality is that most people don’t care about your mission statements, but they do care about seeing their own reflection. They are not surfing the web to find you, they surf the web and click on you, hoping you will answer some questions about the problems they have in their life. In other words, they are basically saying “it’s not about you, it’s about me.”
In no environment is this more true than on the web. The web is a two-way communication medium, and the control of that communication, unlike, say, a film, rests not with the director, but with the user. The back button or the “escape” button is only ever a click away. Because you can not force them to sit through a sales pitch, customers or repeat visitors will only happen if they find “themselves” (hopes, dreams, and solutions) on your site.
Your Website is Not a Trifold Pamphlet
For this reason, a web design that places too much emphasis on what the publisher wants to say is doomed to irrelevance and an alarming dearth of visitors. The publisher does not have the upper hand when it comes to controlling the flow of web communication, yet a lot of web design theory assumes this as a given, mostly because outmoded ideas of web design is based on print publishing. Many still view their web site as a trifold pamphlet that mysteriously sneaks into every living room.
What are the most successful computer applications? Email. Word processing. Spreadsheets, Games. Take a look at the web sites that are most successful: Google, Amazon, Facebook, and eBay. The history of computing is all about user-centric empowerment. The future of computers and web sites is already on a trajectory of increased user interaction. One of the key metrics Google’s algorithms measure is social engagement. If you are not producing content that people are engaging in, not just reading, then you are doomed to the rocky shores of oblivion.
The way to do web design is to base the design around users, specifically their wants and desires. People’s wants and desires should drive the design process, and structures imposed for other reasons will be less successful. This goes beyond usability. Web design should be, fundamentally, about listening to and addressing people’s problems.
SEO-centric web design
This is where SEO-centric web design comes in. As many SEOs know, people are broadcasting their needs and problems. Every second. They are using keyword queries in search engines to tell the search engine what they need. We can “listen” to these needs by using keyword research tools.
Once we discover the language people are using to describe their needs, we can then build pages, architectures, and content copy, using their language, and addressing their problems, thereby creating a website that is an accurate reflection of the people who will use the site.
For example, a search engine doesn’t see a hierarchy, and most users don’t care about it. Every page is effectively a “home page”. Once people land on a page, they are at the start of the funnel which should quickly and effortlessly lead to the desired action, which is the point at which you meet their needs. The “desired action” is often wrongly defined in terms of the desires of the publisher or business owner, but it’s even more useful to view it in light of the desires of the visitor and potential customer.
At this point, some readers will surely be thinking “but people don’t come to my site via search engines”. Though that is a terrible situation to be in, it doesn’t matter. The site should address people’s problems, and search engines reveal the language people use to do define and frame their problems. Once you have a website that answers people’s questions and search-intent, then search engines will start promoting you. Web designers should not ignore this valuable information. Rather, this information should be integrated into the design process. It is a Google-centric web. Google achieved this feat by placing the user first. SEO should be at the heart of the design process, not something bolted on at the end.