In 1987 the Partnership for a Drug-Free America debuted a new anti-drug campaign that included a television spot known as “Frying Pan.” In the original thirty-second version of the ad, a man in a spartan, dimly lit apartment leans against a counter. With a restrained but exasperated tone, he huffs, “Is there anyone out there who still isn’t clear on what doing drugs does? Okay. Last time.”
He walks over to the stove and plucks an egg from the carton. “This is your brain,” he states flatly. He points to a ready skillet. “This is drugs.” He cracks the egg over the skillet. It promptly sizzles and congeals. He moves the skillet off the stove and toward the waiting camera, giving the viewer a closer look at the curdled, browning egg: “This is your brain on drugs.” The camera then pans up from the egg to meet his eyes. “Any questions?”
For American television viewers of the era, the spot was iconic. Television pundits and anti-drug campaigners lauded the power and impact of the commercial. In 1997 the ad was named the eighth best commercial of all time by Entertainment Weekly, and later was included as one of the “Top Ten Public Service Announcements of All Time” by Time magazine. There was only one problem. The ad didn’t work.
Enter Carson B. Wagner, who along with his coauthor S. Shyam Sundar, published the results of a study into the efficacy of anti-drug public service announcements in 2008. The researchers found that, for some kids, seeing anti-drug ads made them wonder about what it must be like to do drugs—even if they had never had that curiosity before. In fact, participants in their study who were shown anti-drug ads were increasingly likely to perceive drug use as more widespread than it actually was. This was in part because the commercials created a perilous information gap: Temptation was driven by curiosity of the unknown.
Maybe your website has been lauded for its design, its visual impact. Maybe it employs the latest CSS and HTML tricks or features dynamic menus. And maybe these visual achievements are killing your SEO.
Flash without Thunder, or Images Worth Not a Single Word
Heat lightning is actually no different than ordinary lightning. It’s just far away—too far for thunder to reach the human ear. Likewise, Adobe Flash places content too far away for Google to crawl. Content contained within Flash should be considered equally invisible as that embedded within images or video. This includes Flash menus that provide vital navigational links to the remainder of your site. And while a Flash-heavy (or Java-heavy) website may offer the dynamic, exciting properties you seek in a redesign, it almost certainly hides your efforts from Google.
Annotated text for Flash elements, as well as images and video, can provide partial or full transcripts visible to search-engine crawlers. If important keywords are trapped in images, alt tags can expand their reach. Google text cache is a great way to visualize your site from the perspective of Googlebot. But the point remains: Content in Flash, Java, images, or video provides a visual pop to your users while drastically reducing their ability to find your content. These elements should enhance the text-based HTML content of your site, not replace it.
An equally impenetrable firewall for most search-engine crawlers are forms. You may have thought that a pop-up form on your homepage was an efficient way to capture marketing information from potential clients as soon as they arrived. From a form-placement perspective, this may well bear out statistically, yet it presumes potential customers have, in fact, found your site. And if you choose a form as the opening screen, crawlers end their efforts there.
A similarly misleading concept is the stripped-down “Enter” page, which may allow you to promote—with luxurious, full-screen animation—a single, eye-catching, profit-mongering promotion. But all too often, the “Enter” link is contained within a Flash or other non-text element, meaning the entirety of your site, not just the page, is invisible to crawlers. Everything behind that false welcome mat remains under lock and key.
Designed another way, you may have streamlined a link-heavy site structure to place the majority of your site’s contents behind a search box. Eliminating these links may please the design team—or even existing customers who have bookmarked your site—but the strategy confounds crawlers that cannot see beyond the box.
Shortcomings of the Single-Page Designs
Modern design in a frenetic digital (and non-digital) world begs for simplicity in color, line, and content. Early days of Web design frequently highlighted each new HTML achievement with a quirky and self-conscious ode; a tacky GIF was a frequent offender. Thankfully, that era has, for the most part, given way to a more refined aesthetic.
Taken to its extreme, this postmodern aesthetic has championed the distillation of a densely packed multi-page site into a single, scrolling page. Dynamically loaded content replaces the need for internal links, and user navigation proceeds with a graceful scroll. This serves the purposes of a single-offer site—say, an author’s latest novel or PPC landing page—but fails miserably to maximize SEO outside these narrow parameters.
For one, the single-page concept shortens your SEO impact to a single title tag, a single meta description. If you’re a university seeking to attract high school students for six core majors, you’ve just eliminated each of those subjects from title tags or descriptions, settling instead for generic or collective terminology none of them is likely to key into their computer. Each subsection of your business should retain its own page that can max-out your SEO potential.
Additionally, you’ve reduced a robust search-engine presence that may have held hundreds of tickets in the keyword raffle to single entry. Regardless of how skilled you imagine yourself to be as a lottery picker, simple statistics work against you.
How to Serve Two Masters
Yet still, SEO-conscious development doesn’t demand a resignation to dated visual concepts. It demands the ability to take the best design elements and align them with a structure that drives Web traffic and client conversion. This balance is different for every business but, consistently, reinforces a contextualization of design to value growth over perception, substance over style.