Appearance, Usability and Search Engine Visibility in Web Design

Appearance, Usability and Search Engine Visibility in Web Design
by Christopher Heng,

I was recently asked by a visitor to to take a look at her company's website, designed by a university student. I will not give the URL for that site, partly to protect the innocent, and partly because by the time you read this, it'll probably have been modified.

The site was heavy in its use of graphics with images adorning most parts of the page layout, to provide curved borders (to replace the sharp corners in enclosing boxes), different background images for different parts of the page, etc. It had a top navigation bar, driven entirely using JavaScript. The navigation bar mimicked the sort of menu bar you find in computer programs - there is a horizontal menu bar with different items listed. When you move your mouse over one of those items, the menu will automatically expand vertically. As you move the mouse cursor down the pop-up menu, the item beneath the pointer is highlighted. Click it, and you will be delivered to another page on the site.

In general, that site is typical of the kind of sites produced by newcomers to web design. It scores well in terms of prettiness and gadgetry (although only under one browser, it doesn't work well under other browsers), but fares dismally in terms of usability and search engine readiness. In fact, the reason my visitor wrote to me was because the website suffered a significant drop in the number of visitors after it was redesigned in its current form.

This article uses that site as a starting point for discussing some of the issues that a web designer needs to consider when creating a website that must exist and compete in the real world (as opposed to a site that is created merely to fulfill the course requirements of a school or university).
1. Appearance is Not the Most Important Issue

Over the years that I have dealt with newcomers to web design, it is my observation that they tend to focus excessively (and sometimes almost exclusively) on the appearance of a website. The site I mentioned earlier is a case in point: the designer tried hard to make the site look beautiful (and, if I may add, succeeded too - the site does indeed look pretty). However, as hard as it may be to believe (if you are a newcomer), appearance isn't the most important thing to look at when you are planning and creating your site.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying that appearance is of no importance. Far from it. However, in this article, my intention is to address the excessive importance newcomers place on beauty. In fact, if you belong to the other extreme, discounting the value of the appearance of a website altogether, you might want to read my discussion of Two Common Web Design Myths at

Having said that, your site can still survive (or even thrive) if it is a plain-looking site like Google. This is not necessarily the case if you overlook the other important issues in web design.
2. Usability is Important for You to Achieve Your Purpose

All sites are created for a particular purpose. Some were created so that their owners can sell something. Others are information resources (like Still others are designed to showcase their owner's talents (such as sites displaying the owner's resumes and portfolios).

The usability of your site is important to help you achieve that purpose. The basic question that you need to address when dealing with usability is: can your visitors easily access the information they need so that they can do the stuff that you want them to do? There are quite a number of things involved in this question.

Information Availability

Is the information that your visitors need to make informed decisions available on your site? For example, before they can buy a product, they will want to know more about that product. A brief one-line summary about your product's features may work for your main page, but you will probably find that you get more buyers if you can p

in reference to: The White House (view on Google Sidewiki)

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