Appearance, Usability and Search Engine Visibility in Web Design

Importance of Usability and Search Engine Visibility

Appearance, Usability and Search Engine Visibility in Web Design

by Christopher Heng,

I was asked, some time ago, 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, Internet Explorer 6, which was a browser used by many people at the time I checked the site; 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).

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. Take Google as a case in point. It is, for the most part, plain-looking (at least at the time I wrote this). But one can hardly argue with its success. This is not necessarily the case if you overlook the other important issues in web design.

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.

  1. 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 provide a link to a page that gives a detailed list of features of each of your products.

  2. Information Accessibility

    Not only must your information be available to your visitors, it must be easily accessible. A page that gives a detailed description of your products is not going to help your visitors if they have to work hard at finding it. In fact, my experience is that if visitors have to work at finding something on your site, they are not going to find it. Either put the information right under their noses, or put a link to it in that place.

  3. Navigation

    A good navigational system for your website is crucial. A navigational system is one by which visitors can move from one page to another. For example, on, one way in you can access the main pages on the site is to use the navigation buttons on the left column of the page.

    There are a few features to a good navigational system:

    1. If you are using a navigation bar or panel, standardize its location on all the pages of your website. Don't make your visitors feel as though they are embarking on a treasure hunt every time they reach a new page.

    2. In addition to your navigation bar or panel, provide short-cuts to places where visitors are likely to want to go. Don't force your visitors to have to go through your main page (or your site map) every time they need to visit another page on your site. In fact, put direct links in logical places — for example, on your "Products" page, you should have a links to your "Buy / Order" page as well as links to the pages with detailed information about individual products. Think like a visitor and ask yourself what are the things a visitor might want to know or do when he/she is at a particular page.

    3. A good navigation system must be usable by all your visitors. As a result, try to avoid things that are dependent on certain facilities or features being available. For example, don't make your menu dependent on a specific browser. If your menu is JavaScript-driven, make sure that you have an alternative facility available for people who do not have JavaScript enabled.

    4. If your site has a large number of pages, a site search engine will improve your site's usability. Not everyone mentally organises information the way you do. Hence a logical arrangement to you may not be logical to another person. Giving your visitors a way to search your web site will help them locate what they want. I discuss the use of a search engine for your site in my article How to Put a Search Engine On Your Site at

    5. It's always good to have a Site Map, unless your site has only a few pages. This allows people to have another route to the other pages on your site. It also helps search engines locate all the pages on your site, particularly if you use dynamically-generated links to your pages (like JavaScript-created links).

Search Engine Visibility is Your Site's Lifeline

As I mentioned earlier, the problem that my visitor faced when her site was redesigned was that it no longer appeared in search engine results even when relevant terms were used for searches.

The problem in her case was that her site relied exclusively on a JavaScript navigation menu. Apart from the links generated by the JavaScript menu, there were absolutely no other links on her site pointing to other pages within the site. Since search engines bots can't interpret JavaScript (at least not at the time I wrote this, to my knowledge), they could not follow any links and could thus only index her main page. As a result, her pages were not listed in searches for her keywords (since only the main page was indexed), leading to a drastic drop in visitors.

This is a problem fairly easily fixed (for example, one way is to create a site map and add a normal link to it from the main page), but it illustrates one of the most important issues a real-world website faces: search engine visibility. If your site is not listed in the search engines, you're not going to be able to get many visitors, if at all. Without visitors, you're obviously not going to be able to achieve your purpose for the site.

Designing a site that is search engine ready is a lengthy topic, so I am not even going to try to address it here. If you are interested to know more, you can find some general principles for making your site search engine ready by perusing the articles listed on:

Update: Google can now interpret some JavaScript menus. However, it's still a good idea to have ordinary links in case your JavaScript is too complicated for it to follow reliably. In addition, don't forget that Google is not the only search engine in town.


This article is about the importance of factoring usability and search engine readiness into your web design. Usability is important because it improves the chances that your site will help you accomplish your purpose. Search engine visibility is crucial because without it, you will get few visitors. Plan with these two aspects in mind, even as you look into the appearance of your site, and your design will go far in helping you achieve the goals for your site.

Copyright 2004-2014 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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