I got a very interesting post on one of my mailing lists this morning; because it’s a private list I’ll paraphrase.

The thread began about SEO predictions for 2008 ala Bruce Clay a few days ago and another member added some thoughts that I appreciate, particularly since my clients are mostly microbusinesses with not a lot to spend on what I think is an essential component for their business.

Paraphrasing: “The current economic atmosphere will drive smaller businesses to seek out less expensive, more basic SEO services from those with a reputation for honesty and good results.”

Good for me! I offer the basics. I’m a web designer/developer but I’m also very experienced in SEO. I include basic SEO services with every site I build (included in my pricing), because it’s simply part of the total business website package. SEO is a necessity and not a frill anymore, even for microbusinesses.

I don’t run $100,000 campaigns, I just work hard to get my small clients noticed and I get generally get very good results. I’m open with my process and I involve my clients as much as they want to be involved, with the eventual goal of turning over the SEO work to an in-house person – if they want it that way.

It’s part of my ‘educate the client’ theory of partnering, where in my view a client that understands even the basics of how to leverage their website as a business tool is going to do better, feel more in control, and be far happier with the whole package than those who don’t invest the time to learn.

1) Make your site more search engine-friendly.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a must, not a ‘maybe,’ if you want your business site to be found in Google. If you have a great-looking site that no one can find, it’s not doing its job.

2) Add a blog or podcast to your site.

If you like to talk (or write) about your business and you’re good at what you do, a blog or podcast may be just the thing. Both of them do one thing very well – they encourage visitors to come back to your site again and again. And they’re so easy to use! (I’m a huge fan of WordPress). Blogs give you the advantage of adding a new page of fresh content to your site every time you post, while a podcast is like having your very own radio show.

3) Remove a blog from your site.

That might sound odd – but if you have a business blog and haven’t committed the time and effort to post fairly regularly, it’s probably better *not* to have one at all. If your last post was in 2005, consider removing the link to the blog for the time being. It reflects poorly on your company and makes it look like you don’t keep up with things.

4) Write articles about your industry.

Whether you’re a retailer, an architect, or a coach, you have a unique take on your business. Writing articles about it that you can both publish to the many free article syndication sites and post on your own website or blog both establish your expertise and create links back to your site – which Google likes a lot.

5) Give your site a makeover.

If your site is more than a couple of years old, or if it’s never had a facelift, now is the time. A more modern look and feel can give your site new life and make a better first impression. In addition, a redeveloped site can often benefit search engines and human visitors too, with cleaner, leaner code, faster loading times, and easier updating and maintenance.

6) Learn more about your visitors.

Google Analytics is a traffic analysis tool that does much more than just tell you how many people are visiting your site. You can learn, among other things: how much time they spend on each page; what navigation paths they follow through your site; where they come in and leave; what part of the country they’re in; and what links on your home page they’re clicking on. If you use Adwords for PPC marketing you can also learn how much revenue each product on your site is earning and how many have been sold in any given period. Google Analytics is free and easy to use.

7) Break up your content.

Even if you already have a lot of good content on your site, breaking it up into bite-size chunks is always a good way to increase readability. Studies show that people don’t often read websites – they scan them. Think headlines, bullet lists, pull quotes and short paragraphs rather than long uninterrupted text.

(Yes I know this is a lot of uninterrupted text but this isn’t my website. This is for readers, not scanners…)

8) Change the copyright date.

Don’t forget to change (or have someone change for you) the date on the copyright notice that should be at the bottom of your web pages. No, that won’t help you get more visitors, but it looks unprofessional if you forget to do it!

9) Make the product look great.

If you’re selling products, and the images aren’t that fantastic, consider having them redone by a professional. It makes a big difference in the credibility of your site and gives the buyer more confidence that the product will really meet their needs.

10) Consider video.

If you’re selling a product or provide a service that could benefit from visual instruction, think about having a short how-to video made. They’re easy to post on your website, and can do double-duty for your traffic if you also post them on sites like YouTube or Google Video.

I’ve been using Google’s sitemaps tool for a few months now and built XML sitemaps for the websites I’ve launched (or relaunched) since summer. Today my SEO partner sent me an email and I got an education about why it might not be a good idea to do that anymore – mainly the argument is that getting a lot of pages indexed via a sitemap is not really helping the search engine viability of a site. It’s like if the site has 500 pages and only a hundred are indexed, adding a sitemap to get those other 400 in there isn’t really fixing the problem of non-indexing in a way that adds any value to the site. It’s masking the symptoms but not fixing the problem.

I can buy that. I read a number of blogs about this issue today and can definitely see the problem. For the sites I launched since summer, most of them have been very small and didn’t really need a sitemap at all; the only largish one was the relaunch of my business site and in that case I think the sitemap was a useful thing.

I’d changed a lot of URL’s when my business name changed, and I both used an XML sitemap and redirects for every changed page. I can say that although my current site and previous one were about the same size, I have about twice as many pages indexed for the new one and it happened very quickly, in about 3 weeks, which I don’t think could possibly have occurred without the sitemap.

It could be argued that those newly-indexed pages were ‘artificial’, but I do have a clear, consistent sitewide navigation scheme and a well-organized site. I think in this case I was speeding up what would happen naturally over a much longer time span.

So I’m convinced, in part – for the launch of a new site, a sitemap is a bad idea because with it it will be impossible to tell how a page got indexed and where the problems lie. But for relaunching an existing, well-established site with a lot of URL changes, that might be the place where they have the most value.

I’m on a mailing list with a group of professional women designers and developers. There’s lots of conversation flowing and it occasionally turns very lively – as it did yesterday when a member posted about her frustration with CSS and continuing attachment to tables. It ignited a veritable firestorm of commentary! It was fun to read, but it did help me clarify a few reasons that I love CSS and think it’s worth the time of any web professional to learn it. Note I didn’t say ‘master’ it, because I don’t think there are a whole lot of people that can do that, but learning? That’s one of the reasons I’m in this profession, because I like to be challenged.

Anyway here are five things that I think are major advantages of CSS over tables:

  1. You can put things where you want them. When I was using tables I used to get so frustrated with having to line things up under the cells above them and split cells into more tables and more cells just to get the layout to work the way I wanted it too. With CSS and absolute positioning, relative positioning and floats, I don’t have to think in advance how I’m going to slice up my design to fit – I can put elements where I want them to go. As a designer this was the key reason I switched to CSS in the first place.
  2. Shorter code. Now for a small page it doesn’t make a lot of difference as far as the length of code. But I worked on one client’s site (70+ pages) where every page was full of nested table after nested table after nested table. Cleaning up one of those pages – converting it from tables to CSS – often meant a reduction from 1,000 or more lines of code to 400 or less. Over the entire site, that’s a huge difference. The pages load faster, they take up less room on the server. Not a benefit for SEO, but certainly a big one for users with slower connections.
  3. Content first may be better for SEO. With tables, the page is read by the search engine in the order it appears in the code and presented that way on the page. But with CSS and positioning, I can put my big headline and block of content up near the top of the page and drop the navigation, header, sidebar and footer to the bottom. That means that Google gets to the meat of the page right away instead of wading through a lot of code.
  4. Easier maintenance. Having rewritten the aforementioned table-based site, I can tell you it can be a nightmare trying to keep track of multiple nested divs on a 1,000-line page. Once the site is converted to CSS, maintaining it (either yourself, your client or another web developer) is so much easier, faster, and cost-efficient.
  5. Better for your clients. I firmly believe that not providing a client with clean, well-written code is a big disservice. They’re paying you to be a professional and CSS is a professional’s tool (just one of them, but a key one). When you provide a client with a well-built site that allows them to change the entire look and feel of their website experience with just a little work, rather than a redesign, that’s huge.

I will now step off my little soapbox and slide it back under the table.

I know that learning CSS can be tough; I liked the challenge (one of the reasons I’m in this profession) but I certainly wouldn’t call it intuitive. However, taking the stand that one is not going to learn it because it’s just not that important, that I can’t understand at all.

Tables have their place, for display of tabular data, but they were not intended to be a layout device.

I met with a new client yesterday who was extremely interested in what I can do for them as far as SEO. Whenever I build a website, I always include what I refer to as ‘basic SEO services’: a limited amount of keyword research and incorporation of 2-3 keyword phrases per page in the content and elements of the code. The client understood this when I explained it, but wanted to know whether this is enough to begin showing up in SERP’s.

By itself, with a badly designed site, it might not be. But in my experience creating a usable site (cleanly coded, very clear navigation, well-written content, appropriate doctype, an intelligent site structure) goes hand in hand with SEO. Without one or the other, a site often won’t perform well in the search engines. But with both, I’ve found that my clients’ sites begin showing up earlier, not later, and often wind up outperforming their competitors even without an ongoing, expensive SEO campaign.

That’s not to say that ongoing monitoring isn’t important, but for the initial launch of a new site, paying attention to both basic SEO and usability is a key combination that I never skimp on.