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Graphic Design and Web Design – NOT the same thing.

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!
One of my favorite on-line buddies sent me an email today asking a question I felt deserved a blog-post-length answer. So, thanks to Lori for this good query.
Lori stumbled across this website for an artist, and wanted to know if she was correct in thinking that the whole homepage had been built with images. If you take a look for yourself you will see that, sadly, this is exactly the case. There is not one single, teeny, tiny bit of actual text to be found on this entire page, and the images don’t even have alt tags attributed to them (you know, those little yellow boxes that pop up when you mouse over a picture).
Before I go any further, I want to say, I think this artist’s work is nice. They are clearly very devoted to their craft and their sculptures seem unusual and interesting to me. I mean no offense to them by blogging about this, and I’m actually sorry to see that the way their website was developed is basically completely missing every opportunity that the Internet offers of putting one’s self out there into the public eye. But, we’ll try to benefit here from the mistakes being made in this textbook case of graphic design being confused with web design.
But the website looks good, doesn’t it?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There’s nothing outrageous or visually offensive about this website, but when SEOs like us come upon such a page, without preamble or warning, the encounter is liable to cause enough snorting, forehead slapping and choking to get us a ride to the emergency hospital. A good website to an SEO would be far more akin to a sheet of white paper with oodles of purposeful text typed all over it than it would be to a pretty picture. And, why is this?
Because Google Can’t Read Images
Plain old text is the language that bots and spiders speak and understand, so when a web page is created entirely of images, the result is that it is entirely blank to Google. The web page owner may as well have not bothered to put anything there at all. This is a fact that has been known for years, and discussed at length, and yet we continue to find pages that are made up entirely, or predominantly, of images, Flash and rotating gifs.
But wouldn’t a text-oriented website be ugly?
With a super logo, a sprinkling of effective graphics and photos, a subtle and pleasant choice of colors for navigation, text, symbols, formatting elements, you can create beautiful websites that please both humans and the bots.
But then why would anyone create a useless, image-based website?
Barring the homemade websites where the creator can hardly be faulted for being a beginner at building pages, I believe that there are three main reasons why these kinds of websites are still being created today.
1) The Graphic Designer misrepresents themselves as a Web Designer
This is the one that makes me a little bit cross because the client is usually unaware of the difference between these two kinds of work and ends up with a useless website that never ranks, never wins traffic, never converts visitors into customers. The business owner who sets out to hire someone to develop their website plunges into a sea of choices, and in cases like this, hires a person or company that may be highly skilled at creating gorgeous images in Photoshop, but has absolutely no idea how search engines work or how to design working, search-engine-friendly pages. The business owner may lay out hundreds or thousands of dollars for an end product that is doomed to fail, and unless they bump into an SEO blog or forum on the Internet, they may never even know why their website didn’t succeed in any of the ways they hoped it would.
I see websites like this every day, whether in the course of simply browsing, or because business owners come to us to ask us why they can’t be found in Google. My job is to then explain to them that they are pretty much out their investment paid to the graphic designer misrepresenting themselves as a web designer, and that we’ve got to start from scratch to build them a website that will take both humans and bots into consideration from the ground up if they want to turn the fate of their on-line presence around. This can come as a real blow to small business owners who don’t have an endless budget and can lead to them feeling embittered about the web’s potential for their company.
But, smart small business owners live and learn, and the good side of things is that the moment they do see the light, they can immediately take steps to begin reworking their website into a much more valuable entity. I’ll confess, we love those nights when we sit down to get cracking on a project that will turn a lifeless set of pictures into a compelling set of good-looking data that humans and search engines will LOVE!
2)The client is obstinate and doesn’t want to learn
There is simply no greater agony for an SEO-based web designer to experience than having a conversation like this:
Client: Well, I like the design you’ve created, but it just isn’t fancy enough. I don’t like all that text.
Designer: Well, I can understand how you feel about that, but without the text, the page will lose its ability to describe itself to your human visitors and the spiders that will crawl it.
Client: Well, then let’s make it all in this neat font I found called Italian Renaissance.
Designer: Yes, that’s a pretty font, but I’m afraid that search engines can’t read image text like that. The page would be blank to them.
Client: But that’s what I want. It’s pretty. And, I also think it should just say “Welcome” and the rest of the screen can be this picture of my poodle, blinking its eyes. Won’t that be cute?
At this point, the designer takes up smoking.
I’m really not sure what it is that fuels situations like these. Ego on the part of the client? A vague idea that they want to look impressive, and an unwillingness to listen to the options that will result both in good crawlability and a professional presentation? It certainly is an uncomfortable dilemma for an educated designer, who knows that the client is making a mistake, who attempts to thoroughly explain why it would be a mistake, but simply can’t make the client conceive of the opportunities they will miss if they go with fancy instead of functional. In the end, we always have to go with what the client wants, and there are sites we’ve cringingly designed that will never, ever appear in our portfolio.
3)The designer knows what they are doing and the purpose of the site isn’t to rank well.
I know this sounds funny, but it does sometimes happen. We did some work for a client a year or so ago who simply wanted a portfolio on-line that he intended to show to his own colleagues. He didn’t want outsiders to find the site or contact him for work. His business model didn’t work in the way most do. All he wanted was images, and he wanted a few lines of fancy image text, and he was delighted with the result. It suited his purposes, and we momentarily shut off that little voice in our heads that says “Google is watching” so that we could give the client what he asked for. From time to time, designers will come across projects like this, but it’s unlikely that these account for most of the image-based web pages one sees out there.
The moral of the story is
If you want your website to be indexed, to rank well, to get traffic, to lead to sales – text is your key. Images are embellishments. They add to the emotional draw of your pages and illustrate the benefits of doing business with your company. But text, good old text, has got to be your golden boy.