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Early Stage SEO: optimising a website from the bottom-up

Often a SEO doesn’t get involved with a website until after it’s been fully designed and built. But sometimes we can enjoy the luxury of being part of a website build process from start to finish – especially if you work for a full-service digital agency (as I do) or if you’re an in-house SEO working together with your company’s chosen web agency.

Today we’ll look at the various phases of a typical web build process, and how a search engine optimiser can and should contribute to each.

SEO Site redevelopment

Bringing SEO to the web build process

Proposal Stage

In this stage the web agency’s sales people pitch the company’s services to the potential client. If you’re the SEO for the agency, your input is absolutely vital here to make sure that sales doesn’t over-promise in order to get the business. Basic keyword research and competitive analysis are required so that there will be realistic expectations of what can be done for the client.

Sometimes you’ll find that it’ll be fairly easy to boost a site’s search engine performance, but you might also discover that it’ll be a long-term and highly demanding project to get the client site to rank on page one for even a single keyword. The SEO needs to supply this information to sales for them to include in their proposals, so that what the client expects and what will actually be delivered are more or less aligned.

As an in-house SEO this is a good opportunity to see if the web agency is making promises they can’t keep. Prod them a bit regarding the search engine friendliness of the site they intend to build for your organisation, what CMS they are using, and how they envisage the site’s information architecture. Bad or inexperienced web agencies will falter here, while good agencies will be able to prove their value immediately.


In the early wireframing phase the designer makes a lot of decisions about where information goes and how it can be accessed. Input from the SEO at this stage can ensure that the site’s information architecture isn’t hindered by the designer’s concepts. Usually this amounts to the SEO reminding the designer that certain functions need to have a place in the wireframe, such as breadcrumb links and a navigation that allows for easy access to the site’s money pages.

Sometimes a SEO might need to curtail the designer’s artistic licence, for example when a page layout becomes too image-heavy or when certain proposed functionality will interfere with a site’s search engine friendliness. Designers are great at thinking up new and innovative ways to interact with information, but the eventual implementation of these ideas can mean that information is all but invisible to search engines. The SEO’s job at this stage is to ensure that a designer stays within certain constraints that enable a site to be SE-friendly.

However, what the SEO should not do is put too much of a dampener on the designer’s creativity. The SEO shouldn’t force the designer to create a dull, unimaginative website. Let the designer do what they do best, and all the SEO needs to do is ensure that what is conceived can actually work from an SEO perspective.

A smart SEO uses this stage to plant ideas in the designer’s mind, such as faceted navigation (great for large ecommerce sites), user generated content (tags, product reviews, etc) and more of such goodness.

Design Concepts

At this stage the designer fleshes out the wireframes and turns them in to visual representations of how the website will actually look. If the SEO has given sufficient input in the previous wireframing phase, there’s usually not much to do for an SEO here. It is nonetheless a good idea to keep in the loop with the designer to see if he’s deviating from what’s been agreed in the wireframes, and to ensure that such deviations don’t have negative repercussions for a site’s SEO-friendliness.


The build phase is where the actual website gets built. Depending on the type of site and the CMS it’s being built on, this stage can encompass everything from database design to CSS coding. The SEO should strive to work closely with the web developer to ensure all the small details that help make a site more search engine friendly are in place: a good URL scheme, indexable and semantically rich navigation, structured content, and so on.

This phase is also where the SEO shares their keyword research with the developer and ensures that the site’s information architecture contains the best possible keywords that are both intuitive for users and relevant for search engine optimisation.

Other aspects the SEO should address at this stage are the automatic creation and updating of XML sitemaps, the implementation of web analytics tracking codes, and what HTTP status codes will be served in what circumstances.

If the website is a redesign of an existing site, the SEO should try and get a full list of new URls from the web developer as soon as possible and use this to map out any necessary 301-redirects once the site goes live.

Test & Fill

In the testing & content filling stage the site is usually active on a staging environment where the client can see the site in action. Hopefully the site is fully featured at this stage and just needs to be filled with content. The SEO should ensure the site is fully indexable – doing a XENU crawl is a good idea – and all the recommendations regarding on-site optimisation have been implemented.

The SEO should remain involved with the content filling process, ensuring page titles, meta descriptions, and structured content are all put in optimally. This is probably the most time-consuming phase for the SEO, where they’ll either have to put in a lot of content themselves, and/or continually fix and tweak the content put in by others.


After a hopefully successful testing stage the site is ready to go live. The site is ready and mostly bug-free, all the content is in place, the SEO has prepared the 301-redirects, and the switch is ready to be flicked.

Once the new site is up the SEO needs to monitor closely what happens with search engine traffic and diagnose any potential issues that might crop up.

For an entirely new site it’ll probably be a while before you’ll start to see any meaningful SE-traffic. For a redesigned site a temporary drop in Google rankings and traffic is to be expected, but if the SEO has been involved in the right stages and has done their job properly, eventually the new site should outperform the old one.

After all, why else would you re-do a website? 😉



  1. no waiting cone September 7, 2011

    very interesting post. Informative comments and insight

  2. Tom Larson October 21, 2011

    Wish I’d known this a few years go!

    Great post.


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