Did Google give web designers their groove back?

November 20th, 2009 by Kimi Leave a reply »

Clean code is groovy

hippieOne of the perks of hiring a web designer to develop a custom website has always been clean code; although it is sometimes hard to quantify that benefit in light of the ongoing savings associated with content management systems.  I’ve always taken the high road when it comes to clean code for the simple reason that it is easier for someone else to step in and modify down the road, and it can also prevent browser compatibility issues in the future.  And, o.k., I’m a neat freak!  Still, it is often hard to communicate the value of clean code to a client when the words “page rank” aren’t involved.

Clean code took a blow in 2006 when Vanessa Fox (Google) stated in an interview with Rand Fishkin (SEOmoz):

“Google doesn’t really care all that much about the code to text ratio, we’re going to pick up the text, extract it from the page, and we’re really going to ignore the code.”

 And again in March 2007 when Adam Lansik, SEO Strategist at Google, stated in an interview:

 “…But, here is the core problem why we cannot use this in our scoring algorithms currently: There are a ton of very high quality sites, pages and sites from universities, from research institutions, from very well respected ecommerce stores, of which I won’t name any, that have really crufty sites, and sites that won’t validate. On some of these you can view the source and cry. And, because this is quality content, we really can’t use that as an effective signal in search quality. So, you can quote me a saying, I would be thrilled, it would make my day if people would decruft their sites, but it’s not going to directly affect their Google ranking.”

But recent comments made by Matt Cutts’ (head of Google’s Webspam team) regarding the possible impact of  page speed on website ranking in 2010 may have finally given weight to the fact that clean code can impact search engine rankings.

 Webpro News said regarding their interview with Cutts on November 13, 2009:

“From the sound of it, speed is going to be a huge factor in SEO moving in to 2010. He says that a number of people within Google consider speed to be very important to the web, and they are considering if that should play a role in the rankings of websites in search results.

According to Cutts, speed hasn’t played a role in rankings in the past, but that may very well change. Watch the video for more details about Caffeine and Google’s resources for helping webmasters improve site speed.”

Why is this important? Clean code = fast web pages.

I’ll use a CMS if I have too!

Because of my love for graphic art and my passion for clean code, I have always had a hard time accepting content management systems, although I do recognize that they are a valid solution in certain circumstances.  In cases where a website has to be updated frequently (real estate agents, photographers, churches, large organizations, etc.) site owners can lose their shirt in maintenance fees unless they learn some html or use such a thing.  But still, they are confining and stifling and ugly and…

Recently, when I took on a real estate company as a new client it only made sense to use WordPress.  I spent a great deal of time customizing the site so it would not look like a template – and I have to say I was surprisingly pleased with the code generated on the home page.  Not perfect mind you, but not nearly as crappy as some of the code I’ve seen generated by other content management systems. WordPress has come a long way and installing a SEO plugin to allow the customization of title and description tags helped as well.

For a moment I almost waffled.  Maybe content management systems aren’t evil…

 But thanks to Matt Cutts “encouragement”, I have come to my senses again and am warmly embracing my roots.  I got my groove back!  CMS is a solution, but it will not be the ultimate solution any time soon. Here’s why…

Awesome tools, but now what do I do?

In his interview with Webpro News Matt Cutts mentions a couple of tools to help analyze your website’s page speed, one of which is the Firefox plugin “Firebug”.   I Recently ran the Firebug page speed analyzer on my website and blog because I wanted to improve load time.  I have to tell you, it was SO cool!  My website was no big deal to optimize since it is hand-coded and I only use one CSS sheet and no javascript,.  The blog, however, was another beast!  Some of the suggestions, which I think will be common to the majority of sites running CMS, are not that easy to implement.  My blog runs on WordPress, which Matt Cutts says takes care of 80-90% of SEO mechanics, and still had to deal with half a dozen style sheets and over 14 javascripts.  I can’t imagine the work involved on a site running a less optimized software.

One of the standard suggestions is to minify javascripts and CSS, which basically means removing all of the extraneous line breaks and white space generated by CMS & many html editors.  You can actually click on links in Firebug to get the minified versions to copy and paste into the style sheets (sweet!), but only the main template style sheet is easily found.  Other minified versions refer to inline CSS and javascript located within various plugin files – the source of which is not specifically given. 

Another common suggestion is to “leverage browser caching” which involves modifying the hidden .htaccess file on your sever, and enabling gzip compression which is way over the head of your every day blog owner. 

While Firebug provides some simple suggestions that are not difficult to implement, such as optimizing graphics and including image sizes, many of the “meatier” suggestions, in my opinion, take the skill of a web designer.

Also, on my blog, many of the bloated style sheets and javascripts noted by Firebug were referenced externally from plugin websites so I could not modify them anyway.  Even though WordPress has come a long way in cleaning up their code, they have little control over the code generated by plugins.  One of the great features of a custom design is that you have total control over the code and scripting. One of the great features of hiring a web designer is they know what they are doing!

Web design is easy… uh huh!

Several years ago one of my clients moved to a hosted CMS and used a web creation tool to build a flash website.  After the new site was created, she called me with genuine concern in her voice.  “I’m really afraid that once people find out how easy it is to create their own site you will lose all of your business”.  I told her not to be concerned, that the benefits of a custom design ensured that it would always be in demand.  Six months later she called wondering why her website did not pull up in Google even for her company name.

 Still, it makes you wonder.  CMS are becoming more popular than ever, and right now with this tough economy “free” sounds good to everyone.  But if results count, a custom design, coupled with web design skills, still has more to offer.  As a matter of fact they may be even more valuable in 2010.  What do you think? 


  1. Karri Flatla says:

    Hey Kim,

    Great overview of a complex topic! It’s interesting to see that SEO and usability are (slowly) integrating … there’s nothing worse than landing on what appears to be a great website only to get stuck in never-never-land waiting for a page to load.

    Now, that said, I am a heeyuge WordPress fan and I don’t think WP is going anywhere at all. I suspect that it will evolve to meet the (increasingly complex) demands of users/marketers/developers … e.g. there are already plugins to assist with caching. And eventually someone will come up with a way to help the browser caching issue (for static files like .css, etc.).

    Will the need for search-savvy web developers ever go away? Absolutely not. CMSs like WP are great to help biz owners on the “front end” maintain their content (and thus rankings/visibility/brand appeal/etc.), but a good developer keeps the back end — and maybe even rankings — rockin’ and rolling :)


  2. ktaylor310 says:

    No, I actually agree Karri. I think WordPress is awesome and I will definitely use it in the future for clients again and again. Sometimes a CMS solution only makes sense and I think WordPress is at the top. I just think that optimizing WP for page speed (at least for now) is over the heads of most “non-technical” people. I believe Google’s new focus on page speed may help give web designers back some of the ground that CMS was seemingly taking away. In short, web designers are still valuable even in a CMS environment and, hopefully, more so in 2010.

  3. fairdoes says:

    Hello Kim!

    As we’ve both recently changed to WordPress, how’s about a post about that?

    My first theme was a lemon – site feed failed and every archive, tag and category duplicated the whole of every post.

    What are you doing about database backups?

  4. ktaylor310 says:

    Hey there fairdoes! Great idea for a post. To answer your question quickly, though, whatever theme you choose make sure you test it in FF. I’ve seem MANY themes break in that browser. My favorite theme – the one I find most customizable and reliable is “Atahualpa”. If you are still working on your forum, you should try the WP plugin “Simple Press”. I’ve decided to abandon the forum for now, but the plugin had a lot of great options and tied right in with my blog. I use the back up tool within WP before upgrading or making any major changes (tools | export file). I also back up the whole database via my webhost (myPhpAdmin) from time-to-time. Best!

  5. fairdoes says:

    i tested if FF, Opera and Google Chrome (all on Linux). essentials of SEO is my current favourite!

    I’m intrigued by tags, which blogger didn’t support, and tempted to choose which to list on the template rather than letting the default widget list the most “common”.

    I can’t see any reason why a wordpress blog can’t replace a forum, using the categories as sub-forums :)

  6. fairdoes says:

    p.s. WP 2.9.1 is waiting!

  7. ktaylor310 says:

    I agree structure-wise, but probably not intent-wise. You can definitely get a wider range of more specific help in a forum, but I think they are slowly dying. “Helpers” are busy promoting their own businesses via social media and don’t have time to participate anymore. Short status updates are more attractive… sad. I believe only the most popular forums that have been around a long time will continue to grow – so probably not the best time to strike out in that direction. My 2 cents. :) AND LOL, updating now!

  8. Hescominsoon says:

    Forums are far form dying. I can tell you that right now. Things just aren’t concentrated into one ginormous forum and frankly i think that’s better for all involved.

    the big thing about CMS systems…you don’t have to pay somebody for site maintenance. Unless you have a ton of scratch this isn’t economically feasible. Also Firefox is one of the slowest browsers around. IE nearly catches it now and both of them get waxed by Google chrome and opera. Firefox is running a 4 year old single-threaded architecture with no plans to change anytime soon. Firefox is on it’s way out unfortunately. Unless Mozilla changes it tack quickly they are going to go away like Netscape.