Do we design websites for people or for Google in 2023?

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If you think this is a ridiculous question, you should definitely keep reading. If you think this is a tremendous question, you should definitely keep reading. 

Back in the early days of the internet and search engines, the dynamic was very different. The search engines were trying to gather the requisite information needed to provide humans with the information they were requesting. And YES at one point – there were – Search Engine(s). Not just one 800 LB Gorilla – with over 70% of the search engine market share – that no one quite knows how to manage or compete with.

Around 2015, the paradigm shifted, to where the search engines, namely Google, began providing tiered information on their own accord. By this point, they had so much data from all of the trillions (yes trillions) of searches since 1998, that they could literally compile a list of whatever said searcher required. Without being concerned with what humans are actually searching for. Google began answering the question before it was asked. This method is tremendously efficient, but also bone-chillingly scary. Let me retype that since social media and such have made fruit flies seem like extremely focused creatures in comparison to us.

Google began answering the question before it was asked.

What does this mean?

Well, for website designers and other neighboring services, it’s a pretty big deal. And incidentally, if you were to adopt this principle, it’d be a pretty big deal for you and your business as well.

(Disclaimer: I don’t like this idea one bit. I only know it to be true.)

So let’s boil this down a bit. What am I blathering about?

Once upon a time, we focused our efforts on designing “your” website for your direct customers or the end user. What would the client want to see on this page? Who is your target audience? What kinds of images would they like to see? Even what colors would be best for your target audience? While some of this process still lingers like a fading remnant from the past, much of this is somewhat irrelevant today. But we still work on these aspects for a select few direct visitors to your site and for the general aesthetic.

I’m a designer at heart so it STILL makes me feel good to see a well-designed website. BUT, increasingly, it isn’t nearly as important as it once was.

How is that possible?

Well, Google has a long list of parameters that make up a “good” website and that’s the list that strong website builders and developers concern themselves with these days. And it mostly consists of CONTENT, CONTENT and more CONTENT. Also, seemingly ridiculous elements like page names, headlines with proper keywords, sitemaps and oh yeah, content.

The way that Google understands your site is in the content itself. While you may want to call a product or service page one thing, Google wants you to call it whatever a person is searching the most. This type of keyword-intent matching has led to many websites using odd-looking titles that don’t always read “human”, but they match up with what people are searching in Google.

Jeff Romero, Octiv Digital

There are a ton more aspects but you get the idea. I don’t have any documented proof of this but my belief is Google would actually like the internet to resemble an online newspaper rather than a vivid, interactive magazine. Google’s parameters continue to reinforce simple design, short pages, small files and FAST load times.

Google continues to behave more and more like the school that’s trying to cut the art department because they don’t see the value.

Getting back to the main conversation: 

We now focus heavily on that long list of Google parameters rather than the end user. Google will decide WHO sees WHAT and we want Google to appreciate your website so they’ll show it to as many viewers within as many searches as possible.

The end user sees what Google decides. And, due to some amazing branding, company positioning and a level of product dominance scarcely seen in the annals of human history… The end user accepts the list that Google provides as the closest thing we have today to – Gospel – for WHATEVER they’re searching for!

So to review, the order of this process goes something like this:

Provide professional mockup of strong design for said client – client approves after some back and forth:

  • Build new website based on as many known Google factors as possible.
  • Launch new website and alert Google – via Google’s own analysis tools.
  • Google crawls new
  • Google determines the website positioning – based upon over 1.2 million algorithmic factors.
  • An End User searches for a product or service you provide on Google.
  • Google provides the list of people “nearby” that provide said service.
  • End User trusts Google will show them the proper information they need.
  • End User chooses from 3-5 options that Google has provided.
  • End User makes purchase or completes their research.
  • Rinse – repeat …

This commentary is not to say that good design isn’t important if somehow all other aspects are equal. It’s just to illuminate the NEW order of importance of the various aspects of website design. Based on end-user behavior in 2023, It’s almost silly to focus on anything but what Google wants to see from a new website. If your current designer isn’t focused on this and your business is even somewhat reliant on Google for business, it’s time for a new designer.

As a designer, we’re currently being met with a great deal of interference when it comes to web design. Between templates, free web builders and of course Google running the show, it’s not as straightforward as it once was. Yes, Google is definitely putting us in a smaller box, it’s all about simplicity and speed as opposed to grandiose imagery and effects. To be effective in our jobs we have to take into account the rules that Google is putting in place. 

Jeremy Peters, Peterman Creative

The new reality.

Website design – in 2023 means something far different than it did as little as 5 years ago. Unfortunately, Google’s idea of design is about speed, efficiency, content distribution and accuracy. NOT beauty, visual interest, balance and color usage. So we’re now designing for Google not people because that’s what is advantageous to our clients. People will accept what Google shows them to be the options available. This is a somewhat troubling yet basic truth that we’ve come to realize.

And if you think this conversation was a pretty wild ride, just wait until Google puts on that new top hat most people call Ai…

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