Mark O’Brien on Smart Web Content Strategies

Mark O’Brien, president of the web-design consultancy Newfangled, is about as smart a guy as I know. I’ve listened to his HOW conference presentations and his DesignCasts and learned a ton about search-engine optimization and content strategy (much of which I’m putting to use in this very post). Mark will be sharing his deep expertise about content and SEO at the brand-new HOW Interactive Design Conference coming to San Francisco Nov. 2-4.

Recently, I chatted with Mark about why designers—visual experts—should care about how Google finds words on a webpage.

What’s keeping you busy these days?

Professionally speaking, I’ve been keeping busy with two things: I have a web development company, Newfangled. We work with creative agencies to help them with web planning and development for their sites and their client sites. I spend most of my time speaking with agencies about how they can get more out of the web, and I feel pretty lucky to be able to earn my living working with so many interesting, kind, intelligent and creative people. It really is a lot of fun. I like creative agencies so much, that I decided to write a book for them about planning business-generating websites. The book, “A Website That Works,” has been keeping me busy with writing, editing and marketing for the past 18 months or so. Exciting times, for sure.

Watch Mark O’Brien’s talk on the essence of web design at DesignTV

Un-professionally speaking, I’m just about as busy hanging out with my wife and two little ones in the heartbreakingly idyllic village of Saxapahaw, NC.

Imagine that you’re talking to a bunch of designers focused on arranging content in a layout—not on the content itself. Tell them why they need to understand content as well as design.

Imagine that I’m talking to a bunch of designers about content? Easy! Thanks to you, I’ve had a good deal of practice at this one. A site’s content and design have a sort of yin/yang relationship, and a great web designer will understand, care for and respect both. As far as I can tell, the goal of any design is to create effective human experiences, and a website is effective when it attracts the right visitor to it, intuitively guides her to the aspects of the site she is most interested in, and then effectively encourages her to do what the creator of the site would like her to do. That last part can change based on what the goals of the site are. If the designer is getting paid for their web design work, then chances are pretty good the site has a marketing goal of some sort, such as buying a product, signing up for a newsletter or registering for an event (ahem).

Likewise with search-engine optimization—why do designers need to understand how search engines find and respond to words on a web page?

Google is the most influential referral agent that has ever existed. Creating and nurturing a site that will continue to garner more and more of Google’s interest is our single best opportunity to grow our businesses. SEO is not rocket science, but it relies on regularly creating strong content, which is quite difficult. Fortunately, there is a tried-and-true way of creating this content, and I’m looking forward to describing that during my talk.

As you spend time online, what are the biggest design roadblocks you see that get in the way of users finding or accessing content? In other words, how does design get in the way of content?

In a word? Flash. Flash has done the design community more harm than good, in my opinion. There are other things that get in the way, like having content that only exists in PDF files, or behind unnecessary log-in forms, but Flash far and away represents the greatest danger. If a site is built entirely in Flash, has a Flash splash page, or has its navigation in Flash, it is most likely receiving far fewer visits from searchers than it could. Given what you can do today with CSS, HTML, and javascript, there are very few reasons to build any major site elements in Flash.

Talk about your new book, “A Website that Works”—I won’t ask you to give away the farm, but tell us in a nutshell what makes a website work.

A website that works does those things I mentioned earleir: attracts the right people, efficiently gets them to the place on the site they’d most like to be, and gets them to act on one of the site’s goals. If the site is doing those three things reliably, it’s serving the business it represents very well. Although that sounds pretty straightforward, there are many elements that go into making a site work in that way—fantastic visual design not being the least of them.

As you scan the technology landscape, what are you seeing that really excites or intrigues you?

I’m seeing designers using their sites to win business they wouldn’t have gotten without their site, many of them for the first time in their careers. In my line of work, there isn’t much that is more exciting than that. The designer that has a site that brings them business is the designer who has the freedom to choose to work on only the best work for the best clients. Good design business promotes good design.

What’s your favorite…

  1. website?
    One of my current favorite agency sites is from Vancouver’s own Biro Creative. They prove that deep content and great design aren’t mutually exclusive.
  2. mobile app?
    This is a toss-up. The Epicurious app is a great kitchen companion, it’s had a real impact on the way I use recipes. While I’m in the kitchen cooking, I’m likely to be streaming something from my Pandora app—probably from the Neko Case station that my wife has been carefully cultivating (thumbs up/down) for the past seven years. It’s good.
  3. book?
    Past: Jim Collins’ “Good to Great
    Present: John Irving’s “Last Night at Twisted River
    Future: The draft of Christopher Butler‘s “Thinking Before Doing” that’s sitting on my desktop

Find out more about Mark O’Brien’s session at the HOW Interactive Design Conference and register today!

This post originally appeared on HOW magazine’s blog.