Design Affects Ranking
Google primarily looks at a site’s content, links, authority and their relevance to the search query, among a host of other signals, however technologically speaking Google doesn’t appear to go much further than errors and page speed and a few other technical aspects.
Design has been understood to not influence rankings as Google states it cannot read text in images therefore it logically goes to say that it cannot determine if your site is flashy, appealing or looks like a bad 70’s outfit of plaids on paisleys.
We do know that Google has an algorithm called Top Heavy which affects ranking based on placing too much of a focus on images at the top of your site (mainly in what would be considered above-the-fold, as well they have the ability to determine the amount of ads versus content. This goes to show clearly that Google does have the ability to determine a lot about design and layout, likely based on the source file and its attributes in the coding (e.g. height and width) or from data gleaned from pulling an image into Google Images. As well they can determine, from the code, the layout of the page from tables, divs and other code.
But how does this affect ranking?
Normally one would hear Matt Cutts talk about unique “quality” content and links but does one expect him to speak about how design affects rankings? The short answer is no but in this video clip you can hear him mention design as an important aspect. He also states how templates or layouts should be fresh and updated because if your site “looks like, frankly, sort of a stale, sort of an older site and that’s the thing where user might not be happy about that”. The keyterm there is “looks like”! So design, templates and layout affect user experience and Google is able to determine that. One thing that can assist them in determining this is by using statistics such as click-throughs, bounces, time on site, social shares, social interaction, and others which can suggest user appreciation. This can be obtained from Google Analytics data, Google Search (tracking IP, clicks on results, time spent before returning to results, etc), Google Chrome data, Google+ and others.
Since “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” Google won’t determine if your design is “good”. They’ll let other determine how much they like your site and listen to the majority. It’s quite democratic really. Since they already know how relevant your site is and its authority, backlinks, and all the other stuff then they’ll need to consider design, layout and technology which can contribute to providing a better user experience.
This has caused a lot of people to ask if things like Responsive Design affect rankings. Many believe it doesn’t but this video will provide you with a scintilla of doubt. Cutts clearly states you need to “continue to adapt and evolve and move with the times”. This isn’t about content; this is about technology that affects user experience. He suggests taking “a fresh look at your layout; are you still providing the best user experience?”. He continues: “if something is not as fresh as, you know, some of these experiences you get from some of these newer websites, that can have fantastic design … and eventually people might prefer that user experience and end up migrating and leaving you behind” (Emphasis added).
This last statement lends support for the assumption that they’re tracking traffic to sites and determine ranking, in part, on attendance, click-throughs and others. He also clearly stated that design can be the cause of that migration. He does not mention content at all in that statement as a reason users may migrate.
The take-aways from this are:
You should update your website with modern technology whether using updated coding or updated methods of rendering content.
Use technology which facilitates ease of use, interactivity, customer retention, social dissemination and other elements which allow for the capture, retention and viral social promotion. These can be in the form of social buttons, reviews, email-a-friend, interactive elements such as a quiz, a tutorial, a video, etc.
Update your templates with modern ones whether you’re using WordPress or Shopify, a custom solution or good ol’ fashioned HTML.
Update your site’s design often or update the overall design semi-regularly (perhaps annually) but include elements in the pages that can be updated themselves more regularly. Use ab testing and multivariate testing to determine which design provides greater effect.
Use Responsive Design or a valid substitution so that your site renders well on all platforms, browsers, etc.
Content is king but design is a prince. It also goes to show the castle should be tidy and up-kept!
Google’s Webmaster Guidelines on Design & Content: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/35769?hl=en#1