Clients assume and hope that their pretty new website will attract customers like bears to honey – that customers will be drawn to it by virtue of aesthetics. It’s true that visual design plays a huge role in engaging and communicating, but whether or not people find a website depends on factors other than design.

To a search engine, your website is data

Being discovered online depends on data. Search engines are machines that cannot see the design or feel an evocative image. They function on data alone.

Just like getting a brochure into the hands of its target audience, a website has to get in front of people so they connect with it. Getting seen means being within the first two pages of search results. Not many people go beyond the first few links.

Every page that you publish online competes against billions of others for prime space in the search results. How does any website have a prayer of showing up where people can find it? Let’s begin by understanding how search works.

Every web page is a game show contestant

In order to rank near the top, your page must win a data-driven contest, one devised by engineers at Google, Bing, Yahoo, and other search engine giants. It’s a contest that scores each page against all other similar web pages. Those that rise to the top are the ones judged to contain the best information. From a data standpoint, they’re the winners, and they are the ones that consumers see first.

Imagine the panel of judges – engineers whose job is to rate the quality of everything on the internet and ensure the best information wins. Since they are essentially blindfolded, what criteria could they possibly use to score the quality of each web page?

The scorecard

Prepare the website to be judged on its use of language, how it is linked to other site, and how much visitors interact with it:

Language: Words, not images, are the core of communicating online, because search engines are machines that process language. Say, for example, your website has a page covering logo design services. When a search engine processes a search for that it retrieves data – from text – that communicates, “This page is about logo design.”

Achieving a balance between text and images is not easy. The web page has to have text for machines to process. While images are invaluable for conveying nonverbal messages, search engines cannot “see” them. Your gallery of logos is exciting to the person who wants a graphic designer, but be sure there is text for the search engines to collect; that will get the page indexed for logo design services.

Images may be the centerpiece of your design, but remember that our panel of judges is blindfolded.

Links: The score that means the most is how the website links to the rest of the Internet. The high ranking pages are those with the most links from important people and organizations. For instance, your claim – to be a competent logo designer – falls flat unless links confirm your authenticity. When the cool kids in your in your industry link to your website, then your credibility shoots up.

Links are the crux of content marketing. Publish resources that people find irresistible and they will link to it and share it. If you get this right, you’ll move the website from runner-up to winner’s circle.

Engagement: A positive feedback loop starts when people click through from the search result to the website, where they find what they want. When the site captures their attention, and people spend time there – checking out several pages and returning later to get a second look – then a close relationship between the search term and the website is established. This engagement data scores pages that are useful and relevant.

Web design that helps people find the information they need and like gets rewarded. Search engines don’t know exactly why people love a website, but when data says the site is doing something right, it gets a boost in ranking.

Get data rich and win. Sure, most designers don’t want to bother with data, but with 50 billion web pages in Google’s index, how wise is it to ignore data? Learn to anticipate how search engines work so you can help your websites – and your clients – rise to the top.