Design thinking for SEO at scale: Lessons from SlideShare

4 min read
Arun Jay
  •  Feb 19, 2018
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Five strategies for creating a powerful and sustainable SEO machine.

SlideShare is an SEO powerhouse, but how many know that? Nine out of 10 users arrive via search engines and it continues to be a top 100 site in the world, ahead of eBay, The Wall Street Journal, Bing, and more.

tl;dr: Thoughtful, sustainable design = killer SEOTwitter Logo

In my role as the Principal Designer of SlideShare, my focus was on all user experience.

“Design is SEO.”

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What did that mean? It meant not just designing for the average user, but for every user—both humans and bots—taking accessibility principles into prime consideration. It meant that visually disabled users could access contents of slides even within images that screen-reading tools couldn’t directly interpret. We displayed text transcripts and alternate text, and structured all on-page content in a semantically meaningful manner.

This was valuable to both humans and search engine bots. Frontend quality mattered. To quote WordPress, “Code is poetry.”

Accessibility: Never an afterthought

When the Obama administration chose SlideShare as the official medium for White House presentations, a key factor was Section 508 compliance. SlideShare was inherently compliant because of the focus on accessibility principles and our markup standards. Many federal agencies, including NASA and the US Army, followed.

Related: The ultimate guide to web content accessibility

Relevance and engagement

Rashmi Sinha, SlideShare’s CEO at the time, had a profound influence on my design thinking and my product thinking.

An important aspect of design that fueled the SEO machine was “related content.” We showcased presentations related to the one you were viewing and optimized them for discoverability and engagement. The information architecture established strong, relevant, and meaningful relationships between quality presentations. Plus, we presented this within the page markup in an easily accessible manner to bots.

Embed and share value

SlideShare made professional knowledge more open in the spirit of an open, collaborative Web. You could upload a presentation and embed it on any website. And, if you chose to, anybody could embed your presentation. The embed code included a link back to the presentation page that not only made content accessible via the transcript, but also provided valuable signals to search engines. As more users embedded quality content, we generated more backlinks. It was simple.

Rand Fishkin famously quoted this during the keynote talk at MozCon 2016 in Seattle. The one thing SlideShare did differently, however, was that the widget had inherent value and wasn’t just an SEO play. The link was fully removable if users wanted, and it allowed humans and bots to view the full presentation transcript.

Focus on your flywheel

Our human editors featured the best content on the SlideShare homepage. This helped to curate quality content, encouraged users to contribute to an ecosystem that valued quality, and it was designed as a lever to distribute SEO equity from the highest authority page on the domain.

The flip side of this was taking out any spam and pirated content, canonicalizing duplicates, and developing no-index rules for low-quality content.

SEO enabled our users to get real, tangible distribution for their content. This created business value, with entire companies being founded based on the ecosystem it created. Uploaders recognized the value it brought them and created better presentations that were meant for online consumption, including presentations on how to create better presentations. We had inadvertently influenced one of the most boring media formats to turn into something fun and interesting. No more death by PowerPoint.

Information architecture

Internally, at its core, the product had three simple nodes in its information architecture. It was a trinity with clear relationships between identity, content, and the homepage.

Externally, the best sites on the Internet linked to the best content on SlideShare, creating strong link equity flow between high-quality nodes.

To quote Reid Hoffman, “relationships matter”—even for SEO. The relationships between nodes in any information architecture make all the difference.

Design is SEO.

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