While it’s usually possible to effectively optimize an existing website, it’s generally most efficient to build the necessary SEO components into the site design and architecture right from the get-go. Whether you’re hiring a designer, using a pre-built template or building your site from scratch, it’s important to understand the basics of how to build an SEO-friendly website.

Following are 8 of the most important factors you should incorporate if you want a site that’s both usable for your visitors and optimized for search engine visibility and traffic.

1. Proper URL Structure

When determining what type of URL structure you’re going to use, it’s important to make sure your URLs clearly indicate the topic of your content. This means they should be static and descriptive, and should contain relevant keywords so both the search engines and visitors know exactly what your page is about.

When using multi-word URLs, the industry standard is to use dashes rather than underscores (and this is, in fact, what Google recommends). Avoid using ID numbers or other convoluted and irrelevant terms or characters in your URLs; both Google and your site visitors will appreciate short, simple URLs that clearly convey the subject matter of your content.

An example of a good URL could be: www.example.com/best-tools-for-web-designers

An example of a poor URL would be: www.example.com/?sns/8900/cat5532

2. Simple and Descriptive Navigation

Ideally, you want your navigation structure to be simple, efficient and easy for Google and your visitors to follow. Typically, sites will place their main navigation menu across the top of the page, or vertically down the left side of the page; while some site owners are tempted to put their menu elsewhere, many eye-tracking and usability studies have shown that these positions work best.

Dropdown and flyout menus are okay, but should be used with care as they can potentially be more difficult for both human and robot visitors to navigate. Text links are ideal, as is keeping the number of menu items manageable (6-7 is good) so as not to overwhelm visitors with unnecessary options (although some research has shown mega-menu drop-downs do well when structured properly).

3. Responsive Design

To ensure your visitors can properly access your site regardless of which device they’re on – smartphone, computer or tablet – having a responsive website design should be a priority. A dedicated mobile-only site can work as well, but a responsive design helps you avoid sticky issues like duplicate content and having to build and maintain two separate sites.

And although it’s beyond the scope of this post, recent changes to Google’s algorithm have also changed how we need to approach SEO in terms of our content strategies. For more on this, see my post Google Hummingbird: A Mobile Content Marketing Strategy Just Became Essential.

4. Social Media Integration

We now have evidence that Google isn’t currently using social signals from Facebook and Twitter as part of their ranking algorithm. However, the indirect benefits of social media for your website have been proven time and time again: social media sharing propels your content around the web, getting it in front of more people, gaining more mentions and more links, and thereby increasing your search engine rankings as well as your brand awareness, credibility, authority, and reach.

Some best practices for incorporating social into your site include making sure you have easy-to-find social media share icons on all blog posts and product pages, promoting content on your website via social media channels, and enabling social sign-in if you have an e-commerce site.

5. Properly-Optimized Images

When you’re designing your site, ensure that your images are the minimal size needed to still provide a good user experience (somewhere between 20-100kb). A good standard practice is to resize your images to the size you want them displayed, rather than shrinking them in the source code, as this can significantly increase page load times. This is important because slower page load speed has been linked to worse user experience and even organic search rankings.

Your alt image text is also still important, so remember to properly incorporate your keywords into your logo image, header image and all buttons and other graphics you include in your site design.

6. Incorporate Keyword Research From the Beginning

Performing keyword research at the outset of your web design project not only means increased SEO benefits, but an overall better user experience. Even doing some basic keyword research using the Google Keyword Planner can make a big difference; by researching words and phrases related to the main topic or theme of your site, you can not only find out which terms your target market is actually using to find your products or services, but you can drill down to find popular and relevant sub-categories as well.

Understanding which topics and sub-topics your visitors will be looking for will be a major benefit when deciding how to structure and name your navigation bars and category and product pages. For help with keyword research, see this collection of keyword research resources.

7. Optimize Page Load Times

An efficient load time for your site is more important than ever. According to this infographic from Kissmetrics, the website abandonment threshold is now 5 seconds for mobile and 3 seconds for desktop. This may mean (among other things) properly sizing your images, minifying your CSS and Javascript, leveraging browser caching, and enabling compression. To see how quickly your site is loading, try using a tool like WebPageTest, or Google’s own tool PageSpeed Insights.

8. Proper Use of Sitemaps

Be sure to include both an HTML sitemap for your website visitors, and an XML sitemap for the search engines. This will ensure your visitors can locate exactly what they’re looking for, as well as ensuring complete and efficient indexation by Google. If you’re using WordPress, there are plugins that can help with both: the HTML Page Sitemap plugin and the Google XML Sitemaps plugin.

Once you’ve built your site, it’s important that you continue to follow SEO best practices in terms of content, link-building and social media. This will mean integrating Google Authorship, following on-page SEO strategies and building high-quality links to your site.