How Does Color Usage Affect SEO & Conversions?

Many search engine optimization professionals have different interpretations of the term search-engine friendly website design. To some, it means crawlability — making sure that Web content is accessible to the commercial Web search engines. Other SEO professionals believe that search-engine friendly design is indexation — making sure webpages are included in a search engine index.

Color wheel - image

Selecting a user-friendly (and searcher-friendly) color scheme usually falls into the hands of technical and/or artistic staff who might not understand the usability and SEO impact of color selection.

As I mentioned in SEO Smackdown: Information Architecture vs. Technical Architecture, whenever I hear certain geek-speak, I am reasonably sure that I am not talking to a person who truly understands the SEO big picture.

Honestly, how many Web designers commonly use the SEO jargon of crawlability and indexation?

Website design and development are two unique skill sets that often overlap. Some artists and graphic designers have incredible technical skills and vice-versa. Color selection often falls into the hands of both technical and artistic staff.

To both designers and developers: do you understand that your color selection affects how your website content might be interpreted and displayed by a commercial Web search engine?

Do you understand how Web searchers might interpret your color selections? Do you understand that your color selection can negatively affect conversions… even with a #1 search engine ranking?

Usability Impact Of Color Selection

As I mentioned in a previous article, Clickability and Search-Engine Friendly Web Design, clickability is a critical part of the user/searcher experience.

To reiterate important points:

  • All clickable items on a webpage should look clickable
  • All unclickable items on a webpage should not look clickable
  • All clickable-looking items on a webpage should be clickable and provide feedback
  • Don’t put a link on a page that you do not intend for searchers/users to click

I am certainly not saying that every text link needs to be formatted as blue and underlined. Not at all. I am saying that clickable and unclickable text should not be formatted the same way. To a search engine, it might appear as if you are trying to hide links from users but not search engines.

“But Shari!” I hear many Web developers and designers alike exclaim with the requisite eye roll. “That design principle is Sooooo outdated. People will figure out what to click on after they put their cursor/mouse/finger on the text.”

What these designers and developers are describing is called minesweeping. According to, minesweeping is:

“An action designed to identify where on a page links are located on a web page. Minesweeping involves the user rapidly moving the cursor or pointer over a web page, watching to see where the cursor or pointer changes to indicate the presence of a link.”

I’ve personally conducted usability tests for over ten years on desktops, mobile phones, and tablets. I’ve observed, first-hand, who minesweeps for links and who doesn’t. Do you know the group who genuinely likes to minesweep? Children.

Now my next question to you is this: does your target audience include children? I didn’t think so.

Furthermore, requiring users/searchers to minesweep slows task completion. And, to be perfectly honest, if an item on your webpage does not look clickable, most users/searchers won’t click on it.

So, if  you are going to use color to indicate clickable and unclickable elements, please use them consistently. Don’t confuse both searchers and search engines.

Color, Legibility & Readability

In my first book, Search Engine Visibility,” I wrote about the five Rules of Web Design. The first rule is that all websites should be easy to read. Of course, the rule has corollaries, such as:

  • Easy to scan (visual hierarchy)
  • Legible
  • Understandable

Color contrast is extremely important for legibility. The highest color contrast comes from using the two colors black and white. Some Web designers like to use white text against a black background because it seems to be more stylish, but it is actually more difficult to read and can lead to lower conversions. If you make content too difficult to read, it does not lead to the best link development. And, as we all know, link development is still a key component of the SEO process.

And, do you use colors that have low color contrast, such as light gray text on a white background? Or, did your Web designer set your text size too small to read (which I commonly see in mobile designs)? That would be considered a form of search engine spam, even if the text were barely legible.

If I am working on a website that implements responsive design, for example, I make sure the font-size never falls below a certain size. Sacrificing legibility and readability for simpler coding isn’t a very user-centric approach.

Color must also be understandable and easily interpreted. “Color communicates a message by association,” said Flint McGlaughlin from MECLABS in his recent webinar, “How Do Website Colors Impact Conversion?

The color blue can have many different meanings. Navy blue can communicate professionalism, security, trust, and dignity. Aqua blue has a different message (whimsical, cool, tropical, water). And a soft, light blue can often feel more feminine than masculine.

So, always keep color contrast in mind so that your site is easy to read and easy to interpret by both searchers and search engines. In order for your website’s color scheme to be understandable, you should also understand color associations and culture.

Color Associations & Culture

“Most international marketers know they need to handle the broader cultural issues rather than just language, said Andy Atkins-Krueger, CEO of WebCertain. “But not so many can easily define culture. For me ‘culture’ is our home environment, the one we’re used to and when things look a bit odd – when we’re browsing the Web, for instance, and seeing strange websites – then that’s probably because what we’re looking at has been created by someone with a different home culture.”

Global Search Engine Marketing - book by Anne Kennedy and Kristjan Mar HaukssonSome people might not know this about me: my master’s degree is in Asian Studies (Japanese), and I spent some years teaching Asian religion, literature, and culture.

As a Web designer and SEO, I know that the color red communicates happiness in China; anger and danger in Japan; and life and creativity in India.

When I design websites whose target audience is outside of the US, I rarely use the same template and color scheme.

Here’s a quote from my favorite SEO book of 2012, Global Search Engine Marketing: Fine-Tuning Your International Search Engine Results”:

Even Baidu notes ’Chinese culture has some identity-forming meanings that affect user behavior strongly, namely in color, number, symbol, language, and so on.’”

I have found that the color red is not as negative as in the US. I have found American designs be much based on the color blue while Scandinavians are more open to multi-colors,” said Kristjan Mar Hauksson, Director of Internet Marketing at Nordic eMarketing and co-author of Global Search Engine Marketing: Fine-Tuning Your International Search Engine Results.

You really need a whole list of potential cultural issues – or you could call them trust factors since working with someone within their culture builds trust which means they’re more likely to buy,” said Atkins-Kruger. “The problem is that culture isn’t just one thing. It’s not just the colour selection, the language, the currency symbols, the complexity or simplicity of the page, reading right to left instead of left to right, calendar formats, forms, zip code formats or alternatives, credit card symbols, delivery timescales, image content or any of the other hundreds of small items. It’s all of them. It’s their combined effect. It’s the answer to the question, “are we among friends?

So for example, in southern Ireland or Eire, there are no postcodes at all (don’t make them mandatory),” he continues. “In Thailand, purple represents mourning whereas the west associates the colour with Royalty. If you don’t accept Union Pay credit cards in China, you almost certainly won’t do any business. When western companies change their template from left-to-right reading, to right-to-left, they frequently forget to change the calendars.  And dates in the UK are not presented in the same way they are in the US.

So, Search Engine Land readers, please consider how you implement color on your websites. Color is a very large part of search-engine friendly design. Color affects link development. Color affects conversions. And the improper use of color can be considered search engine spam. Color is extremely important to searchers.


Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).

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  • Alan

    Hi Shari – excellent

    As I’m sure you’ll agree those of us who have been around this Internet marketing malarkey for a while [veterans?] know this stuff is not new. Some of it being good web-practice back in the mid 1990s and good print-practice centuries before that [it is not by accident that even the earliest examples of print were black on white]. It is a shame, therefore, that it takes articles such as this one to bring the message to the new/next generation of web developers.

    I mention all of the issues you raise in my books and have included them in my
    teaching for nigh-on 15 years, but I’m afraid that in the computing and design
    schools it just ain’t sexy enough to get on the curriculum [I teach e-marketing
    to business and marketing students in a university's Business School].

    But then as I have said many times; if it was taught more widely I would get no
    ‘consultancy’ work advising website owners why their websites aren’t producing
    the required/expected results. It’s an ill wind …

  • The INBR Group

    Great article. I’ll definitely be watching for more from you. Thanks.

  • Link Worx Seo

    Nailing all of this down requires experience and patience. Testing should be done to learn what works or not as well as getting insight from visitors. Have all of the skill sets can go along way. Great article got some good thoughts out of it. Do not have the book though, but probably should.

  • K.Singh, London

    Colours have always played a very important role in usability. A good example is the use of colour red for error messages on websites – a simple but very effective method.

  • Stacey Mayer

    As an optician, I help patients choose reading glasses every day. Your job, as a webmaster, is to be sure everyone can READ your page. Please don’t forget people over 40. Print that page; can you still read it? Being readable, and enjoyable, will make your site a star. Thanks!

  • sharithurow

    Hi Alan-

    Yes, I understand. I came up with my 5 Rules of Web Design back in 1997 (and associated corollaries) independent of Jakob Nielsen and other noted usability professionals and information architects.

    Another example? I still look at these download time discussions and roll my eyes, as that is one of the five rules. I’ve been minimizing download time since 1995. Sure, there are a handful of new recommendations, but all of the ones I’ve been doing for all of these years still apply. And SEOs still do not understand the difference between actual and perceived download time. They honestly believe they do; they don’t.

    So, like you, that gives me the opportunity for consultancy because people keep getting download time wrong. I pretty much have stopped emphasizing it at conferences anymore (except one). It falls on deaf ears, which is a shame.

  • Alan Charlesworth

    … and page size has come full circle :)

  • sharithurow

    Hi Stacey-

    You’re preaching to the proverbial choir. I have worn glasses since I’ve been 8 years old. It is very natural for me to design for people with vision impairment.

    That’s why I provided the Lighthouse International link. I have used that site for many years.

  • Jonathan Hawkins

    As a website designer and seo services professional, I found this article to be extremely spot on. These are some true guidelines that you should incorporate into you next design action plan.

  • 4u2discuss

    Very interesting article thanx for these insights to colour and culture.

  • 4u2discuss

    But this is mis-understood by the Chinese where red signifies happiness so the culture thing really needs to be understood. this is difficult as there are so many cultures, so it is best to apply the standard SEO tactic of identifying your target market and writing specifically for that group. Understanding your target market is often very difficult as the product / brand owner is usually very vague because they want the world to view their pages and buy their product. So K.Singh of london you are very right colour plays an important role.

  • 4u2discuss

    Most SEO technicians work on a LAN (Local Area Network) and never access their pages YiFi networks, across 2G networks, across dial-up networks or 3G networks so they have no clue of what you are talking about. I can guarantee you that once they have accessed their pages across these networks they will think and act differently.

    SEO is totally misunderstood and has evolved to include the whole marketing team and not just a few tech savvy guys. The advent of social media has also change the rules considerably for the SEO world as new ways of determining relevance and search intention are being exploited by search companies like Yahoo, Bing, Aardvark (south African search Engine) ask and Google.

    big colour pics take forever to download over slow networks, so colour and file size are very important for down load times….

  • Matthew A. Hart

    The author is right, color is a subject that deserves much more attention than it gets. Especially for international marketers, the potential issue goes much further beyond whether or not you ask your page viewers to “minesweep” your page. In all countries certain colors take different meanings. International marketers need to make sure their pages are culturally relevant in order to maximize their interaction with users in a given market.

    For instance, in most cultures the color blue triggers positive feelings and conveys a sense of calm. Because blue is so readily found in nature, it is generally considered to be a universally acceptable color for any campaign. Simple enough, right? Not so fast. Take a look at Pepsi Co. for a minute. A few years ago, Pepsi was the dominant market share for Cola in South East Asia. However, when they changed the color of their vending machines from “regal blue” to “ice blue,” they lost their market share to Coke. Why? Well, unfortunately for Pepsi, while nothing negative is associated with darker shades of blue in South East Asia, lighter shades of blue like those found on Pepsi’s new vending machines are linked with death and mourning. The same ideology goes for web creation, theres no point in localizing your keywords and meta-data if you webpage will repulse the consumer it’s localized for.

    For those interested in reading more about the importance of color selection in web-loc, you can read a blog I published on the subject here:

  • Elaine, Nicholsons Jewellers

    Hi, I’d never hear of the phrase “minesweeping” but I knew I didn’t like doing it! I’m going to check my own site now.


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