What is Parallax design?

In short, parallax design refers primarily to something called “parallax scrolling,” in which the foreground scrolls at a different speed than the background. This mimics the way we view our actual surroundings and gives the illusion of depth, which is why it has been used in animated films and video games for years. If that description is not ringing any bells, you check out a demo of a Parallax theme here. I’ll wait for you to come back.

The first use of parallax scrolling for web design is credited to Ian Coyle for “Nike Better World,” seen above.

OK, so now that we’re on the same page, let’s get one thing straight: parallax scrolling looks very cool. I am not here to dispute that. But really, that demo was attractively designed already; the parallax scrolling was merely a small visual embellishment. Take that away, and you would still have a very nice site. So the question is, is that embellishment really worth the potential detriment to SEO?

What concerns does Parallax Design raise for SEO?

Actually, parallax scrolling is inherently neither good nor bad for SEO; the problem is how it’s used.

Although it is possible to incorporate parallax scrolling without doing this, most of the parallax websites you see out there have all of the content that would normally be split into multiple pages onto a single page, using parallax to transition between “pages” with a neat scrolling effect (just like in the demo). Unfortunately, this practice (which is not limited to parallax design) robs the site of many opportunities for search engine optimization:

Limited ability to optimize URLs

If every page is using the same URL, there is no opportunity to make a keyword-rich URL for each page. (The more specific identifiers after the hashtag [e.g., http://yourdomain.com/#team] is not indexed as a separate URL and therefore does not help your SEO efforts.)

Lack of Relevant Landing Pages

Search engines rank pages based on their relevancy to certain keywords and/or phrases that align with the online consumer’s search query and intention. If every page of your site shares the same URL (which the search engine will index as a single page), the diverse content makes it extremely difficult to establish relevancy for any one category of keywords. It confuses the search engine – what is this page really about?

SEO isn’t the only casualty; SEM suffers too if you try to use a one-page parallax site as a landing page: Low relevancy = low quality score = higher cost per click (CPC).

No Structure or Hierarchy

Search engines value logical organization of information, but they are not able to clearly distinguish site structure and hierarchy for a single-page site. While the user will perceive each section as a separate page, the search engine will see a single, disorganized page rather than a logically structured, multi-level website.

How can you use Parallax Design without negatively impacting your SEO?

As long as you do not use the one-page site approach, there are plenty of ways to use parallax scrolling without harming your search engine standings. Here are a few ideas:

  • Incorporating several related sections of content on one page. For example, you could have a single “About Us” page that scrolls between an overview, company history, mission statement, etc.
  • A brochure-style landing page, showcasing different information all related to a single product or service
  • Enriching the story-telling aspect of a web-based game or article, such as this example from Pitchfork

Of course, parallax scrolling doesn’t have to be used just to scroll between large sections of text. It can also be used to scroll horizontally as a slider (I’ll save the many reasons you don’t want a slider on your website for another blog post), or can be purely decorative, with background images moving as your scroll through an otherwise traditionally designed age.

Even though you can use parallax, should you? The jury’s still out on this one – there are just not enough studies out there yet to show how parallax design affects user experience and behavior; however, early studies suggest that traditional design may perform better.

Ultimately, the question you have to ask yourself, as with any design question, is this: “What is the goal of my website, and will this change enhance or detract from that goal?” And don’t forget about your SEO and paid search goals when considering web design. Your website and marketing efforts should always work together – not compete – to grow your business.