To me, the argument between web design and SEO is moot. The two can and must live side-by-side on any web development team. Is one more important than the other? No – they are part of a team. I will concede, however, that web design is what lays the foundation to any online business.
I see the web page very much like a brick and mortar business. If your store front is ugly and the internal structure ugly and hard to get around then no matter how cheap the prices are, I will most likely leave. Place it in a bad neighbourhood as well and I won’t bother coming in the first place.
It doesn’t matter if a thousand friends recommend the business, if they drive by and don’t like what they see, they will most likely keep driving. The same is true of a web site. If it is ugly, doesn’t provide the look, feel or service that a visitor expects – they will move on. The thousand friends – that is the same as a thousand inbound links and a waste of time if the site is so bad the visitors won’t return.
Yes – SEO and web design have to live together. Web design should focus on what it does well, designing a great web site. SEOs should do what they do best – attracting traffic from the search engines. Likewise, marketing should concentrate on what it does best – marketing the business both online and offline.
As a team, they need to work together. The SEO knows what design issues affect SEO just as a marketing expert will know where and how prominent the call to action link should be. Realistically, none of them can be successful without the other.