They’re one of the most taken for granted elements of the web. However, when done wrong, they can disrupt the visitor’s experience on a site, sending them fleeing. (Remember those early web pages with red or bright neon color type on a black background? Yeeouch.) The importance of web fonts does not only include aesthetics, but the foundation of communicating information, and (did you know?) can increase your SEO.
Web Safe Fonts
Once it had moved out the early stages of simple text on screens (years before we understood the future importance of web fonts, page load times, and SEO) creators on the web had an interesting problem. “How do we handle the fonts on the pages we design on the web? How do we control what people will see?” A simple solution was to use the standard font set that came loaded on almost every computer. The code of the site would tell the browser, “This font is Arial.” The computer would say, “Oh sure. I have that font in my library” and the user would see Arial and the page as the designer intended. This collection of fonts became known as “web safe.” Build your pages using one of these fonts and you’re good to go. There was just one problem: this only represented around 50 fonts.
Major corporations have spent millions of dollars developing their logos and brand IDs. Graphic designers, of which I am one, prefer the room to make design decisions. This small set of fonts (of which many are solid choices, some even titans of the font world—see Helvetica) just wouldn’t do. They had to have their fonts on their web pages.
But those fonts aren’t on everyone’s computer, so what do you do? You host it on a server on the web. When the site is pulled up, the browser on the computer reaches out to that server and there’s the font on your screen. This is still a practice. You may notice that some sites present one font and then, SNAP!, quickly replace it with another—that’s a hosted font. There are multiple companies who offer hosting for fonts and even offer their proprietary sets.
There are a few issues with hosted fonts. One is the snap behavior I mentioned above. The other is you’re relying on that server to always be up for your site to look right. (All servers have interruptions.) The last is cost. Fonts aren’t hosted for free. There is a monthly or yearly fee. If you don’t pay this fee, the font goes away. If your credit card expires and you missed it (because you’re running a business), the font goes away.
Google: One Font Set to Rule Them All
Google came up with their solution, and at this time in web history, it’s the one with the most advantages. They looked at the importance of web fonts and created a their own set of fonts. They host it on their massive servers, meaning less chance for interruptions. They offer it for free.
Aside from no cost, there’s little to no replacement snap. Also, it’s a much larger library than our beloved original 50 web safe fonts. And there’s another, and most important, thing. They load fast.
Google is all about speed. It knows that a site has a tiny, finite, amount of time to engage with a visitor. Therefore, their fonts are optimized to load quickly. The faster a page loads, the more people are enticed to stay there, and the more the SEO value of that page increases. Because of these factors, Alter Endeavors designs the sites for our clients using Google fonts.
“But my brand font isn’t a Google font.” The solution is to pair a Google font with your brand. We either use a font that’s very close to your current one, or our designers identify fonts that compliment your brand’s font.
One note, if you’re just starting your company and are developing your brand ID, Google fonts not only work on the web; they are downloadable and can be installed on your computer. Then, when it’s time to build your digital presence, you’ll have cohesion across all of your channels and collateral.
This has been a short and very simple overview, but it highlights of the importance of web fonts and how they work. The font decision in any design project has always been one of the largest to be made. Now that decision is also accompanied by higher stakes accompanied by real dollars. Font optimization is just one part of Google’s SEO analysis, but as it’s a key factor in site load speed, it’s an important one.