I‘m frequently asked some variation of the following question: “...how can you do effective search engine optimization on my website if you don’t know my business?” This question reflects a legitimate concern. I’m going to give you the answer. I use a very old technique that has, for reasons I don’t understand, fallen out of fashion. Wait for it … ready? I ask questions. Lots of questions. I listen to the answers. I take notes. When people begin to freely speak about their business it isn’t long before you hear and see the passion. But it’s more than just asking questions. It’s asking the right ones. Like what makes you different than your competitors? I know what you’re thinking. Doesn’t every web designer/SEO consultant ask that question? I would hope so. But here’s the thing. The answer, I mean the real answer, often doesn’t come as a direct result of asking the question. It comes later when defenses are down and the tension has left the room. I look for eyes to light up and words to flow freely. This doesn’t always happen. But I always expect it to. And when it does I know I found the answer I’m looking for and the key to making their website stand out. I’ve found the why.
The Deep Dive
It’s also about intangibles. I call this process of asking questions and immersing myself in my clients’ business the deep dive … and my commitment to this process is how this nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn found himself in church one Sunday morning. You see I was hired by a local church to redesign their website – to bring it into the 21st Century (their term not mine). We had several meetings where I asked lots of questions and took copious notes. That’s my normal process. I heard words like welcoming, non-judgmental, accepting. I’m pretty sure that most churches these days would use the same words to describe themselves. I’m also pretty sure that the description is not always accurate. Toward the end of the meeting the Pastor turned to me and nonchalantly said “why don’t you come to services next Sunday. We start at 10.” I didn’t hesitate. “Great idea,” I answered.
Now I’m used to going to Sabbath services at my local synagogue where 10am means 10ish and those who show up usually err on the side of ish. I couldn’t assume that church goers had the same lax interpretation of time I was used to so I dispensed with the ish and arrived at 10 sharp. It was a beautiful Spring day. The Pastor, who was stationed outside as parishioners were arriving, seemed genuinely happy to see me. He seemed happy to see everyone. In fact, everyone was happy to see everyone else.
Conclusion number one: this church really was welcoming.
Inside the choir was singing. I love singing. The service this morning featured a sermon delivered by a guest pastor from Boston. Thoroughly inspiring. I was introduced to a man who had moved to the area from Texas and chose this church because he and his husband were – here is that word again – welcomed.
Conclusion number two: this church really was accepting.
After the service, we moved into the church meeting hall for coffee and pastries – and more singing. I took the liberty of wandering off by myself. I do this sometimes because it gives me the opportunity to pick up tidbits of information I can use to craft a powerful message for a client website.
Back in my office on Monday I organized all the information from my deep dive and forwarded the list to the church’s web committee. None of the ideas on the list had been discussed during any of our meetings. The committee was thrilled. So was I. So was the Pastor who kept saying, “what a great idea.” The truth is they were things I thought of during my visit. See what I mean about the deep dive?
And Now Back to You
What do you think of this deep dive idea? Did the company you worked with to build your website or do an SEO campaign take the extra step? If you’re in the middle of the process now it’s not too late to ask them to. I’d like to know your thoughts.
This is the first question I ask my clients. It surprises me how difficult it seems to be to get an answer. It’s pretty hard to build a website if the goal of the site isn’t clear. But one thing I hear all the time is something like this:
“I’d like a rotating slideshow on the homepage.”
As a designer I have to admit that these slide shows are visually appealing. But even though they are enormously popular, I advise my clients against using them. Why? Because unless your website is strictly informational, chances are you’re using it to sell something – a product, a service or an idea. That rotating homepage slideshow that is currently in vogue may actually be making it harder for potential customers and clients to buy what you’re selling.
It’s About Conversion, Not Page Rank
Your analytics reports are telling you that lots of people are visiting your site. Good. When you do a Google search for your business, you’re at the top of the SERP (Search Engine Results Page). Good. You’re not gaining any new customers. Bad! So what’s going on here? If you’re focusing on attaining the number one spot on a Google search then you’re focusing on the wrong thing. Wouldn’t you rather have a hundred new visitors to your site who all end up buying from you than one thousand new visitors who do nothing? Pretty obvious right? The objective is to convert your visitors to customers. It’s time to face the ugly truth. The lovely rotating slideshow that is occupying your homepage’s most coveted real estate is turning potential buyers away.
The whole idea behind image sliders is that a message or image is displayed for a brief while — maybe a few seconds – and then is replaced by another message. But this type of stopping and starting pattern is the most compelling form of movement, because of our evolutionary need to be aware of hidden dangers lurking nearby. Simply put, the human brain is hard-wired to notice the onset of motion, which makes rotating banners especially distracting. We literally cannot tune them out.
Ash further states:
So, while the movement of the banner may attract the attention of the subconscious, the conscious brain works hard to ignore it.
It May be Time to Break the Habit
Does it really make sense to put your most important information, your key calls-to-action, your value proposition, the “why” of your business in a format that research tells us is likely to be ignored? I like the homepage slideshow just as much as the next guy. I think they look cool and are a good way to attract attention – for a few seconds. That’s how long it’s going to take for your visitors to realize that just before they’ve absorbed the information embedded in the first image, the next one pops onto the screen. The next step is user frustration followed by a quick exit. So unless the sole purpose of your website is to look cool, I would suggest rethinking that rotating homepage slideshow.
But Having Said That …
I should say that even though I advise my clients against using the ubiquitous homepage slideshow, if they insist I will use it anyway. My job is go give them the information they need to make good choices. It’s still their decision.
Now Back to You
Are you hooked on the homepage slideshow? Does your website use one? If so, can you tell how it is effecting your business goals? Does anything I’ve said here make sense?
Why is SEO (Search Engine Optimization) so expensive? I hear this question all the time. I’m going to tell you why. But first a brief history lesson. In the beginning (mid-nineties) there were few websites. It was easy to get found. Just pack a few keywords into the content of your site and voilá, there you were. Now there are more websites than stars in the sky (yes, I’m exaggerating to make a point.) It’s NOT easy to get found anymore. End of history lesson.
Search Engine Rank: Easy Concept, Hard Execution
Think of your new website like a new house. You’ve spent all this money to design and build it. It’s finally done. You’re excited. You throw a party and invite people over to see your sparkling new home. No one shows up. What happened? You forgot to tell them how to find you. See where I’m going with this? There are just too many websites for you to not take search engine optimization seriously. Taking it seriously means accepting that you have to pay for it. I’m not going to get into who you should hire to do this. Like any other industry there are those who are very good at it and those who aren’t but claim to be. For purposes of this rant I will assume that you understand that.
So Here is Why It’s So Expensive
Because of the sheer volume of websites (there will likely be thousands more by the time you finish reading this), search engine optimization has evolved into a stand alone skill set. Getting your website to stand out from the countless others in your industry and in your geographical area takes expertise and experience. Here are a few things you need to understand:
content – if you’re undertaking an optimization effort on an existing site, your content will have to be reviewed for keyword density and placement. The content may have to be edited or rewritten entirely
research – the keywords you think your customers are using to find you may not be the ones they’re using at all. Only keyword research and competitive analysis can determine this
tools – an experienced SEO person knows how to use the right tools to uncover the information necessary to achieve high page rank
measurability – (I made up this word. You get the point.) your SEO efforts have to be analyzed and measured for effectiveness to ensure the proper strategies are being used
reporting – periodic reports need to be provided. This is part of measurability
tweaking – depending on results your website may have to be tweaked and adjusted
time – doing all of the above well takes time. That’s why it’s expensive.
I can go on. The point is this: If you take your business seriously enough to invest in a well designed website, skimping on search engine optimization will cancel out all of your best intentions. It’s kind of like building a brand new house and never telling anyone how to find it. Unless you’re a recluse (I’m assuming you’re not), this is just not going to work.
And Now Back to You
Have your search engine optimization efforts paid off? Is your website being found? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Did you skimp? Be honest.
Back in 1995 I wondered how I would make a living once every business had a website. I hadn’t yet fully grasped the real potential of the web. Few people did. Over the years, of course, it has become obvious that websites, like gardens, need tending. Sometimes they need more than tending. They need to be …. well they need to be overhauled, gutted and replaced like a condemned building. There, I’ve said it. So here are my top 8 indicators that its time to overhaul your website. Any one of these should cause you to lose sleep. If more than one is true about your website then …. well you get the idea.
1. Your Website is About as “In Style” as a 1970’s Leisure Suit
Looks aren’t everything. I get it. But you only have 5 seconds to capture your visitors’ attention. If your website is the equivalent of an outdated leisure suit, your visitors will run away screaming and won’t come back. Take a good look at your website. Better yet, have someone you trust who isn’t emotionally invested take a look at it. If it looks like a leisure suit it’s time for an overhaul
2. You’ve Never Updated Your Website
Shame on you! You simply cannot publish a website and never update the content. Do you think there is nothing new to say about your business? Really? Do you sell nuts and bolts? Then tell us what’s new in the world of nuts and bolts. Do you sell concrete? Tell us who you’re selling it to and why they’re thrilled with you. This is not so much about overhauling your website as it is about overhauling the way you think about your website. Think there is nothing new to say? Think again.
3. Important Information is Hard to Find
The information on your site needs to be categorized and presented to the user in some logical way. That means links to information must be clearly visible and not buried where users can’t find them. If your site’s navigation is confusing, it may be time for an overhaul.
Make Sure All Links Are Clearly Visible and Well Organized
4. You Can’t Update Your Site Yourself
Today, the majority of new websites being launched are built on a content management system or CMS. The great benefit of a CMS is that it makes updating content very simple and requires no knowledge of HTML or programming. Now companies can take full control of the day to day management of their websites. There goes your excuse. If your website was not built on a CMS platform, it is definitely time for an overhaul.
5. Your Site Doesn’t Show Up Until Page 10 on a Google Search
Achieving high page position on a SRP (Search Results Page) is the stated goal of every business website. But I often see a disconnect between the goal and the execution. It’s about relevant content. If your site is not ranking well for a particular keyword phrase, chances are that phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in your content. Or if it does, the context in which it appears is misleading. If this is the case with your website, it’s time for an overhaul.
6. You’re Embarrassed to Tell People About Your Website
You guessed it. Time for an overhaul.
7. Your Site Was Designed Entirely in Flash
Ouch! That’s so 2008. I’ve talked about this before but it bears repeating. Flash is a very compelling technology that can, when used properly, add some great visual “pop” to your website. But a site built entirely in Flash is virtually impossible to maintain, scores very poorly in search engines, isn’t universally supported on mobile devices (like the iPhone for example) and can distract people from the most important aspect of your website – its content. If your site is built entirely in Flash, it’s time for an overhaul.
8. Your Site Isn’t Bringing You Any Business
Isn’t that the the goal? To get business from your website? If you aren’t, chances are that several of the points mentioned above are at play. That’s why I’ve saved this one for last. If this is the case for you then your website needs to be thoroughly reviewed …and probably overhauled.
And Now Back to You
In almost every case my clients’ websites suffered from at least two or more of these maladies before we worked together to fix them. As a business owner, can you look at your website with an unbiased eye and determine which, if any, of the above problems applies? If you’ve already overhauled your website has it made a difference in your business? I’d like to get your point of view.
Last June I posted an entry calledSEO – Sorting it Out, in which I talked about some general terms relating to search engine optimization, i.e. the difference between sponsored and organic search, submitting your site to search engines, etc. I thought it might be a good idea to revisit the topic and offer some more information that you will find useful.
The Keyword Meta Tag – Does it Still Count?
The keyword meta tag, after years of abuse, has lost its significance. In fact, according to Matt Cutts, Google’s own search quality specialist, Google disregards it completely.
While less rigid than Google regarding the use of the keyword meta tag, Bing still acknowledges that it’s not as important as it used to be. According to Bing’s Webmaster Center blog:
The <meta> tag’s keyword attribute is not the page rank panacea it once was back in the prehistoric days of Internet search. It was abused far too much and lost most of its cachet. But there’s no need to ignore the tag. Take advantage of all legitimate opportunities to score keyword credit, even when the payoff is relatively low. Fill in this tag’s text with relevant keywords and phrases that describe that page’s content.
So what’s the verdict? While there is certainly no harm in using the keyword meta tag, my advice is focus on keyword rich content and don’t worry about the keyword meta tag. But remember, your content should make sense to humans first. Context matters.
Use the Tools
Yes, the big players in the search universe make all the rules. But they don’t keep them a secret. In fact, both Google and Bing make their suggestions and protocols very public. So if you’re a hands on type and want to know more about search engine best practices, here are a few musts:
use google analytics – this is a bit of code inserted into the pages of your website that allows google to track user interaction with your site. The data generated is pretty detailed and can help you tweak your site to increase traffic… and it’s free. Find out more here: http://www.google.com/analytics/
understand the <title> and <description> meta tags– each page of your site should have its own unique title and description. These two elements combined make up the snippet you usually see in the SERP (Search Engine Results Page). This is not the place to be verbose. The title tag should be limited to 70 characters and the description tag to 150, give or take.
The way the snippet appears in the search results page
use an xml sitemap – most people are familiar with the html site map. That’s the page on a website usually found by clicking the Sitemap link. It presents the user with a visual representation of the site’s page structure. The xml version is not visible to users. It is uploaded to the root directory of the web server. It gives the search spiders a quick snapshot view of the site’s structure thus making it easier for the search robots to crawl and index your site. Both Google and Bing recommend using an xml sitemap.
What if This is All Too Technical for Me?
Fair question. Especially given that these recommendations are only a small part of good optimization. If you are not the hands on type then make sure the individual or company you are hiring to build your website thoroughly understands and is planning to implement all of the above.
Are all of these recommendations in place on your website? Was it discussed before development began?
Flash animation is an exciting technology that brings motion and visual appeal to the web. When used well it results in a rich and compelling user experience…a good thing to be sure. But before you decide to use Flash in your website there are questions you should ask, things you should know and serious problems to avoid.
Ask yourself why you want to incorporate Flash animation into your website. If the only answer you come up with is because it’s fun to look at, DON’T do it. Your website is a marketing platform. It’s how you are getting the message across about what you are selling, whether it’s a product or a service. The gratuitous use of Flash will divert visitor attention away from your core message. Clearly not what you had in mind when you decided to bring you business to the web. Do you want your visitors to be distracted by the bouncing ball or engaged by compelling content?
Search Engines Can’t See it
While your visitors might be impressed with a slick Flash animation, your most powerful potential ally – Search Engines – will remain blissfully unaware of it. In fact, the Flash piece that you’re so proud of represents a barrier to search results and can end up neutralizing your well constructed marketing plan. Hundreds, perhaps thousand of companies – including some Fortune 1000 brands – found out after spending huge amounts of money on visually slick Flash based websites that they disappeared from search engine results. A good rule of thumb….don’t sacrifice powerful, keyword rich content presented in an uncluttered format for gratuitous eye candy.
So When Should I Use Flash?
In the hands of a talented, experienced programmer, Flash animation can add enormous value to your website. Here are some recommendations:
Never build a website entirely in Flash
Use Flash in small areas inside of a page and never at the top of a page where it will be a potential obstacle to search spiders
Never build your website’s navigation system using Flash
Write good content and then use Flash to support/direct attention to that content NOT divert attention away from it
Use Flash animation to increase the odds that your visitors will take the action(s) you want them to take like buying something, reading something, subscribing to something, etc.