Tuning Up Your Web Site

Sometimes web sites are like cars. You can have a site that looks gorgeous from the outside, but if it’s under-performing and not getting you where you want to go, it might be time for a tune up – or even a complete overhaul. Read on for your own care and maintenance guide.

Regular readers of SEO Chat will know that I recently discussed a series of tips on doing SEO that some might consider a little unorthodox. One of the tips advised readers to engage in regular site redesign – say every six months to a year – for a variety of reasons. This got me thinking about how one would approach redesigning a web site for SEO purposes.

To begin with, an important part of SEO as a discipline involves getting the details right. Admittedly, I say that as someone who has read a lot about the subject; I’ve never optimized a web site beyond writing articles and making sure they stayed on topic. But most of the information I’ve read on SEO, whether it’s been from books, forum posts, blogs, articles, or what have you, has emphasized the “little things” that make a big difference.

It’s good to have a checklist, because it’s easy to miss certain things. Beyond that, though, you might need to be prepared to rethink certain aspects of your web site, especially if you simply built it and left it in a state of benign neglect for several months, figuring it will do its job. I compared a web site to a car in the introduction, but really, it’s more like a pet: you need to feed it, water it, take it for walks, be alert to when it’s not feeling well…the list goes on and on.

So how do you know if your site really needs an overhaul? Start by checking your search engine referral and site traffic figures. You want to get several months’ worth of figures. Chart your progress. Are these figures growing? And just as importantly, are site visitors doing what you want them to do (i.e. converting, buying products, ordering newsletters)? If not, it’s time to get your site up on jacks, break out the tool kit, open the hood, and get to work.

Not every web site gets the majority of its traffic from the major search engines, but you can’t afford to ignore them. Therefore, you need to make sure that your site is being fully indexed by the engines – or at least as fully indexed as you want it to be. If you have content that is for subscribers only, you should already know how to keep it out of the indexes. Just don’t block anything more. And certain things are still hard for search engine spiders to read or get past (JavaScript, flash, etc).

If you want to make sure you’re getting indexed in the search engines, it helps to create and submit an XML site map to Google Sitemaps. You can also submit a site map to Yahoo Site Explorer. But your best bet is to check out Sitemaps.org for more information about a protocol that is being adopted by all three major search engines (and possibly more).

Getting indexed is only part of the battle though. You want to make sure you’re indexed for the right keywords. You probably did your keyword research when you first designed your site. The popularity of terms used to describe a thing can change, though. Your target market may have used one word to search for something six months ago, but is now using a different word more frequently. Quick: is “notebook” or “laptop” more popular? That’s just one example. Google Trends can help you compare which terms are more popular in what parts of the world, even over time. Here you’d find out that "laptop" is the more popular term in general — but "notebook" is much more popular in certain parts of the world, such as Italy.

You should know which search terms are most popular with your target audience today, and optimize your site accordingly. Make sure you use and integrate these terms into the most logical places: page titles, meta tags, and visible page text. You may say you did this once already, but if you look at the site with fresh eyes, you may find that you can now do a better job than you did a few months ago.

And while we’re on the topic of being seen, how does your web site do among those who physically can’t see it? The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) offers standards, guidelines, and support for those who wish to make their web sites accessible to blind and visually-impaired visitors. Don’t immediately assume that blind people won’t be interested in what you have to offer; they have many of the same interests as sighted people, and most have sighted friends for whom they purchase gifts.

The number of search engine referrals you get is only one aspect of the traffic that you need to be tracking. Which sites and search engines provide you with the most traffic? Knowledge is power, and you can use this information to increase your traffic further. For example, if you’re getting a lot of visitors from certain blogs or social sites, maybe it’s time to browse those sites and see why.

In general, you should be tracking visitor statistics on a regular basis. Measure visitor sign-ups and conversions – not just once, but regularly, so you can see how your site performs over time. You can use this information to improve your site; for example, you can make changes to the content on your landing pages and track how that affects the length of visits and how many of your visitors convert.

Tracking what your visitors do after they arrive at your site can give you valuable information about whether your site design really works as intended. You may think your site navigation is “intuitive,” but the paths your visitors take once they’re on your site may prove otherwise. While you should never “force” your visitors to follow one particular path, web sites should be designed with some idea of the way visitors will navigate through the web site. If your visitors are veering from the paths you’ve planned, you need to figure out why.

In this case, it helps to remember that sometimes simplest is best. When considering user navigation, visitors benefit greatly from a visible, text-based site map. Ideally, they should be able to get to it from anywhere on your site in just one click.

When a site is easy to understand and navigate, visitors will feel welcome. They’ll want to stay for a while. They’ll also want to come back. This is why you should track how many repeat visitors you get, and how many visitors stay for more than 60 seconds on your web site. If more than 50 percent of your visitors are staying that long, and a significant percentage are repeat visitors, you’re on the right track.

Are you still hearing an unpleasant “knocking” coming from your web site? Then you tune-up isn’t finished. There are a few more parts you need to look at. For example, are you getting errors in your site statistics? Then you need to track them down and fix them.

How about the links on your web site? I’m talking not just about the links that lead to internal pages of your web site, but the ones that go off-site. If you have any broken links, you can bet a site visitor will click them and be annoyed that they don’t go anywhere. You don’t want annoyed visitors. Therefore, it’s a good idea to set up a regular schedule for checking for and fixing broken links.

It goes without saying that you should fix any broken links reported to you by your visitors. Which brings me to the next point: visitor feedback is golden. You should encourage it. One way to do this is with a site link, available from every page of your site, which says something like “Feedback” or “Contact us.” It can lead to a form with a text box for the visitor to fill in. However you decide to do it, it’s important to have an obvious way for your site visitors to communicate with you.

When a mechanic tunes a car, he makes sure it is functioning to factory specs, and measures it against certain standards. You can do the same thing with your web site. For instance, does the HTML code on your site validate to World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards? You can run it through the W3C’s own validator to find out. Presumably your site is not static; in that case, you’ll have to validate your site’s HTML regularly. You should also find out whether your site meets Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

My last two notes are so basic in a way that I’m almost surprised they’re necessary. As far as most visitors and search engines are concerned, web sites are about content. Therefore, you should make sure you have content in all the important places, like your home page. Search engines like to see at least 250 words here. It stands to reason that the home page will tell your visitors what your site is all about, so you should pay special attention here. And my second point? I’ve barely touched on it in this article, but we have many articles devoted strictly to this topic: link building. That’s really part of “Being Seen,” both by the search engines and web surfers. Don’t assume you can work on building incoming links to your web site once and be done with it; link building is an ongoing process.

If you put all these points into practice, you’ll soon have a well-tuned web site that delivers an excellent return on investment. And a nice ROI is enough to make any site owner purr like a brand-new Ferrari. Good luck! 

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