Many SEOs and site owners focus on the various tricks that make their websites easier for search engines to read. They optimize their sites to earn a high rating on the search engine results pages (SERPs). This is an excellent thing to do, but the problem is that, in the process, many lose sight of the real goal: convincing your visitors to stay and (hopefully) do what you want them to do. Your website might score high with search engines, but what do visitors think of it when they click on that link?
If visitors comes to your website from a search engine, can’t find what they were looking for, and wonder why you were listed so high, they’re just going to click elsewhere — and you have a problem. You want to build a website that gets traffic, sure, but you want to make that traffic stick around for awhile. That means you need to build your website not just for the search engines, but for your visitors. Fortunately, you can do both at the same time. Recently, I wrote a couple of articles that focused on some of the most important points for optimizing your site, focusing mainly on search engines. Now, I will examine what elements you need to focus on most to get your visitors to hang around.
Not surprisingly, a lot of these elements are similar to the points you needed to remember when building your site to be noticed by the search engines. But the emphasis is different now. For instance, keywords aren’t very important from this angle — but real content is. The usability of your site really matters now (and there are several factors that contribute to this). Whether or not your website looks professionally designed doesn’t matter to the search engines, as long as their spiders can find everything — but to a visitor, it can mean the difference between staying to make a purchase and clicking away to buy from a rival. And speaking of search engines and visitors, wouldn’t it be nice to get visitors who came to your site from places other than search engines — say, from seeing a link to your site from an article or a blog and wondering what all the fuss was about? In this article, I will touch on several of these points, and cover the rest in a subsequent article.
How easy is your site to use? Do visitors have to hunt for things and think about how to use them? Web surfers have come to expect certain standard practices, used by a large number of websites. In many cases, these have become standard practices because they make sense. In general, you want your website to be instantly usable by visitors, so they can find what they’re looking for intuitively. They don’t want to have to think about where things are or what they need to do to accomplish specific tasks (such as making a purchase). A number of factors contribute to giving your visitors the best possible experience. These include your site’s design, information architecture, navigation, functionality, accessibility, and content.
Let’s start with your website’s design. A recent study determined that Internet users could tell whether a website was easy on the eyes or jarring within a twentieth of a second. If your website is poorly designed, your visitors could decide to click away literally within the blink of an eye. It may seem boring to adhere to standards such as blue, underlined links, top and side menu bars, and logos in the top, left-hand corner, but they make your site more usable. Visitors know what to expect.
Using a consistent standard in your website’s design is just the beginning. Design includes points such as visibility and contrast. Can a visitor seeing your site for the first time easily find and interpret sections for navigation, advertising, content, search, and so on? Making a web page easy to read means a lot more than making sure all the text is visible and in a comfortable font. You must balance text and images, and make sure that the various sections of a page (and their purposes) are easy to distinguish. Consistency has been called the hobgoblin of little minds — but when it comes to your website, it’s more like a lifesaver, a combination of map and territory that makes a visitor comfortable enough to be willing to stay.
Next, let’s take a look at your site’s information architecture. This involves how you have organized the information on your site. If you have organized it into an intelligent hierarchy, starting with broad topics and focusing down to narrower ones, your visitors will have a much easier time finding whatever they’re looking for. If it is not set up properly, your visitors will become frustrated, not find what they want, and go elsewhere.
Talking about a website’s information architecture leads almost naturally to navigation. On this point, what is good for search engines is also good for your visitors. Arrange your site so that broad category pages lead to narrower topics, but that, at worst, you never need to go more than a couple of clicks from the home page to get to anything. Make your navigation systems really obvious: use site maps, alt tags for image links, and bread crumbs so that visitors know where they are.
A bread crumb, in case you didn’t know, usually appears near the top of a web page, and provides links back to each previous page that a user traveled through in order to get to that page. They look like this: homepage –> section page –> sub section page. Like the proverbial bread crumbs from fairy tales, they exist to help prevent your visitors from getting lost. Also, make sure the anchor text for each of your links is well written, so that visitors will know what they are going to get if they click on a link. Making use of good navigation standards on your website will make it incredibly more usable.
How functional is your website? When a visitor clicks on a link to submit a form or use a tool, does it work? Or does it return an error? What if the visitor is using Firefox or some other non-Microsoft browser? How about if your visitor uses an Apple or Unix-based operating system? Do all of your images load properly? You need to think about these things, so that your site visitors won’t have to. Remember, they won’t want to think about these things; they’ll just go elsewhere. If you want them to stay, make sure everything on your site works the way it is intended.
Related to the issue of functionality is your website’s accessibility. Having a functional website means that everything works the way it is intended; having an accessible website means that it is easy to get to everything. That’s a major consideration if you expect to serve a lot of disabled or impaired visitors (for example, blind surfers who use special readers to help them navigate the Internet). For both functionality and accessibility, you need to limit coding errors as much as possible, check links regularly to make sure they aren’t broken (and fix them promptly when they are), and make sure your site’s content is accessible and visible in all browsers without forcing your users to do anything special to see it.
I’ll address the quality of your content in another article; for now, I’d like to talk about its usability. This may seem like a strange issue, but it’s more important than many site builders think. Are your headlines descriptive enough that visitors know what to expect? For instance, to take an admittedly optimistic example of a news story, “Middle East Leaders Sign Peace Treaty with Israel” is much more descriptive than “Hope for Peace in Middle East Reawakens.”
The accuracy of your information also plays a very important role in your content’s usability. If you publish news, you know that inaccurate information can earn you a lawsuit. It can also harm your reputation and convince your visitors to look elsewhere.
As I mentioned, I will address the quality of your content more completely in another article, but it also plays a role in your site’s usability. For example, let’s say you run a website that features directions for how to build birdhouses. It helps if the directions include a list of supplies at the beginning, go through the process step-by-step, and perhaps include some recommendations (such as exactly what kind of paint to use, and why). Photos of the birdhouse as it is being built would also be helpful. Think about what would help you as a visitor, and build accordingly.
I’ve told you the various factors that go into making your site usable. When you are building your website, you should also concern yourself with making sure its design looks professional. Visitors do not trust websites that appear to be “low budget” or only marginally professional — and they won’t buy from someone they don’t trust. Remember what I said earlier about how quickly a visitor can decide whether a site’s design is pleasant or jarring? Well, even if your website isn’t jarring, you have less than seven seconds to convince visitors that you business is professional, and to convey its importance and authority.
This doesn’t mean that your website must be designed by a professional, but it does mean that you need to be aware of the points that differentiate an amateurish-looking site from a professional one. Does your logo look amateurish or professional? Does your color scheme look elegant, or do the colors clash? Is your site’s navigation well-defined? Are you using basic stock photography for your images, or high-quality photography? Does your layout look like a template (too cookie cutter), or does the design allow visitors’ eyes to flow intuitively to the information they need as they need it? The quality of your website’s design is not directly ranked by the search engines, but it can have an enormous effect on your visitors.
In the next article, I’ll discuss what you need to do to ensure that your site’s content is of high quality, and how to attract people to link to your site (hint: it’s not about reciprocal linking). Until next time!