I have to say up front that you probably won’t find a lot of search engine optimization techniques, as such, in this article. I’m not going to explain how to choose key words for your web site, or go into detail on building back links. Instead, I hope to provide an overview of how to think about your web site, in case you’re having a problem seeing the forest for the trees. If you’re new to building an online business or web sites, you’ll find this a useful resource for what to avoid (and hopefully HOW to avoid it).
In fact, let’s approach this issue as if we’re starting a new web site. We know we want to start a new site. Why? Or, more precisely, what do we want this new site to do? Web sites shouldn’t just exist; like Princeton from Avenue Q, they need to have a purpose. Yes, it is certainly true that every business and many individuals have a web site these days; some have several. But they all do something.
Gary Klingsheim, writing for ISEdb, noted that a site could have one or more of several different purposes. A web site could be:
- Informational, storing articles, videos, and/or other kinds of content based on a particular topic or topics.
- Sales-based, designed to sell your products and/or services right from the web site.
- Lead-generating, designed to encourage customers to fill out forms with their information and interests.
- Some hybrid of the above types. For example, you might be set up to sell products directly from your web site, but also let customers fill out forms for more information. Or you could offer customers a subscription to a free newsletter in exchange for their contact information.
Until you settle on the purpose of your site, you won’t really know how to structure it. That will more than likely confuse your visitors, and confused visitors rarely return.
I hate to think how many times I’ve written that phrase, but it’s really important and bears repeating. Once you know your site’s purpose, you need to figure out who would be interested in what you have to offer. For example, a site named SexyShoes.com with a focus to match the name probably won’t appeal to men unless they buy shoes for their girlfriend (unheard of) or cross-dress (possibly more common, but definitely a niche audience).
You can be very specific when it comes to figuring out your target audience’s demographics. Consider gender, age, occupation, income levels, where they live, what they like to do for fun…the whole nine yards. If you’ve been around for a little while, you can even ask your customers to fill out surveys. A while back we ran a survey for visitors to our family of sites, and offered nice Dev Shed T-shirts to the first 300 respondents. We learned something about our visitors; it helped us with our sites’ focus.
But you’re not done once you find out who your audience is. You also need to find out what appeals to them if you want to attract them to your web site and convince them to spend some time there – or convert, if that’s your goal. To use an old cliché, if you’re designing your web site to appeal to heterosexual men, you wouldn’t use pastel colors. If you’re designing a web site to appeal to retirees, you might use a slightly larger default font in consideration of senior eyesight, keep the look of each page clean and simple (a good general rule in any case), and take extra care with your navigation. If you’re designing a web site to appeal to teen-agers, you’re (probably) not going to include articles on how to save for retirement, plan a wedding, or buy a home.
Knowing your audience also means knowing where they hang out online. As Klingsheim pointed out, “A link on a Harry Potter fan club forum to your website can bring in traffic, but does it really bring in the right customers?” If your web site is focused on the craft of making lace and sells supplies for this, you wouldn’t leave a link on, say, Dev Hardware, which is dedicated (mostly) to discussions of computer hardware and some software.
At this point I will mention key words, but only to say you should make sure you’re using the right ones for your web site. Popularity matters to some degree, but not as much as you’d think. True, you don’t want to optimize for key words that no one is using when they search. On the other hand, you don’t want to attract 1,000 random visitors who won’t convert, when you can attract 100 visitors who might.
Believe it or not, there are such things as digital cobwebs. I’m convinced I’ve seen them on plenty of web sites. For example, have you seen a site with frames lately? Or one with a nice big splash page? How about the site that boasts the nice shiny flash video as soon as you get to it (whether or not you can skip it)? These features are bad ideas for a number of reasons. They represent a design aesthetic that is no longer appreciated – which is just a nice way of saying that they’re old ideas and they annoy your visitors. Worse, using these features makes it harder for search engines to index your site.
These items may not be the only cobwebs you need to clear from your web site. Do all of your links work as they should? I mean not only the links that go to internal pages, but the ones that leave your site as well. I caught hell once for linking to an external site that is no longer active. It’s hard to think like this when someone is yelling at you, even figuratively, but when a visitor brings this to your attention, you should be grateful, and fix it promptly; most visitors won’t care that much. They’ll just go elsewhere, and you may never know why. So check your links regularly!
You might also need to clear the cobwebs off your site’s content. Yes, content is a wonderful thing, but it’s less wonderful when it’s outdated. Do you really need information on your site about a product that you haven’t sold in over a decade? And how about the pages that cover special events or link to press releases? Is your last press release more than a year old? That’s a problem. A site with content that is visibly old looks neglected, and site visitors might conclude that you’ll be as neglectful in taking care of them as you are about keeping your web site up to date.
Thinking about what you’d like rather than what your visitors and customers would like is actually an easy trap to fall into. After all, when you design your web site, you do it with the idea of guiding your visitor along a particular path to get them to do certain things. But you can only do that to a point; visitors don’t necessary like to feel as if they’re being herded. They come to your site with purposes of their own, and they want to be able to accomplish certain tasks.
Rich Brooks, president of web design and Internet marketing company Flyte New Media, gives a great example of this problem. “What if you went into Target and they had organized everything alphabetically by manufacturer name?…That might make the lives of Target’s employees easier, but it doesn’t help the customer…Too many businesses organize their sites based on their products and services, and not on visitor needs.”
Dell’s home page serves as a good example of a company that got it right. It’s actually organized in a couple of different ways. Horizontally, near the middle of the page, they display links to take you to their selection of laptops; desktops and all-in-one; servers, storage and networking; printers, ink and toner; TVs, software and accessories; and support and help. Each of these links feature appropriate images above them to help guide customers.
But just past the “support and help” link is a vertical list of other links. These divide the information on the site into “solutions for” specific customer segments: home and home office; small and medium business; large businesses; government, education, healthcare and life sciences; and partners. By having both sets of links, Dell caters to visitors that think about what they need in two different ways.
Set up your site so that it will be easy for your customers to accomplish their goals. Don’t frustrate them by, for example, hiding your contact information or underlining words that aren’t links. If you recognize anything I’ve mentioned in this article as issues for your site, look into fixing the problems. You’ll find that you’re getting out of your own way when it comes to your web site’s success. Good luck!