So what do I mean by losing sight of the forest for the trees anyway? You’ve probably heard that expression since you were a teenager at least. You may even know that it means focusing on the details to the point that you lose sight of the big picture – and with the amount of detail work that goes into a proper SEO project, that’s easy to do.
Changing the questions you ask can shift your focus back to that bigger picture. You need to know what the big picture is before you do any search engine optimization, or you’ll waste a substantial amount of effort. Fortunately, you may only need to change a few words in the questions you already ask. Ease off just a little on the “what” and “how” questions and start asking a few “why” questions. I’ll give examples in the sections that follow.
I expect many of you will look at these questions and think that they should be asked well before a site goes live, very early in the design process. That’s probably true. But it’s also true that web sites evolve over time, rather like people. They change, grow, and adapt to conditions in the marketplace. By the time a web site has been up for a couple of years (or even less), it might be a very different creature from what the site owner originally had in mind.
This kind of change is not a bad thing, per se. We all get a certain amount of satisfaction out of growing and tweaking our sites, and then watching what happens. If we’re not looking clearly at what the site is turning into, however, we can’t see what it needs.
Anthony Kirlew, who writes a blog called Old School SEO and has been in the search engine marketing business since 1999, wrote about these important questions recently. I’m not going to cover his fourth question – “how will they find our web site?” – because we all know the answer to that one: SEO, SEM, and maybe even SMO (social media optimization). Instead, we’ll look at a few “why” questions.
Lately I’ve become rather fond of the idea of thinking like a visitor to attract visitors. So pretend, for a moment, that you’ve never heard of your company and you’re visiting your own website for the first time. Perhaps you came in through the search engines, or someone who knows your interests sent you the link, or you may even have read a story about the site in a blog. Why did you come here?
If you said “because I saw the link,” try again. Anyone who visits a web site is looking for something. They want to buy a product, be entertained, solve a problem, get some information…you get the idea. So what do you offer your visitor?
You can see why you need to ask this question before you begin any SEO campaign. What you offer your visitor affects everything from the keywords you choose to the structure of your site’s content to the methods you use to promote your web site. And by the way, the field you’re in may have less effect on how you answer this question than you think.
Does that sound a little crazy? Let’s consider a fairly mundane field: plumbing. Are you a plumber? Do you sell tools and plumbing parts to professional plumbers, or do-it-yourselfers, or some combination? Is your business a plumbing school? Do you offer a newsletter to keep plumbing professionals up to date? Do you sell books on plumbing? Do you publish articles on plumbing? Do you promote a convention for plumbers? Do you publish a trade magazine for plumbers? Are you running a website for a plumbers’ union?
You can see from this list that there are a ton of specialty interests just in the field of plumbing. Each of these different kinds of sites will want to attract a slightly different audience. And each person who visits a site might have a slightly different reason for doing so. They might even have drastically different reasons, to be honest.
In researching this article, for example, I ended up on the web pages of a large plumbing supplier. I clicked their FAQ; after scrolling down a bit, I saw links to some interesting-looking pages (a “fun quotes” page). When I got to the top of that page, I saw links to more fun plumbing pages – a list of plumbing jokes, various words of wisdom, a founder’s page, and so forth. A plumber might visit this site to get a part – or a non-plumber might end up here to be entertained, because some of these pages come up for their own special keywords, like “plumber jokes.” The point is that you need to be clear and focus on why your visitors are coming to your site in order to give them what they’re looking for. Or, put another way, you need to be clear about what you’re offering them so that they know what to expect when they get there.
While you’re still in the visitor frame of mind, think about this: does your site look like it belongs to the kind of business you’d want to patronize? First impressions matter; they’re frequently hard to shake. You may want to consider having your web site professionally designed. Who would want to do business with someone whose website looks like it was built by the owner’s 12-year-old nephew?
Whether it’s a brick-and-mortar company or an online retailer, customers prefer to do business with those they trust. If they don’t feel as if they can trust who they are dealing with, they will take their business elsewhere. For a brick-and-mortar company, even on a first look, there are certain cues (many of them subtle) that let a person know a company can be trusted. That’s every bit as true with a website; in some sense, it’s even more important to generate trust, since your visitor is not dealing with people face to face. You might want to consider earning and adding appropriate seals to your website (i.e. BBB Online) to help make your visitors more comfortable. There are other strategies you can use as well.
Once you get past the first impression, how easy is it to do business on your web site? Can a visitor find what brought them to the site fairly quickly? Think back to the previous section. Everyone comes to your site for a reason; make it easy for them to find your articles, sign up for your newsletter, buy your product, or do whatever it was that made them click the link to your website.
To put this question another way, what do you want your visitors to do? Once you figure out the answer to that question, your job is to make it as easy as possible for them to do what you want them to do. If you’ve set up your site correctly and are sending the right messages, what YOU want them to do and what THEY want to do will be pretty close to the same thing.
Ideally, of course, a visitor would return to your site because he or she had a good experience the first time. But there’s a lot more to getting repeat business than just making your customer happy; you have to give them a reason to come back. If you publish a blog or articles that help keep your visitors up to date on their field or area of interest, you give them incentive to return. You just have to make sure they know about this offering.
Blogs and articles aren’t the only reasons a visitor might return, as anyone who has participated in a forum could tell you. For example, I browse SEO Chat’s forums myself every week, and it seems like I always come across new insights on the field from our forum members. As many Web 2.0 sites have discovered, user-generated content from a good community can keep visitors coming back for more.
What if you’re simply an online retailer and all you do is sell products? Well, you can make it easier for customers to buy from you again by capturing their information – with their permission, of course. A regular newsletter lets you do this; you at least need their email address so you can send it to them. Make sure you respect your customers’ privacy; tell them exactly what you will be doing with their information, and keep credit card information especially secure.
You can improve your business this way. As Kirlew explains, “Many would think if they offer a one time sale, the job is done. Opportunities are always missed out if you are not marketing on the back end for repeat business. Once you have earned someone’s trust enough for them to spend money with you, they are more likely to spend more money with you. Don’t leave it on the table!”
Answering these three “why” questions will clarify the purpose of your website. They will show you how visitors see your website. Once you understand this, you can make sure that your SEO strategy is consistent with this vision. If you want to redesign your website, these questions will help guide you to the most important factors to consider. Good luck!