Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Some Easy Tips for Enhancing Your Website

Businesses live or die by their websites. But even the most savvy businesses don't always understand how to make them more effective, and wind up spending inordinate amounts of money of redesigns, Flash animations, and the kind of "gee whiz" functionality that might look impressive but really does nothing to enhance -- and is frequently harmful to -- conversion rates. What folks should be focusing on is ways to make it easier for visitors to find what they're looking for, and make it easier to convert them from visitors into paying customers. Seems fairly obvious, doesn't it? But a surprising number of businesses just don't get it. So, here's a collection of some easy (and cheap) to implement tips that can provide an immediate -- and measurable -- return on your online marketing investment.

  1. Understand the Language Your Audience is Using. As a simple example, in the software business, some folks might use the term programmers, while others use the term engineers. Since you're not really sure which term might be used in searches, consider including both. That way, you don't have to be worried about which term is preferred by your prospective site visitor, and you won't lose out on prospective opportunities because of a simple linguistic concern.
  2. Optimize Your Copy, Titles, and "Alt" Labels to Improve Natural Search Results.  This is really low-hanging fruit, and doesn't involve engaging a whole cadre of programmers.  Make sure that your headlines and subheads, as well as Alt tags utilize keywords that your intended audience will be searching on. Consider including a glossary of those terms elsewhere on the site, to improve orgaic search rankings.
  3. Make it Easy for Visitors to Reach You. This is another one that seems painfully obvious, but once again, a lot of businesses don't take full advantage of it.  You want to ensure that folks who already want to engage with you can do so easily. This means, simplifying the check-out (or even the "Contact Us") process by using clear language, eliminating superflous content or images, and ensuring that a "call to action" -- whether it be an "Order Now" link or just a "Contact Us" button -- is available on not only your main navigation, but also at the end of every page of significant content about your product or service. A simple "Learn more about we can help you to (fill in the blank)" link puts your call to action right in front of your site visitor, at the very moment when they're most likely to want to engage with you. Make it easy for them to do so!
  4. Tell Your Visitors Where They Are on Your Site.  Adding cues makes it easier for a visitor to navigate through your site. Let's day that they've reached your site as a result of a search, and landed on a third- or fourth-level page. By including "breadcrumbs" or other hierarchical links, this enables users to immediately determine exactly where they are on your site, and helps them to quickly find the content they came for.
  5. Use Consistent and Persistent Navigation. Surprisingly, I recently came across a relatively "new" site for an established software development company that had no consistent navigation. Once you left the home page, a completely different navigation scheme ensued for each section. It was virtually impossible to figure out where you were, and while a lot of the site content was very informative, finding it was next to impossible. And because of the unnecessarily complex site architecture, it was extremely difficult to make even minor updates to the site. Of course, this site was done "in-house," by otherwise-talented programmers, albeit with limited User Interface experience, and directed by one of the partners, who really had no clue what he was doing, but insisted vehemently on doing things "his" way. Not surprisingly, they're on their third iteration of the site in as many years, and each iteration has been progressively worse than the previous one. Don't let this happen to you!

    There are MANY resources currently available on the web to help you learn about best practices in site navigation, and you owe it to yourself to take advantage of them, and ensure that your site developers -- whether out-sourced or in-house -- are actually utilizing them. There's nothing worse than getting someone to your site, then losing them because they can't find what they came for!
  6. Flash: Use it Where it Makes Sense, or Don't Use it At All. Flash is cool. Everyone knows that. Those great animations make your site look lively and encourage interaction. But did you know that using Flash in your navigation scheme actually reduces your ability to be found in web searches? The problem is that search engine "spiders" can not read text embedded in Flash files, at all. The links contained within a Flash .swf wrapper are not at all accessible to spiders, so you are automatically excluding important page content from being indexed by the major search engines. There are workarounds, but they involve creating an alternate version of your code, which means more work both to create and maintain. Not really a viable solution.

    Bottom line? Flash works great for animating images, or adding interactivity within a page, say, for a demo or explainer. But for navigation? I strongly recommend against it. For simple animation of rollover buttons and such, Javascript or CSS is much preferable, and will allow all important parts of your website to be accessible to search engines, and, accordingly, to your intended audience. 
  7. Make Sure That All Key Functionality is On Your Home Page.  Make sure that all important functionality -- such as customer log-ins, "Contact Us" links, and special offers on products or services -- is front and center on your home page. Instead of making your users click a link to get to that functionality, make it easy for them to find it. For navigation, drop-down and flyout menus provide your site visitor with an easy way of drilling into your site with the fewest number of clicks or keystrokes. Exposing subcategories like this will help create more awareness of your offerings, providing cross-sell and up-sell opportunities that might otherwise go un-noticed.
Not every website investment pays big dividends, but the tips listed above can be very affordable and very effective. By understanding the business goals for your site, you can make intelligent decisions about how to increase your site's search visibility, and improve its clarity -- and effectiveness -- to visitors who actually hit the site!

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