On the topic of online content development, nothing irks me the most than seeing “click here” on any online marketing element/initiative — websites, email marketing, and otherwise — and especially in those sites that say that they offer search engine marketing services and optimization, or online content development. I won’t name names or sites, since I don’t believe in tattle-taling (as much LOL), but I do want to address this issue firsthand and get this off of my chest.
I wrote this for the VU designers blog, but not sure who’s manning the blogs, so I’ll just put up this post here. Enjoy!
As a web designer, developer and online marketer, it’s really cool (and at times interesting) to see how other web designers create their web sites and web applications. In visiting other sites, you can tell that there are some people who know their stuff very well when it comes to design and aesthetics, and their usage of best practices is clearly visible in their work. While it is great to see the aesthetic concepts being produced, I oftentimes find myself thinking a series of thoughts and questions related to that site; questions such as “Why was this element placed here rather than here?,” “What purpose does this creative (or functional) element serve in the overall scheme of the site?,” and “If I was someone who does not know anything about this [site], how do I get the information I need, where do I go to get it, and how fast can I get it without being lost and/or confused?” I’m sure I have asked more than those three, but you get the picture. And in asking those questions in mind, I end up going back to the same foundational questions that I ask myself consistently: What are the fundamentals that are evident in this design, and what are those that are lacking such fundamentals? And as I ask those questions, I use the following guidelines and rule of thumb in mind:
Business is Business
The way I approach design stems from the principles of online marketing. This isn’t probably your normal web designer perspective, nor am I the only person that views design from this point of view (at least I hope not!). In web design fundamentals, the creation, development, and implementation of a web site stems [partly] from the business functions to which that site is going to play a role in. In an online marketing perspective, web sites stems further into the business functions and more towards the basic fundamentals of business and marketing: the bottom line. In other words, what can a site do to increase whatever goals that the site is supposed to achieve that affect the bottom line: revenue, ROI (return on investment), conversions, leads, sales, networking, market share, net worth, brand loyalty, brand recognition and exposure, extracting contact information, newsletter data aggregation, yield, article interest, etc. How to define a site that is geared towards that/those goal(s) will determine the success and productivity of the site, which can be reflected by the metrics and analysis of those metrics.
A Call to Action
With such goals in mind, a web designer can then be able to complete design concepts that address the specific issues and goals based on strategic business and marketing initiatives. How do you do this? By analyzing what the specific calls to action are that are needed to bring those goals out front for the users to “act upon.” Any element that will call a user to submit an action to your site is a call to action element. For example, if a site is an ecommerce site soliciting buyers to buy an entity, that web site will have call-to-action initiatives to expose the needs of that site for the buyer to act upon, which is to buy that product or entity. The primary call-to-action initiatives/elements could be an “add product” button, a “download sample” button, or “purchase me” button. From an SEM standpoint, the call-to-action elements could be the contextual links within the contents that lead the user to a call-to-action page (such as a download page, freebie page, product cart page, etc). You can even say that a secondary call-to-action initiative/element could be a “signup for email newsletters” button, “see more samples” button, or “compare other products” button. Call-to-action elements need to be visible, visually associated to its respective content, and aesthetically appealing to be recognized in and of itself. Using call-to-action elements will help generate the necessary actions that the user needs to take based on the design that you have created, but also help build a positive experience and positive ROI.
Positioning is Key
As call-to-action elements are considered strong factors in generating positive ROI, it is the placement and positioning of these elements and other key site elements that really show a strong fundamental use of web design. A primary call-to-action element, say a “REGISTER HERE” button (assuming there is only one button), isn’t going to be effective when that element is isolated at the bottom of the page or footer of the design, while the contents associated with this button is near at the top. Simultaneously, the contents associated with the element will not be as effective when it is not positioned within the vicinity of that element. They all have to be continuous and tied together in order to be an effective call-to-action element. Similar to placement of call-to-action elements is the positioning of your menu and navigation system. How visible, functional, categorical, and well-placed your navigation system is will determine the functionality and usability of your whole site, define the positioning of your call-to-action elements, and will ultimately decide the level of experience your user will be getting.
Content is King… with a little help
Content will always be king, within the realms of online marketing and beyond. But the content will not be as effective if 1) the infrastructure of the design is not made to provide well-positioned content in relation to well-positioned call-to-action elements, 2) the content is not written primarily and effectively to induce a sense of action from the user, and 3) the content is not optimized effectively to engage in user interactivity. What’s more important is that the level of productivity the content has will depend on other elements of the site. That includes design, functionality, usability, positioning, and graphical elements, to name a few.
Nothing breaks a great web site than when a user leaves the site without being engaged by the site and without fully completing the goals to which the site was built to do. This is where your metric analysis comes into play. Your metric analysis will provide a more detailed and analytical version of how your site performs from an everyday basis, and is a great source of contemplating the productivity and value of your site and each of its design and call-to-action elements. Even with sites that are more informative and more educational, it is still good best practice to design sites that implement a sense of engagement and user involvement while educating and informing your user. It is a strong best practice to analyze your site, using the data to be able to improve on how well or worse your site is doing based on the goals that was provided for that site to achieve, and how to shift priorities to encourage better metrics to produce the best possible (and positive) ROI for your specific goals.
In the past 3 weeks, I have had several clients come up to me asking several variances of a very universal question: “My web site is not ranking in search engines, and I am having trouble generating positive traffic in my site. How can you help my business fix that?” And after a deeper look into their respective situations, I realized several missing key factors that would have generated better ROI for them if these were placed before the site build. It’s interesting because a great portion of these are really “basic” things (and I use that term loosely), or at least they should have been basic.
Some basic on-site fundamentals for ranking higher in search engines:
First and foremost, I feel the need to define what the “content” means in layman’s terms. “Content development” is 1) the research, development and implementation of text (paragraphs, verbiage, keywords, phrases, and headers, to name a few) on your site; and 2) the placement of text-based and graphic-based marketing elements such as register buttons and links, in-page text links, and so forth. While some can argue that there are more to content development than what I have suggested, I’ll keep this definition to a minimum, for argument’s sake :)
“What does my site’s content have to do with getting ranked,” they ask? The answer: it has a lot to do with the rankings. The content’s relevancy to the subject matter and the words used on search engines have a surprising factor in determining the value of your site when searched online. If specific keywords being searched online are not found anywhere in your site — within the code or text — then the likelihood of the site being ranked to the targeted keywords is as great as country music surviving in Seattle… unless there are signs of black hatting that is giving them great rankings without being relevant.
Furthermore, the content should be able to have rich keywords within call-to-action elements that are targeted and visibly accessible to the user and to spiders/robots. Granted that the content should have targeted keywords and phrases anyway, it’s amazing to see that a lot of the web sites out there still do not have that luxury. One of the reasons I believe that these web sites lack such content is because they were written by someone who lacks online marketing knowledge and online content development. While traditional marketing and online marketing share similar theories and foundation, practicality and execution of these theories are handled very differently. Search engine marketing, both organic and pay-per-click, play a vital role in how marketing is conducted online. Case in point: a potential client that I am trying to help right now is having issues with his lack of rankings online. I found out that he wrote the content himself with limited knowledge of how to generate exposure, traffic and revenue online, which evidently has resulted in lack of positive site performance and business revenue. His search engine rankings are dismal, and he’s wondering why he’s not getting any bites on his hook.
In today’s online culture, I have seen a lot of sites with purely great designs and effective usability. And, after spending some time in those sites, I found that these sites had one thing in common: they JUST looked pretty. Some web designers are just that — designers who, unfortunately, have no knowledge of the fact that web design can now be considered under the online marketing umbrella. While they are rightly to be just web designers, they should also have basic fundamentals on search engine optimization and online marketing techniques to help market their site effectively, not just design them. Similar to keyword text and phrase placements, design elements should be structured around marketing fundamentals based on the site’s online business strategy and strategic marketing efforts. A design element whose specific purpose is to create call-to-action should be visibly placed and, when placed with text, should be relevant to that specific text that it is tied to. When multiple design elements are needed to create call-to-action from its users, a hierarchy and/or priority should be enforced and implemented based on strategic marketing initiatives.
While meta tags do not impact search rankings the way that they’re used to, it would still be feasible to implement tags on your code as part of an overall site development and online marketing best practices. Results of keywords and keyword phrases research should dictate your content development but also your meta tag development. The reason being is that you want to have as much ammunition in getting ranked as possible. Pretend viewing your site as a meat lovers or ultimate pizza, and meta tags are one of the toppings to make your pizza.
As an online marketing best practice, images should be relevant to the contents of the site, containing tags and descriptions derived from the keyword and keyword phrase research. Image placement should be conducted in the same manner as call-to-action elements are placed in design.
Search engines rank pages differently from each other, and to illustrate this matter more effectively, I will use Aaron Wall, author and owner of SEOBook.com and his research on the differences between search engines.
The Short Versions
- been in the search game for many years.
- is better than MSN but nowhere near as good as Google at determining if a link is a natural citation or not.
- has a ton of internal content and a paid inclusion program. both of which give them incentive to bias search results toward commercial results
- things like cheesy off topic reciprocal links still work great in Yahoo!
- new to the search game
- is bad at determining if a link is natural or artificial in nature
- due to sucking at link analysis they place too much weight on the page content
- their poor relevancy algorithms cause a heavy bias toward commercial results
- likes bursty recent links
- new sites that are generally untrusted in other systems can rank quickly in MSN Search
- things like cheesy off topic reciprocal links still work great in MSN Search
- has been in the search game a long time, and saw the web graph when it is much cleaner than the current web graph
- is much better than the other engines at determining if a link is a true editorial citation or an artificial link
- looks for natural link growth over time
- heavily biases search results toward informational resources
- trusts old sites way too much
- a page on a site or subdomain of a site with significant age or link related trust can rank much better than it should, even with no external citations
- they have aggressive duplicate content filters that filter out many pages with similar content
- if a page is obviously focused on a term they may filter the document out for that term. on page variation and link anchor text variation are important. a page with a single reference or a few references of a modifier will frequently outrank pages that are heavily focused on a search phrase containing that modifier
- crawl depth determined not only by link quantity, but also link quality. Excessive low quality links may make your site less likely to be crawled deep or even included in the index.
- things like cheesy off topic reciprocal links are generally ineffective in Google when you consider the associated opportunity cost
- looks at topical communities
- due to their heavy emphasis on topical communities they are slow to rank sites until they are heavily cited from within their topical community
- due to their limited market share they probably are not worth paying much attention to unless you are in a vertical where they have a strong brand that drives significant search traffic
Aaron’s explanation of search engine ranking and search engine relevancy will highlight certain aspects and factors behind your site’s lack of performance, and hopefully will educate those in charge of strategic online marketing initiatives for the site(s) in question.