In nearly a decade of web marketing work, I've seen a lot of businesses make more or less the same mistakes with their websites. There are a lot of different kinds of mistake here: some are technical, others are problems with strategy, others are issues with how you present yourself and communicate.
Each costs you money and makes your life worse.
Are you making these mistakes?
I see this one all the time. And I totally get why people do it. On first glance, it makes perfect sense to get one of these guys to build and manage your website.
I mean, websites are run on computers, right? So anyone who's good at computers must be good at websites. And web designers.. well.. their whole deal is building websites, right?
We wouldn't have much of a web without tech and design guys. There'd be no internet at all without technical talent. The web could have never become a thing that ordinary people use without a lot of great design work.
These people are very good at what they're good at. The thing is, though, they know little to nothing about getting the right traffic to your website, creating engaging content for that traffic, or the right website strategy to further your wider business objectives. They're likely to build the website they're most comfortable with, making choices based around what's easiest for them to build and maintain, or what best showcases their own particular talents.
Obviously people with these skills can have an important role in a website development. Tech guys are the perfect people to deal with technical tasks and designers are ideal for design tasks. For 99.99% of business websites, design and technical challenges are a minor part of the work.
Business websites are marketing tools. It's a tool for persuading your target market to buy from you. It's about drawing them in with genuinely engaging content that motivates some of them to buy. Having either a tech guy or a design guy in charge gives you no clear path to that.
Neither of these guys knows a thing about copywriting. That's a huge problem for most commercial websites. Their success depends entirely on communicating persuasively with the written word.
Neither tech guys or design guys has ever had to think much about getting inside the head of your customer. They're often not even aware of considerations like traffic strategy, content strategy, keyword strategy, conversion strategy, and so much else that's crucial to business success.
What should you do then?
The best thing you can do is take charge of your website yourself. Your website is probably your first point of contact with so many of your customers, and for that reason it deserves your personal attention.
The next best thing is to get somebody with a web marketing background to manage the project. The guy you want in charge is the one who understands traffic – where it comes from and how to get it – and conversion – getting that visitor send you, book an appointment with your sales guy, or buy something.
I don't want to speak against all digital marketing agencies. Many do good work and some do amazing stuff. But there's definitely a certain type of agency you want to run screaming from. Unfortunately they're the ones who work hardest to get your cash.
Ever been employed to telephone strangers who weren't expecting your call? I've done it. When I was 19, I did some casual work at an outbound call centre. I learnt quickly that cold calling sucks balls. It's such a tedious grind that if you can do anything else then you will.
So if you get a phone call out of the blue from someone who offers to help you with a new website or better search traffic, be dubious. The chance that this person knows nothing that's worth knowing about web marketing is somewhere between 100% and certain. This guy's whole job is to read off a script to book you into an appointment with a member of the sales team.
The sales guys are your next warning that you're dealing with a churn and burn agency. Usually they won't call themselves salesmen, they're email signature will say something a bit more reassuring like “Digital Consultant” or “Digital Strategist”. Still, they're in sales. They make commission.
If anyone offers you any sort of page 1 ranking guarantee then that's another red flashing light that they're a churn and burn outfit. These guarantees sound impressive but in reality promise almost nothing. When churn and burn agencies perform search engine optimisation, they tend to use black hat techniques that can get your website penalised in the search results or even banned entirely. Click here to read more about black hat SEO.
All of this cold calling and fat sales commissions cost a nice shiny chunk of change. They're already a few grand in the hole by the time they sign anyone up. How on earth will they make that money back? Only one way really. You pay for it.
Churn and burn agencies are all about getting in as much business as possible and then doing the very barest minimum of work required to complete each project. Prospective clients are given an extremely polished sales process and then signed on to contracts. There's an inevitable attrition rate when these contracts expire. That's why they put so many resources into winning new business.
As much as it sucks to get your website built by a churn and burn agency, it sucks even harder to work for one. The work is monotonous, they're very keen on squeezing as much output out of everyone as they can, and it's not the place you can do the work you'd be most proud of. For this reason, anyone who is good enough to work elsewhere will do so, and for that reason you should look for these places too.
One of the nicer sides of web marketing is that if you're good at what you do and aren't churning or burning your customers then you don't need expensive sales tactics and a bloody trail of bodies to stay busy. A combination of word-of-mouth referrals, targeted website traffic and repeat business with customers who stick around can go a very long way.
For this reason, the guys you really should be excited to work with are the ones who aren't that desperate. A good agency is often very prepared to decline work for any number of reasons. If a project's sufficiently outside their expertise they'd probably rather decline it in favour taking on other work that better suits their strengths.
If you're going to go with an agency, look for one with more guys who actually perform the work rather than sales stiffs. Having a few account managers, customer support staff and business development managers is okay.. they mean that everyone else can get on with delivering the projects.
However, if their operation seems overly weighted towards bringing in new customers then you need to ask yourself why they need to keep replacing the old ones.
Churn and burn agencies run aggressive sales operations targeted at clients with little to no digital marketing savvy. They do poor work that costs a fortune. Find a better way to get your website built.
Why do you even have a website? If you're like a lot of people, it's because you once said to yourself “Hmm, I guess it's about time we had a website”.
It's not the worst train of thought. In 2016, if you don't have a website, you won't be seen a real business. Nobody will take you seriously.
Still, that on it's own doesn't set the bar very high. If you were really happy with just that then there's not a lot of reason why you'd be reading this. Are your goals for your website something you're a bit vague about? If you have no clear goals, you have little way of knowing what to work towards and even less to measure your success against.
A pretty obvious thing to want from a website is more customers. Websites can perform lead generation in a few different ways: by selling products directly with an e-commerce platform, by directing visitors to sign up to a mailing list, or by generating appointments with a salesperson.
Plenty of businesses use something besides their website for new leads. Here, the main function of the website becomes supporting those marketing efforts. It's to reassure customers they're dealing with the right business, handle objections and build trust, rapport and authority. Even though you're not pushing to convert cold traffic into leads with this website, you're not off the hook for measuring your website's performance. Metrics like bounce rate and time-on-site give you plenty of scope to judge whether or not you successfully engage readers.
Websites can also be an after-sales support tool. They are the perfect place for how-to documents, tutorial videos, technical support material and so forth. Forums and online communities are also great ways for certain businesses to keep customers engaged. If you're selling something around a particular hobby, recreation or ongoing professional need, building an engaged community can be a very worthwhile goal.
Keep in mind that after-sales service is still a marketing activity. By supporting customers after they've purchased, you make them happier with you, encouraging repeat business and referral business. As with any other type of marketing, you should take some kind of measurement of how well it's going.
Different businesses want different things from their website and that's okay. If you're a bit vague about what you're looking for, you'll have no idea whether you're making good progress towards it. That's a problem.
Use an open source website platform if you can. Open source platforms are developed and maintained by open communities of developers. They include all the “big guns” of website platforms, like Joomla, Wordpress, Drupal and Magento. Open source software costs nothing for the software itself, though you will have to pay for hosting and for people to work on it.
They are popular because they work great, are extremely well documented, can be endlessly customised or extended with plugins, and just about any web professional or company you ever work with is already very comfortable dealing with them.
A proprietary platform is owned and maintained by a single company who doesn't publish their source code. Using a proprietary platform usually means you can't take your website with you if you decide to end it with your development company or host. If one of these providers you depend on goes out of business, you might even be left stranded.
Not sure which open source platform to use? The right answer depends on what exactly you want to do with your website. Wordpress is an obvious option for many business websites. At least 25% of all websites now use it. It's good. Great, in fact. It's not ideal for every business; it became as popular as it is because it's a strong option for most.
Being tied to one company's proprietary platform is great for them and terrible for you. By this point in time, open source website platforms are simply the better option.
Do you open up Google Analytics and see tumbleweeds rolling past? So many businesses launch websites with no traffic strategy but “Build & Pray”.
Your website won't do you any good until the right people see it. There's really very little reason to invest in great content or design if you've no reason to expect anybody to visit. Why put a billboard up at the bottom of a well?
Where should you be looking for traffic then? Where your customers are! Search terms for people looking for your product, online communities of people with a want for what you sell, and industry related blogs and news sites are all things you can look at.
Many successful businesses use something apart from their website as their main source of new customers, and if that works for you then that's great. For these businesses, the website is mostly meant to play a supporting role to broader marketing efforts. This is no reason not to have a traffic strategy.
At the most basic level you might use your other marketing materials to give people a strong reason to visit your website. Better yet that you use these existing communications with your customers to build an email list or social following. You can then use this to alert your audience of new and interesting content, and to promote offers.
You need a traffic strategy. Your website is pointless without one.
A lot of businesses have a traffic strategy and it's the wrong one.
You want traffic that will actually convert.. into sales, phone calls, email opt-ins, or whatever else your objective is with your website. Other traffic is not much good to you.
Which visitors will convert? Only the ones who want what you got.
Are you chasing social traffic? Great idea for many businesses. It makes the most sense when you're selling something that customers will have an ongoing interest in.
If you sell fishing or hunting or home brewing gear, be very concerned with social media. If you're selling pest control services to households, don't be. There might be some weirdos out there who want to read about killing rats when they're not suffering a rat problem; they're probably not your best customers.
The pest control guys should probably instead use SEO or Adwords to be on page 1 of google for some very targeted search words. I mean, that's where the customers are.
If all you cared about was getting visits, with no care for whether or not the traffic is useful, you could just fill your website with heaps of cat videos. I'd probably visit – I love cat videos. But I've never bought anything because of one.
There's no point chasing traffic just for traffic's sake. Be sure that the traffic you chase is commercially useful.
You can tell a lot about what's going on in your readers' heads by the navigation paths that bring them to your website. Different search keywords carry with them different motivations and concerns. Users clicking links from blogs or social media are in a different headspace entirely.
Your website should engage with the specific trains of thought that have brought people there. So many businesses use the most valuable screen space at the front of their website for news or product announcements that are entirely irrelevant to their traffic. This makes no sense at all.
You also need to consider where your website sits in your sales process. This has huge implications for how you speak to your visitors.
If your website exists mostly to generate leads then be aggressive about it. Here, the real money is lost not with those visitors who don't like you at all, but with those who are impressed with you but do nothing to stay in touch with you. Much of the time, they never come back.
Other websites exists mostly to support the relationships the business already has. Here it's less appropriate to be extremely pushy: it's less dire if you don't capture the lead, and far worse if you annoy existing customers. Instead the website plays more of a reassurance role, building rapport, trust and authority.
Different parts of your website can be written for the different kinds of traffic that they get. You might have landing pages that are getting organic search traffic, and blog posts that get social shares. It makes a lot of sense to write these pages differently, to move different visitors to different conversion objectives.
Remember that South Park with the underpants gnomes? Such a great episode. A jittery kid is stressed because tiny gnomes sneak into his house to steal his underpants. His friends believe none of it until one night when they all drink too much coffee and stay awake long enough to see it happen. They confront the gnomes about this behaviour and the gnomes reveal their business plan. Phase 1 is to collect underpants, phase 2 is a giant question mark, and phase 3 is profit.
You might be collecting underpants with your website. Metrics can be very useful, but only when they have a clear relationship to your business objectives.
The vanity metric that's easiest to get caught up on is total sessions for your whole website. When you log into Google Analytics, it's the first number you see. The problem with it is you get useful traffic and useless traffic and this number treats them both like they're exactly the same.
A client once showed me his Analytics screen with a plea for help because it was all going bad. Tracking the past 12 months against the 12 before, every single month was well down on both sessions and unique visitors. On the face of it, that was a worry.
Time to dig deeper. He had a Magento site with conversion tracking hooked up to Analytics. Organic search visits from within Australia were well up on the year before. Even more imporantly, so was the amount of money they were bringing in. Where he'd really lost traffic was from overseas visitors, who he couldn't sell to, and from Facebook – Facebook had decided to make his posts a lot less visible unless he paid to promote them, and he'd judged that it wasn't worth bothering with because those visitors never bought anything.
Making more money seems like a crazy thing to panic about, but there we were.
Social media is another place where normally clear and rational business brains can become underpants gnomes. People get irrationally obsessed with getting more likes for their page or more followers on twitter.. they compare their number of page likes to their competitors, or even businesses in completely different industries.
If you just want a ton of likes on your page, there are grey market vendors who are happy to sell you as many as you want. You'll get the numbers you want for chump change. Before you go any further with that, I want to stress that this is a very bad idea if your reason for being on social media is to communicate to customers.
Not only will all these likes come from people with no interest in buying anything, having them on your page will ruin all your engagement statistics, destroyng your visibility with your real audience. Still, there's a market for these things, because so many people just want more likes.
Social shares can be a vanity metric as well. On its own, the number of shares is not a very useful way of measuring the worth of a piece of content. It's makes more sense to look at how much social traffic you get, and how many of those visitors sign up to your newsletter or purchase something.
This hardly covers all the vanity metrics. Potentially anything is a vanity metric if it's not obvious how it's going to make you money. Back in the old days when Google still published new toolbar PageRank numbers, a great many site owners would invest heaps of energy into chasing this number, rather than how many sales their website was bringing in.
I'm not saying you can't even notice your vanity metrics. Just remember that that's all they are. Don't chase them. Don't invest substantial time, energy or emotion into anything unless the relationship to your wider business objectives is completely clear.
If there's a big question mark somewhere between the metric and making money, you're probably collecting underpants.
Plugins are great, aren't they? When you want something you don't get from a basic installation of Wordpress or other website platform, there's usually a plugin that'll do it. Once you get comfortable using plugins, it's easy to go overboard. It's something to do with kids and candy stores. I know I've definitely done it.
Having too many plugins will slow your site down, and might make it crash. Every plugin you install also adds potential security vulnerabilities over and beyond the ones just in the platform itself. You may not realise that if you deactivate a plugin but don't remove it entirely, the files are still there on your server and this can still present a security risk.
Plugins also need to be updated as security patches are released or as you update your website platform. This is not a huge workload when you have only a few of them. When developers discontinue or ignore products, or go out of business, you can then be stuck with old plugins that don't stay compatible with the rest of your website. The more plugins you have, the more often you'll need to deal with this.
The right amount of plugins is as few as you can reasonably get away with. It's pretty easy to have one or several installed that you don't even use. Fix this, and you'll enjoy a faster, more secure site that's easier to maintain.
At the birth of the web, there weren't many screen sizes to account for. Most people used desktops, some people used laptops, and that was basically it.
Then in 2007, Apple released their massively popular new iPhone. Mobile web browsing was no longer a niche pursuit of the geek elite, it had become a thing that ordinary people did every day.
This caught many website owners off guard. Gorgeous websites they'd been so thrilled with were now clunky and difficult when viewed on a phone. It became more and more common for businesses to build a mobile-friendly version of their site.
Since then, a lot of desktop screens have become larger and a lot of laptop screens have become smaller, and more and more customers want the smartphone with the biggest screen. Tablets come in all sizes. Gaming consoles and entertainment PCs mean people regularly browse on 80 inch TVs as well.
In this environment, having a desktop and mobile-friendly website starts to seem a bit inadequate. You can no longer cover all the bases with just desktop and mobile-friendly versions of your site.
The most common way to cater for screens of every size is with responsive design. This is a single version of your website that rearranges the layout to fit the width of the user's screen. One neat thing about responsive websites is that if you view one on a desktop or laptop, you can reduce the width of your browser window and watch the layout rearrange to fit the new width right in front of you. Try it on this site if you like.
It's not too hard to upgrade most websites to responsive design. If you're doing it yourself on a limited budget, there are any number of responsive Wordpress themes and CSS/HTML templates readily available for free. It's also become fairly standard for premium themes and templates to be responsive these days. If you have more money to spend, you can also always get something custom built.
An alternative is adaptive design. Here, instead of there being only one version of your site that can adjust for all screen sizes, the server has several different layouts for different screen sizes and will send the right one based on the screen size it detects. Adaptive design differs from responsive design in that the work of adjusting the layout is done by the server instead of in the browser. In circumstances where a responsive design might make for a very large website, this can avoid sending too much data to small screens for elements they won't display.
Catering for all screen sizes is now especially important because Google now penalise the search rankings of sites that don't do it. The best reason, though, is to be sure your site looks great and is easy to use for everybody who wants to spend money with you.
Around 2007, when I first started messing around with building my own Wordpress websites, I was very devil-may-care about security. I didn't take any special steps beyond using a password that couldn't be guessed. I mean, I thought about doing more, but then I thought “Who would bother trying to hack my little corner of the internet?”.
All sorts of people, I quickly discovered.
You don't need to be number one on the world's most powerful hacker's list of sworn enemies to get hacked. You don't need an extremely unscrupulous competitor willing to pay someone to screw your web presence. You don't need to hold anything really juicy like credit card info or military secrets. All you need is a website.
Some people want to hack your website to use it to spread malware. Others want to inject spammy links into corners of your website you probably won't notice, to help their efforts at ranking for super competitive search keywords around boner pills. Then there are those who don't really care about your website itself, but want to hijack your server so they can mine bitcoins or use it in attacks on other websites. Some are just curious to see if they can do it.
So what should you do about them?
Retail loss prevention guys sometimes say there's no way to make shoplifting totally impossible, but that's okay, because you don't need to. It's enough to just be more difficult than other shops nearby. It's similar with your website: you don't need to be totally unhackable to stop most hackers. You just need to be more of a pain than their other options.
Use a secure password: one that nobody will guess or be able to generate automatically, and that you don't use anywhere else. Keep your website platform and any plugins up to date too – the latest security patches are essential to defend against known security vulnerabilities. Try not to use too many plugins.
The exact steps you should take to secure your website will depend on the platform you use. This is a good, quick run down of some basic steps for a more secure Wordpress. If you're using something else for your website, find some advice specific to that platform.
For all you might prefer to just not be hacked, the sad truth is that if you're around long enough it will probably happen. I might go so far to say that recovering from hacking is all part of earning your spurs. So you need to think about your recovery plan as well.
Proper backup procedures can be the entire difference between mere inconvenience and total disaster. Regularly scheduled backups of both your files and your databases give you at least a version of your website to restore.
Sometimes you can go quite a long time without realising you've been hacked. Hackers who are injecting malware or link spam onto your site would prefer not to be discovered for as long as possible. Regular security scans will help uncover any attacks you might have otherwise not noticed.
If you're a busy business owner and you've been running your website yourself, I wouldn't blame you for wincing a bit right now. Adding and editing content on your website yourself is no hardship, but having to deal with backups and updates and file permissions and all of that as well is a right royal pain. And it's not just the work itself, it's being up to speed enough to know what to do. You might prefer someone else did it.
One option here is to move from a basic shared hosting plan over to managed Wordpress hosting or a similar hosting plan for your platform. With these plans, your hosting provider assumes responsibility for running your website platform for you. This means trading away a lot of the control and flexibility you'd have on a cPanel or VPS account where you install and manage your website platform yourself, so it's not going to work for everyone. It's fine for what most businesses do with their website though.
These guys will do your backups, security scans, and keep your software up to date, and it's on them to restore your website if it does get hacked. These services tend to start at about $30/month, meaning they're a fair bit more than basic shared hosting plans but quite a bit less than contracting your own tech to perform the same tasks.
Your website's navigation should in an instant show what's on your website and how to get there. It's a great idea to use conventional top navigation and sidebar navigation menus: in much the same way as you make it easier for your visitors by writing to them in a language they already understand, you also make it much easier for your visitors by showing them a navigation structure they already understand.
Navigation problems often develop over time as new sections get added to an existing site on an ad hoc basis. Over years, this can lead to entirely different navigation structures for different sections of the website, making it totally unclear to visitors what's actually on the website, much less how to find it.
Use clear and simple labels on your site navigation. A link marked “product range” is much more useful than one that says “our creations” or “strategic solutions” or whatever else might have felt witty at the time. The idea is to make it as easy as possible for your visitor. This is not a place to show off how clever you are.
The best navigation experience is the one you don't notice. The more difficult it is to navigate your website, the fewer people will bother.
Unoptimised images slow your site down.
Many webpages display images at a lower resolution than the image file. This makes the image file needlessly large. There really is no point using image files that are larger than they'll ever be displayed. Resizing your image files is an easy way to lighten the load on your server and make your site load faster for all users.
The next step after resizing is to compress the image. There are two types of image file compression: lossless and lossy. Lossless compression reduces file size without changing the image, while lossy compression causes some loss of quality. The main reason why you might opt for a lossy compression method is because it can reduce the file size a great deal more.
I personally think lossy compressions are better for the web, so long as you are careful not to compress too aggressively. You can cut a surprising amount of size of a lot of image files before any loss of quality become perceptible.
When resizing and compressing image files for your website, always keep a copy of the original, unprocessed image on your storage. Optimising your image files for the web makes your pages load much better, but using that file worse for anything else is sort of like taking a photocopy of a photocopy. You're much better off having the original, full resolution and uncompressed image handy for anything else you might want to do with it. That includes optimising that same image for a different web page where it displays at a different size.
The following online tools make compressing images for the web super easy:
So many websites do a brilliant job at persuading readers they've come to the right place, then totally forget to tell them what to do next. That's kinda like asking out that person you really like on a date and then saying nothing about where and when to meet.
A call to action, or CTA, is a short instruction for an immediate response. You see them in your web browsing all the time. It might a button, a label, an image, a hyperlink or just a piece of text. Imperative phrases like “Sign up now”, “click here to purchase” and “find out more” are all the sorts of things you might see as calls to action.
Here are some calls to action you're probably already familiar with:
Too many calls to action on the one page can confuse and distract, leading to no action taken at all. It can make sense to have a primary call to action in your body content and then a newsletter signup in your sidebar. Having several in your body content will draw the reader's attention in too many directions.
A clear call to action matters because people are generally very good at following simple instructions. They do much worse when they're just left to guess what to do. This is true even when the next step might seem utterly obvious to you. Once you've given people strong reasons to do something, tell them to do it.
Nobody likes being left to wait. A faster website is a better experience. If your website takes longer than 4 seconds to render then you will test everyone's patience.
Slow sites cost you sales. The longer you keep people waiting the less inclined they are to persevere, and at least a few of those people you lose were going to sign up, get in touch or get their credit cards out.
Site speed is also a ranking factor on the search engines. They reason that searchers have a worse experience when they're directed to slower sites, and for that reason slower sites are penalised. If search traffic matters to you at all, try to get your load time down to under 4 seconds.
How do you make your site faster then?
There are three main components to loading time: Server response, the amount of data to transfer, then there's the length of time it takes for the browser to render the page. Running your website through a service like http://www.webpagetest.org/ will give you an idea of how long each of these parts takes.
Image files often account for more than half of the data transferred for most webpages. It makes sense then to optimise these image files.
Consider your plugins. Running too many at once will slow your site down.
One type of plugin you might consider adding, however, is a caching plugin. Instead of making your website regenerate the same code over and over again for every visitor you get, a caching plugin generates that code just once and then serve it from the cache. That means a lot less work for your server and a much faster website. This makes a lot of sense when the data on that page doesn't need to be customised and isn't liable to change from minute to minute: that's most pages on most business websites.
You should also try to render the visible sections of your website first. That means loading the bits at the top of the page before the bits at the bottom. This won't actually make the total loading time any lower. It will seem faster though: the waiting time on the bits that aren't immediately visible just won't be apparent.
You should always look for a more intelligent way to use your software before just throwing more computing power at a performance problem. That said, you might just need better hosting. Basic shared hosting plans are fine for simple websites with small audiences. As you start to get more traffic, your hosting needs will grow.
For some platform specific advice on speeding up your website, you may find the following links useful:
It's hard not to wince while I write this, because I've written my fair share of it. I briefly was a copywriter at a large digital agency; it's work I'm not proud of. There, it wasn't unusual for a website project to come to me with a page on the site map that had nothing in the briefing documents about what to say there. I'd chase up and the answer would come back: “oh, we want about 300 words.”
Avoid having anything on your site written like this. Absolutely nothing should be written just to fill in space.
A lot of filler text gets written as part of outdated search traffic strategies. You pick a bunch of keywords and then plan pages to target some of them, and then when it comes to writing the damn things you sorta have to pull a string of words out of your butt just to have something on the page.
Search engines are now sophisticated enough to pay attention to reader engagement and whether or not high quality websites with real readers will link to your content; this makes strategies based around filler text positively harmful to your search efforts. Yet people still do it.
Blogs are another place where businesses load their websites down with pointless text. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that blogs can't be great! But there's definitely a certain type of blog that ends up on a website because somebody heard it was a good idea but didn't really know why. These blogs get updated just for the sake of updating, and man does that ever show.
Filler text usually just rehashes the same talking points developed elsewhere on the site. It does little to speak to your customer's desires, handle their objections, inspire curiosity or move anyone closer to buying anything. It just takes up space.
You have two options for filler text: fix it or cull it. If these pages can be developed into something worth saying, use them to say it. Otherwise they have to go.
You absolutely want your website to look well designed. You don't want your readers attention occupied by the design.
Design should serve your website's objectives. There are pretty much only two ways this can happen: either your visitor reads your copy, or they navigate to another page that suits them better and read the copy. Visual elements should make navigation intuitive and move the visitor's eye towards the text. Those that do otherwise work against you.
Images of people are especially good at drawing the eye. We're naturally wired to look at whatever the person is looking at or pointing to. If that's the copy, great! If not, not so great. Your website's design should serve your business, and not the other way around.
Avoid stale, mouldy content. As the mould grows, your website starts to reek. Keep everything fresh for a pristine experience.
Out of date content, announcements for upcoming events that have already happened, news that stopped being news ages ago: they're all a bad look. A blog that hasn't been updated in over six months looks abandoned – be careful, though, not to just publish filler content simply for the sake of having an update.
Have you ever opened your fridge and seen everything looking fresh and fine at first glance, but then you dug around a bit and found that old rotten sandwich with the green cheese and blue tomatoes? Websites can be a bit like that too – they look nice from the front but hiding in corners are things that past their use-by date long ago. Just because you never look in these corners doesn't mean that potential customers don't.
Do you have any repeat business with long term customers? You want to refresh your copy, add new feature content and tweak then design now and then. This reminds people that you're still alive.
Having a few old news announcements in the archives section of your website isn't the end of the world. Anywhere else, though, you want users to see something up to date.
As well as looking better to your customers, Google will like you more too if you keep your content fresh. They see regular updates to a website's content as a quality signal; I think they're right to do so.
This one is surprisingly common given how simple it is to correct. Does anyone get in touch with questions that could be answered on your website? Why not just answer it on your website?
Do people get in touch with you with questions that are answered on your website? That's valuable feedback that you're not doing as well as you should in getting this message across. The way you cover this point might not be as lucid as perhaps you thought. Perhaps the answer is fine, but readers just aren't finding this part of your website in the first place. Either way, you need. It does you no good at all to have information on your website if it never finds its way into your customer's head.
For every person who makes that phone call or sends that email there will be countless others who have the same uncertainty but don't bother to get in touch. Answering questions clearly on your website gives your readers a better experience and saves time for you and your staff too.
Search engine optimisation techniques based on spam and dirty tricks can get your website penalised or even removed from the search engines altogether. You may not even be aware these are being done on your behalf.
Google have rules about what you can do to improve your search traffic. We call SEO techniques that stay within these rules “white hat SEO” and the others “black hat SEO”.
White hat SEO techniques largely centre around creating highly engaging, readable content that offers real value and speaks to your reader's motivation for being there, and then promoting that content to relevant, high quality websites with real readers. To be sure, white hat SEO does involve a little bit of technical nous, but for the most part it's actually a very human-centred process; it's about communicating as well as you can with visitors to your website and with other site owners in your niche.
It's pretty much impossible to make really excellent content and promote it well without some involvement from the client. This means that your SEO is happening at total arms length from the rest of your business, you need to be worried.
Understand that you as a client risk losing far more from black hat SEO than your service provider. For these guys, losing a few contracts at renewal time is all just part of the business anyway. That's why they're always aggressively chasing new customers. It's a numbers game. For you, though, once you're sunk, you're sunk.
In the most competitive of markets, you might decide that you want or need black hat methods on your side to stay afloat. This is not a train of thought I encourage.
But if you decide this is something you're prepared to risk, you should be going into it with eyes wide open, understanding full well what you're getting into. It's no justification for a consultant or agency to use black hat SEO on your behalf without being totally transparent that they're high risk methods.
If this article right here is the first time anybody has explained to you what black hat SEO is, you are nowhere near ready enough to put your business on this roulette wheel.
The other thing to understand about really competitive search markets is that your competitors are much more likely to watch what you're doing. If they see something untoward, they'll report you using Google's webspam tool. Being in a cut-throat search market is actually a great reason to be extremely cautious.
The risk of severe penalties is not the only downside to black hat SEO. There's also the fact that it's just nowhere near as good as it used to be. Every major algorithm change seems to spell doom for some black hat technique that used to work great. This is a thing that only ever seems to move in one direction.
There are black hat SEO pros that specialise in keywords like “buy viagra” that are so spammed that there's no way to rank without breaking the rules as shamelessly as possible. These guys are like the buccaneers of the web. They'll swashbuckle their way to #1 for some juicy, highly trafficked keyword around boner pills and ride the waves as long as they can.
A few months later this ship will capsize and they'll retire to a tropical island with their treasure. These are people who have totally embraced the turbulent nature of what they're doing. They're there for a quick buck. They have no illusions that it was ever about building a sustainable business.
Google is not always perfect at neutralising black hat methods; they're just getting better all the time. Black hat guys respond by getting better at their craft too. It's sort of a cat and mouse game. The problem with playing cat and mouse is that if you're the mouse, you get eaten.
For the vast majority of businesses, white hat methods are best. They give you the most scope for lasting success in the face of algorithm updates and a changing web.
It's easy for these to slip past. Hyperlinks that were either written incorrectly or the URL no longer exists. Broken links make you look bad in front of customers and search engines alike.
The best way to handle broken links is to repair or remove them. The only hard part of that is realising they're there in the first place. It's worthwhile scanning your website for them regularly. There are a few websites out there that will do that for free. I like http://www.deadlinkchecker.com/
Every now and then somebody comes to me with a website with no visitor tracking installed. This makes it very difficult to know how well different parts of the site are performing. It's like trying to read a map blindfolded.
Installing web analytics software is easy and doesn't need to cost you anything. Keep in mind, though, that it can't show you any data from before it was installed. An analytics program is only as useful as the data inside. If you don't have one installed yet, fix that now so that you can start collecting data. 3 years of visitor tracking is a lot more useful than 3 days.
You might now be wondering what analytics program you ought to use. Like a lot of people, I like Google Analytics. It's the world's most widely used web analytics software. It costs nothing and is simple to install. It's also very easy to use when you're new to it, and extremely powerful once you become familiar. Its widespread use means that just about any web professional you work with should be acquainted with it. Some people have strong reasons to use something else, and that's fine. If you're not sure what to use, though, it's a very good option.
You can make your analytics software more powerful by setting up conversion tracking. This is where you do more than just track who visits your website and what pages they look at – you also track which of them perform an action that's valuable to your business, like booking an appointment or buying something. This can be a bit more work but it gives you much better data. Conversion tracking is your best basis for working out which traffic is most useful. If you're doing any kind of e-commerce, it's more or less essential.
Nearly as bad as not having any analytics software is having it but never opening the damn thing. All the data in the world is pointless until you look at it.
Bounce rates and time-on-page metrics give you an objective measure on how your content is performing. It's good to know which bits of your site are driving people away as soon as they arrive. These are often the pages that need most attention.
It's also worth looking at which parts of your website are getting hits. It's pretty easy for pages on your website that were written ages ago to be out of sight, out of mind, and yet a lot of potential customers might read some of them every day. Looking at where all the pageviews are on your website can help clarify which parts of your website are most critical.
The “site search” data for your website's own internal search bar can also be very useful. People tend not to use a website's search function unless they can't find something otherwise. This is incredibly valuable data about what people have to your website to look for but haven't found. This might tell you that your navigation could be improved, or it might be a great idea for new content.
Your analytics data is the only objective measure of how many people are coming to your website and what they do once they're there. Pay attention to it.
It can be easy to overlook title tags. I mean, you barely even see them anymore, right? In the early days of the web, a web page's title tag was displayed very prominently at the top of the browser. Now we have tabbed browsing and mobile browsing and they each mean that the title tag on the page you're browsing is far less visible than it once was.
That's not a good reason to just forget about them though. Google uses your title tag to create the search snippet for each page, while facebook will use it by default as the title for the links people post. Can you afford to ignore how you look on Google and facebook? These are the two biggest sources of traffic that exist. Much of the time, your title tag is absolutely the very first thing anybody will see of your content.
Plenty of websites have only their business name on every page of their website. This does a poor job of describing what's actually on that page.
Title tags are also extremely important for search engines. That's not an encouragement to go around rampantly keyword stuffing. Instead, write something that describes the content well and encourages the reader to click through.
Meta descriptions are even easier to overlook than title tags. I mean, you don't even see it when you're looking at your website.
It turns out that meta descriptions are among the most visible parts of your website. Facebook uses a page's meta description tag in the links they display in people's news feeds. Google very often uses it in the search snippets too. These two things mean that a page's meta description is often the first things that anybody will see of your website. They make or break whether anyone will bother to find out more.
Meta descriptions, along with your title tags, are so often the first preview anybody gets of you content. It pays to put your best foot forward. Using the same meta description tag on every page does nothing to describe that particular page or encourage anyone to click.
A lot of sites just recycle the first few sentences of the main content for the meta description. This is slightly better, but still far from ideal. Unique meta descriptions should be written as a quick preview of the content. They should provoke curiosity and encourage the reader to click through to read more.
Do meta descriptions effect your search performance? Answering that question properly is a bit tricky. Answering “yes” tends to prompt people to just stuff in the keyword phrases they're trying to rank for. Answering “No”, on the other hand, tends to encourage people to ignore them altogether.
The correct answer is actually “No, but also yes”. How does that make sense? Let me explain.
It used to be a thing in the 90s that you could rank better for certain keywords by cramming them into meta tags. This tactic was so open to abuse and spam that it ruined all the search results. Search engines either found better methods or died. These days, no major search algorithm looks at how many keywords are in your meta description.
However, your meta description very often appear as the search snippet. A well written one can make a huge difference to your click-through rate. A higher click-through rate means a huge boost in search traffic.
For this reason, it's a very bad idea to just cram keywords into your meta description. It's a great idea to write something that well describes what's on the page and entices human readers to click through.
Have your visitor understand who you are and what you can do for them within an instant.
Overly clever, abstract or nebulous descriptions can confuse more than they help. People think a description is good enough if it's accurate. Being technically correct is actually not that useful if you put your reader in mind of the wrong thing entirely.
A lot of poor communication is born of half-smart marketing advice. In an attempt to build a strong point of difference with their competitors, businesses brand themselves with all sorts of inflated and indirect descriptions. To this mode of thinking, instead of calling myself a copywriter and web marketing consultant, I might instead be a “digital maven”. It's dire stuff.
It's a great idea to establish points of difference with your competitors. Don't do it by confusing everyone about why on earth they're even on your website. Do it by communicating the superior benefits you can provide.
I once had a chat to some “behaviour change specialists”. When I got the meeting, I was delighted to discover were actually an advertising agency. There's nothing actually incorrect in this description, and yet their website had more left me guessing that maybe they were human resources consultants. As phrases go, “behaviour change” manages to cover a lot of ground, from machine gunners providing covering fire through to practitioners of candle magic.
Your readers won't come to your website knowing much or anything about your business. Things that are obvious to you might not be obvious at all for your visitor. They will need things spelled out for them. Be direct. Be specific.
Don't say anything that's an effort to understand. Be clear and direct. Speak conversationally, using words people are familiar with.
Pay attention to sentence length. Shorter sentences are usually better. Sometimes, an extremely long sentence can be a great way to create an impression that a thing is very large, complicated or overwhelming. That's a tactic to use deliberately and with care.
Clear syntax is also crucial. The sentence that makes a point best is so often not the one that came most immediately to mind. All website copy should be edited for clarity before publishing.
Make it as simple and easy as possible for your reader. Understand that this is not about talking down to people or treating them as unintelligent. It's just that a commercial website is a context where no reader is willing to work hard. There are those who read Tolstoy and James Joyce for fun - or at least they say that's why they're reading it. These same people won't extend anywhere near the same effort when you're trying to sell them something.
Industry jargon and technical terms are often sources of confusion. Don't just assume that everyone knows what everything means.
Overly complex language punishes your reader just for showing up. This makes it much harder to sell anything.
Your business website is about your business, right? Wrong! It's about your customers.
So many businesses do a wonderful job of explaining who they are, their key members of staff, their history and accomplishments, the awards they've won and their glowing mentions in the media. What's wrong with this? It's that they haven't addressed the reader's reason for being there. It's all about them.
Nobody bothers to visit business websites without a reason. It's simply not something anyone does just for the sake of it. Visitors come with either a problem, an ambition, a need, want, anxiety or concern. Your website needs to focus on these motivations.
Customers also have misgivings and objections about spending money too. You need to address these directly. I've heard clients suggest that perhaps it won't occur to customers to think of any reasons not to buy if we don't mention them. That's pure wishful thinking.
Obviously your business's website has to mention a thing or two about your business. Deciding it's all about you is just crazy. Your website is only about you to the extent that you're the one who can solve your reader's problems and benefit their lives. Everything else just gets in the way.
Some business who run their own Adwords campaign will set it up at the start, fine tune the keywords a little bit in the early days, and then just keep it running. I see this happen most often with small and medium businesses in non-technical niches. Doing this is a great way to flush cash down the toilet on non-performing keywords. This is true even if your campaign as a whole is making you good money.
Optimising an Adwords campaign is a craft and science all to itself. Seasoned Adwords ninjas can make buckets of money by fine-tuning large campaigns on the most competitive keywords where every slight advantage is worth a fortune. A lot of these guys go into any new campaign completely expecting to lose money at the start - the early stages are not about profit: instead, they're buying data to ruthlessly exploit for more profit later. They use third party tools to spy on what competitors are up to and spot where they might be making all their money.
Having never done very much with Adwords myself, I'll freely admit that pretty much all of that goes totally over my head. Looking at how fiendishly complicated this stuff can easily intimidate you into just not dealing with any of it. What an expensive mistake.
You don't need to be the world's most powerful Adwords hacker to do a few basic tasks to improve your campaign. The most obvious place to start is identifying which keywords aren't making you any money at all, and then cull them. If you've run an Adwords campaign for any length of time then you own a wealth of data on what these keywords are. You've paid good money for it and you'd be nuts not to use it.
Adwords can make some people a fortune, but it's not a “set & forget” marketing channel. If you spend a lot on Adwords and it's crucial to your business, it might be very worthwhile getting a black belt Adwords consultant in to tighten up your campaign. That'll cost you money, but so will not doing it.
If circumstances don't justify a consultant, it's time to roll your sleeves up and invest a few minutes on some basic DIY. You throw money away if you don't.
A lot of website owners suffer from a bad case of shiny object syndrome. One moment it's all about their blog, a few months later it's video content, then it's a podcast, then building a twitter following, then it's Adwords, then it's building an email list, then it's organic search.
One thing the big web marketing gurus understand very well is the value of a good hook. One of the best ways you can use in web marketing content is the idea that you have urgent new information. For those who spend any length of time absorbed this content, this can create the impression of constant turbulent change that needs constant adjustment.
The fundamentals actually haven't changed that much at all. Success with a business website is still all about working out which traffic will be useful, getting that traffic, having content that anticipates the motivations and concerns of these visitors and then moving them closer to buying from you.
Web marketing is really not that different to any other form of marketing. It's about persuasion and building relationships with an audience. Some of the best web marketing advice you can read comes from books written decades before there even was a web - from direct response copywriters who sent letters in the mail.
Buyer behaviour on the web doesn't change that much from month to month and year to year. It's not like all your potential customers were looking for you on Google in 2014 but now they're only on Facebook. Web marketing headlines can change fast; customer habits change slowly.
New developments in social media platforms or updates to search algorithms can impact your traffic from these sources. This should mean tactical changes in how you approach these traffic sources. They shouldn't mean huge adjustments in your overall strategy. A lot of the time, the thing you need to do is the thing you're already doing, but with intelligent improvements to how you do it.
The solution to chasing fads is to focus on the fundamentals. Identify where you're actually at right now, and where the weak points are that you need to work on. It's no use redoubling your traffic efforts if your website doesn't convert. There's no sense split testing new sales copy if you're not getting the traffic. Customer retention strategies are pointless until you're getting the traffic and successfully selling to it.
Your choice of what to do next should be driven by real consideration of what your business really needs from your website. Most of the time, this is not going to be the latest tactic or trend that's being spruiked to you.
Don't be boring.
In our daily lives, most of the people around us owe us some of their attention. Whether you have some kind of existing relationship or they just happen to be right in front of you, they basic rules of politeness demand they give you a few moments. You don't have that working for you with your website. Anyone can close a browser tab at any time with no awkwardness or social penalty at all.
Dullness is death on the web. How do you avoid it then? The most reliable way to avoid it is to evoke an emotional response in your reader. These could be positive emotions around things they're seeking, or negative one around things they wish to avoid.
I can hear the protests already – you're in a bloodless business. “We're not selling guitars that shoot fireworks to supermodels, James, we're a supply chain management consultancy. It's just very dry stuff.”
That's a standard line of reasoning: you can't help it. Your website has to be boring because you run a boring business selling boring products or services. It's a common justification, and also a bad one. Most boring stuff is actually only boring when things are running smoothly.
Take those supply chain guys, for instance. Supply chain problems can cause a business huge disruptions. These disruptions cost more than just money: it's stress, headaches, and a boss who doesn't see his or her kids in the evening for being stuck back at the office once again. It's a whole workplace full of stressed-out people who have to deal with everyone else's fried nerves along with the fact that nothing works and everything is going wrong. It's not a happy time. The fact that a potential customer has sought out a supply chain management website suggests they might have a bit of this going on in their life already.
This way of exploring what can go wrong can be used to add emotional content to just about any product or service that other people rely on in some way. Other businesses that seem bloodless, from electronic component suppliers through to medical waste disposal services, can inject a lot of emotion into their communication by focusing on what's at stake in their job well done.
What could be duller than banking? Only insurance. The thing is, financial institution know quite well they're doing the least interesting thing ever, so they put special effort into finding a vivid and engaging side to it. Their marketing features images of construction starting on a new family home, a smiling chef opening a new restaurant, the aftermath of a traffic accident or a death in the family. It's emotionally rich stuff.
People's aversion to tedium is so strong that it can even be a selling point. A bookkeeping firm would do well to speak of the hours spent doing your own figures, or the massive annoyance and hassle of finding out you got something wrong.
We all have to put up with a bit of boredom in our lives, from relatives who tell long stories about grocery shopping through to delayed flights, peak hour commuting, your friend's holiday photos and those long meetings that should have been a few emails. Browsing the web is one part of our lives where there is no price to pay for avoiding boredom, and so people avoid it ruthlessly. There's no fighting it. Engage the reader.