Saturday, September 20, 2008

Does Your Website Measure Up? Part 4: Does Your Content Rule?

Does Your Website Measure Up?
This blog topic is being published as a serial. This is the last of four parts.

Part 4: Does Your Content Rule?

The visitor experience at your site is influenced by three primary factors:

1. Relevance and quality of the site content;
2. Ease of finding the desired product and/or information; and
3. Speed and reliability of content delivery.

Thus, content, UI and systems all influence the visitor experience. Said another way, the content relevance, ease of accessing content, and content delivery are the reasons your site will be judged as good or mediocre by visitors and determine whether they stay or come back to buy or understand and act upon your sales messages.

I discussed the speed and reliability issues in Part 3 of this series. Throughout the series, I have alluded to the importance of content and of accurately portraying your web site’s products, services, or purposes. This fourth and final part of the series will focus on content factors and best practices.

On the internet, information, or content, is king. It rules! Why? It is because the Internet surfer is looking for information with good reason. That is the only way the surfer can distinguish your offerings from that of others. The surfer needs reassurance your site and business or other action proposition is valid, credible, and otherwise trustworthy. Visitors need assurances that your products will fit, work for their application, etc. How do they determine this? The only way they can: by examining your site content. Pictures and descriptions are the selling tools on the Internet. Why do you think it is called the information highway?

Let’s explore how your content can “rule” and help you close business or convey your message convincingly on line.

Are You Relevant?

The most important message about a web site is that the content should be appropriate for the purposes of the site’s sales proposition and suit the needs of visitors. If your site is a footwear site, adding content that eschews the merits of a political candidate is pretty worthless --- unless the candidate is your customer and/or providing a testimonial about your business.

I recently searched on line for information on a particular digital camera. I was interested in learning about the quality of the photographs compared to other brands in the same price range and what lenses best suited my intended photographic targets. By reading the user ratings, I found out some basic information and was referred to other web sites for details and comparisons. I also searched for comparisons of specific models. After research, I found out I would be much better off spending $200 more for a slightly better model than I had originally intended to buy. However, it would have been great to find a camera sales web site that had all the relevant information. If that site existed, and had competitive prices, they probably would have received my business. That’s true content. Going beyond the manufacturer’s description and specs and getting to the use, handling, good and quirky features, and suitability for certain applications. Many sites had the user rating feature, and those were helpful.

Generally speaking, the more relevant content you provide, the better your site will rank in the search engines and the more visitors your site will appeal to.

Is Your Content Lost Or Found?

What? Remember the search engine discussion in Part 2? Content plays a huge part in determining how easy your content (and therefore your web site) is to find using search engines. Since 60-80% of traffic at the typical web site will come from search engines like Yahoo, MSN, Google and AOL; and content is an essential measure that search engines use to rank your site in their results; that content determines how easily your site is found by search engine users. Without relevance, your content will not place high on search engine results and will therefore be “lost” to searchers rather than found. Why will it be lost? It will be lost imply because the search results will show your site on page 20, 200, or 2000. It is a rare search engine results reader who bothers to go past page 3.

Remember the lessons from part 2 of this series:

Are Your Visitors Playing The Waiting Game?

You just spent $2500 for that cool 20 second Flash introduction on your site, but the number of people leaving the site before getting past the home page is up 30% and overall page views and visitors have declined. What is going on? You are making them wait to see your content! Most people don’t care about your Flash intro --- probably only Flash developers. The rest of us want to get to the content we came to see NOW, not waste 20 seconds waiting for your branding commercial to run its course. That is why you see most Flash intros have an option to skip them, although most are not prominent enough. In my view, you should have to click to continue the Flash intro, not to stop it.

The point is, anything that slows down access to your content is probably detrimental, even cool Flash stuff. Poor site design, slow servers, insufficient bandwidth, or high traffic can all contribute to the waiting game and make your visitors cut their loss of time by leaving for the next site on the search results list. If you make your visitors pay the waiting game, you lose every time. Test your site rigorously, monitor its performance with software services developed for the purpose, and always be sure the path to the “close” is as short as can be.

How to Get Read and Understood

Did you ever pick up a book and after trying to read it, just give up because it was too hard to understand what the author was trying to say? You were trying to read for entertainment or education; but felt like you needed a doctorate in literature just to understand the darnn book! Popular authors understand this and write their books to be readable without their readers having to struggle to understand what is going on. It’s the old KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. These authors understand their audiences want to be entertained or educated and do not want to struggle to understand the text.

Your visitors are the same. They want information in a readable, understandable way. So, you need to write readable text and spice it up with illustrations appropriate for understanding your product or proposition.

Here are some tips for web readability.

1. Load your conclusion into the front of the page. For a product, this could be a statement like “this shoe is great for walking on hard surfaces like roads and sidewalks.”
2. Only include one idea or subject in each paragraph. Like this list, focus each paragraph n a single message to the reader.
3. Use a lot of white space and use subheadings, lists, bold or colored text, and other techniques to provide emphasis to your essential message.
4. Use left justified text, easy to read fonts, etc.
5. Avoid text on dark backgrounds.
6. Include product photos, especially ones with the product in use if it is not a commonplace item. For ideas, conceptual diagrams can help get the idea across.

Remember that most of us have done most of our reading with black letters on a white background. Therefore, our brains find that most comfortable. Use color for text and text backgrounds carefully and always make sure there is a lot of contrast. Many of your visitors may not have good eyesight or large computer monitors, so be sure you don’t make readability decisions without considering those factors.

Your Content Can Rule

Content is the life blood of a web site. The more high quality, relevant content you have, the better your site will be and that overall quality should attract more visitors than sites with lesser content. Budgeting for development of quality content and making sure your site serves the content in a relaxed, easy to use fashion can make your site a king among knaves.

Concluding the Series

This article concludes the series “Does Your Website Measure Up?” It has been both a challenge and a lot of fun to write. It has forced me to organize my own thinking about web site development and deployment and, as a result, my clients are benefiting from a more streamlined approach to creating or renewing their web sites.

One thing that should be obvious, but that I have not specifically stated, is that web development is complex and involves more skills and talents than a single person typically has in his/her toolbox. Therefore, web development tends to be a collaborative process involving the owner and other persons with the requisite skills. A single web designer/developer usually does not have all the skills needed in a given situation and that can be problematic. While good results can come from “singleton” web designers, it usually takes more to get the best results. At a minimum, I would suggest you only consider designers who collaborate with developers and copywriters. Good designers can map out a nice looking, easily navigable site but few have the skills to integrate a data base, add PHP (or other) programming, or add AJAX routines to speed up content delivery. Similarly, I find few programmers who are good content writers; although some designers do this well, especially those who come from ad agency backgrounds. Make sure the team you assemble has the skills you need to get your job done.

Most of my web consulting is related to creating and translating business strategy into supportive web strategies and mapping out the general design concept --- typically in the form of heavily documented site map. I then work with the client to identify the skills required, find people who can contribute successfully, and manage the project through implementation.

Another point concerns process and project management. Web development (or major site updates) involves a series of steps that should be followed concluding with milestones that are the best measurements of progress. These general milestones are listed below. The process involved can be inferred from the milestone.

1. Site Map Completed (content outline, menus)
2. Home Page Design Completed (navigation for all pages)
3. Site CSS Finalized (fonts and colors)
4. Site Mockup Completed (build pages, no content)
5. Site Content Created (text and photos)
6. Hosting Venue Selected
7. Deployment of the Live Site
8. Maintenance Schedule and Assignments

Note that steps 2 and 3 are typically concurrent. At some point in the future, I will add blog articles on each of these process/milestone steps.

Please contact me it f you want guidance for your own efforts, clarification on my statements, or to take exception to my ideas. Thanks for reading.