Articles written in February, 2008

February 29 2008

Be Nice to Your Visitors


Everyone could benefit from  making their site more  visitor-friendly. User experience matters. Here are a few examples to illustrate why.

Scenario  #1a: Users can’t find what they’re looking for on your site.  The content on your site should be quickly found by your visitors and without a hassle. You don’t want your visitors spending half of their time on your site looking for content because they  may then spend  less time absorbing that information and more time remembering that they had a bad experience.  Consequently, navigation or organizational frustrations will likely cloud their  perceived value of your site.

Now consider scenario #1b: A particular visitor read and enjoyed some content in a section of your website.  He left your site without bookmarking the section’s main page because  he  didn’t have the time to do so. (This happens to me. I don’t bookmark every informative page I find, and even if I did, I may not want to spend the time to search my bookmarks for that page.) Upon returning to your site, the  visitor uses  your site navigation to quickly find the section  he is  looking for. The  process used to find that page was fast because your site’s navigation was clear and well though out. The  user didn’t have to think about the various ways information on your site could be organized, choose the one that made most sense to  him and then try to navigate through the site accordingly – a hit or miss option, to say the least. Instead, a logical organization scheme (information architecture) was provided and the user’s navigation was seamless — and therefore positive.

If the site owner wanted to know whether the returning visitor came from another site, a search engine or directly (i.e. clicking a bookmark in their browser or typing the web page’s address in their browser), Google Analytics and/or cookies could easily help.

Scenario  #2: Your on-site search functionality  doesn’t return accurate/comprehensive results.  Imagine that a visitor to your site, after reading and enjoying your content on a particular  topic, returns  to your site in search of a specific paragraph on a specific page. The visitor does not remember how she found that particular page or article, and tries to use your on-site search functionality (the search box usually on the top right of the pages) to locate the content only to  become annoyed and frustrated when that search functionality returns no relevant or close results. There are many reasons why your site’s search functionality failed, maybe you’ve embedded that content in a picture or in an Adobe Flash file – so it’s not crawl-able by external search engines or your site’s internal search functionality. Or maybe the search-feature itself is a poor one and its keyword search and retrieval capabilities are weak.

In addition to your site’s search functionality, the user could have attempted to use the browser’s own search functionality which will only search the page that the user is currently on. (The browser’s search functionality can usually be invoked by the Find command in the Edit menu.)

If you are using Google Analytics, and SiteSearch is configured, you can see reports of everything that visitors search for (and analyze the bounce rate for each search phrase). Google Analytics, by itself, cannot report when visitors employ the browser’s search functionality.

In this scenario, I would first highly recommend that the image be changed to text and use CSS for formatting/styling if need be. If that is too much work, my other suggestion would be to add alternate text to that image immediately. This provides a degree of SEO-friendliness and accessibility, though it will not solve the search problems. Another option could be to use text that’s automatically replaced with a flash version of it (aka, IFR). This technique, pioneered by Mike Davidson, is used by the likes of Nike, ABCNews and others, and while providing more control over typography while maintaining SEO-friendliness, it will not allow the user to find content using the browser’s own search functionality (unless JavaScript is turned off in their browser). Lastly, if your site’s search functionality provides less-than usable results, try using Google’s customized site search or removing on-search all together.

Hopefully these scenarios will tempt you to consider UXO (user experience optimization), and its benefits to your visitors and your word-of-mouth advertising reach.

February 27 2008

Content Freshness as a Factor in Search


Content freshness is definitely a factor in search engine algorithms. For news items and blog posts, in particular, freshness gives a boost in rankings. Several major search engines have filed patents for gathering historical data about pages so not only is this a current factor but it is likely to be one that search engines will be adapting and improving over time to ensure that their customers receive timely and relevant results.

The big question, of course, is what does this mean to the site owner in terms of updating their content. Is it necessary to update pages frequently to get good results? The answer to this question is: it depends.

One of the main reasons that a site should try to feature fresh content is because it can increase the frequency of visits by search engine spiders. Naturally, if you are updating pages on a regular basis, you want that to be reflected in search engine indexes and you want the search engines to return in a timely fashion so that new information can appear in search engine indexes. Studies in index freshness have shown that, for over 68% of pages, Google requires about two days before the page is visible in the index. Yahoo is quicker — over 50% appear within a day.

However, search engines don’t crawl your site every day unless they have a reason and if they are only coming around every two weeks, this means that a page that you updated today might not appear in the indexes for over two weeks and that’s assuming that they actually accessed the page since they do not access every page every time they come. If your site is publishing timely news items or pages that need to be accessed quickly, content freshness is important. The good news is that these items are inherently fresh. Search engines will notice this and will return often to find your new content.

So, what if you are not publishing news items every day but you still want search engines to visit often? Should you try to change the content of your homepage every couple of days? Optimizing the content of a page so that it will rank well for a key phrase can be an arduous and painstaking process involving a lot of tweaking and experimenting before the page is just right. Changing the content of the page every day just for the sake of change is not a good idea. What about just updating the page by adding a word here and there? This is also not a good idea for two reasons:

  1. As noted above, search engines are becoming more and more sophisticated in recognizing real fresh content. This is unlikely to fool them.
  2. Updating pages just for the sake of updating may distract search engine spiders from your real new content which could actually prevent them from finding it.

Content freshness is actually one of the best reasons to include a blog on your site. You can take the opportunity to provide your visitors with timely news about your company and industry and even feature the occasional quick link to any new pages that you may have added. A well-written blog post has the advantage of actually being new content. Just make sure you post regularly. A regular pattern of adding new pages of content is the best encouragement for search engines to return on a regular basis.

Furthermore, if you do manage to convince search engines to visit your site regularly, it’s a good idea to make it easier to find those new pages. In other words, don’t update pages just to make old content look new. Only update pages that really do contain new content and then allow search engines to see that the content is new by setting your server to support Conditional Get or the If-Modified-Since request-header field. That way search engines are much more likely to find your new pages when they come and put them into search engine indexes to be found by your potential new visitors as soon as possible.

February 15 2008

Usability vs Design


The hardest parts of a website re-design or improvement are the aspects of the site that are not immediately visible. We can all form a quick opinion on the look and feel of a site, but critical aspects, like usability, navigation and user experience, are harder to assess. The way a visitor can and does move through a site shapes their experience on that site in a significant way. It is not enough to make a site clean, informative and aesthetically pleasing, the controls and navigation must be intuitive and clear as well. Page organization under category topics must be logical and functional. Once the user has found the desired information, they must be able to easily navigate back to the start, or onto related pages.

It is often difficult for designers and developers to assess the usability of a site, as they tend to be over-familiar with the design and the back-end, and have never been a true user of the site. When implementing a re-design or new navigation, have colleagues and associates test the site for these navigational and usability issues, and take their feedback seriously. Watch how they navigate through the menu, and how they use features of the site to find desired information. Then, if you must, give up some design high ground, and modify your structure to give your visitors the smoothest possible experience!

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