Thursday, December 15, 2005

How to design your website for optimal productivity

Eight Simple, Yet Essential, Web Design Principles

As the internet evolves from its infancy into maturity, website development, design and marketing becomes more and more sophisticated - and more and more complex. Content manipulation, various scripting methods, fancy graphics and effects... and on and on... allow us to create some impressive web sites.

A good gauge of this complexity is the a slew of new internet-related acronyms which popup on a consistent basis. Heck, I don't know what half of them mean. But one acronym I do know - and it's not an internet creation - is nevertheless key to the development and design of any successful business website. Perhaps you've heard of it - K.I.S.S. As you probably know, it stands for 'Keep It Simple, Stupid!'. And it's a methodology widely employed by the best web developers, designers and marketers in the business. A philosophy that provides the foundation for all successful revenue-generating web sites.

From the largest, multi-product online business conglomerate to the one-page one-product mini-site, the purpose is the same. Provide visitors, whether internet savvy or first time surfers, with an online experience that's fast, efficient, easy to understand - and dare I say it... yes, enjoyable.

Whether your an entrepreneur building your own web site, or reviewing one built for you by a web development and web design expert, it is important your web site, your online business, adheres to these eight simple, yet essential, design principles. Heed them, and online success is sure to follow. Ignore them, at your peril. Here they are.

Each web page must have a purpose - and that purpose must be clearly stated. While a consistent design 'look and feel' is vital across all pages of your web site, each page has a specific function to perform. And that function should be clearly understood by all visitors to your web site. Whether it's to elicit feedback, provide feedback, promote your company, present product information, etc., all play a role in your ultimate goal of growing your business.

Navigation around and through your business web site must be clearly visible and easy to use. See my article on web site navigation for more details.

Avoid distraction and clutter by minimizing usage of fancy flashing and moving objects, which provide more sizzle than steak, and make your essential products or services harder to find.
All business websites should have contact information clearly visible. A 'Contact' page is minimum. It's also advisable to include contact information on every page of your web site. You never know when the urge to turn from prospect to customer will strike your visitor.
Not everyone has broadband. Yes, there are still a fair number of users surfing the internet with slower, less efficient, dial-up access. That may change in the future, but it's a reality today. Ignore this substantial customer base and you're business will surely suffer. To avoid this pitfall, pay careful attention to eliminate internet-clogging elements on your web site. When possible, use text instead of graphics, static graphics instead of animation, several smaller pages instead of one large page. Do this and you can feed quite well on the desertions from your flashier competitors.

For those who are broadband users, who are not negatively effected by all those 'bells and whistles', who may actually enjoy such an impressive display, remember, 'form follows function'. This is especially important on a business web site, where functionality is key. All else is fluff and distraction.


For those of us who may be 'visually challenged, make sure your web site is easy to see. Avoid fancy fonts and use the more legible standard-bearers, such as Times New Roman, Courier New, Arial and Verdana. For standard text, use font sizes of at least 10 pt... 12 pt is better. On many a web site, font sizes of 8 pt or less are used, perhaps in an effort to avoid the need to scroll. Let me tell you... it's much better to scroll than to squint. For when I squint, I usually stroll... right out of the site. It's also a good practice to limit the use of italics as they too are harder to read. Lastly, pay attention to text and background color. Although white text on a black background looks cool at first glance, it can quickly strain the eyes. You don't want to do anything that will cut your visitor's journey through your business web site..

Whenever possible, limit page lengths to no more than two page-downs. It is better for performance (page loading) and visitor attention when pages are short, quick reads. If necessary, breakup your text into multiple pages, with a 'continued' designation at the bottom of each page.

There you go. Eight simple, yet essential, web site design principles that can spell the difference between online business success or failure. Always remember, you're never more than one-click away from visitor abandonment. K.I.S.S. your website and it will reward you abundantly.

About the Author: Alan Richardson is a well-known internet consultant and publisher with http://www.optimalwebservices.com - a Web resource firm in North Easton, Massachusetts, offering free advice and information for web-based small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Website Design vs. Function

Easily, one of the biggest mistakes webmasters make when first starting out on the web is in the design of their website. This is extremely understandable, considering that, in the brick and mortar world, a business's success is often dependent on it's appearance. The more money put into the look and design of a business, the better it often does.

Unfortunately, this doesn't completely transfer over into the world of the Web. In the world of the Web, there is a huge difference between creating an aesthetically pleasing site, and creating a site that is going to be functional and have the best possibility for success.

All too often, when people first begin on the Web, they design their site as if to be a work of art. Making sure it has lots of beautiful graphics, fancy javascript, flash, etc. While all of these things can definitely create a beautiful site, they are also some of the biggest hindrances to a business's success.

On the net, there are two key things a webmaster must always keep in mind when designing a website; the visitor and the search engines. If a visitor has to wait to long for a page to download or a search engine can't properly index a site, it doesn't matter how beautiful and informative the site is, it will not generate the business needed to survive, much less excel.
Let's look at a few of the most common things you should be aware of.


*Page Size*

While broadband access is gaining ground, at least half of all internet users still use dial up connections. This means that the majority of a site's visitors will be downloading the pages at about 3-4 kilobytes per second.

It is estimated that if a page doesn't load within 8-10 seconds you will lose 1/3 of your visitors. That means that a page should not be any more than 30 kilobytes total including text, graphics, html, javascript, etc.

Logo's, backgrounds, and other images, are great, but if they are causing your pages to load too slowly, they are doing you more harm than good. Quite honestly, your visitors do not care about your logo, graphics, backgrounds etc. They are there for one reason and one reason only....to see what you can offer them.

If you must use graphics keep their file size as small as possible by optimizing the graphics to the utmost extent possible and keeping the image size small.

*Splash Pages/Flash Intros*

These are the bane of the internet. If you have a splash page whether its made up of a large graphic or a pretty flash intro, you are crippling your chances. Design firms often love to talk their clients into these pages because they get to be creative (oh..and charge more).
The truth is, creating one of these pages as the entrance way to your site is one of the single worst things you can do. Visitors hate splash pages, because they often take too long to download and they don't provide the visitor with anything. Remember, visitors are there for one reason, to see what you have to offer them and get the information they are seeking. A huge graphic doesn't answer any of their questions, it only delays their search.
A flash intro is much the same, while it will generally download very quickly, it still delays the visitor in finding what he or she is looking for.


One of the biggest rules you should remember is to keep the amount of clicks a visitor must make to get to quality information down to a bare minimum. With every successive click a visitor must make, there is more of a chance he/she will give up and go somewhere else.
I've seen many reports from different sites that used (notice the past tense) flash intro pages. Hardly surprising is the fact that on average, a whopping 20%-30% of the visitors left the site after accessing ONLY the homepage (where the splash page or flash intro was).


The second reason to stay away from these is that it has a huge affect on search engines. Search engines can only index text, a huge graphic or flash intro doesn't give the engines anything to index. As a result the homepage, which is often the highest ranking page on a site, has almost no chance of ranking well at all. In addition, depending on how the links from the graphic or flash to internal pages are coded, the engines may not be able to follow the links to the rest of the pages on the site which means your site will not get spidered properly.

To summarize, stay away from splash pages and flash intro's. Give the visitor some actual text to read and the engines something to index. Your visitor retention will go up, and so will your search engine traffic.

*Hyperlinks*

Hyperlinks are your bread and butter when dealing with the search engines. They are the way in which search engines find all of the pages on your site and index them. If a search engine can't follow a hyperlink, it won't be able to index the destination page, meaning parts of your site may become invisible to the engines.

Be sure to use only true hyperlinks in your site. I've seen many sites that use some javascript links instead of actual hyperlinks. While these will work for most browsers (about 90%), they don't give the engines anything to follow.

A true hyperlink should say:
href="URL of page here.html"
Any other type of link is most likely not going to be followed properly.


*Body Text*

As I mentioned before, engines can only index text. Too often I see sites that use graphic representations of text or a large graphic that has some of their most important text within it. Do whatever you can to stay away from this. If your most important words are in graphic format, you have taken away the thing that the engines need most to properly index and rank your site.

Engines also want to see continuity in the structure of a page. When a webmaster uses lots of tables, frames, and other design elements, it breaks up the flow of the text on the page, and can have a negative effect on your rankings.

Whenever possible, use as few tables as possible. When you do use tables, do your best to not break up a paragraph or sentence into separate cells in a table, this destroys the flow of the text and causes the words to be seen as unrelated fragments instead of part of the same continuous sentence/paragraph.

It is important to realize that engines do not see the pages the same way a visitor does. While the visitor sees the page displayed properly with all of the text flowing nicely, an engine sees only the HTML code behind the page that breaks up the flow of the text.
In general, the simpler the page and the HTML behind it, the better the ranking will be.


*Summary*

Always be sure to be aware of the impact that a particular design element will have on both your visitors and the ability of the engines to properly index your site. By understanding how the engines work, what they look for, what they can and can't do, you will vastly increase your chances of successfully achieving the rankings needed to make your business a success.

About The Author: John Buchanan is the author of the book "The Insider's Guide to Dominating The Search Engines", and publisher of "The Search Engine Bulletin", a FREE monthly newsletter. Visit him at SE-Secrets.com for more information or to sign up for the newsletter.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) 101 : Basic Optimization Techniques

It is hard to believe the all too short northern summer is almost over. In less than two weeks, kids will be going back to school and commercial webmasters will be gearing up for the autumn and winter sales seasons. This is as good a time as any, perhaps better than most, to cover SEO 101, the basic techniques that form the foundation to an advanced SEO or SEM campaign. For the purposes of brevity this piece starts with a few assumptions. The first assumption is a single, small business site is being worked on. The second assumption is that the site in question is written using a fairly standard mark-up language such as HTML or PHP. The last assumption is that some form of keyword research and determination has already taken place and the webmaster is confident in the selection of keyword targets.

Believe it or not, basic SEO is all about common sense and simplicity. The purpose of search engine optimization is to make a website as search engine friendly as possible. It's really not that difficult. Basic SEO doesn't require specialized knowledge of algorithms, programming and taxonomy but it does require a basic understanding of how search engines work. There are two aspects of search engines to consider before jumping in. The first is how spiders work. The second is how search engines figure out what documents relate to which keywords and phrases.


In the simplest terms, search engines collect data about a unique website by sending an electronic spider to visit the site and copy its content which is stored in the search engine's database. Generally known as 'bots', these spiders are designed to follow links from one document to the next. As they copy and assimilate content from one document, they record links and send other bots to make copies of content on those linked documents. This process continues ad infinitum. By sending out spiders and collecting information 24/7, the major search engines have established databases that measure their size in the tens of billions. Every day, both Yahoo and Google claim to spider as much data as is contained in the US Library of Congress (approx. 150 million items).


Knowing the spiders and how they read information on a site is the technical end of basic SEO. Spiders are designed to read site content like you and I read a newspaper. Starting in the top left hand corner, a spider will read site content line by line from left to right. If columns are used (as they are in most sites), spiders will follow the left hand column to its conclusion before moving to central and right hand columns. If a spider encounters a link it can follow, it will record that link and send another bot to copy and record data found on the document the link leads to. The spider will proceed through the site until it records everything it can possible find there.

As spiders follow links and record everything in their paths, one can safely assume that if a link to a site exists, a spider will find that site. Webmasters and SEOs no longer need to manually or electronically submit their sites to the major search engines. The search spiders are perfectly capable of finding them on their own, provided a link to that site exists somewhere on the web. Google and Yahoo both have an uncanny ability to judge the topic or theme of documents they are examining, and use that ability to judge the topical relationship of documents that are linked together. The most valuable incoming links (and the only ones worth perusing), come from sites that share topical themes.


Once a search spider finds your site, helping it get around is the first priority. One of the most important basic SEO tips is to provide clear paths for spiders to follow from "point A" to "point Z" in your website. This is best accomplished by providing easy to follow text links directed to the most important pages in the site at the bottom of each document. One of these text links should lead to a text-based sitemap, which lists and provides a text link to every document in the site. The sitemap can be the most basic page in the site as its purpose is more to direct spiders than help lost site visitors, though designers should keep site visitors in mind when creating the sitemap. Here is an example of the basic sitemap used on the StepForth site. Google also accepts more advanced, XML based sitemaps, providing a wealth of information on their Sitemap FAQ page.

Allowing spiders free access to the entire website is not always desirable. Good SEOs should also know how to tell spiders that some site content is off limits and should not be added to their database using robots.txt files. Last week, Mike Banks Valentine of Website101 wrote a good overview on how to write and use robots.txt files in his article, Search Engine Spiders Lost Without Guidance - Post This Sign!.

Offering spiders access to the areas of the site one wants them to access is half the battle. The other half is found in the site content. Search engines are supposed to provide their users with lists of documents that relate to user entered keyword phrases or queries. Search engines need to determine which of billions of documents is relevant to a small number of specific words. In order to do this, the search engine needs to know your site relates to those words.


There are four basic areas, or elements, a search engine looks at when examining a document. After the URL of a site, the first information a search spider records is the title of the site. Next, it examines the Description Meta tag. Both of these elements are found in the section of the source code.


Titles should be written using the strongest keyword targets as the foundation. StepForth's primary keyword target is Search Engine Placement. A glance at our index page shows that phrase is used as the first three words in our site title. Some titles are written using two or three basic two-keyword phrases. A key to writing a good title is to remember that human readers will see the title as the reference link on the search engine results page. Don't overload your title with keyword phrases. Concentrate on the strongest keywords that best describe the topic of the document content.

The Description Meta tag is also fairly important. Search engines tend to use it to gather information on the topic or theme of the document. A well written Description is phrased in two or three complete sentences with the strongest keyword phrases woven early into each sentence. As with the title tag, some search engines will display the Description on the search results pages, generally using it in whole or in part to provide the text that appears under the reference link. Some search engines place minor weight in the Keywords Meta tag however, it is not advisable to spend a lot of time worrying about the keywords tag. After reading information found in the section of the source code, spiders continue on to examine site content. It is wise to remember that spiders read the same way we do, left to right and following columns.

Good content is the most important aspect of search engine optimization. The easiest and most basic rule of the trade is that search engine spiders can be relied upon to read basic body text 100% of the time. By providing a search engine spider with basic text content, SEOs offer the engines information in the easiest format for them to read. While some search engines can strip text and link content from Flash files, nothing beats basic body text when it comes to providing information to the spiders. Very good SEOs can almost always find a way to work basic body text into a site without compromising the designer's intended look, feel and functionality.

The content itself should be thematically focused. In other words, keep it simple. Some documents cover multiple topics on each page, which is confusing for spiders and SEOs alike. The basic SEO rule here is if you need to express more than one topic on a page, you need more pages. Fortunately, creating new pages with unique topic-focused content is one of the most basic SEO techniques, making a site simpler for both live-users and electronic spiders. An important caveat is to avoid duplicate content and the temptation to construct doorway pages specifically designed for search placements.


When writing document content, try to use the strongest keyword targets early in the copy. For example, a site selling the ubiquitous Blue Widget might use the following as a lead-sentence; "Blue Widgets by Widget and Co. are the strongest construction widgets available and are the trusted widget of leading builders and contractors."

The primary target is obviously construction applications for the blue widget. By placing the keyword phrases "blue widgets", "construction widgets" and "trusted widget" along side other keywords such as the singular words, "strongest", "trusted" and "builders" and "contractors", the sentence is crafted to help the search engine see a relationship between these words. Subsequent sentences would also have keywords and phrases weaved into them. One thing to keep in mind when writing basic SEO copy is that unnecessary repetition of keywords is often considered spam by search engines. Another thing to remember is that ultimately, the written copy is meant to be read by human eyes as well as search spiders. Each page or document in the site should have its own unique content.

The last on-site element a spider examines when reading the site (and later relating the content to user queries), is the anchor text used in internal links. Using relevant keyword phrases in the anchor text is a basic SEO technique aimed at solidifying the search engine's perception of the relationship between documents and the words used to phrase the link. A good example is found on towards the bottom of pages in the StepForth site. Note the use of the words "placement services", "seo results", "SEO Faq" and the topic of the internal pages these links point to.

In a nutshell, that's pretty much it to the basics of clean, search engine friendly SEO. The foundation of nearly every successful SEO campaign is simplicity. The goal is to make a site easy to find, easy to follow, and easy to read for search spiders and live-visitors, with well written topical content and a fair number of relevant incoming links. While basic SEO can be time consuming in the early stages, the results are almost always worth it and set the stage for more advanced future work.


About The Author : Jim Hedger is a writer, speaker and search engine marketing expert based in Victoria BC. Jim writes and edits full-time for StepForth and is also an editor for the Internet Search Engine Database. He has worked as an SEO for over 5 years and welcomes the opportunity to share his experience through interviews, articles and speaking engagements. He can be reached at jimhedger@stepforth.com.

Eight Simple Steps For Enhancing Your Website

To be successful with your online business, whether you are selling your own product, services or are selling for other merchants as an affiliate, you need a Web site that focuses on that subject alone. The site must be easy to build, maintenance-free, low cost, credible, and a powerful traffic-builder and customer-converter.Having the right tools or product alone will not ensure the success of your website. There are many factors to be considered when designing your site. And unfortunately, most of these are usually ignored by Internet business owners. Here are eight simple steps to enhance your site and make it profitable.

1. Build It for Speed
There is no denying that in this day and age that people are in a hurry. You have between 10 and 30 seconds to capture your potential customer's attention. To minimize your load time, keep graphics small. Compress them where possible. Use flashy technology (JavaScript, Flash, Streaming Audio/Video, animation) sparingly and only if it is imperative to your presentation.


2. Target Your Market
Know who your market is and make certain that your site caters to their needs. It is critical that your site reflect the values of your potential customers. Is your market mostly business professionals? If so, the site must be clean and professional. Is your product aimed at teenagers and young adults? Then your site could be more informal and relaxed. The key is to know your market and build the site to their preferences.


3. Focus the Site
Make certain your web site is focused on the goal of selling your product or service. If your business offers many products, dedicate a unique page for each instead of trying to sell them all from one page. This can easily be accomplished through the utilization of subdomains.


4. Build Credibility
The most professionally designed site won't sell if your customers don't believe in you. Become an authority in your chosen niche. The internet is all about information, not just marketing. People go to the internet to find information on a particular subject. Providing clear concise articles focused on the subject of your site makes you an expert in your field. Providing a clear privacy statement is also away to build your credibility. Provide a prominent link to your privacy statement from every page on the site as well as from any location that you are asking your visitors for personal information. Provide legitimate contact information on line, including your mailing address and phone number. Don't hide behind a computer!






5. Keep Navigation Simple
Make site navigation easy and intuitive. Simple and smooth navigation adds to the convenience of the visitors. Add powerful search and catalog features. Many times a lot of visitors do not have the patience to navigate through the whole website to find what they are looking for.


6. Keep It Consistent
Make sure the site is consistent in look, feel and design. Nothing is more jarring and disturbing to a customer than feeling as if they have just gone to another site. Keep colors and themes constant throughout the site.


7. Make Your Site Interactive and Personalized
Make your website interactive. Add feedback forms as well as email forms that allow your prospective customers to ask you any questions they might have pertaining to a product. Personalization of your website is another key element that can lead to customer delight and can increase your sales. Personalization technology provides you the analytic tools to facilitate cross-selling and up-selling when the customer is buying online. It would give you an idea of what products to cross-sell and up-sell. For example, when a person buys a CD player, a disc cleaner can also be offered.


8. Content is King
Good content sells a product. Ask yourself the following questions. Does your copy convey the message you wish to get across to your visitors? Is it compelling? Does it lead your visitor through the sales process? Have others review, critique and edit your copy to ensure it is delivering the intended message. Always double-check your spelling and grammar.
These eight, simple rules will go a long way toward the improvement of your website and most importantly, turn visitors into customers.


About The Author: Alden Smith is an award winning author who has been marketing on the internet for over 7 years. His site, http://www.for-the-record.biz, is loaded with articles and information for the beginning blogger and internet marketer. Articles are posted daily, addressing everything from CSS to blogging for the beginning marketer.

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