The bottom line on SEO? Forget the tricks and schemes. Forget the junk directories, link farms, and content mills. Cover the basics. Provide quality content. Provide a good user experience.
Twelve days ago, I launched my New and Improved website. It’s been a long time coming. I have a new design, new content, and a great new webhost. I started on this project a couple of years ago, and worked on it in dribs and drabs whenever things slowed down. Like the barefoot cobbler, I had a few blisters on my metaphorical feet before my final push to publish.
The biggest change is the official announcement of the Start-up Brand Identity Package. Even before announcing it on the website, I had booked two packages with start-up companies. One was so successful, they were bought out before the logo design was even finished!
Some of the changes in my website reflect a shift in my business model—incorporating more branding and marketing, and focusing on start-up companies. It reflects a maturing in how I brand my own company as it approaches its tenth anniversary. It also incorporates better techniques for lead generation, of the sort I might recommend should you hire me to design your website:
- Design for your audience, not your colleagues
When I designed the first (2004) and second (2010) versions of the Red Beret Design website, in the back of my mind was how it would be perceived by other graphic designers. I was torn between designing something that looked cool and designing something that was an effective business channel. With this design, I ditched the cool factor entirely, and focused entirely on a clean, clear design of the sort that makes for effective business communication.
- It’s about them, not you
The first Red Beret Design website was basically a portfolio with a contact form. The second had a montage of designs front and center on the home page. The new home page focuses first and foremost on what I can do to help your business. The portfolio links are at the bottom of the page.
This was another step away from designing for designers. For a graphic designer, the portfolio is the center of the universe. When you are graduating design school, a degree is not enough: your focus is to build a portfolio to demonstrate what you’ve learned. And when you apply for jobs, creative directors and art directors and marketing managers are more interested in viewing your portfolio than they are in reading your resumé.
Of course I still have a portfolio as a major section of the website. But it’s no longer front and center. It’s there as a demonstration of what I have done for other clients, of the quality and professionalism of my work. But what is more important to convey is what I am able to provide for you, not what I provided for someone else at some point in the last 10 years.
- Take expert advice with a grain of salt
Putting together the Start-up Brand Identity Package—and stating a specific price for it—flies in the face of most of the advice I have received in nearly ten years of running a design business. The expert wisdom is that if you state a price, you are competing on price. And that you need to compete on value. And that you never talk money until the potential customer is so convinced of your value that they will pay anything to work with you, because you are so awesome.
It is the rare client who says to me “Spend however much time you need, money is no object”. Oh, did I say rare? That’s the wrong word. Nonexistent is more accurate. Everyone is concerned about their budget. Whether the budget is big or small, it’s not unlimited. Clearly stating what I provide for a certain price saves everybody time. If someone has only $500, they know they can’t afford my start-up package. If someone wants a team of designers coming up with hundreds of logo concepts, and months of brand research and focus group testing, they can tell that my process is more limited. But if a start-up company needs a professional brand launch, they can budget under $5k and be up and running.
I still compete on value. I just do so at a stated price.
- Have prominent Calls to Action
My previous website had a contact form, and had a phone number and email link at the bottom of each page. Now I have a contact form in the sidebar of every page, and a different contact form in the sidebars of the pages devoted to the Start-up Brand Identity Package. This makes it easy for people to initiate contact the moment they decide, but it also makes it easier for me to track my conversions using Google Analytics.
- Have lots of search engine optimized content
One of the nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned about search engine optimization (SEO) is that the best SEO is also good communication for humans. By having a separate page for each service that I offer, I am able to optimize that page for specific keywords. But it also enables me to tell you in greater depth how I can help you with direct mail design, or advertising design, or more about my web design process.
Keeping a blog, by the way, is one of the best ways to add search-engine-optimized content to your website. Considering that this is my first blog post in eight months, this is another case of the barefoot cobbler.
- Don’t use a content slider
I actually designed this site originally to have a content slider on the home page (a content slider is one of those popular website gizmos where the main image changes every few seconds). As someone who used to do motion design, I guess I just didn’t want my page to be so static. In the back of my mind, I knew it was a bad idea. I’d learned as much when I was art director at a company in the 1990s that tested rotating content in our usability lab. About a week before launch, my husband—not knowing that I was redesigning my website to feature a content slider—railed against content sliders after reading an article about how they don’t work. So I did my own research, and found plenty of evidence from respected usability experts about the awfulness of content sliders (according to leading user experience expert Jakob Nielsen, they “Annoy Users and Reduce Visibility”.
So I ditched two of the three slides and launched with just the one promoting the Start-up Brand Identity Package. Of course, having a big graphic may just lead to “banner blindness”. I suppose that, being a graphic designer, I just had to have a graphic somewhere on the page. Maybe I need to go back and re-read #1 on this list…
NAWBO (the National Association of Women Owned Business) and web.com conducted a survey on the State of Women-Owned Businesses. The area they cited as most important to their bottom line was web design and maintenance, followed by social media marketing and SEO, and email marketing.
Are you a women entrepreneur who would like to work with a woman-owned web design business? Contact Red Beret Design!
This article on optimizing your Facebook content in order to take advantage of Facebook’s new Graph Search makes a lot of sense, but I doubt that it is applicable for most companies that don’t cater to consumers. While I may be interested in what restaurants my friends like in Durham, or what books my friends are reading, I don’t get any social-network-mediated results for, say, printer affiliate programs, or SEO consultants. What I do get are results from Bing, the Microsoft search engine. A distant second to Google in terms of search traffic, optimizing for Bing could become more critical if people begin using Facebook for searching rather than hopping over to Google.
I read an eye-opening article today about the hazards of (some) free WordPress themes. The article, entitled “Why you should never search for free WordPress themes” analyzes the code in WordPress themes downloaded from the top 10 Google results for the search query “free WordPress themes”. MOST of the themes the author, Siobhan McKeown, examines are problematic: from the most benign (e.g., not being updated to the current version of WordPress) to the sneaky (links hidden way off screen using CSS) to dangerous…most of the free themes downloaded included base64, an encoding scheme often used to hide malicious code, which can mess up your site big time.
This is not to say that all free WordPress themes are bad. But be cautious about how you find them. The one link in her top 10 Google results that was worthwhile was the link to WordPress themes on WordPress.org. Even here (or anywhere—even with commercial themes), you need to check to see how up-to-date the theme is with the current version of WordPress. But at least you won’t have to worry about infecting your website with malware.
I’m a loyal user of Thesis, which is not a free theme, but I well-designed, well-supported theme framework. Although you could use the Thesis design right out of the box, as a framework it is intended as a launching pad for developing your own, unique, branded designs. Unlike many themes, you are not limited to a set layout, and absolutely not limited in terms of color or typography. In addition, there are tools for enhancing your on-page search engine optimization.
As of today, DIY Themes has release Thesis 2.0. I’ll be updating the design of this website in the near future, and am looking forward to the opportunity to test drive Thesis 2.0.
How thoroughly have you thought about your website? Have you considered every aspect of what makes a website successful? Sometimes companies concentrate so much on one aspect of web design, content or technology that they neglect other important factors.
The building blocks of a successful website can differ depending on your point of view. Best practices in one frame of reference may conflict with what is considered best practices in another. Like the tale of Six Blind Men and an Elephant, a web design can appear in different ways to different people. The concerns of one expert may support those of another, or they may conflict. It’s worth the time to step back and look at how your website looks in the eyes of different disciplines, with the realization that what works best in one practice area may compromise results in another. Try looking at your website through the eyes of a:
- Usability expert
- Information architect
- Brand strategist
- Graphic designer
- Web developer
- Copy writer
- Marketing director
- Advertising sales manager
- Business development director
- SEO consultant
- Social media consultant
- Content manager
The questions asked by each of these specialists, experts in their own disciplines, demonstrate why building a successful website can be a complex process.
A usability expert may be concerned with the following:
- Is it obvious what is a link and what is not?
- Is it clear where every link will lead?
- Can the users find what they are looking for?
- Can the user accomplish a task efficiently?
- How fast does the page load?
An information architect will be looking at the overall structure of the site, especially for sites with a lot of content. Questions an information architect might ask include:
- Does the website have a logical taxonomy (i.e., system of categories and sub-categories)?
- Does the navigation reflect the taxonomy?
- Is content sorted according to this taxonomy?
- Are relationships between different types of content clear?
The brand manager for the company or product promoted by the website may have a different point of view. The brand manager will be looking at whether the website is consistent with the brand:
- Does the website conform to the brand style guidelines regarding color, typeface, and imagery?
- Is the logo prominent?
- Is the copy consistent with our brand messaging?
- Does the design of the website evoke the feeling that we want our brand to evoke: e.g., security or fun or quality or value?
The graphic designer will be concerned with a layout that is clear and logical, an attractive color scheme, and typestyles that are set in a hierarchy that clarifies the relative importance of the content. The graphic designer will want the design to be visually interesting, and will be cognizant of the subconscious associations that are evoked by different colors, typestyles, images and textures. The graphic designer will ask:
- Is the content laid out clearly, in a logical flow, with the most important elements being more prominent than the less important elements?
- Are elements grouped together logically?
- Is it visually interesting?
- Does the design evoke the proper emotion, e.g. calm or edgy or classic or funky?
- Does the design evoke the proper era? Is it contemporary? Retro? Timeless? Or is it the look that was really cool 10 years ago?
The web developer will be looking under the hood at what makes the site run. Questions the developer might ask include:
- Is it a standards-compliant website?
- Does it work on all major browsers?
- Is the width optimal for the screen sizes that are most used today?
- Is it accessible to people with disabilities? On a mobile phone?
- Is the code error-free? Commented?
- Is there a separate cascading style sheet?
- Is it a database-driven website?
The copywriter is going to be concerned with the meaning and voice of the language on the website.
- Is there a hook right at the beginning to compel the reader to read more?
- Is the copy persuasive? Informative? Amusing?
- Is the copy succinct? The point clear?
- Are the grammar, spelling and punctuation correct?
The marketing director will want to know if the copy is supporting the marketing goals of the company—encouraging purchases, getting people to pick up the phone or fill out a form for more information. The marketing director will be focused on how the website performs as an engine for generating business.
- Is there a compelling offer?
- Is there a clear call to action?
- Is the website generating leads or direct sales?
- Is there a way to track and nurture the leads?
- Are we capturing email addresses or phone numbers? Demographic information?
- Can people sign up for a newsletter?
- Do we know how people are finding the website? Who they are, where they go, what they look at?
The advertising sales manager—on sites that sell advertising, that is—will be interested in the websites attractiveness to advertisers. The ad sales team will want to know:
- How many unique visitors come to our website every day?
- What pages of the website do people visit? What are they looking for? What do they look at?
- What spaces are available on each page for selling advertising? Are those spaces prominent? What sizes can the ads be? Do they conform to IAB specifications?
- Will the website support Google AdSense?
- What is the clickthrough rate on ads?
- Are both graphic and text ads available? How about pop-up ads?
- Are there opportunities for sponsors to submit content?
The business development director’s concerns may be similar to the marketing director or advertising sales manager. Business development may also involve partners or investors whose contributions need to be reflected on the website. So a business development director may want to know:
- Is there a prominent place for the logos of our major partners and investors?
- Is there a place to feature content about our partners and investors?
- Can our site drive traffic to our partners?
- Is there a place on the site to invite companies to invest in us or partner with us?
The Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Consultant will be primarily concerned with how people find your website using Google, Bing, or other search engines. The SEO Consultant will want to know:
- What keyword phrases should the site be optimized for?
- What are the Google results for those keyword phrases?
- What “long-tail keywords” can we rank for?
- Do the keyword phrases appear in the page titles, H1 tags, image alt tags, meta description and content?
- Is all the copy actual html text rather than graphics of text?
- Is each page optimized for a different keyword phrase?
- Are the page title and meta description the optimal length?
- Is there a blog, or another strategy for ongoing content publishing?
- Are there a lot of high-quality inbound links?
The Social Media Consultant will be less concerned with the website itself and more concerned with how your website interacts with social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, social bookmarking sites such as StumbleUpon and Digg, and whether people can follow, share, and subscribe to your content. The Social Media Consultant will want to know how you interact with your readers and followers across platforms, as well as how you interact with others in your networks and on others’ blogs and forums. The Social Media Consultant may ask:
- Are there links to follow you on Facebook and Twitter? To connect with you on LinkedIn?
- Is there an RSS feed to subscribe to your blog?
- How many followers and subscribers do your accounts have?
- Does your Facebook page have unique content, or is it just a rehash of your website?
- Is there a plan to regularly publish content to your blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc.?
- Is there an easy way for you to push new content out to Facebook, Twitter, and social bookmarking sites?
- Is there a way for users to share content via social networks, social bookmarking sites, and email?
- Are there automatic tools, as well as regular moderation, to prevent spam comments?
- Is there a plan and a published policy in place to moderate comments to prevent hijacking, irrelevance, and flame wars, as well as to respond to inquiries and legitimate criticism?
- Do key executives and staff have complete profiles on LinkedIn?
- Do key executives and staff participate regularly in industry forums and LinkedIn groups? Do they blog and respond to comments?
The Content Manager is responsible for what gets published, by whom, according to what schedule. The Content Manager will be be interested not only in the technical details of the platform used for publishing content, but also the workflow between writers and other content providers, editors and publishers, and the overall editorial calendar. The Content Manager will want to know:
- What Content Management System (CMS) is the website built on?
- Is the CMS easy to use for people who are not technically savvy?
- Are there multiple levels of access and approval, e.g., writer, editor and publisher? What are the criteria for approval and publishing?
- Is there an editorial calendar? How far in advance is it developed? Is there a need to change/interrupt the calendar for breaking news and unexpected events?
- Will all content be developed in house, or will content be provided by third parties, e.g., advertisers or partners?
- Will any content be provided via RSS or other feed?
- Does the content need to tie in with advertising?
- Will the content be open for user comments? Who will moderate the comments? What are the moderation criteria?
The beauty of the web is that you can launch a website with as little as one page and a phone number quickly, simply and cheaply. But to build a successful web presence that grows your business, try building these questions into your web design process.
Google has announced Google Instant, a new technique that will save you seconds—seconds—of valuable time. Which, for those of us that use google umpteen times a day, can add up. I’m excited by the prospect of shaving a minute or two off my workload per day; who wouldn’t be? That’s a whole ‘nuther minute I can spend making snarky comments on my friends’ facebook posts.
But what I think will be most useful in this new tool is how it will make it easier to do keyword research. Although I’m sure I will continue to use other tools—such as Hubspot, Market Samurai and of course Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics—for quantifying and comparing, the instant suggestions of other common search terms will be a great quick check. What remains to be seen is how people will use this in the long run, and the effect of that behavior on SEO strategy. Will people take the closest suggestion, and not bother typing the more specific phrase they had in mind? Or will they choose a more specific phrase from the list, rather than the generic phrase they had intended? Or will they ignore the suggestions altogether, and type in whatever they darn well please?
For all those reclaimed seconds of time, though, I’ll probably waste an hour just playing with Google Instant to see what it suggests. Glad to see that it autofills “red beret design” when you type “red beret”, even before the US Air Force and the Guardian Angels. But now I have to go find out what a red beret has to do with something called Runescape, and listen to the red beret song…
Oh yeah, this will save me lots of time.