Lost in Translation?
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If that was all Greek to you, don’t worry. To most, it might as well have been. They never would have known the difference. In the truest sense of the phrase, this is pretty much how it feels when a non-tech-savvy person tries to utilize, market with or even improve his Web site—the classic “failure to communicate” (speaking louder and gesticulating wildly won’t help you, either). And if you happen to think Twitter is merely the sound of annoying laughter or still have a Friendster profile, that “non-tech-savvy person” is probably you.
No comprende? (Spanish, yes, but you get the drift.) It’s worse than we thought. The Internet is not a fad. It’s not going anywhere. But instead of working for their hosts, many of today’s Web sites are working against them. In plain English, “Nothing will lose customer trust faster than a poorly designed or unusable Web site,” confirmed Nick Finck, director of user experience at Seattle-based Web-design firm Blue Flavor.
Your crash course in Web fundamentals begins right here, right now.
What’s the Use?
Whether the site needs a complete overhaul or a few minor tweaks, it is essential to consider its user population from the get-go. “Web site usability relies heavily on understanding who the users are and listening to them,” Finck said. Though this can be accomplished in many ways, including focus groups and surveys, the best one he’s found is actually sitting down and talking with customers about their experiences.
Robin Williams, author of The Non-Designer’s Design Book, goes one step further. She suggested having someone who’s never been to your site navigate each page in front of you, pretending they are your target audience. “Your job is to put duct tape over your mouth and tie your hands behind your back—just watch,” Williams emphasized. Although those measures may be slightly extreme, it all goes back to one crucial point. “The key is to identify the target users you wish to focus on and design your Web site to best accommodate them,” Finck affirmed. The bonus? These information-gathering techniques are often budget-friendly, he said.
Immersion technique #1: Get three to five people together and watch them navigate your site. Don’t help. Instead, take copious notes and have them explain in exact terms just where they get tripped up. “Put this information together into a cohesive list for yourself [that includes] exactly what you think needs to be done, and exactly what you discovered from watching potential visitors [surf] your site,” Williams said.
Untangle the Web
For distributors, Web sites are mainly used as lead-generation tools—ways to put the company in front of potential end-buyers in the hopes they will like, and subsequently choose, their services. As with all marketing collateral, every choice is important. “We can’t help it—we judge the quality of the product based on the quality of the Web site,” revealed Williams.
But planning in a vacuum can lead to what Ian Lurie, president of Seattle-based Internet marketing agency Portent Interactive, calls ego-driven design. “Too often, businesses insist on a feature because they think it is important,” he noted. “But it’s only important to them.” Often, the person in charge of the site is simply too close to the business and knows too much about its services to be able to see things from a customer’s perspective, added Finck.
Reaching out to a third-party designer can help circumvent these issues, even if he just provides a framework of solutions. To remain budget-conscious throughout the process, Finck suggested prioritizing a list of problems with the site and doing the redesign in stages (even if over the course of a few years) in order to have enough capital to completely solve a few problems, rather than stretching the cash and only marginally addressing all of them.
Although, Williams said, “Anyone can create a simple site with individual pages and links and make it look perfectly great,” bear in mind that, as features get more complicated—e.g., adding registration pages, calendars that need to be updated, etc.—site maintenance will become an increasingly full-time job.
A good Web developer can properly position a company to accomplish this task internally, she said. Ask to be pointed toward a quality content-management
system (CMS), such as Drupal or Joomla, that will ease upkeep. CMS is typically a Web-based tool that allows an in-house administrator to easily change text and/or graphics by generating the necessary HTML codes automatically.
Immersion technique #2: Put a lot of time initially into your site’s organization and hierarchy (how each page links to the next), Williams suggested. Use sticky notes to shift and rearrange pages so the navigation follows an intuitive order.
The Search Starts Here
No matter how good your site looks, nothing will matter if people can’t find it. “Search engines currently generate 75 percent of everything that happens online and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” Lurie maintained.
Implementing quality search engine optimization (SEO) tactics on your Web site will help improve your rankings when a customer searches on Google and the like. Simply, “People aren’t going to click through 199 results just to find you,” said Heather Lloyd-Martin, president and CEO of search marketing solutions provider SuccessWorks in Bellingham, Wash.
According to Lloyd-Martin, you can split your game plan into three areas of opportunity: technology, content and link strategy. Starting with technology means going back to your Web site’s design. If your site is password-protected, primarily image-based, or built on an older CMS system, these things could affect how the search engines read your pages. Lloyd-Martin related a good rule of thumb to keep in mind: “When you have a site that’s good for search engines … it’s good for users.”
From a content standpoint, both the caliber of the copy and the addition of keyphrases (the search terms by which you’d like your company to be found) helps your pages rank well. Deep, rich content, such as white papers and executive bios, clues search engines in to the fact you’re a quality site with quality information.
Finally, the integrity of links within your own site, as well as those external pages that point to you, helps search engines find you. Each page on your site should be as cross-referenced as possible. As for external links, if respected sites are directing their own visitors to you as a well-regarded services provider, Lloyd-Martin likened it to a positive “vote” for your site. Just remember, “always use descriptive text for links,” Lurie said. “Writing ‘Learn more’ is great, but writing ‘Learn more about widgets’ is better.”
Immersion technique #3: With SEO, if it sounds too good to be true—it is. Read Google’s Webmaster Info section for the specific no-no’s, but a few include keyphrase stuffing, using invisible text and participating in free link exchanges.
The rise of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter as well as the popularity of blogging have given marketers many more ways to connect with their audience. But
collectively, social networking tools are an animal all their own. “These platforms are not places where you should market to someone,” Finck emphasized. “The idea is to build followers and respect within your area of business.”
Basically, your Web site is the place to sell your services. Conversely, “On Facebook, create a group page and entertain visitors, while also offering useful, non-branded information,” Lurie said. “On Twitter, offer customer support,” he added. These sites provide chances to establish yourself as a thought leader in your industry.
On the other hand, a blog is (slightly) more forgiving in that it’s less stringent in terms of the “right way” to dialogue with customers. Holly Berkley, Internet marketing consultant and author of Marketing in the New Media, explained: “It puts a personal feel on your Web site, which can make potential customers feel like they know you better, and possibly trust you.” Yes, you can throw in a special offer every now and then on a blog (don’t you dare try it on Facebook, though). However, the rest of the time “provide all sorts of information about what you do,” Lurie said. “The stuff that seems simple to you is arcane to your audience.”
Immersion technique #4: With social media, a long-term approach will guarantee success. “Companies should stay away from these sites unless they’re ready to invest six to 12 months adding real value to the community,” said Lurie.
There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that is an engaging, user-friendly, good-looking, effective Web site. “Don’t expect all site changes to pay off immediately,” Lurie said.
Knowing how to find what works and what doesn’t is an invaluable tool in achieving quantifiable results. Site traffic-reporting tools such as Google Analytics can help you determine what turned people off (“top exit pages”), said Berkley, as well as how many people visited and how long they stayed.
Nevertheless, reports must be put into context, noted Lurie. “Did a radio station have a feature about you last week? Maybe that’s why online sales jumped, which means radio is a good medium for you.” By using the analytics to track your key performance indicators (KPIs)—i.e., the amount of leads generated or time spent on the site—you gain a practical knowledge of how the site is helping you in your sales strategy, he affirmed.
Immersion technique #5: In the end, save your time and your sanity when it comes to Internet marketing. Setting firm, reachable goals; prioritizing problems; and being realistic about time frames and cost concerns can make this not only a lucrative project, but an interesting one as well. “If users visit the Web site, achieve what they were hoping to get done, and leave happily after engaging with your business—then that is a success,” Finck concluded.