Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Does Your Website Need a Makeover?

-Five signs that scream YES!

There is an old saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression!” And this saying is never more true that when it comes to your website. When your index page pops up, it better give a good impression or the visitor (and potential customer) will go somewhere else.

But how do you know when it's time to change the look and feel of your site? Here are five signs that it's time to make changes or even start over.

1) Dated Images
Do your images look old? Are there things in the background that indicate the image is not up to date? Have you changed images in the last year? Old images and poor images scream, “get me out of here!” Images and graphics are the first thing people notice when visiting a website. If your images/graphics are not grabbing attention, you are loosing business.

2) Non-Interesting Content
It's just a fact, most people don't like to read. And if your copy (the text on your pages) is not engaging, you'll loose the visitor's attention quickly. Copy should be short and to the point. The use of bullet points, lists and images should be used whenever possible.

To complicate the topic of content even more, it must be interesting to the human visitor as well as search friendly for 'bots. 'Bots are programs that scour the web for content. Search engines use them to find and categorize websites.

'Bots look for key words and phrases that are used when a human does a search. For example, Google keeps track of the word or phrase that is typed into their search field. This information is then 'connected' with the sites that are visited from the search results list. Using this information, Google's complicated algorithms figure out what people are really looking for when they enter a word or phrase. And this information is constantly changing.

What does this all mean to you? It means that if your content is outdated, 'bots may not be listing your site when people are searching for your product or service.

So, is your content interesting to the humans and the 'bots that visit your site?

3) Poor Navigation
Is it easy to find the information needed on your site? You might have a nice navigation bar on your site, but has it been updated lately? Using web/visitor statistics, you should be able to figure out which pages are getting visited the most. Are these pages the most prominent in your navigation system?

Also consider the 'modern' effect... does your navigation system use drop-downs or pop-ups? Web users expect the latest and coolest technology on the web. If your menus are 'old fashion' the visitor is liable to think you service or product is too.

4) Website Statistics
Is your website getting more visitors than it did six months or a year ago? Are visitors staying at your site, looking around, becoming shoppers and not just browsers? Is your site performing better on search engine rankings?

If the answer to any of these questions is not positive, it's time to make changes. (If your current web host does not provide some type of web statistics reporting system, it's time to change hosts!)

Review how visitors are using your site. Discover how most visitors are finding the site and what they're doing while at your site. Analyze the information provided by the web statistics report. If the numbers are not going up, if trends are not moving in a positive direction, it's time to make changes.

5) How Does Your Site Compare?
Look at your site, then look at other sites that do/sell the same thing you do – if you have some direct competitors, pay close attention to their sites. Does yours look as nice as theirs, better than theirs?

For this one, you might need a little help from your friends and family. We often like what we have and are even a little biased when it comes to comparing our stuff to our competitors. It is very important to get several opinions here! If those you ask say that your competitors have better sites than yours, your site is screaming for a makeover!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Search Engine Optimization

The acronym “SEO” refers to “search engine optimization” and is the process of increasing the rank or improving the visibility of a Website or Web page in search results such as those generated by Google, Yahoo and Bing. SEO refers to the 'free' search results generated by these services. There are also paid services (broadly refereed to as SEM – search engine marketing) that can be employed to place Websites above the free search results. (One of these services is the AdWords service offered by Google. But, paid services will be reserved for a different discussion).

SEO may be used as a stand-alone Internet marketing strategy or as a part of a larger marketing plan. Whichever strategy you decide to use, the SEO principles and (good) practices are the same.

Before we begin our discussion of good SEO practices, I should say a quick word about companies that guarantee top 10 ranking or top rankings for a given amount of time. These services are a SCAM! Search engines programmers go to a lot of trouble to make sure that their systems can not be fooled, tricked, manipulated, etc. to give one site a top ranking all the time. And (thinking logically) if there were a trick to guaranteeing a high ranking, everyone would use it. The result would be that no site could be guaranteed to be in the top 10!

So, can anything be done to increase search engine ranking? YES! But, it involves knowing something about how search engines work, how to code in HTML, and the 'art' of writing copy for your Web pages. Let's look at a few good practices that will improve the ranking of your Website or Web page. (By the way, I continue to say, “good practices,” because there are methods known as “black hat” practices that will work to increase your Website's rankings. But, if the search engines discover you are using these methods, your site will be black listed and will be completely removed from search results).

Step 1 – define your target audience.
Wow, this sounds too much like traditional marketing. But, like traditional marketing, there are so many competitors on the Web, you will never stand out to everyone in every search. Defining an audience will greatly help when working through the following steps.

Your target audience may be everyone in a geographical area or everyone planning to visit a geographical area (Disney World for example). Some things to think about when defining your target audience are: age, social standing, economic class, religious affiliation and race.

The target audience might be anyone looking for a service / product you provide. But wait, this one is very broad again. And the idea of finding a target audience is to remove the 'broad' aspect of marketing. At this point it is good to remember that each page of your Website can be set to target a different group. When going through these steps, it's a good idea to think of them with respect to each page of your site!

Step 2 – create a list of key words and phrases.
If you were looking for your product / service on the Web, what might you type into the search bar of Google? Ask a few of your employees or friends to give you a few words or phrases they might use. You might even look at the copy on competitor's sites for a little inspiration (especially if their sites are ranking high on searches).

Once you have a list, give that to your Web developer or SEO expert. They should have tools that allow them to research the phrases most often used by people searching for the services or products you are selling. Your expert should then work with you to incorporate your list with those they've found through their research.

Step 3 – meta tags, copy and other Web stuff
Based on the list you and your expert come up with in step 2, your Web developer can now create meta tags (HTML code) that will allow search engines to 'figure out' what your site is about. The words and phrases from the list should also be incorporated into the copy of your site. Search engines actually test the 'reality' of your meta tag words and phrases by comparing them to your copy. If the page copy does not contain any of the keywords or phrases used in the meta tags, it is tagged as suspicious and possibly fraudulent.

A good Web programmer will also know that other tags should have references to these keywords and phrases as well – title tags, link tags, image tags, etc. should have attributes or wording that relate to the page's target audience, keywords and phrases.

Using the methods discussed in these steps will greatly improve the chances that your page will score high in search engine rankings. But, here are a few things to remember...

+ It may take two or three months to begin ranking high – search engines index pages on a regular basis. They like to see the page show up in the same category several times in a row. This is to decrease the change of including fraudulent pages. So, give it time to work.

+ Most search engines use click frequency to help rank sites/pages. This is because it is assumed that if your page is often clicked when certain phrases are used, it must be relevant to the search.

+ The phrases visitors to search engines use to find services and products can change over time. It is a good idea to review the keywords and phrases you are using periodically – at lease once every year.

+ Narrowing your target audience may be the best way to increase your ranking in search engine results. Remember there are literally MILLIONS of sites out there and every site is trying to get everyone's attention!

+ Finally, for best results take an active part in the process of SEO. Insist that your Web developer designs and codes your site to be search engine friendly. If he/she can't explain the practices and principles listed here, they probably don't really know much about designing for SEO. They may be able to develop an awesome looking site. But if they don't know about search engine friendly practices, your site ranking (and maybe sales) will suffer.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What's on Your Home Page?

What do you have on your website's home page? (The home page is also known as the index page... it's normally the first page people see when they come to your site).

For the past 20 years, home pages have been used mainly as an advertising billboard. These billboards type home pages often have Flash animations (that are slower to load, not search engine friendly, and often ignored), a little info about the company (often ignored too) and some type of menu (maybe the only useful part of the home page). In the past, this was enough. But in these days of social networking and greater community awareness, your home page should be a whole lot more.

So what should a modern home page be? It should be a portal of information – and not necessarily information about your product/service! Think about including lifestyle information, 'green' information and educational information. Your home page should be a launching point to blogs, latest news features, forums and links to other sites related to your product/service.

Let's look at a few of these features:
'Blogs – a blog is a good place to talk about things affecting your industry. For example, if you sell electronics, use your blog to explain acronyms to your visitors. Explain things like HDMI, 1040dpi, etc. Discuss the hot topics in your industry. The idea here is to not focus on your business directly. Use the visitor's interest in your industry to generate interest in your site! (There is no harm in mentioning a product or service you offer that related to the 'blog topic. But remember, the 'blog is an informational tool, not an advertising billboard).

Latest News – this is the place to focus on your business and the products/services you offer... Getting a new product? Hype it up here. Hit a certain sales quota? Taught it here. Expanding to a new location? Highlight that here. If you are having a sale, this would be a good place to tell your visitor. Like 'blogs, your news articles should be rotated often.

Links to other sites – yes, this can actually help your business. (And a good web developer will know to set these links up to open in a new tab, so the visitor never actually leaves your site). For example, a site that is pet related might have links to sites that offer products to help keep track of pets or to directories that list lost pets. The idea here is to be useful to your visitors and earn their loyalty by showing you are concerned with more than taking their money.

Lifestyle and community information – does your business sponsor local events or do you participate in local events? Those should be posted – 5K's, non-profit benefit auction, fallen officer/firefighter benefits, recycling and community clean-up efforts, or any other community action your business is involved in should be shown on your home page.

The final thing to mention is any social networking site you may have a business presence with – Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn... A link to your page on these social networking sites should be included on your home page, along with a symbol representing the network.

There is another benefit to including these things on your home page - they are all good for boosting your site's rank with search engines! 'Blogs and news articles add related search terms to your home page. Links to related sites and social networks, are also good methods to boost search engine rankings.

It's time to move your home page into the present... make it work for you with today's internet user!

As always, comments and questions are welcome!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why Small Businesses Should have a Website

A website is the most cost effective advertising media you can have as a small business owner. There is just no other media which allows you to reach as many people with exactly what you want to say.

Finding an expert to walk you through the process and develop your site is no longer difficult either. There are many individuals and businesses that can develop a professional looking website for you – just search the web for them!

Here are seven reasons you should have a website – no matter what size your business is.

Educate / Inform
One of the main reasons people use the Internet is to learn about products and services before buying. Your site could include a short company history, information about your staff / management, interactive maps to your location, testimonials from satisfied customers, hours of operation, and more. Your site should include a listing and description of your products and services. Websites are unique in the world of advertising media because you can include as much or as little information as you'd like – there are no size limits, circulation limits or image limits.

A well planned, designed and laid-out website will foster trust in your business before your customer calls, visits or purchases.

Your 24/7 Employee
Your website is working even when you are not. It is always available – days, nights, weekends, holidays... always.

A website allows you to provide your customers with the information they want without interacting with a person. With time being such a premium thing these days, this is a benefit to both the customer and you.

Including a frequently-asked-question section on your site is a great way to save everyone time and money!

Customer Communication
As mentioned earlier, there are no limits to what you can present on a website. A professionally designed site can tell your customers you care about them, they are important to your business – even without ever meeting them.

You can keep in contact with customers through newsletters and special offers. Keep track of customers and their purchasing habits with a customer tracking system. Track customer satisfaction with surveys. Using a good balance of these methods shows a customer that you are concerned about their experience – you are concerned about them.

A website also offers a means of consistently keeping your customers informed about sales, new products, changes in services, etc.

Lend Legitimacy to Your Business
A well designed, well functioning, impressive website gives a favorable first impression to your customers. It demonstrates an investment in your business and increases customer confidence, thereby increasing sales.

Well done, professional websites level the playing field – you may not be as big as the other guy, but your products/services, customer care, etc. are, and a professional website can show that.

Research Your Market
With today's analytical tools, you can discover a lot about your market and potential customers based on their web activity. It's possible to track the time of day you have the most visitors to your site, the areas these visitors are from (generally), what pages/products they are visiting on your site, and more.

You can include surveys, questionnaires, and other forms of feedback to discover whether or not your business is meeting the needs of your customers. Using these methods you can also anticipate trends in your industry.

Customers Expect It
People expect a legitimate business to have a website – period! Have you ever been asked (or asked someone else), “what's the web address?” If you (or your current customers) can't give a web address for your business, you just lost business!

It is also very likely that your competitors have a website. If potential customers cannot find a website for your business, it's likely you've just made a sale for one of your competitor.

Most Cost Effective Marketing Available
Many people turn to the web first when searching for a business or service. According to internetworldstats.com more people go on-line to find businesses than turn to the Yellow Pages and newspapers combined! The Internet allows you to reach local, regional, and international markets in a way no other advertising media can.

An Internet presence offers a better return-on-investment than any other media as well. The cost of developing a very professional website and hosting that site for a year is less than a “boxed” Yellow Pages ad, less than a quarter page, one week run in a local newspaper, and less than a 1000 color brochures. And after the initial development, your cost is even less each year. There is just no other advertising media that is as versatile and cost effective as a professional website!

One Exception to the “You Must have a Website” Rule
It's actually better to have no website at all than to have one that makes your business look bad. Your site speaks volumes about your business. It either says, "Hey, look, we take our business so seriously that we have created this wonderful site for our customers!" or it screams, "Hey, look, I let my 10-year-old nephew design my site. Good luck finding anything!"

Friday, January 15, 2010

Time to Switch from Internet Explorer?

Many of you may have heard of the China-based attacks on Google and other U.S. companies this week. The vulnerability behind the attacks is commonly known as the zero-day hole. And it is a vulnerability in the Microsoft browser only.

The effected versions of the browser are Internet Explorer (a.k.a IE) 6, 7 and 8. And all the most recent versions of the Windows operating system are effected as well... including Windows 7.

But even if you haven't heard of the China-based attacks, you may find out about the 'zero-day hole soon. That's because the code that exploits this vulnerability was released on the Internet this week. Yes, the bad guys don't seem to think they've caused enough trouble yet. So, they've put the code out there for every hacker to use. It is quite likely that we will see new attacks that effect the general public coming very soon. And Microsoft does not have a fix (patch) out yet.

This might be a good time to check out other browsers. My favorite is Firefox. Use this link (http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/personal.html) to download Firefox. You will also be introduced to the many ways to customize Firefox. There are literally thousands of plug-ins and add-ons for this browser. And it is more secure and friendlier to use than Internet Explorer.

If you decide to stick to IE, I would recommend extreme caution when browsing to sites you don't know. And update as soon as has that latest patch ready. (Of course that's always good advice with any Microsoft product).