The Five Horsemen of Webmastery

Many business websites are created from scratch, either in-house (if you're a small firm with a good grasp of HTML etc) or by an external agency. The problem with either of those options is that you're probably quite likely to focus on one part of the process, at the cost of all the others.

For instance, as a small business leader, it's easy to prioritise having an eyecatching website, because you want to stand out from the crowd. But of course, if most of your site traffic is arriving via search, 'standing out' is a matter of having the most search-visible website, not the most graphics-based.

There are many combinations of what I call the Five Horsemen of Webmastery that seem mutually exclusive, but if you strike the right balance you can get the following five elements just right:
  • copy
  • SEO
  • site design
  • usability
  • accessibility
Copy

I'm a writer, so for me the copy is the most important consideration. I think that's supported by what I've seen in practice though - even search-optimised sites can perform better with more compelling content. SEO can win you better search rankings and more traffic, but if your pages appear stuffed with keywords you're not going to convert those visitors into sales.

What I've seen ranges from websites so compelling that people willingly type in the URL, rather than arriving via search, to long-form landing pages written with keywords placed so subtly as to be unnoticeable to the casual observer. This last part is the real skill of search-visible web copy, and is often overlooked by dedicated SEO agencies in their tweaking of websites.

SEO

I'm not trying to sound down on SEO - it is of course an important part of the process for the modern-day web. As Google and its peers continue to incorporate reviews, inbound links and social networking into their ranking algorithms, however, on-page SEO is changing.

It's no longer enough to force a paragraph of keywords into your homepage and hope for the best. Your text as a whole needs to be clear, concise and compelling - after all, if you're optimising for conversion, rather than for search rankings, you need to remember that most people won't read a huge page of text and that there should be options to click through to an ordering/sales page throughout.

There are more specific concerns, too. Modern design means background images etc should be placed in an external CSS file, rather than using <img> tags on the page. But each time you move an image to CSS, you lose the option of giving it keyworded alt and title attributes.

It's a three-way compromise between the commitment to SEO, the desire for best-practice website design and an awareness of accessibility - do you include purely descriptive title attributes for your few visitors who use screen-reader software, search-optimised attributes to stay higher in the SERPs, or no attributes at all as you move pictures to your CSS? It's your call.

Site Design

These five things are in no particular order, but I'm glad I didn't put website design at the top. Is it important? Sure. A 'well-designed' website can mean anything from a site that loads successfully with no errors, to an animated Flash-fest full of games and downloads and other value-added content for your customers.

'Well designed' in the modern sense should also mean search visible, though. Google warned this week that sites with Flash-only homepages risk appearing incorrectly in its new page previews, which are similar to the snapshots Bing has been providing for years. Check out the Google blog post here.

A 'good' site design, then, is not just eyecatching - it's a balance between being graphics-intensive and containing enough text and non-multimedia content to (a) display properly on a variety of different platforms and browser capabilities and (b) provide search engine robots with enough crawlable text to rank effectively.

Usability

Again, this feeds into the considerations outlined above. So many graphics-intensive websites seem to be a self-indulgence for their designers, keen to show off what they can do regardless of whether it's good for the user experience. A fine example of this is Google's short-lived homepage fade-in function (don't remember it? Click here for Google's take on why it was a 'good' idea). This basically introduced a loading-time delay on the Google homepage for everything but the main search box and was branded as gimmicky and unnecessary by critics among the search engine's user base.

It's also the only thing that's ever really come close to driving me away from Google - I actually tried Yahoo! for a little while during the fade-in incident, and only really became satisfied with Google again when the fade was switched off. I run hundreds of searches a day, at work and for leisure, and each one was subjected to about a half-second delay - that's minutes of my life, per day, wasted on a graphical gimmick.

So keep this in mind when laying out your site - navigation shouldn't animate in any way that slows down its function. Your main, static pages should be no more than two clicks away. There should be something - a site map, a blog archive, a search box - that makes all of your other content reachable, too. And if you do use Flash for a large part of your site, make sure there's enough content to cater for people who don't have the plug-in installed (even if it's just a 'HTML version' text link on the front page).

Accessibility

We've actually segued neatly into accessibility issues there - because many of the people who don't have Flash, or can't see your graphics-based navigation, are likely to be using screen-readers or other applications that help to overcome disabilities. Bizarrely, accessibility is one of the most neglected areas of website design - you spend thousands on a sparkly new site, without considering the percentage of visitors who can actually view it.

Imagine Flash as one of those gate-opening key fobs you get if you live in a posh block of flats. Make your site Flash-based, and only people with a fob - ie, with the Flash plug-in installed - can get in. Add pedestrian access and a disabled ramp, and you're suddenly much more welcoming.

Accessibility can be as simple as giving images descriptive title and alt attributes so blind visitors understand what they represent when their screen-reader software reaches the next picture, to entire secondary CSS files that increase contrast and text size.

Indeed, returning to text content as the mainstay of good design, there's a compelling argument in favour of relative font sizes - "+1" rather than "16px" - as they allow all the text on-screen to adjust if the visitor uses the 'Text Size' override in their browser's View options. Use specific font sizes and you risk making it impossible for your text to be made legible for people who need large-print content due to a visual impairment.

Summing Up

There's a lot of scatter-gun information there, because there's a lot going on. If you're planning on getting it all right, you're going to need to be very careful. Speak to your web designers about accessibility and usability right from the start, or you're likely to get something that looks great but hasn't been thoroughly tested for how easy it is to use.

As for the text content - don't get a copywriter with no understanding of SEO to write it, and then an SEO agency to 'optimise' it. Hire someone like me, who can produce you text that suits the search spiders and your human readers alike, with keywords placed effectively but subtly, and with all of the elements of consumer psychology needed to help raise not just traffic levels, but conversion levels too.

No comments:

Post a Comment