Having a website is an essential part of doing business these days, but is yours good enough to turn visitors into customers? Helen French investigates...
If you live, work and breathe in the technology industry, people around you may assume that it’s a simple matter to whack up a website, but it’s worth taking the time to do it properly if you want to seriously compete against others in the same marketplace.
It’s impossible to fit an exhaustive guide to website optimisation into a short web article, but this should provide a good starting point for any budding webmaster who wants to make the most out of their domain.
HOW’S IT LOOKING?
Web optimisation tends to come in the same breath as the (sometimes intimidating) letters SEO, but before we get into exactly what that means, let’s look at web optimisation generally.
Getting visitors is a milestone in itself, but what happens once they’re at your website? It’s hard work turning them into customers, and any obstacles could persuade them to look for another site instead of shopping at yours.
Scott Wilkinson, from specialist repair firm SimplyFixIT, says: “We’ve learnt a lot about how the web works over the last ten to 15 years, and we’ve realised that more and more customers expect their web experience to be perfect. Little niggly issues will cause them to click away to the next site. So a site that’s put together by one of the guys in the shop who knows a bit about HTML doesn’t really cut it any more.”
There are myriad basic issues to consider. Think about disability access – can the site be easily navigated by those with visual problems, for example?
Broadband speeds vary wildly around the country – never mind the globe. Are your pictures optimised so that they won’t take forever and a day to load?
There’s mobile to consider too. Mobile users have smaller screens to contend with, and generally don’t want to navigate confusing layouts with lots of elements to download. You can use mobile website software to optimise your site for smartphones, or ask an agency to help out. If you want to build it yourself, you could put a mobile version on a subdomain and direct visitors there.
It’s important to keep up website maintenance, before and after a site is launched. You need to test it thoroughly, or risk annoying visitors. It may help to think about the different types of people who might access your site, and to trial all the different routes they might take through it. You could also test that your site runs properly with lots of people accessing it at once.
Three little letters that mean so much – if you understand them. In a nutshell, Search Engine Optimisation is all about making sure your site is designed to perform well in the rankings when web users use search engines – otherwise, how will anyone find you? As Freddie Ramm from Tandem Solutions says: “The best shop in the world will fail if it’s built in the middle of nowhere.”
To take advantage of SEO, you have to consider all the ways visitors may use search. It can be a bit overwhelming for the uninitiated, so we asked firms with experience in SEO for their tips.
Greg Stewart from Propeller Studios gets to the root of how many IT searches begin: “Lots of savvy customers will have an idea what they’re looking for, so it’s important to make sure your website allows you to publish and optimise pages for product-based searches such as ‘SPEEDLINK SL-8747- SSV-01’. This will help you get to page one in Google and attract these active customers who are ready to buy.”
Tony Dimmock, from Dimmock Web Marketing, gets a bit more technical, and says: “The most important areas to optimise are:
1) Individual title tags for every page;
2) Individual meta descriptions that give a snippet of info regarding the content of the page;
3) Main Headings (H1 Tags) and Sub Headings (H2 Tags) – similar to how newspapers present content;
4) Ensure page text includes the keywords targeted, using bullet points, italic text and bold text where possible;
5) Use alternative text (Alt-Text) for images that include keywords.”
If this is all alien to you, you may want to head straight to our Choose the right team section, below.
He recommends thinking about off- page SEO, including link building. “This involves obtaining links from other online communities to a website. This can include forums, directories, trade associations, blogs – in fact any online entity that is industry-related, focused and authoritative in the search engine’s eyes.”
THE RETAILER’S HEADACHE
One problem looms particularly large for retailers – when you stock the same products as someone else, how do you get ahead of them on searches?
Lawrence Brendish from FutureStore comments: “The web is one giant price comparison machine, so if you are selling the same items as thousands of others you’ll need to ask yourself ‘Why would somebody buy from me?’”
Unique content is top of the list for Michael Spencer from Epsilis: “The bottom line is that a significant amount of effort has to be put into making the website content as good as it can be – it needs to be comprehensive, useful and unique. How tos, reference manuals, reviews, FAQs, case studies, maintenance routines, hints and tips and so on are good ways of building good quality helpful content.”
For retailers branching out onto the web, the ecommerce system they work with is vitally important. Often the one you use will be whichever your web host or web designer offers, but here are a few tips.
Ramm suggests: “Don’t try and save a few pounds. Opening a real store would cost tens of thousands of pounds so in perspective almost any ecommerce system is a bargain. Keep checkout processes to a single page where possible. If you have to have multi-page forms or checkouts, make sure it’s clear how far customers have to go – stage one of three, etc.”
Dimmock has some advice here too: “Whichever platform is chosen, ensure:
1) That updating product information is simple;
2) The system includes full SEO compatibility;
3) The system is open source and not bespoke – ie if the designer goes out of business or leaves the country, you don’t want to be left with a website that you don’t fully own and;
4) The system allows full compatibility with your chosen type of payment gateway (Worldpay, Paypal etc) – you’d be surprised at how many ‘ecommerce’ systems have real problems and issues with setting up payment gateways.”
CHOOSE THE RIGHT TEAM
You may prefer to call in help from an outside source to make a professional looking website and choosing the right people to work with is essential. Price isn’t necessarily the key indicator of how good a firm is. Do your research and place more priority on expertise. Does the agency you’re working with have experience of getting good results? As Ramm says: “Your business is too important to be someone else’s guinea pig as they learn to build online stores.”
Steve Walsh, sales director of IT distributor Meroncourt, worked with Propeller Studios for the latest version of the firm’s site, and says: “We have great skills in-house for design, but we found using an agency gave us a greatly reduced time scale to get to the finished product. The most important part of the whole procedure is detailing exactly what you expect from the site and agreeing this with the designers at the early stages. Ensure you have as much control over the site as possible – can you upload banners, and can you amend the structure yourself?”
Finally, a good piece of advice to remember from Brendish: “The devil’s in the detail. A web developer that has some history will know about all the little things that need to be in place for your site to achieve its full potential.”