10 Tips for Recession-Proofing Your Web Site
What you can do cheaply and easily to ensure your web site is really supporting your business.
So we're in a global crisis of some kind. Maybe it's a recession, maybe it's a banking crisis, or a credit crunch. Maybe it's a mass delusion; but it's real because we can feel its effects.
Some big names have already disappeared from the market. At our agency, we've certainly noticed a few companies finding it harder to pay invoices, and I'm sure most people out there are tightening their belts, watching costs, and planning more carefully to ensure we're still here this time next year.
With this in mind, I've put together my list of 10 golden tips for recession-proofing your web site that you can put into practice cheaply and easily. All of this is just best practice, for sure, but it's all the more critical now!
I promise you: if you're the person responsible for a web site that markets a business or organization, and if you put all of these principles into practice, you'll notice benefits within weeks. You'll be amazed how easy it can be to get more business through your web site, retain more visitors and convert more of them to customers and friends. Just follow my simple guide, suspend any disbelief (especially if it says "I can't do that"!), and get on with it.
- Do Cheap Market Research
- Be Willing to Be Wrong
- Fix Your Bucket
- Get Intimate with Your Stats
- Write, Write, Write
- Optimise Your Site for Search Engines
- Invest Wisely
- Don’t Stop!
1. Do Cheap Market Research
Before starting or changing anything in business, it’s always good to talk to your customers. They’re not only your number one asset, but a great and willing source of free market analysis.
Also talk to people who aren’t your customers yet, but should be. Try to figure out what motivates them. What’s the annoyance, ambition, pain, or drive that could mean they use you?
Avoid the temptation to ask them what they want, because you won’t get a straight answer, just a barrel of red herrings. Focus groups don’t tell you what people really want, just what they think they want, or what they think you want them to want, or what they think will make them look good.
There’s a famous story from marketing history about a company who wanted to find out whether to launch their new portable stereo boom box in yellow or black. They held a focus group, and asked a range of potential target customers whether they thought yellow or black would be best. Yellow won by a significant margin. The group leaders thanked the participants and told them that, upon leaving the room, they could choose a free boom box to take home with them. You can guess what happens next… There were 2 stacks of stereos: one yellow, one black. Every single person leaving the room picked up a black stereo!
Another simple trick worth mentioning is to look at your competition for inspiration. Don’t be afraid to copy any approach or technique, within the bounds of ethical conduct. If you can see someone’s doing something right, do it right as well! You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Which brings me neatly to the next crucial factor.
2. Be Willing to Be Wrong
This is the most crucial thing – the building block on which all the subsequent tips depend. You will not get it right first time. Acknowledge that now, get over it. It’s OK, it’s just the way that it is. Ready? Good.
Business and marketing are not exact, predictable sciences. No matter how smart you are, there’s no way you can predict exactly how a product or service will sell, or which message or medium will be the most cost-effective way to promote it. The best thing you can do, once you admit this reality, is to try multiple ideas and have mechanisms for working out which options work best.
So you might have two ways to describe or market your service, two different pricing models, two names, two different email campaigns, or advertising buttons, or web sites that will run your ads – the list is endless.
What you have to do is know that you can’t know which will work best. Sometimes, the ugly web page works better than the pretty one. Sometimes, the clunky article works better than the succinct professional copy. Sometimes, a direct mailshot (on paper!) is more cost effective than an online ad campaign. You can’t predict these. Sure, we’ll all have our best guess at whether A or B will work best, but my experience tells me that you’ll generally be right around 50% of the time. And that’s not great odds.
If you know you won’t get it right first time, that can also be a freeing experience that lets you just get on with the job and put something out there, which is usually the best thing to do.
I’m not saying don’t use your brain! Wow, use that brain! You need that intellectual capacity to generate your ideas. But don’t stop at one. Do several, and don’t presume you’ll know which is best.
You gotta be willing to the wrong – it’s the only right way.
So you have to test. What form that takes will depend on what you’re testing. But you could run your tests simultaneously, or in parallel. You could show people with IP addresses beginning with even numbers a different home page than the odd-numbered folk. Or you could run one newsletter one week, and a different one the next week. Or you could try sending out 3 different messages to 100 people from your mailing list, before you send out the most effective one to all the rest.
Once you’ve tested your ideas, you can then ask, “OK, why did B work better than A?” And, you know what, you can’t be sure on the answer. You’ve only got your best guess again! Isn’t it cruel!
If you want to get really professional about it, you need to be like a scientist, and come up with hypotheses to explain why B was better than A. Then, you could run a new experiment testing B against B-plus, an even more B-like variant, to see whether it out-performs B. But, you’ll never know 100%.
And the other maddening thing is – you’ll never get the perfect solution either. You can never be sure you’ve got the perfect offering, marketing message, web page design, or copy. But if you can be confident that what you have is 3 times better than the last thing you had, which was 4 times more effective than the version you had before that, you can sleep soundly at night. (But read on.)
When you’re confident you know what people want, and you have some ideas of what to offer them, don’t be afraid to specialise your brand.
Of course, if your business is generalist in nature, that’s how it is. But I find a lot of smaller businesses fall into the trap of thinking they need to appear to serve a wider market than they actually do.
This becomes all the more important when you factor in the way search engines work (which is as simple as matching the content on your web site to the queries people type into the box).
The fundamental calculation in search engine marketing is to figure out the optimum balance of these functions, as they relate to a range of search terms:
- How many searches there are for the term (higher the better);
- How much competition there is for the term (lower the better);
- And, how much relative benefit there is to you from someone visiting have searched on the term (higher the better).
Notice that two of these three factors are positively influenced by having a more selective, narrow term (2 and 3). The more niche your offering, the less competition there’s likely to be, and the more valuable a visit from someone searching on that term. We’ll usually recommend to our clients to shoot for a range of narrower terms rather than investing in a more generic, more competitive term.
Remember you need to make your web site entirely getable, which means making sure your key brand elements are apparent on every page. Say what you do, for whom, and how. Use your strap line where possible to express this clearly, or add a bit of extra text on every page to emphasise exactly what conversation you’re having, and with whom.
If you actually serve a specific geographic area, I’d always recommend you describe that area in words on your web site. Not just on your “Contact Us” page, but on every page! Because if you offer a range of services, one of which is carpet cleaning, and you serve an area of 5 towns and a few villages, and someone types in “Carpet cleaning Staveley” (the classic: what I want, where), there’s not much benefit of you having Staveley on your contact page, and lots of information about carpet cleaning on a different page. Get those terms on the same page, and you’ll be a far stronger position to top the rankings for that particular search.
Likewise, mention all your other specifics, your other areas of specialisation, wherever appropriate. If every page on your site says, “IT services for small businesses”, you’ll target the small business market better. If you only work for non-profits, or only for publicly-traded companies, or for the public sector, or for people with disabilities, or for a religious, social, or political affiliation, mention it!
There’s little point trying to attract the people who don’t actually support your business. Focus your attention first on those who really end up paying your wages. It’s better to get 100 visits from well-targeted prospects than 1000 visits from people who don’t actually want what you do. Even if you get them to view two pages, if they’re not really going to end up using your services, it’s a wasted visit, from both perspectives.
Here’s a case study
I’m finding more evidence from my own tests to validate the logical argument that simple design is more effective. In “Save the Pixel”, I describe it as “Success is a function of Attention divided by Stuff”. In other words, the more stuff you have on a page, the less likely someone is to find their way to the next step to what they want. And since achieving your goals for your web site always depends on visitors using your site, sticking around, and having successful rewarding experiences, the more people you can retain on any forward path, the better.
There’s not a lot you can do about Attention, but there’s a lot you can do about Stuff. The most basic premise of “Save the Pixel” is that all the stuff you put on screen should have a strong positive purpose. Put another way – if something doesn’t positively help communication, try deleting it. That goes for boxes, lines, columns, gradients, forms, pages, sections, everything!
Simple anything is normally more effective than a more complex alternative (Occam’s Razor). Plus, it’s quicker and cheaper to do something simple than it is to do something complicated, and it’s quicker and cheaper to change it or fix it later. So I’d urge you to be ruthless in every area of your communications and processes, but particularly in site design.
In all your communications, be open, up-front, and approachable. That’s the standard in web design today, and it’s what people expect increasingly, offline and online.
Invest in offering better service, rather than creating the impression of being something great or grand. Invest in having someone on the phone, or responding to emails quicker, before you invest in the slick navigation system that slides and expands.
If you’re considering a site redesign, I’d seriously recommend investing in copywriting and SEO over graphic design. That may sound odd coming from a designer, but I see content as the hub of design, and SEO/SEM is the crucial first step in people’s experience or conversation with your brand, which is communication, which is design.
If you’re getting a new site, I’d also recommend simplifying page structure and markup, using external stylesheets exclusively for all styling, which will help increase your content-to-filesize ratio, something that can only benefit your search engine rankings.
5. Fix Your Bucket
Imagine your web site is a bucket, whose job it is to carry water (visitors) from a basin labelled “new visitors” to a basin labelled “customers”. You have to pay for someone to deliver water into the first basin, and you also pay for someone to run between the basin, carrying the water.
The bad news is, your web site is probably leaking, which means you’re losing precious water all the time. Only a small proportion of the water you get delivered ever makes it to where it needs to go. Leaky buckets are very inefficient.
The good news is that you can do something about it. It’s much better to fix the leaks in your bucket than to pay for more water, or more running around. All you need to do is to do some usability testing.
The best person to do this is you – the person who’s in charge of the web site. Yes you, really! But don’t worry, because it’s really easy.
All you need to do is take the opportunity whenever you can to show someone your site and invite them to try to use it to achieve a typical goal. It doesn’t really matter that much if they’re target audience (unless that’s a requirement to understand what’s going on).
Just watch what they do. Don’t over-analyse: what you’re looking for is “the biggest rocks in the path”. Your task is to identify the biggest rocks, just a few of them, so you can move them out of the way.
If someone can’t find the next link to carry them forward, or they get confused and think they’re in the wrong place, or they don’t know how to fill in a form, that’s a rock in the path. Take the next opportunity to try an alternative design solution, and then test again next time you can.
You’ll find this method – multiple simple, informal iterations – is much more cost-effective than getting experts to do exhaustive tests with a dozen people in controlled environments.
6. Get Intimate with Your Stats
If you’re responsible for your site’s success, you need to get up close and personal with your statistics. Most web hosting packages offer stats, but I can’t recommend Google Analytics highly enough. I’m always finding new intelligence revealed in Google Analytics’ simple interface.
You may be thinking that SEO and stats isn’t your thing, but if your success depend on your site’s success, make it your thing. You really are the best person for this job. Time and time again, we find the most effective SEO person is the client themselves, because they have the industry sector knowledge, on-going familiarity with competition, the time, and the motivation to do what’s necessary continually to take their site to the next level.
I’m afraid I can’t even begin to tell you how to go about analysing your stats to see what’s working or what needs work. Every site is different. I could, however, work through your stats with you and show you what to look for. (If you’d be interested in that kind of help, you can have your web site professionally reviewed.) Really, it’s all common sense, and all you need to do is spend time looking and learning. You’ll find your way around in no time.
Here are some general pointers:
- How do people find you (or not)? Search engines / direct traffic / inbound links?
- How do people move around your site? Where do they enter the site? How many pages do they typically view? Where do they leave from? Why??
- Set up goals on key target pages (like product info, or “thanks for contacting us”) which will let you focus your reports.
- What changes over time? What could account for those changes?
- Remember to test and compare your results.
7. Write, Write, Write
If you could only do one thing to benefit your site, my suggestion would be “Write!”.
Content really is king. Words most clearly embody express the meaning (whcih you might also desribe as “latent semantics” or “aboutness”) that search engines are trying to match to people’s search queries. Then, once they get to your site, it’s words that make up the conversation between your visitors and your brand. It’s words that convince them they’re in the right place, build their trust, and compel them to take action.
I can’t stress enough that all sites should be continually populated with new, fresh, relevant content. If you’re getting a new site made today, it should be built on a content management system (CMS), even one of the popular blog platforms, which will enable you to add pages and new content very easily. This is also more important than flashy visuals, as it’s your content people look at when they come to your site.
Call it a blog if that’s appropriate (i.e. you’re writing regularly and informally); or call it news; or just have ad hoc articles and opinion pieces. But do keep it coming. Everyone has something useful to say about their sector. Everyone has news to share.
Another great trick is to add “Q&A” sections to any content on your site. These can be as simple as adding a basic form (email, question, go) to the bottom of any article, which lets people send you their questions that you haven’t already answered. This is good for your brand, as it shows people you care and that you’re listening. You get the question in your email, and you add that question, along with a simple response, to the bottom of the relevant page or section.
Q&A is also great for SEO! Why? Because search engines try to match queries to content. And you’ll write your web site using your own language and industry vocabulary, which may not match the language and terms that real people actually type in.
The fantastic benefit of capturing people’s real questions is that you get the exact query that’s driving them (which they probably typed into the search box already!), in their own language. That’s an invaluable key to attracting new visitors you didn’t know you weren’t reaching.
8. Optimise Your Site for Search Engines
It’s often quite a simple exercise to make your web pages more friendly to search engines. Here are a few tips for you, your designer or producer.
- Make sure all pages have a full complement of meta tags. These show search engines you’re willing to play their game. Make your meta description and title readable and meaningful, and avoid over-stuffing them with key words.
- Use plenty of headings in your text, and make sure they’re meaningful and readable again.
- Use plenty of internal links, and put meaningful, descriptive text inside the links. Never use “Click here” as the link target; use words that describe what you’ll get when you click.
- Have sitemaps, both a browsable version (web page), and an XML version (there are plenty of online tools that will build these for you). Again, these show the search engines you’re playing ball, and that you want them to index you correctly.
- Add plenty of good, fresh, interesting, relevant, keyword-rich content. Did I say that already?
- Your content should be of a good enough quality to induce other sites to link to you, but make sure you keep an eye out for any directories (general, as well as local and sector-specific listings) that can link to you. Aim to get at least 20 inbound links to your site, but the more the better, and the more relevant the site’s content to yours, the better too.
9. Invest Wisely
Put a value on your site’s goals (which you should be tracking in Analytics).
- What’s a new contact from a customer worth, on average?
- How many visitors do you need today to get a new contact?
- How much time and money can you afford to invest to get each new contact?
- What does that work out to in terms of additional visitors? How much can you afford to invest to get X amount of traffic?
- How cost-effective are different channels for attracting customers? Are online ads more effective than offline?
- How cost-effective would it be to fix your bucket to retain more visitors versus filling the funnel with more new visitors?
Once you’ve quantified your value chain, consider setting up AdWords pay-per-click ads (or consider Facebook’s ad platform too), which will help you attract additional qualified visitors for a guaranteed capped price.
10. Don’t Stop!
None of these tips is meant to be a one-off activity. They should all be continually on-going exercises. Even if you don’t see results within weeks, don’t stop trying out alternative ideas, writing new content, optimising your pages, analysing your stats, looking for usability rocks, or building inbound links.