“Rock Your Website!” Sept. 2004 NorthBay Biz
Write your Website for two kinds of readers: people and computers
by Anet Dunne
This is a true story. In January of this year, Toby Hanft was almost out of money. The income from her website had dwindled to about $1,000 a month and she was thinking of selling her Russian River home because she couldn’t pay the mortgage. The fall-off began about a year ago even though her 5-year old site (AdoptionSearcher.com) offers a toll-free number, a free estimate and she takes credit cards.
She found a Web developer who diagnosed the problem: her site was in frames. Search engines could not “see” the text on her website so they placed her far down in the search engine results and potential customers couldn’t find her. As an adoption searcher, Toby reunites adults who were adopted as children with their birthmothers. Her competition was effectively using text web pages and search engine advertising. The Web developer fixed her site and showed her how to advertise on Google using their “Adwords.”
Using the last of her credit line, Toby launched her revised site in February and started spending $25 a day on Google adwords. Her income in March was eight times higher than the previous month. By April her income had spurted to more than 10 times the February number and she had only spent about $1,000 on Google and about $500 on her website. She worked hard to make the most of her advertising dollars and she is thrilled with the results.
A private investigator in Southern California had a similar problem. She’d spent thousands developing an impressive website with a dramatic Flash opening page—but it just wasn’t pulling in business. The problem: no text on the opening page. The search engines can’t see inside a Flash movie. The search crawlers are just robots, little programs looking for text to index. If they can’t find any information on the opening page they just move on, often leaving expensive Flash sites “uncrawled” and “unindexed.” So far, the P.I. has not been able to give up her dramatic, expensive site for a more conventional-looking one that works better.
A retailer in Santa Rosa got a “good deal” on a nice-looking website from a friend. They worked together to get the look they wanted, and then the artist posted the designs as images so that they would look the same in every browser. The result is that there is no text in the body of the web page. Zero. Not even the name of the store. You can see what they sell but the product list is embedded in an image. The search engine crawler can’t see inside an image so it sees nothing and moves on. The retailer likes the look of the page and doesn’t want to be disloyal to his friend by changing it. He doesn’t understand why the Web works for his competition but not for him.
Speaking the language of the web
People have been watching television for more than 50 years and they have learned to scan the screen quickly for information. Their screen vision is not trained to read long passages of text. Most people prefer to read text on paper, like in the magazine you’re reading right now.
When people first arrive on a website they typically scan it quickly to see if it has what they are looking for. A well-designed web page produces the “ah-ha!” sensation. The visitor clicks again looking for more instant gratification. Make sure your website includes the following:
- Catch Phrases. Write the text for your web pages in promotional language,
not in a literary fashion. Keep it short. The text needs to be in a catchy “sound
byte” format like a promo for the local TV news. “Baby found
alive in park, news at 11.” Both people and computers scan for short
phrases that match what they are searching for.
- Arresting images. A website communicates more like television than like
magazines. Images are crucial in both. In fact, people can use a website
without much reading at all. If an image is appealing, the visitor will
read the caption. Make sure the caption matches the picture. In fact, it
is smart to write the caption first and then find the right picture to draw
the eye to your most important idea.
- Bullets and eye-catching text treatments. As in magazines, the reader’s
eye scans the bullet points and the “call-outs,” those things
written in the margins, like sidebars and pull quotes. Get your main points
- Testimonials. Testimonials are very persuasive on the Web because they
add the personal touch. Research on the Web is often a solitary pursuit
and a well-written testimonial gives a sense of place and the feeling that
the visitor is getting good advice from someone who knows.
- The best testimonials are mini-stories. A testimonial for a contractor
from an architect might be, “My client had a sudden reversal of
fortune and we had to scale back the project mid-way. Acme Contracting
made the necessary changes and still finished the job on time.” Personalize
this with real people and real stories and you have a powerful on-line
- Repetition. The importance of repetition is an axiom of advertising. Write
real advertising copy and let people know what you want them to do, like “Sign-up
for our newsletter and get new recipes monthly.”
Catching the eye of search engines
We are all getting better at using Web searches, and the search engines are getting better, too. The Web itself is only 10 years old, and search engine technology has grown exponentially in the past few years. One reason to use professional Web developers is to have someone stay on top of the constant upgrades in technology and keep the website optimized.
Right now, more people use Google than any other search engine, so we’ll use them as an example. Google compares your search words with its huge database and delivers results almost instantaneously. Your search words appear in bold in the results – the excerpt from the web pages stored in the Google database. This way you can see if your search phase “home sewers” refers to quilting supplies or waste water treatment.
To get the best results from Google or any other search engine, you need to write artfully for the Web, but all the artful writing in the world won’t help if search engines can’t read what you write. The best way to impair your business website is to not have searchable text on your home page. The three most popular—and damaging—ways to do this are:
- Frames—an outmoded way to keep navigation static while other “frames” change
- All-Flash opening page—there’s no searchable text in a Flash
- Putting text in images in a misguided effort to have a consistent appearance
Now that you know what not to do, here are a few things you should do catch the eye of the most popular search engines.
Online Advertising: Googe AdWords and Yahoo ads
Google makes its money from advertising, and the company knows that the best way to increase their revenues is to make Google every Web searcher’s first choice. One quick way to get attention on Google is by using Goodle’s Adwords. You can pay for adwords so that when those words are searched your paid advertising appears on the results page, but it is clearly marked as a “sponsored link.” How can you get good placement in the free “search results” section?
- Tag your images. Computers can’t see what’s in your site’s
photos so be sure to describe the image content using the “alternate” tag.
You see it as that little text box that pops us when you mouse-over an image.
Be descriptive, but brief. If you were selling jewelry, you wouldn’t
say “necklace,” you would say “seed pearl necklace” because
that is more useful to the search engine database.
- Sub-heads are more than just bold. Websites are written in HTML. In well-written
HTML code a sub-head is tagged with a hierarchy code which tells the search
engine robots what text on the page is the most important, which is lesser,
and which is ordinary text. The searchbots look for well-structured, valid
HTML code because it helps them index the page properly. Headlines show
them what is important on a page.
- Text links at the bottom of each page show them the structure of the site
and tell them the names of important categories. For example, a contractor’s
pages might be Paving, Concrete, Underground and Grading. Text headlines
in the page and text links at the bottom of the page show the structure
of the information so it can be indexed usefully. A side benefit is that
humans scan the sub-heads so they can get to “ah-ha!”
- Get connected with links. One way to improve your ranking in the search
engine results is to improve your popularity. Google provides a toolbar
that you can download so you can check the popularity of your website
and other sites. Popularity is a mathematical calculation that includes
how many visits your site gets and who links to it. If Disney.com puts
a link on their website to send Disney visitors to you, your popularity
ranking goes up.
- Check out your competition and make sure you have all the industry
association links they do. Have the chamber of commerce link to your
site. If you advertise in a publication, ask them to feature a link to
your company on the publication’s website. Ask your suppliers for
a reciprocal link: link to each other and improve the popularity of both
sites! If you are paying monthly maintenance to a Web developer, ask
them to do this as part of the service.
So that’s it. To catch the eye of potential customers, think catch phrases, images, bullets, repetition. To catch the eye of search engines, think sub-heads, links, “alt” tags and repetition. Finally, learn from your competition. Put yourself in the place of a potential customer and guess what search words they might use. See what websites comes up. What is your competition doing to rank higher than you? Do it better. That’s the name of the game.
Anet Dunne, MBA, heads Santa Rosa-based A Net Gain For Revenue, an Internet marketing and customer contact consulting firm, www.aNetGain.com.