Back to Basics

Building blocks Regular readers of this column know that I like to take “deep dives” into fairly technical subjects like pay-per-click advertising, landing pages and analytics. I firmly believe that none of this is too complex for the average business owner to handle, but the nuts and bolts of marketing and selling on the web aren’t for everyone. Many of you just want to know – at the most basic level – “what do I do with my website?”

It’s a good time to revisit the basics, because while general best practices for marketing and selling online don’t often change, the specifics sometimes do. And with the explosion of mobile access to web sites, it’s become critical to understand and adapt to the growing percentage of users that will be visiting your site on a tablet or smartphone.

These basic rules aren’t meant to dictate how you should approach every detail, but they represent an overview of where you should be now and what you should be aiming for in the coming years. Think of them as guiding principles for a modern website.

Rule #1: Keep it simple.

Websites were once showcases of the web builder’s art form, a place where you could show off the latest technology and gimmicks. Heck, some websites used to play music the moment you landed on their page (for the record, this was always a horrible idea). Over time, the web has evolved into a place to do serious business, rather than a venue to show off your web-building chops.

That means one thing: Don’t get in your customers’ way. If something seems even slightly extraneous or unnecessary, it probably is. Anything that doesn’t directly contribute to an easy, transparent process of shopping and purchasing should be jettisoned. Don’t even give it a second thought; just get rid of it.

Keep your layouts simple and straightforward. Got a ton of content? Vertical scrolling is preferable to more complex methods of getting around, like tabs, drawers or expanding/collapsing sections of content. If it’s a pain for visitor to get to your content, they’ll likely never see it. Keep it out in the open, well-organized and clean. Think Apple Store, not K-Mart.

Rule #2: Get ready for mobile

Your web site doesn’t have to be perfectly mobile-ready the moment you roll out of bed on Monday morning, but you need to get the process rolling, if you haven’t already. Mobile web access via smartphones and tablets is growing every day, and it won’t be long before a third or more of your visitors come in from some kind of mobile device.

And that number will continue to increase, likely for many more years. While you don’t necessarily need to have a mobile-optimized e-commerce experience, you need to make sure that you present at least a mobile-friendly one. What’s the difference? A mobile-optimized distributor site or company store often presents a different experience solely for smaller devices, with less menu choices, simplified layouts and big tap targets (a tap target is a fancy term for a button or link that you tap on with your finger; since your big fingertip isn’t as precise of a pointing device as a mouse, mobile-optimized sites often make the buttons bigger relative to the other content).

A mobile-friendly site, on the other hand, might not change radically for a smartphone or tablet, but it doesn’t present any unusual barriers to those users. What does that mean? Well, there are things you can do on a desktop computer – say, “hovering” your mouse over an item to get some kind of information about it without actually clicking on it – that are impossible in a touch interface (a touch interface is any device where you use your fingers to navigate and press buttons).

These types of features don’t work on touch devices like smartphones and tablets because these devices don’t know that your finger is hovering over something – they only know when you actually touch the screen (this may change as technology improves, but for now, very few touch devices can detect the proximity of your finger and use it in this way). That doesn’t mean you can’t use things like hovers and complex flyout menus, but they won’t be available for mobile users, and they might even get in the way of a good mobile experience.

Mobile-friendly also means not overloading your site with so many images, graphics and other visual assets that a mobile user gives up before a page even downloads. This is a common problem when web site builders don’t test their sites over a cellular connection. If a visitor can’t get a page from your site to load in a few seconds, they will often just give up and go somewhere else.

Rule #3: Build for speed.

Another aspect of mobile-friendliness is speed. Getting your site to load quickly for every kind of visitor is incredibly important, and not just for the reasons above. Sure, no one wants to have visitors bail out on their site because they couldn’t get a page to load in a reasonable amount of time. But, did you know that speed is now an important ranking factor for search engines?

That’s right – if your site is slow, Google may lower your ranking in their search engine results. Google tests mobile-friendliness (they even check the size of your tap targets!) and focuses in particular on page speed – how quickly your pages load. For mobile users of Google’s search engine (millions and millions of them), Google may actually alter the search results shown based on which sites will load quickly over a mobile connection. Speed isn’t everything to Google, but it’s becoming more and important, and if your site is slow, expect to suffer in ranking over time.

Rule #4: Be unique.

I’ve spent many columns evangelizing the importance of unique content, and this continues to hold true. The uniqueness of the content on your site – whether it be product info, specials, your about us page, or any number of custom landing pages you might create for your marketing and advertising campaigns – is the primary ranking factor that you control completely.

This is still the case, and it’s actually become even more important with recent changes to Google’s ranking algorithms. Your site should be an island of cool, unique stuff, as different from your competitor’s as you can reasonably make it. That doesn’t mean you need to rewrite every product description and take all your own pictures. But it does mean that you need to do the best you can to make it unique.

Uniqueness isn’t easy to come by when you’re selling the same products as a lot of other people, but as a business owner, you should be able to communicate what makes your business different from everyone else. Talk about you, your products, your employees, your special services – whatever you can think of. Make it part of your story.

Simplicity, mobile-friendliness, speed, uniqueness – these are the hallmarks of a site that performs well in search engines, is inviting to visitors, and turns visitors into purchasing customers. If you can master these, you’ll be successful online in no time.

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.


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