Friday, January 2nd, 2015

Web Usability: key to user experience

Once a user has found your web site, its usability will determine its success. Marketing consultancy Hubspot’s 2011 survey (see pie chart) suggests that user-oriented design, and well organised content, scores over funky graphics and innovative design. More than three quarters of web users were most interested in ease of finding what they want or need.

Yet how often are we frustrated by a hard-to-navigate web site with outdated, inaccurate or incomplete information? It’s intensely frustrating for the user, and gives a bad overall impression of the organisation, suggesting little thought or effort devoted to the needs of users.

“Don’t Make Me Think”!

One of the best books on usability is Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. Its central advice is that the web site’s design should be arranged so that information can be found successfully with as few decisions by the user as possible. Navigation should be intuitive, choices clear, conventions should on the whole be followed.

There is a link to SEO values: Google advises us to design web pages with users uppermost in the mind. Its guidelines state that “Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes…”.

However, all of this should be placed in the context of the site. Different sites and different organisations will have very different goals. Most importantly, their users will have specific needs. It’s important for an organisation to get over its message, but it’s likely to fall on stony ground if transmitted in an unfriendly, unempathetic way.

Also critical is the ease of use for those administering the web site. In particular, how easily does material published and edited in the back end translate into content that passes the usability test?

Case Study: The Challenges

All of these were considerations in Dovedale Design’s redevelopment of the web site of Chiltern Chamber of Trade and Commerce. Its previous site had confusing and in some cases hard-to-read navigation. The priorities of the Chamber were far from evident. News items, events and other information were jumbled up. Formatting was hopelessly inconsistent. And users had clearly lost confidence in the Joomla-based platform.

We discussed the Chamber’s activities and goals with its officers and some members. With the strengths of the Chamber clearly lying in its member network, the following priorities emerged for the web site:

  • Building and servicing the members’ network.
  • Publicising members’ events, the Chamber’s prime networking platform, with an easy form-based sign up.
  • Dissemination of news and resources, preferably with a narrative displaying Chamber successes, opportunities and influence.
  • Clarity of information about members, their services, offers etc.
  • Clear navigation and responsive design.
  • Ease of use for those administering the site’s back end.

Case Study: The Solutions

We designed a WordPress-based template, with a number of features to achieve these ends:

  • Home page built around priorities, with much content pulled from events, news and member areas, and acting as a portal to these areas. Inclusion of Twitter feed, news items, upcoming events and random images make the page appear fresh at all times.
  • Consistent formatting of events, both on Events page and on Home page, achieved via easy-to-use WordPress custom fields.
  • Date feature moves events automatically from Future Events to Past Events when they occur. No clogging up of Home page with long-past events!
  • Easy form-based sign-up for events, complemented by e-mail campaign (e-mails can be integrated with the site for a more automated approach).
  • Cloud-based member list, easy to update without need to access web site.
  • Consistent formatting of member pages, for ease of finding information, and scalable as member base grows.
  • Searchable member database, using WordPress categories.

“Robert has done an amazing job on the Chiltern Chamber Website. We were struggling for some time to find a designer who would not only help us redesign our website BUT be part of our team to understand the way in which we work. Robert took great care to understand the strengths of the organisation and its members’ needs, and brought them out in the web site. The website now looks fantastic, works well, can be changed effortlessly and safely. This keeps our website very fresh…

Robert has redesigned the website so that it engages with the audience and people can easily find a way around it… as opposed to a website that takes you on a wild goose chase! The Chamber’s message gets through.” Vee Bharakda, Chair, Chiltern Chamber

Find out what we can do for your business today

Whilst the template and features were built for a Chamber of Commerce, it could be adapted to many organisations. Particularly ones with news flow; events, fixtures and other date-specific material; lists; entries requiring consistent replication – for example member or personal details, company entries, project write-ups etc. Above all, the need to ensure that information important to the user is available clearly, intuitively, and with relatively few clicks.

Such organisations could include:

  • Trade organisations
  • Member organisations
  • Sports and other clubs
  • Charities
  • Public sector organisations, such as local councils

Dovedale Design seeks to empower business owners to build their business, safe in the knowledge that their web presence is in good hands. Our business background is a key strength: usability involves matching a proper understanding of the business and its goals, with the likely requirements of users. Why not find out what we can do for your business today?

Monday, December 29th, 2014

SEO integral to effective web design – and vice versa

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) practitioners enjoy a varied reputation, for some sitting somewhere between snake oil salesmen and practitioners of Black Magic arts. As a business model, Search Engine Optimisation was thrust into the limelight by Lord Sugar’s decision to back an SEO start-up at the end of the 2014 The Apprentice series.

Google and other search engines work continuously to improve the search results delivered by their algorithms. In doing so, they look to weed out and penalise dubious practices. Gone are the days of ‘link farms’ and excessive use of low-quality articles to create back links, not that you would know it from continued e-mails from SEO ‘experts’ offering these services.

There’s no debate, however, about the importance of being at the top of Google’s organic search rankings. Some generally accepted stats:

  • organic search results achieve around 90% of clicks, leaving 10% for paid ads;
  • fewer than 10% of viewers proceed past page one of Google;
  • the top organic result generally receives around one-third of clicks, and the top 3 more than 60%.

Link Builders – beware the Panda!

Google's panda

In 2011, Google introduced a ranking factor, which became known as ‘Panda’, to its algorithm. This was followed in 2012 by ‘Penguin’, a further update.

Panda and Penguin are designed to identify a number of dubious techniques, such as excessive use of low-quality articles to create back links, and to improve the ranking of higher quality sites.

With Google now taking steps to penalise offending sites, the webmaster of such a site may expect to receive a communication along these lines:

Dear site owner or webmaster…
We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.
We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

The message from this is, first, that one should focus on producing quality content, both on site and in articles containing links back to your site. And beware of marketers exhorting you to embark on an aggressive link-building exercise.

Google’s own guidelines state that “Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes…”. At Dovedale Design we welcome Google’s initiatives. We have always argued that a well-structured web site, with carefully written, regularly refreshed content is the essential platform for an effective web site.

Write Pages for Users

Consider carefully the terms for which you’d like to be ranked. Write content so as to place key words, phrases and tags effectively. Structure the page to ensure that the key message is immediately evident. If possible, give each page a central theme and set of keywords. Understand the requirements of search engines as best possible, but never forget that Google advises webmasters to write pages for users.

But what if your page then flies under the radar? Resist any first instinct to stuff more key words onto the page, manufacture additional non-natural links or similar practices. Rather, consider the CONTENT of the site, and the PEOPLE (rather than search engines) for which it is intended.

  • It is often surprising, when returning to a web page after a while, to see how many improvements can be made. Is your message clear and sufficiently prominent? Are competitor or similar web sites better and more useful? Is their contact information better presented? If so, make improvements, even redesign the page.
  • Research and revisit key words and expressions, and their positioning within your content.
  • If you have a Blog or News page, keep researching and delivering fresh, relevant content.
  • Build authority and trust in your products and services. Maybe through tools or advice, and even with external sources: a list of appropriate resources and links can add to the overall air of authority.
  • Analyse your traffic to see how your site is, or isn’t, being used. And not just traffic: Google lists a number of technical considerations, which impact the user experience, and therefore also its ranking. It cites page speed and web site load times in particular.
  • The bottom line is at all times to consider the overall User Experience, as this will contribute towards your Google ranking.

Top Google rankings for www.bssteels.co.ukWhat is described above is a continuous process. In another article, SEO: Climb Online or Fly with the Dove?” we demonstrate the top rankings achieved by Dovedale Design on behalf of BS Steels. These results are achieved by a process of structure, hard work and continuous evaluation of the site, its content and its rankings. There is regular discussion with the business owner, and every month a traffic and rankings report is prepared to check the overall health of the site, and to generate recommendations for improvements. Without regular monitoring, a high ranking this month may dwindle over time as competition muscles in, or the search engine’s methodology alters.

Off-page Initiatives

Whilst web site structure and content have taken centre stage, don’t ignore opportunities for off-page efforts, and to develop your web presence more widely. At one time the Page Rank of a site linking to your web site was known to be one of the key elements of Google’s algorithm; now there is debate over whether this is so.

The relevance of social networks and social media is debated topic, and of course the ingredients of Google’s algorithm remain a closely guarded secret. Towards the end of 2014 we attended a presentation by a social media expert in a leading City of London communications agency: he advised that use of Google-owned YouTube, and a current profile on Google+, ought to help at the margin with Google. Google Analytics tracks and reports on visitors to your website across social networks, so they are certainly paying attention to these channels.

Bing is rather more explicit in its guidelines: “Social media plays a role in today’s effort to rank well in search results. The most obvious part it plays is via influence. If you are influential socially, this leads to your followers sharing your information widely, which in turn results in Bing seeing these positive signals. These positive signals can have an impact on how you rank organically in the long run.”

One thing of which we can be sure, however, is that social media should not be used mindlessly. Choose the right channel(s) for your business and devise an appropriate strategy for your business and your resourcing.

Find out what we can do for your business today

Dovedale Design’s philosophy is to empower business owners to build their business, safe in the knowledge that their web presence is in good hands. We do warn clients up front that there are no guarantees so far as search engine listings are concerned. We strive to deliver efficient, high-ranking web sites which display a thorough understanding of the business and its needs. SEO is an important part of that package. Why not find out what we can do for your business today?

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

SEO: Climb Online or Fly With The Dove?

SEO and effective web management are an essential ingredient of business success today. Dovedale Design offers a comprehensive web site management service. While business owners focus on building their business, they can be safe in the knowledge that we are managing and seeking to improve their web site and its position.

(This article was written partly to target search terms relating to SEO Company Climb Online. Within a day of publishing, it was on page 1 of Google for search term SEO Climb Online. A few days later, it had been bumped down to page 2, emphasising the challenge!)

www.bssteels.co.uk organic rankings on google.co.uk 22/12/2014
Source: Rank Tracker
CHAS accredited steel installer 1
connect plus tier 3 contractor 1
daily steel deliveries portsmouth 1
highway steel repairs 1
on call highway steel repairs 1
railway steel repairs 1
steel deliveries southern england 1
steel design services portsmouth 1
steel stockholders portsmouth 1
steel suppliers portsmouth 1
daily steel deliveries london 2
edm surveys portsmouth 2
edm surveys southern england 2
highway steelwork repairs 3
railway steelwork repairs 3
M25 steel repairs 3
steel deliveries portsmouth 3
steel fabricators portsmouth 3
CHAS accredited steel supplier 4
roger slade steel 4
architectural metalwork portsmouth 5
construction steel southern england 5
edm surveys hampshire 5
steel stockholding hampshire 5
steel deliveries hampshire 6
railway steelwork 7
railway steel services 8
steel for water infrastructure 8
steel stockholders hampshire 9
steel stockholders southern england 9
highway steelwork 10

Lord Sugar’s decision to back The Apprentice winner Mark Wright and his SEO start-up Climb Online with £250,000, gives some food for thought.

Social Media commentators were soon deriding Lord Sugar’s decision. The fact that domain names climbonline.co.uk and climbonline.com were already in use for climbing companies was a bad start!

The main question, however, was the proposed level of personal service to be offered to all comers, with an ad featuring a builder, a mechanic, and a dentist. This personal service was to be based on a thorough understanding of the business, and would feature initial visits from account managers to devise a marketing strategy, with as many as two review visits per month. An ‘entry-level’ fee at £400/month was quoted, and presumably a preferred fee level well north of that – £3,000 per month was mentioned.

Many questioned the viability of the service from two particular perspectives:

  • How many small to medium-sized businesses would be able to afford the entry-level fee for SEO services, with other aspects of the web site’s management presumably on top?
  • Will the SEO business find enough ‘consultants’ able fully to understand the business, combined with web and SEO skills, and really offer the time and personal service it claims?

On the latter, winner Mark Wright appeared to contradict himself, agreeing with Lord Sugar’s characterisation of his consultants as “a lot of torn-jean wearing, open-collared hooligans sitting by their computers all day…”

Thinking through these issues, at Dovedale Design we remain very comfortable with our service to business owners, and the results we can produce.

The table displays a selection of rankings for www.bssteels.co.uk with google.co.uk in December 2014. In addition to numerous leading locality-based search rankings, there are many successes for more generic terms – picked out in red. These are all organic search rankings – no Adwords.

These results are achieved by a process of structure, hard work and continuous evaluation of the site, its content and its rankings. Added to this is the insight from the extensive business and financial experience of our Managing Director, Robert Gibson. There is regular discussion with the business owner; every month a traffic and rankings report is prepared to check the overall health of the site, and to generate recommendations for improvements.

Importantly, though, we do not limit our services to SEO. We look to offer a package which genuinely allows the business owner to feel secure in the knowledge that their web presence is in good hands.

Interested? Please contact us to discuss how we can help your business.

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

WordPress Custom Fields – an underused weapon!

A recent project, revamping Chiltern Chamber’s web site, made effective use of WordPress custom fields to create specific solutions for specific needs. Concerns about the previous, Joomla-based site included hopelessly inconsistent formatting for content such as events. Those inputting content were all trying to style it creatively, and ending up with very different results.

On this site, there are two important areas, where similar content is replicated, and consistency really necessary.

  • The Chamber’s monthly events: in addition to full text on the Events page, summary information for upcoming events is presented on the Home page. A standard format ensures that the necessary details are all easy to find, in the same order, and consistent.
  • Member pages: all members have the opportunity to submit a write-up, contact details, logo, map etc, for their own page. With more than 100 member organisations, and ambitions to grow, lack of a systematic approach would be a recipe for mayhem! On the other hand, an effective, systematic approach would give the potential for real scalability.

The image below demonstrates how plain text input via a WordPress custom field can be turned into a consistent, formatted output on the web page.

The user has input, in plain text, and without the need for link anchors, the various contact details including web, phone, address, Facebook and Twitter, a logo, and details for a Google Map. For corporate members, there is an additional field for any Member-to-Member offers. These inputs are then output on the web page in a consistent position, and format, with links created.

Example of WordPress custom fields usage

To make this magic happen, two additional stages are needed:

  • The content of the custom field needs to be placed within the template for the web page. Another advantage of using a custom field is that you can test whether the custom field holds any content, and output only if it does – hence unused or empty custom fields will not mess up the appearance of the web page. The code for this would look something like this:
    $contact = get_post_meta($post->ID, ‘Company contact’, true);
    if ($contact) { echo “Phone : $contact”; }
  • The output needs to be styled, via the style sheet.

With these ingredients in place, pages for any number of member organisations can be created easily, and rendered in a consistent, user-friendly format. Using WordPress categories, we have also created a database of member organisations, searchable by industry.

We have taken a similar approach with the Chamber’s monthly events. By setting up fields for event date, title, time and venue, event type and cost, we can output consistent formats for events. One other nice trick is that, via code comparing the date in the custom field with the current date, the event details are moved from ‘forthcoming events’ to ‘past events’ at midnight on the day of the event, and removed from the Home page, with no human intervention needed. Just another example of the usefulness of the WordPress custom field!

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