Go With The Flow
You may know how to get users to your site, but do you know how to get them through your site? If not, they'll have a hard time finding what they're looking for.
Structuring your Web site sensibly from the start makes it easier to grow the site down the road. The challenge? To present a lot of information in a format simple enough for users to navigate.
One way to build a firm foundation for your site is by using a theory of Web site and software design called information architecture. Kerry Crocker, partner and information designer at ZapGun Interactive, an Internet software developer in Atlanta, says consistency and organization are key. "Information architecture allows the user to draw an accurate mental picture of your site's structure and then use your site efficiently," she explains. To put your site in order:
1. Organize the information. Group the content together into related sections and subsections. For example, product pricing could be one section, company background data and contact information another, and marketing information a third. "This kind of hierarchical organization is a good starting point," says Crocker.
2. Draw a map of your hierarchy. Use blocks to represent sections and subsections, and arrows to represent paths users might want to take. Says Crocker, "Make the important information prominent by putting it within reach from anywhere on the site."
3. Run a usability test. Get real users to walk through the design. "Incorporating real user input into your design makes your site better and prevents redesigns down the road," Crocker notes.
The end result is a site that supports growth from your end and is easy to navigate from the user's end.
Shannon Kinnard (firstname.lastname@example.org is the owner of Idea Station, an editorial services company in Decatur, Georgia, that specializes in e-mail newsletters. She contributes to Integrated Marketing & Promotionsand digitalsouth magazines, and is working on her first book, which discusses marketing via e-mail.
Sites For More Eyes
Think you've got the greatest Web site in the world? It doesn't matter if no one knows it's there. To make sure your site shows up at the top of a results page when users do a search, you need to optimize your search engine listing by working with search engines and directories.
Search engine listing optimization relies on a combination of meta tags, keyword placement, resubmission and luck. There are companies out there that guarantee they'll get you listed at the top of the results page for the words you want. The most credible of these will turn down your business if you target a word that is simply too popular. They'll also charge your business a lot because what they're promising to do is, quite frankly, a tedious task.
The good news: Anyone can learn how to get a decent rating on a results page (although you may not get top placement on popular words). The best place to learn is Search Engine Watch (http://www.searchenginewatch.com), a site that keeps tabs on the ever-changing ways different search engines find and rank Web sites, with an emphasis on how to improve your site's ranking. There's plenty of useful info for free; more in-depth details are available to members for $29 per year.
Search engines constantly change their listing rules--partly to foil spammers who use underhanded tricks to stuff their Web pages full of keywords to garner top placement in results. Be forewarned: Dishonest methods, like repeating keywords 50 times in a row or placing them in white text on a white background (so they're invisible to users, but seen by the search engine) can actually get your site banned from a search engine.
While keeping your site on top of the pack is time-consuming, it shouldn't be overwhelming. Of the hundreds of search engines out there, just seven have penetrated the widespread consciousness of Internet users: Lycos (http://www.lycos.com), AltaVista (http://www.altavista.com), Excite (http://www.excite.com), HotBot (http://www.hotbot.com), WebCrawler (http://www.webcrawler.com), Infoseek (http://www.infoseek.com) and Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com).
The bottom line: You can tweak your site and your listing using free advice from Search Engine Watch and secure a reasonably high ranking. Even if your money is burning a hole in your pocket, think twice before shelling it out to a listing optimization company. The cash is better spent on your own education . . . with a membership at Search Engine Watch.