Lately, I’ve been working on a number of local small business websites that are trying to optimize their websites. Some of these companies have existing websites, others are starting from scratch looking to build the best website platform that will scale to meet their needs.
In order to have a well rounded optimization strategy that can guide you in what you should do for your website, I always recommend taking a step back and looking at the ‘big picture’ – more specifically, where you are at in what I call the website optimization life-cycle. Optimization really breaks down to the lifetime cost per visitor to convert (what does it mean to convert?). During different stages of your website’s life, it’s more valuable to invest in different online strategies and to target different visitors.
Before discussing each optimization aspect, I’d like to take a minute to define what each one is:
- Organic Search – This is a visitor that comes to your website via any search engine or other un-paid link. In this phase, the goal is optimize your website to get the most organic traffic naturally.
- Paid Traffic - These visitors get to your website through paid channels: banner ads, paid ads, paid links, etc. The goal here is, again, just to get more visitors but this time you are paying for them.
- Testing - Once a healthy stream of qualified and relevant visitors gets to your website, the goal is help them convert into customers more effectively. At this point you may be buying traffic or you may not be, but in order for proper testing to occur, you need a steady stream of visitors.
Note: Each one of these optimization methods should be measured through a fully implemented web analytics tool (Omniture, WebTrends, Google Analytics, etc).
I’ve illustrated the following optimization methods in different stages with the below graphic:
Step 1: Website Analytics
Any website optimization process must have a clearly identifiable measure of success. An Analytics tool is needed to provide an unbiased and clear look into which efforts are most valuable based on a measurable standard (cost/visitor, etc) as well as provide data articulating which optimization efforts were most effective and profitable. Before this information can be fully trusted, the tool must be properly configured to remove extraneous data. In order for any optimization to take place, specific website activities must be defined as Conversions (or Goals) so that decisions can be made to effectively maximize Conversions. This is crucial. Without clearly defined goals to associate value, no measurable action can be justified against another.
This step is articulated by the Orange Stripe at the bottom of the above graphic. It should take place during website development and will provide the measurement for each subsequent optimization.
Step 2: Organic Search Optimizations
Organic optimizations require the most investment and take the longest to produce results, but the returns provided by organic search optimizations will not only pay out over time for organic search, but will ultimately lead to lower paid search prices as well when a website owner decides to purchase advertisements in paid search (more below). When optimizing a website for organic search engines, three key aspects of a website must be considered in order to get the highest return on investment.
Is my website robot friendly?
Because search engines rely on robots (or spiders) to scan all text and automatically catalog each page, a website needs to be reachable and indexible. Certain technologies like flash greatly reduce the ease by which search engines can crawl your website. If a search engine spider can’t reach your website then any/all optimizations are wasted.
Is my website talking about the right topics in the right areas?
Because search engines initially based their algorithms on early HTML, the highest ROI is going to come from optimizing the simple HTML tags in your page using the most relevant and popular key terms. Note that it is exponentially better to focus a little on each element than to try to work on just one. Did you catch that? Hitting each of the 5 Main HTML Optimization Areas a little bit dramatically improves the effectiveness of your combined page relevancy.
What are other websites in my community saying about my site?
Because search engines rely heavily on your online reputation, its important to keep in mind what other industry based websites are linking to you and what terms they use to tell others about your site. If possible, email your partners and encourage them to use more descriptive text to link to your website (vs. your company or brand name).
Step 3: Paid Advertising Campaigns
Once organic efforts have been maximized and a website is looking to attract additional, qualified visitors, the next step is to begin looking at paid advertising. Organic optimizations will provide a website with a lower cost per visitor over time, but eventually the return on that effort will decrease to a point where it’s more valuable to tap into the paid advertising market.
Well targeted ads – using paid search for example – can provide qualified traffic to a website for reasonable cost. In order to effectively understand how valuable a visitor is, a website owner must first decide how much a conversion is worth. This is where defining a goal value on your site comes in handy. Once that goal value is defined, a webmaster can retro-actively figure out how much to spend trying to acquire that visitor. Using cost-per-acquisition will help you decide how much you should spend online (for example, if purchasing a visitor still provides a decent amount of profit then the smart webmaster would begin purchasing qualified traffic).
It’s also worthwhile to note that most paid search advertisers (Google, Bing, Yahoo!) use what’s called a “Quality Score”. This quality score rates how well your ad corresponds to the landing page (and offer). The better the correlation between the text on your landing page and the keywords you are purchasing the lower the price you pay for the ad. This is a safeguard that search engines hope will provide relevance to the user so that visitors continue to use their search engine. No one would enjoy clicking on an ad for soft puppies only to find out they are going to a promotional site for knives that cut through tin cans. Having a strong organic strategy in place (and executed) first will first guarantee strong organic rankings but then provide lower advertising costs for all relevant advertisements. A gift that keeps on giving.
Step 4: Ongoing Testing & Optimizations
No optimization plan would be complete without regular testing and user experience optimizations. Free tools make entry into this phase easy, profitable, and effective. Once you’ve been able to attract as many visitors to your site naturally (organic search) and adverting – both push and pull methods – its time to focus on the user experience on the site.
Keep in mind that when implementing paid methods it is even more important to make sure that any money you are spending on a visitor helps that visitor through the purchase path (or what ever your goal funnel is) as seamlessly as possible.
There are two primary forms of Testing:
- A/B Testing – This testing involves testing two primary layouts of a page and should only be done between two different layout designs. All content and on-page imagery should be held constant while the layout (or overall design) should be noticeably different.
- Multivariate Testing – This testing involves keeping the layout of the page the same but alternating each of the elements with multiple creative options. For example, changing the heading, alternating between two different graphics, having different sell text, and/or using bullets instead of paragraph content.
A website in the testing phase should begin with A/B Testing in order to confirm what type of layout/design a potential client is more attracted to, then follow up with ongoing multivariate testing to make sure that each element is fully optimized to reach their target clients.
When combining multivariate testing with paid traffic, its always best to pull out a significant sample size from entire campaign, run a multivariate test, then use the winning combination on the full advertising spend. This will ensure that the greatest amount of people have the greatest chance of completing a desired action (conversion).