As a busy search engine optimization consultant, I don't have a lot of time to manage my website. But recently I learnt the hard way about the fickle nature of website visitors and the damage that having a user-unfriendly site can do to a business. Now I give my website usability much more priority than ever before.
Here's what happened. I had written a research report late last year and was selling it as a downloadable e-book via the site. However, I was relying on an offline press release and links from other sites to lead visitors to the specific page from which the report could be purchased. Although this report resulted in considerable press attention, much of the media coverage did not include a link direct to my report page, or in some casese, even my website, meaning that interested parties were forced to conduct a search for my site.
It wasn't until I received an email from a potential customer advising me that he had searched my home page and couldn't find a link to the report that I had my "Duh!" moment. I had forgotten to include a link to the report page from my home page! My old website had no site map or site search tool either, so potential customers finally arrived at my site, only to click away in frustration after not being able to easily find information on my research report. Goodness knows how many sales I missed out on due to this oversight. Embarrassed, I quickly added a link to my home page and made a mental note to study up on website usability, pronto.
Since then, I've learnt that improving your website usability isn't time-consuming, it isn't expensive and it's certainly not difficult. It simply involves common sense and dedication to the task. Here are 10 easy steps that anyone can implement to make their website more user friendly:
1) Create a Site Map
No matter what the size of your website, you should include a detailed, text-based site map, with a link to every page and preferably, a short description of what each page offers. An excellent example of a site map can be found here: [http://www.seoconsultants.com/site-map.htm]. The advantage of using a site map is that you don't have to link to every page from your home page, but you should link to your site map from every page. Not only are site maps useful for visitors looking for specific information on your site, but they are great "spider-food", meaning they are a way for search engines to easily find and index every page on your site.
2) Use a Logical Navigation Structure
When designing your site navigation menu, use logical headings and link descriptions. For example, "web site design services" is much more intuitive to a visitor than "Internet services". Use Cookie Crumbs to show visitors where they are on your site at any point. These are headings you often see at the top of websites and search portals showing what category and page you are currently browsing (e.g. Home Travel UK Bristol Bed & Breakfasts). Guide Visitors to specific pathways throughout your site. You can do this using Call-to-Action links instructing visitors what page they should view or what action they should take next e.g. "Click Here to Order", "Bookmark This Page", or "View Our Catalogue Now".
3) Check for Errors Regularly
There's nothing worse than browsing a site or following a link only to find it leads nowhere. Make sure you check your site at least once a month for any broken links. There are low cost link checking tools such as Link Defender [http://www.webposition.com/linkdefender.htm] available to help you keep on top of this. Make sure your HTML code is designed to display correctly in different browser versions. Also ensure that your site hosting provider is stable and reliable to avoid any unnecessary downtime of your website. Services such as Internet Seer [http://www.internetseer.com] can help you monitor your site uptime free of charge. Make sure your site does not contain spelling or grammatical mistakes. If you're not the world's best speller, have trusted friends and colleagues check your site copy for errors. When proofing your site, remember to take into account regional spelling usage for different audiences worldwide, e.g. British versus American English. A webmaster service such as Net Mechanic [http://www.netmechanic.com] can be used to check for many of these errors via the one location.
4) Use a Consistent Design and Layout
Common sense rules here - make sure you use a consistent design and layout for each page on your site. This means using the same general colour scheme, logo, consistent navigation menu, header and footer in the same location and consistent link attributes (e.g. always underlined). This way you never alienate your visitor or cause them to become confused and lose their momentum to keep looking.
5) Include a Site Search Tool
A user friendly website provides the visitor with the ability to search the site for specific keywords. Thought this one was too hard? Me too. Until I discovered Atomz Site Search [http://www.atomz.com/search/trial_account.htm]. This is a software program that provides site-wide search for websites of 500 pages or less, for free. It's a quick and painless way to setup and customize your own site-wide search tool. They also offer a paid version for larger sites.
6) Ensure All Forms Work
It sounds obvious and it should be. If you're going to make your site interactive with feedback forms, newsletter sign-ups, guestbooks and the like, then make sure they work! Double check each form field is large enough to accomodate even the longest of names. Think about your international visitors when creating fields such as Zip Code. Make it clear which fields are required by marking them with an asterix. Test the form to make sure it submits correctly and displays the right confirmation message upon completion.
7) Ensure Shopping Carts are Functional
This is vital for any type of e-commerce site. Ensure you have adequate product descriptions, pictures, specifications and crystal clear pricing. Include information on shipping and freight costs and integrate any taxes within your price list. If selling internationally, include a foreign exchange calculator such as the free one provided by XE [http://www.xe.com] for visitors to compare costs in their local currency. Make sure your shopping cart pages are protected by SSL or a secure certificate to give visitors the confidence to reveal their personal and credit card information without threat or risk. Provide simple instructions for completing the online transaction, give them the ability to back out easily and provide a help email address or phone number on every page of the process in case they get stuck. For instant transactions, provide a receipt immediately and confirm their transaction was successful. As with your online forms, test, test and test again. It only takes one bad experience for you to lose a potential lifetime customer.
8) Include Obvious Contact Details
With all the scams proliferating the web these days, people are understandably sceptical when it comes to online business. To build trust, you absolutely, positively need to display contact details prominently on your site. If you're not willing to provide a way for people to contact you, why should anyone be willing to buy from you? You should include your business address (preferably your street address and a postal address), a telephone number and at least one email address. If you are concerned about spam email harvesters, you can either hide your email address within a HTML encoder such as Natata [http://natata.hn3.net/antispam_encoder.htm] or use a contact form for people to submit to contact you with (although many people, including me, find the latter annoying).
9) Use Easy to Understand Language
The Internet is no place for verbosity. People are in a hurry - they want to find what they seek quickly and easily with the least hassle possible. You can help them in this quest by ensuring your site pages use simple language and easy to grasp concepts throughout. For example instead of "brand-building web information architects", use "website designers specialising in brand promotion". Keep the text on each page to a minimum, using bullet points and sub-headings to get your main points across or to demonstrate your product benefits. Use the old WIIFM (What's In It For Me?) adage when composing your body copy to keep the user's interests at top of mind. Remember your international visitors by avoiding regional word usage or technical jargon that could alienate. Want your visitor to take a particular action? Spell it out for them in plain English.
10) Make it search engine friendly
So there you have it. 10 easy steps to making your websites more user friendly. Now you have no more excuses for avoiding usability. Implement one of these per week and your visitors will repay you with loyalty.
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Article by Kalena Jordan, CEO of Web Rank. Kalena was one of the first search engine optimization experts in Australasia and is well known and respected in her field. For more of her articles on search engine ranking and online marketing, please visit High Search Engine Ranking at http://www.high-search-engine-ranking.com