Sweeping For Cobwebs

I’m rebuilding my web site.

I was talking to a colleague about it the other day, and he asked me if I had a checklist I followed as I evaluated my current site and planned for my new site and if I had devised a similar checklist for the companies I advise.

Since I’m a consultant, the answer was, of course, “Yes and no.”

No, I didn’t have a written checklist to run through like I was preparing to take off in a Cessna Skyhawk. (“Flaps check. Dramamine check.”)

But I quickly realized, I did have a sort of checklist. Not written out, maybe. But one of those inside-the-head kinds that I used every single time I looked at a site, and that I was using to re-architect my own home.

So what follows are some of the things I look for that indicate a problem site — what I call cobwebs — and some recommendations and resources to help you sweep them away.

Is It A (Yawn) Entertaining Site?

The first thing I look for is whether a site is trying to do a little song and dance for me when I enter. You know: Digital saddle shoes, straw hats and a peppy tune. Maybe Java applets that make shimmering logos and crawling text and all of the other like totally cool special effects that waste my time when I’m trying to get somewhere and do something.

Vaudeville site? A cobweb.

My recommendation? Get right to the point — people really don’t care about snappy presentation when they’re looking to take action. (I wrote a ClickZ article on that very subject, in fact.)

Shhhhh Is It Hunting For Wabbits?

The next thing I do, once I actually manage to get into the site, is check out the code. I want to see how hard the site is working to hide itself. I look for two things:

  1. Is the page built in frames?

Frames are nasty because they hide your real content from the search engine spiders, and because — more importantly, I think — you can’t bookmark the page you’re actually interested in, only the frame page.

  1. Is it structured such that it will never be found by the search engines?

Misusing meta tags and having a poor page title virtually guarantee that you’re going to be poorly ranked by Scooter, Sidewinder and all the other engine spiders.

Hidden-away, Elmer Fudd site? A cobweb.

My recommendation? Spend some time learning about the engines at the feet of Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Watch. (Better yet, subscribe to his newsletter. It would be the best few tactical dollars you’ll spend this year, I promise.)

Is It Getting Bad Grades?

For those (precious few) sites that actually are structured to be found on the engines, I then head over to Rank This. (I also use Web Position, FYI, although you may not have the tool.) There, I follow the easy interface and check whether the web site is actually being discovered for the keywords it is trying to be discovered for.

Low rankings? No rankings? A cobweb.

My recommendation? Work on this but don’t obsess over it. Engine rankings are just one of the core elements of traffic generation.

Is It Gonna Eat Some Worms?

Another of those elements is link popularity. New engines Google and Clever both use link popularity — the number of sites that link to a particular URL — to help determine site ranking.

Some of the other engines do it as well. To find out who’s linking to a site, I use AltaVista, InfoSeek or HotBot. The search phrase is something like this:

+link:www.domainname.com -site:www.domainname.com

That’ll deliver a list of those sites that link to the site I’m searching (the +link part of the query), excluding links from the site itself (the -site part of the query).

But don’t sweat the syntax. Go to the Link Popularity web site and follow the instructions. It will do it for you.

Low affinity links? A cobweb.

My recommendation? Establish a formal affinity program, targeting sites that complement you.

Did Rube Goldberg Build It?

Next, I look at the page for usability issues. Just how hard is it to get around? (And oh my, some sites are virtually impossible to use.) For those of you who don’t know about Rube Goldberg (and I suppose even for those of you who do), head over to the Official Rube Goldberg Site. If it’s your first time viewing his cartoons, you’re in for a good time.

Hard to use? A cobweb.

My recommendation? Head over to Jakob Nielsen’s, Jared Spool’s, and Project 2000’s sites for some useful usability talk.

Does It Demand Too Much?

Next I look for the quality and quantity of opt-in opportunities. A site that isn’t smartly peppered with places for me to input my email address — and compelling reasons and rational incentives for me to do so — isn’t doing its job. You don’t just want people coming back to visit you. You want them to invite you over to their place, which is typically their email client.

Overly long and difficult forms, and too few of them? A cobweb.

My recommendation? Along with breaking your forms up into manageable slices, invest in a mail management tool that lets you do simple email merge and scheduling. Try the demo versions of both Campaign and MailKing — and note how the two products carry significantly different price points.

Is It Faster Than A 60k Jpg?

And I always run efficiency tests on it. What’s the fastest page? What’s the slowest page? How many dead external and internal links are there? What’s the biggest graphic? What’s the biggest page? What are the Java and ad server overhead penalties?

Snail Site? A cobweb.

My recommendation? Run performance analysis software on it. Some of the web analysis applications provide some of this. But my secret weapon (and I know I can trust you) is a modest shareware application called InfoLink by Biggbyte.

What About Its Words And Pictures?

At this stage, I don’t look at whether it has good graphics and smart copy. Of course it’s important. But it’s just not where my attention goes.

When I first evaluate a site, I’m on a strategic hunt, looking to see whether the site is employing effective marketing techniques to achieve results. Buckling down to the (yes, important) issues of executing those strategies with good design and intelligent copy comes later.

My recommendation? Read what Nick Usborne my ClickZ colleague has to say about this on these pages. He addresses the issue with as much authority and smarts as anyone I know.

A Personal Invitation From Me To You

For those of you who want to go further on this topic with me, you can join my new mailing list, which will be a journal-style newsletter, published each Monday. It will share the process I’m going through as I create my new site.

The list will be active from January 4 (back issues available) through site launch, which is scheduled for March 31. I’ll talk about my own strategy. I’ll share the tactics I deploy, and talk about how they’re revised based on the input from my prototype reviewers, my construction team and my usability testers. And I’ll share some of the sites I use for good and bad models.

My recommendation? Nobody’s perfect. So please offer me your insights and observations.

Oh yeah . . . and bring your brooms.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.