Articles about marketing, digital analytics, search engine optimization, web usability, and technology.

10 Ways to Be Strategic with Web Analytics – Feb 2011 RootsTech Presentation

10 Ways to Be Strategic with Web Analytics RootsTech Feb 2011 by Jimmy SmithThis is a presentation I made many years ago at one of the first RootsTech conferences put on by the FamilySearch department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in February 2011. At the time, I was working as the Web Analytics Product Manager for the Church. They must have been desperate for speakers–not that I am a bad speaker, but because the content really wasn’t related to family history work or genealogy.

Anyway, I recently rediscover this presentation when I was looking through some old files. I was shocked at how relevant the content is all these years later. In fact, I could almost give this exact same presentation at a digital marketing analytics conference today and it would be just as true, relevant, and insightful as it was then. In fact, I may do that.

As I recall, as I was working with the team to put together the slide deck, there was some ruckus about what images could be used, and copyright issues, and so forth. Finally, I just decided to use my own pictures–photos I took so I could have complete control of how they would be used. So I ended up doing a photo shoot with my kids. I told them what poses to strike and it turned out very nicely. I’m glad I did it.

So without further ado, here were my top 10 ways to be strategic with digital analytics:

  • 10. Keep Your Eye on the Prize: Your Web site exists for a purpose, find it, articulate it, and work towards achieving it. Design the site around that goal. Look at metrics that relate back to that goal and continuously work to improve.
  • 9. Not everything that can be counted counts: Web Analytics cannot exist in a vacuum. It exists for no other purpose other than improving site performance. “You can learn many interesting things by analyzing data.  But you should only spend your time looking at info that identifies opportunities for improvement.” (Actionable Web Analytics Page 53)
  • 8. Be Compelling: You might not be a PhD statistician or know how to run a multi-variate test or know how to set intervals with two standard deviations, etc., but you can still be compelling.
  • 7. Data Beats Guesses: The probability of making the right decisions for website design is dramatically improved when you use even the tiniest amount of empirical data.
  • 6. Questions Before Data: We must understand the difference between a business question and a report request. Rather than trying to respond to report requests, ask: What business problem are you trying to solve?
  • 5. Ask “So What?” Three Times: “Ask every web metric you report the question “so what” three times. …If at the third “so what” you don’t get a recommendation for an action you should take, you have the wrong metric.” (Avinash Kaushik)
  • 4. Use a Balanced Scorecard: Any one metric can be manipulated. Instead, try getting multiple metrics to improve simultaneously.
  • 3. Look at trends rather than level: My boss once asked how confident I was in the precision of a web analytics figure. I said “low” but that I had a high degree of confidence in it’s upward trend over time and it’s context relative to other metrics.
  • 2. Align Goals and Tactics: If you have aligned your website content and features with your goals, the metrics on those tactics will be indicators of how well you are performing against your high level goals.
  • 1. Hold People Accountable. Accountability drives adoption and change. If there is no accountability for the performance of metrics, there will be no improvement.

Democratizing Digital Analytics with Google Data Studio

On Dec 3, 2019 I spoke at Digital Summit Dallas about how I was able to better democratize digital analytics with Google Data Studio in my work at Hilti. If you saw the presentation and want the deck, you can download it from Slideshare. If you missed the presentation, feel free to watch the video or read a rough transcript of my speech below. Enjoy.


John Wanamaker (1838 –1922) is considered by some to be one of the pioneers of modern marketing. Wanamaker started the first department store in Philadelphia and he pioneered a radical new policy–that customers could return goods to get their money back. Wanamaker was the first known retailer to place a half-page newspaper ad (in 1874) and the first full-page ad (in 1879). He was innovative and creative in his work, and he was one of the first proponents of the power of advertising. But Wannamaker had challenges regarding marketing data that he was never able to overcome in his lifetime. A popular saying illustrating how difficult it was to quantify the results of marketing in that era is attributed to Wanamaker. He said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wanamaker)

Then: Dearth of Data. Today: Drowning in Data.

The problem John Wanamaker had in improving and making the most of his marketing efforts was a lack of data. The problem we have today is, in some regards, the complete opposite—we are drowning in data. We are operating in a business environment today where we can know where every dollar is spent and exactly which tactics drive business results, down to specific ad placement and copy. We have data from Google Ads, website analytics data, SEO data, and social media data. We have customer sales data, competitor data, and the list goes on and on. Yet just because there is a flood of data available to us, doesn’t mean marketers are using it to drive performance improvements in our marketing campaigns.

Most Companies Leverage Little or No Marketing Data

A 2017 study on the analytical maturity of marketing organizations was published by DataFloq that reported that 42% of companies can only run rudimentary reports on past marketing performance, and 13% of companies don’t even know where to find their marketing data and thus don’t utilize it at all. That combines to 55% of companies that leverage relatively little or no marketing data to improve performance (https://datafloq.com/read/data-driven-marketing-2017-marketers-data-critical/2859).

companies leverage little or no marketing data

De·moc·ra·tize (verb), to make accessible

Again, the problem isn’t the lack of data, but the lack of data democratization. And by democratize, I do not mean the first dictionary definition of the word, the common connotation of the democratic form of government with voting rights and so forth. I mean the second definition of democratize which is “to make (something) accessible to everyone.”

What is Google Data Studio?

And while I am defining things, I should probably also define Data Studio. It is a relatively new product from Google that was introduced in 2016 and only came out of beta in 2018. It is a data visualization tool similar to Tableau or PowerBI. It can be used to create dashboards and reports, and like many tools from Google, it is free to use.  You can bring data into Data Studio from a variety of sources such as:

  • Google Marketing Platforms (Google Ads, Analytics, Display & Video 360)
  • Google consumer products (Sheets, YouTube, and Search Console)
  • Databases (BigQuery, MySQL, and PostgreSQL)
  • Flat files via CSV file upload and Google Cloud Storage
  • Social media (Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter)

What this Talk is and is Not

Before I go further, I want to be clear that this is not a paid commercial for Google or their Data Studio product. I have no affiliation with Google, other than as a customer and user of their products like most of you. Nor is this talk designed to be a step by step demonstration of how to build reports in Data Studio or how to use all the features. There is plenty of online documentation if you are looking for that kind of help. What this talk is, is a story of how Data Studio has helped me democratize digital analytics data for increase usage by the marketing team, thus making us a more data-driven organization. And hopefully in the process of telling that story, you will get some ideas for how you can use this tool in your work.

Data-Driven Quest

I am a believer in the power of data and I have been on somewhat of a quest throughout my career to make the marketing world more data driven. I had the privilege to start my career in a very data-driven company—FedEx. There I learned many best practices about how to use data in marketing tests to determine what is most effective, but not all companies are as data-driven as FedEx. In fact, a few years later I found myself working for a large, non-profit organization where I oversaw web analytics. The cultural difference between FedEx and the non-profit was dramatic, particularly with regard to being data-driven. To be fair, it wasn’t that the non-profit organization didn’t want to utilize data, it was just hard to quantify the output of many of the activities they were engaged in.

Employees’ Use of Web Analytics Tool

I was frustrated that though my colleagues had access to vast data and reports that could have been used to inform decisions about marketing and the website, it went largely unused. For example, the company had installed Omniture SiteCatalyst, now Adobe Analytics, to track the analytics of the website, yet very few people logged in, looked at the data, or used the reports. Well, I set out to see if I could help change that.

I went on an internal awareness and training campaign to try to get those involved with the organization’s website and digital marketing efforts to utilize the wealth of analytics data at our disposal. Great strides were made, and much improvement was gained, yet at the end of the day, login data showed that only 40% of people with access to the analytics had logged into look at it over a six month period. Only 11%, logged into the web analytics platform on a monthly basis to look at data regarding the website performance. I’m sure, if you were to look at the usage data in your company, many of you would see similarly low rates of people logging into your digital analytics platforms.

Employees' Use of Web Analytics Tool

Hilti Digital Marketing Team

A few years later, I landed at my present company, Hilti. For Hilti’s US website, our digital marketing team produces an average of more than 50 landing pages a month for a variety of purposes, including education, awareness, technical documentation, and marketing activities. As I dug into the data for these pages, I became aware of opportunities for improve of the engagement metrics, particularly with regard to the conversion rates and bounce rates.

Evolution of Digital Analytics Reports at Hilti

Still on my journey to make the marketing world more data-driven, I once again set about to democratize the web analytics data at Hilti. It was a winding road before I finally arrive at the Data Studio solution, but this is how it happened.

  • SharePoint. One of the first things I tried was putting the digital analytics reports on Microsoft SharePoint. Hilti had a robust intranet built on SharePoint, so I gave it a shot, posting monthly reports and other supplemental reports on SharePoint. Despite my efforts, it never took hold. It was too difficult to find and access, and the layout options and features were restrictive. I stopped doing it after a year or so.
  • Google Analytics. Next, I started to try to get the team to use Google Analytics reports more. I began doing training classes and sending out reports for Google Analytics. We saw modest improvements from this effort, but ultimately is was not as successful as I had hoped. We ran into access issues as well as issues with the flexibility, or lack thereof, in GA reports.
  • PowerPoint. Then I migrated into reporting through PowerPoint slide decks. This was more effective in our organization, but it was mainly high-level performance metrics. The reports were primarily shared via email and they were was not scalable for reporting on metrics for individual campaigns. While it had it limitations, these PowerPoint reports saw some success and I continue to use them today. But it wasn’t the kind of huge success I was hoping for, so I kept looking.
  • Power BI. Next I tried using Microsoft’s Power BI tool to create and democratize the digital analytics data. I liked a lot of things about Power BI, but ultimately, we had too many access issues. Licenses were limited and usage of the reports was also severely limited. I haven’t given up yet on Power BI, there are more and more people in our organization using it, so it may yet catch on. But it wasn’t the success I was hoping for to democratize the digital data.
  • Data Studio. Then one day in 2018 I decided to give Data Studio a try. It was still a beta product from Google at the time, but I had heard good things about it. When I tried Data Studio, I found it was easy to learn, and I had lots of flexibility in designing reports. The dashboards were easy to share, and scalable so I could build one report that could be used on many pages or campaigns. And you know what, this amazing thing happened, when I shared the Data Studio reports, my colleagues actually started using them. They voluntarily told me how much they appreciated the reports and they began asking questions about the data and asking for enhancement, which I made and will detail later. I would walk by colleague’s desks and see them using the Data Studio reports I had created and this gave me great satisfaction. From my experience, this type of high usage of digital marketing reports was rare and I knew I was on to something great.

What Makes Data Studio Superior to Other Solutions

Even if you are using Data Studio to only report on Google Analytics data, I have found it to be a superior medium of getting the data into the hands of marketing decision makers. The benefits of Data Studio can be summarized into these three areas:

  • Flexibility in Design and Layout: Google Analytics dashboards have many limitations such as a max of 12 widgets and they force you to use a three column grid and there are other look and feel constraints. With Data Studio, you have much more flexibility in how to arrange charts and graphs however you like. You can add brand themed colors and images, and overall you’ll run into fewer design and layout limitations. For me, I love the flexibility to put all the essential data, charts, and graphs on a single page report that I can give to my marketing partners and Data Studio gives me that ability.
  • Interactive Elements and Filter Controls: One of the things I really like about Data Studio is the ability to add filter controls and other end-user customization elements. Filter controls let me build a single report that can be used for reporting on countless pages and campaigns. Filter controls give end users of the report the ability to select a specific page or campaign that they are interest in and the report refreshes to be based on that selection.
  • Sharing and Ease of Access: The ease of sharing and granting access to other is a major reason why I think Data Studio has taken hold with our marketing team. I can have complete control of permissions and who can access the report, yet sharing it is as easy as copying the URL and sending the link to a colleague. Most people are already logged into their Google Account, with Data Studio reports, there is no separate login and no requirement to navigate around a menu system trying to find the right report. The link takes them straight to the report.

First Data Studio Report Landing Page PerformanceFirst Data Studio Report—Landing Page Performance

Above is a screen shot of the first report I made for Hilti in Data Studio. I wanted to put all the most important metrics about how a landing page was performing on a single, one-page report and this is what I came up with. Please excuse the lack of aesthetic beauty—that’s not my forte. I’m more of a function over form kind of guy. And this was a first iteration design anyway.  At least I did incorporate the Hilti Red color scheme. Let me point out the features of this report:

  • Filter Control for the Page URL: In the top left, you have the filter control for the page URL. When the report end user clicks this filter control, a drop down menu appears listing all the pages on the website. The user can select one or multiple pages, but the report was designed to show the data on only one single page. When the user selects the page for which they want to view data, the report refreshes and presents only the data for that page.
  • Date Range Widget: In the top left you also have the date range widget. Data Studio allows you to put a fixed data range on the report, or you can use a control like this to allow the end user to set whatever date they want. Even if the date selector is on the report, you will still have a default date range, which is 28 days unless you change it.
  • Pageviews, Users, Logged In Users, CTA Events: On the top right of the report, I have four important metrics–pageviews, unique users, logged in users, and call-to-action events, which is generally the measurement to track page conversions.
  • Pageviews Trend: Next I have a line chart on the left side of the report showing pageviews over the date range of the report.
  • Traffic Sources: To the right of that, we have the default traffic channels and then more specific traffic sources.
  • Time on Page, Exits, Bounce Rate, and Page Value: The next chart has the page title associated with that URL and as you can see I leave room for more than one page title. Ideally, there would only be one page title for a URL, but the ideal often doesn’t happen. In this chart I list the pageviews, time on page, exits, bounce rate, and page value for each page title.
  • Previous Page Path: Next is a chart with the previous page the visitor was on before getting to the page in question. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t have an automated way to dynamically pull the next page path or I would have put that on the report as well.
  • Calls-to-Action: Then we have the precise name of the call-to-action that the visitors of the page click. Most of our landing pages have one primary call to action, and several secondary or tertiary calls to action.
  • Devices: Then on the bottom left, we have the device type pie chart to let us know if visitors come on desktop, tablet, or mobile devices.
  • Geo-Location: On the bottom right is a simple geo-location report to tell us where people are from who visit the page.
  • SEO Keyword Data: The two bottom middle charts contain SEO data pulled from Google Search Console (GSC). I wanted the landing page report to be as comprehensive as possible, and so since Data Studio lets you blend the GSC and Google Analytics data sources, I thought I’d give it a try.

Landing Page Report Quickly Gains Popularity

The landing page report quickly gained popularity. It was a concise one-page summary of the webpage performance, and it also allowed the end user to drill down into more detail. It was easy to access and easy to share. It allowed our digital marketing specialists, who build the pages on our site, to quickly find how a page is performing and glean insights into how the page could be improved.

In the months that followed I received feedback and made several changes to the Data Studio dashboard. The nice thing about this reporting process with Data Studio is that I could make these improvements without changing the URL of the report, so all my marketing colleagues could get the updates without me having to send out a new link. Let me review some of the enhancements I have made to the report.

Second Data Studio Report Landing Page Performance

  • Removed Google Search Console Data: One major draw back of the original version of the report was that it was super slow to load. The processing required to blend the GA and GSC data sources was the cause of the slowness, so I ended up removing the GSC data points for SEO keywords. Later, I ended up making a separate Data Studio report for SEO that exclusively uses GSC data.
  • Data Control for Other Hilti Country Websites: When our eBusiness team started using the landing page report, one of the first enhancements they requested was if there was a way to share the report with our European colleagues so they could check on the performance of pages on their country websites. This, as it turns out, was easy to do with the data control filter. I simply put this drop down menu in the top left corner of the report where the end user could select to view data from the Google Analytics of a different country website. Hilti has each country website set up in a different property in GA, so if the end user of the report had access to that GA data, they could select their country website data. Then, in the drop down menu for selecting a page, they will only see the pages from that country site as options. With this data control filter, I was able to share the report with colleagues in England, France, Germany, and elsewhere.
  • Page Scroll Depth Data Added: With the GSC SEO data removed from the landing page report, I had some spare room and so I added a section on scroll depth. Scrolling is not something GA tracks by default, but you can add code to your website to track scrolling as a custom event, and our development team did that. The scrolling data, I felt added some good depth to our measures of customer engagement with the page.

The landing page report, is, of course, a living document, so there are other changes I have made and will continue to make to it as we move forward.

Other Versions of the Landing Page Report

Other enhancement requests that my colleagues made required me to make separate versions of the landing page report. Again, it wasn’t too hard to copy a data studio report and then make alterations to the copy without changing the original. In the top menu of any Data Studio report, there is a copy button. Below are some of the other versions of the landing page report I have created.

  • Version that Keys Off Page Title, rather than URL: Another enhancement that was requested was to be able to pull landing page reports based on the page title, rather than URL. This helped some of our less technically savvy friends the marketing department. Also, while I wish URLs would remain constant, there are times when the same page has multiple URLs, so this enhancement allowed us to look at the page performance by title regardless of the changed URL.
  • Version that Excludes Hilti Employees: Another requested enhancement I received was when one day someone asked how much of the traffic to a page was generated by Hilti internal employees compared to non-employees. We don’t have perfect methodology to identify employee traffic on the site, but if an employee is logged into the website or is located at our main offices, then we can identify them. So again, I made a copy of the report, and this time I used a custom segment to only bring in data from the segment of users that are not employees.
  • Version for Pages with Videos: Then one day we were looking at the landing page report for a page where the major call to action was to watch a series of videos. So I created a version of the landing page report that included video metrics.

Other Reports Created in Data Studio

I have spent a lot of time of the landing page report, but in the time remaining, let me briefly go over some of the other reports I have created for Hilti using Data Studio.

  • SEO Report from GSC Data: I mentioned that early on in my usage of Data Studio I realized I needed to keep the GSC sourced data in a separate report. The SEO page report, like the landing page report, has a page selector at the top. If you don’t select a specific page, it will report on all pages for the website. But of course you can select a single page to see it’s SEO performance. On the left is how the page is doing on branded keywords. On the right are the metrics for non-brand keyword performance in the areas of organic rank, search impressions, clicks, and click thru rate.
  • Email Traffic by Campaign Report: This report also has similarities to the landing page report. Obviously, it looks very similar and again, I apologize for that. Data Studio really does have a lot of features to make reports look sharp, but up until now, I have been more concerned with the data and functionality, rather than the look and feel. At Hilti, probably like many of you, we send out a lot of emails. Our email service provider provides the email team a lot of stats about open rates and click thru rates, but once the email visitors gets to our site, the team had less data readily available. This report allows our email team to select any given email campaign from the drop down filter. Then they can see what visitors from the campaign did on the website, what pages they viewed and how many times they viewed them. And most importantly, it provides eCcommerce metrics such as how many orders they made and what products they bought. One other thing I should point out about the email campaign report is that I added a second page. While one of the things I love about Data Studio is the ability to have concise, one-page reports with a ton of great data, you can, of course, have multiple pages in your reports. On the second page, I put metrics to help our team see what time people are clicking through our emails and coming to the website.
  • Campaign Specific Reports: The final report I will mention is one I put together for a recent campaign we were running for our chemical anchor products. At Hilti, when we talk about anchors, it’s not boat anchors, we manufacture and sell concrete anchors for construction applications. Part of our suite of anchoring products consists of epoxy, adhesive, or chemical anchors. This past summer we had a marketing push around the chemical anchor line and this is the summary report I’ve put together to report on the performance of the chemical anchor pages. Part of the chemical campaign was also to publish several new pages with the goal of attracting more organic search traffic, so I created an SEO dashboard in Data Studio for the campaign as well.

Engagement Rates for Landing Pages See Marked Improvement

As you can see, we have used Data Studio to create a wide variety of reports and we have seen a lot of success in democratizing the data this way and getting the marketing team to pay attention to the data. But you may be wondering, what concrete benefits have we seen from using Data Studio? Sure the data is getting out there more, but is it really being used to improve the performance of digital marketing campaigns? The answer is yes, we have seen tangible results and here are two big ones.

Engagement Rates for Landing Pages See Marked ImprovementHere is a chart of the bounce rate and conversion rate for our landing pages over a year. Before we started using Data Studio for our reporting, we were seeing relatively steady bounce rates and conversion rates with room for improvement. When we started using Data Studio, those bounce rates began to decline and ended up stabilizing around a percentage roughly half of what they were before. And similarly, the conversion rates began to improve as we used Data Studio and have effectively doubled in the course of a year.

I’m not saying Data Studio was the only factor in these improved engagement rates—it was not. We have ongoing efforts to continually improve our landing pages and using Data Studio reports was only one aspect of our approach. But the correlation is undeniable—that using Data Studio to democratize web analytics data has been an important tool in helping us get data in the hands of marketing decision makers and they have used that data to improve the effectiveness of our marketing campaigns.

LinkedIn Notes We Are Drowning in Data. Data Studio Has the Solution.

As we wrap up, I like to share a quote from a LinkedIn article I ran across just a couple of weeks ago as I was preparing this presentation. The article was about how marketers are using digital analytics, and it pointed out, as I did at the beginning of this presentation, how digital marketers are drowning in data. The article said, “We found that digital marketers are struggling — struggling to calculate their impact, share that impact with key stakeholders, and market that impact across their organizations.” I found it interesting that they pointed out these three challenges with measuring, sharing, and making an impact across the organization. And it was quite timely, as I have pointed out, that you can overcome each one of these challenges with Data Studio. And when you do that, instead of drowning in data, you will be riding the data-driven wave. Thank you.

Lessons Learned from Doing SEO Freelancing for a Year

Summary: After doing SEO freelancing for a year, I learned important skills and gained invaluable experience in selecting clients, estimating work load, negotiating payment, measuring success, establishing processes, succeeding in the short-term and long-term, and perhaps most importantly, in learning to follow my heart.

Background Motivation to Do a Side Hustle

bathtub leaking into kitchenIn 2018, we hit a financial rough spot in which my family had several thousand dollars of unexpected expenses within a one month period. My car broke down and that cost $2,500 to repair and the family van had a $1,000 repair for some weird electrical problem. The water heater in our house burst and it was over $1,000 to replace. The upstairs bathroom shower faucet broke and it started leaking into the kitchen—another $1,000 to repair. And there were several other items that I do not now recall.

My daughter was approaching her 16th birthday and we had been saving up money so she could have my old car to drive and then I was planning to buy myself a new (used) car. But all of a sudden, virtually all the money we had been saving to buy a new car was gone, and that’s when I thought I should look into doing some freelancing to make some extra money. By profession, I am a digital analytics manager who has a lot of experience managing websites and performing search engine optimization (SEO). I thought I could make some time for digital marketing consulting, maybe 10 or 15 hours a week, by working nights and weekends.

Selecting a Freelance Website

My first item of business was finding somewhere to get freelance work. Years ago, I had hired a freelancer through Upwork.com, so that was my first destination when I began looking to do freelance work. Honestly, I didn’t do as much research as I should have when it came to selecting which freelance website company to work through. I picked Upwork because they were the most prominent freelance website I was aware of. In retrospect, I would have researched the competition (like Fiverr.com and Freelancer.com) to compare fees and terms of service.

Signing up with Upwork, searching for and securing my first freelance gig cost me nothing. But once I began working, I was shocked that Upwork charged a 20% fee on every dollar I billed my client, though that fee did go down to 10% after the first $500 billed. Even more shocking, though, was Upwork’s user agreement which states that freelance/client relationships made through their website must use their system to complete payment transactions FOR 2 YEARS. That means, if you connect with someone through Upwork, you agreed that you will pay Upwork their service fees for two years for all work done. That seems like an outrageously long time to me, so be aware of that going in.

Lesson Learned #1: Do competitive research of fees and terms of service of freelance websites before signing up and making an agreement with a client so you know beforehand exactly what to expect.

Finding My First Freelancing Gig

As I browsed the digital marketing related freelance gigs that I was qualified for, SEO ones where the most prevalent. I submitted my application to several of them. I had no idea how hard or easy it would be to get hired for one of these gigs, and like any job application, the hard part was taking the time to write a thoughtful, persuasive application letter even when you don’t know the likelihood that they’ll select you. But it had to be done. And then there was they issue of what hourly rate to charge. I checked out the competition and there are a lot of SEOs on the platform with low fees, along with a smaller number of ones with high fees. I ended up picking an hourly rate that was lower than what I wanted, but I felt I needed to do that to be competitive as I was getting my feet wet in the world of freelance SEO work. I thought that once I was established, it would be easier to get work at a higher rate.

A month or so went by without getting selected for an interview, and I was beginning to think this was a waste of my time, when one day I got asked to have a phone interview for one of the jobs. The phone interview went well, and I was soon offered the job. I had some debate with the client about whether the gig would be paid by the job or by the hour. I was pretty firm on doing it by the hour, as I didn’t want to get stuck in a commitment to do work that could drag on for a long time and thus diminish my hourly rate. The client was okay with me tracking the hours and paying by the hour, so we moved forward with an official agreement through the Upwork website.

Lesson Learned #2: Be patient in finding the right gig for you and it could lead to a great long-term working relationship, as you will see was the case for me.

I should also mention that the client asked if we could do the payments outside the Upwork website, thus avoiding their fees, as well as avoiding Upwork’s incredibly poorly designed user interface. It was an tempting offer, but knowing the Upwork User Agreement terms, I had to insist on using Upwork’s prescribed time tracking and payment system. I don’t think the client was trying to break the rules, they were just unaware and when I said I felt it was best to honor the Upwork terms of service, the client was fine with that, and so we moved forward.

Lesson Learned #3: Be prepared in case your client asks to pay you outside the freelance website and know how you will respond. It’s against the terms of most of the sites. Honesty is the best policy.

Analysis, Plan of Action and Understand Client’s Business

The client who hired me was a small digital marketing agency, which for anonymity’s sake, was run by a woman I will call Molly. We had agreed that I would put in about 10 or 15 hours a week, and Molly asked me to split my time between two of her clients which I’ll call Website A and Website B. I dove right into analyzing the SEO performance of the two websites, as well as diving into the Google Analytics to understand how the sites were performing overall. By the end of the first month, I had presented my SEO and web analytics findings to Molly and the website owners, and offered my recommendations for improvement and suggested next steps.

Website A and B were both the online home for small technology companies, and both companies used their website as a major source of sales and lead generation. Website A got a couple thousand visits per week, while Website B, a smaller niche business, was getting a couple hundred visits per week. Both sites had good things going for them in terms of branding, content, and design, but both were also lacking some basic SEO best practices such are optimized titles tags, meta descriptions, H1 headlines, interlinking, and more. Both sites also had an information architecture (IA) and main menu lacking in high-value SEO keywords.

With both sites, I should mention that it took several conversations with the site owners to really understand their business, the products and services offered, as well as their target audience. It was particularly difficult to grasp the business model of Website B, the more niche business, but once I did, a course of action to make the content resonate better with their audience and with search engines became clear. And thus far, the freelancing was going very smoothly—I was enjoying the work and earning a little extra income, everything I had hoped for.

Lesson Learned #4: In scoping out SEO freelancing projects, be sure to bake into your estimates time to get to know the company, target audience, products and services. Having a well-rounded understanding of the business will make you a better SEO consultant.

Performance Measuring and SEO Results for Website A and Website B

Over the next couple of months, we implemented the course of action I had laid out to improve the SEO, usability, and conversion rates of the two websites. Both sites were built on WordPress, a website content management system (CMS) that I am very familiar with, so I was quite comfortable not only developing the strategy, but executing it as well. While the freelance contract had been for SEO services, it was clear that the website owners wanted help in many other aspects of their web presence and digital marketing. At the end of the day, I knew the website owners would only be happy if the increase in organic web traffic led to more leads and more website visitors turning into buying customers. Therefore, in addition to SEO tasks, many of my efforts were also around landing page optimization, reducing bounce rates, improving conversion rates, cleaning up web analytics tracking and reporting, and doing other digital marketing tasks.

Lesson Learned #5: Nobody wants to rank for rankings sake. SEO consulting isn’t just about improving the website’s placement in search results, it’s about improving the volume of target audience visits and quality leads.

As part of the performance measurement plan, I put together a Google Data Studio report with some of the high-level SEO and website stats which I reviewed weekly with the website owners. The report served to benchmark prior website performance as well as communicate how my SEO efforts were paying off. This was important as a freelance consultant as I wanted the clients to know where the key performance indicators (KPIs) had been and how my efforts had improved them.

Within a month of implementing our first changes on the websites, we began to see some small improvements in the amount of organic search traffic to the sites as well as improvements in the conversion rate of visitors. After three or four months, Website A had doubled in traffic and with conversion rates doubling as well, the owner saw a four-fold increase in leads. And they were good leads too, many of them turning into paying customers. With Website B, the results were positive, but less dramatic as Website A, with traffic increasing by about 50% and slightly better conversion rates.

Lesson Learned #6: I already knew this, but it was reinforced that freelancers should always benchmark the SEO and website performance prior to their engagement as well as establishing regular reporting to communicate improvements in KPIs.

Overall, the owners of Website A and B were very pleased with the results, as was Molly who was thrilled to have such happy clients herself. It was then that I began to more fully realized how valuable my skill set was. I began to think that I had sold myself short with the low hourly rate I set at first, and I began to wonder if I should raise my rate. I also began to wonder if I should consider expanding the time I spent freelancing to see if it could turn into a legitimate full-time business for me.

Asking for a Pay Raise

At about this point in my relationship with Molly, I thought it was a good time to ask for an increase in my hourly rate. I had been doing the freelance SEO work for around six months and I had been trying for months to find the right time to bring up the topic. For someone of my personality, this is a difficult thing to ask for, but I was glad I finally did it. I asked for a substantial increase because I knew I didn’t want to do this again. Molly clearly didn’t want to lose me, but the increased rate was difficult for her to take. She made a counter proposal and I accepted it and we moved on—it seemed like a win for both of us.

Lesson Learned #7: Do research so you can price yourself right from the get go, but don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of your hourly rate. And, of course, it is best to have some success under your belt before asking for a pay raise.

Taking on a Third and Fourth Website for My Client

With the success of Website A and B, my client, Molly, asked if I thought I could take on additional clients of hers. I had been averaging about 8 or 10 hours a week on the freelancing work, and due to my full-time job and family constraints, I told her there was no way I could put in more hours. She said she would be bringing on additional junior SEO freelancers, though, and wondered if I could step back and play a more strategic role. I would continue to complete analysis and set strategies, but the more junior SEOs would do the work of executing the tactics. I had been enjoying all the work I was doing for Molly and wanted to continue to expand my professional relationship with her and her agency so I decided to go for it.

Website C and D, did not turn out as well as A and B, for a variety of reasons. And though we didn’t see much SEO success with these two websites, I did learn many important lessons about freelance and agency work. Website C was owned and operated by some people who were very difficult to work with. Whereas the owners of Websites A and B were open to almost all of our ideas, the managers of Website C pushed back against a great many of our proposals. Ironically, they still demanded results even though they wouldn’t follow our recommendations. It was a difficult situation, and certainly above my freelancer pay grade. Thankfully Molly handled most of those end-client relationships, though this company didn’t remain a client for long.

Lesson Learned #8: Be selective about clients. From my perspective, no amount of money is worth it if the person you are working with is unreasonable and they make your life miserable.

Lesson Learned #9: Know yourself, your strengths, and your preferences. For me, if I ever go into business for myself doing digital marketing consulting or start my own agency, I want a business partner who will handle client relationships. It’s not my forte.

The managers of Website D, contrary to Website C, were very nice to work with. Like Websites A and B, Website D had a lot of log hanging fruit with regard to optimizing page titles, meta data, headlines, call-to-action buttons, and other content. Also like the others, an information architecture overhaul was implemented to put the topics that matter most to users higher up in the menu structure. But despite our efforts, and to my surprise, after a month or two, the organic search volume didn’t budge.

On top of the lack of SEO results, it seemed like each week we were uncovering unusual and unexpected issues with the website. Their WordPress implementation was outdated, with problematic plugins, and content was in disarray. On top of that, the site managers had been making changes to their homepage and other page without communicating it to us and in some cases messing up the SEO. The company had Google display ads running, and running very inefficiently, sending thousands of unqualified visitors to their site weekly. And they had three instances of Google Analytics on their site, so we wondered about the validity of any of the data we were looking at. The more we worked with the website, the more oddities and technical debt we seemed to uncovered.

Lesson Learned #10: Evaluate the state of the website backend before beginning optimization work and build into the scope of work plenty of time to do clean up. If the back end is in disarray, it can put a major hamper on optimization efforts.

Problems in Working with an Expanding Team of Freelancers

In addition to the problems with clients and client websites, as I had expanded my case load to handle four websites, the working model of me being the senior SEO strategist with the assistance of junior SEO freelancers was having bumps of its own. I began each website engagement with my normal thorough analysis, and then made a to-do list of things for the junior SEO to do. Unfortunately, the other freelancer was not accustomed to my way of communication and didn’t understand many of the tasks I gave her. Many of the important tasks went undone or were done the wrong way or simply in a way I was not accustomed to.

This particular junior SEO was used to going through a checklist as she gave a website an SEO tune up, while I, on the other hand, wasn’t accustomed to working in such a rigid process. I quickly began to see the benefits of the checklist, however. Though a list like that cannot cover every aspect of SEO, what it did cover was good SEO practices. And I realized the checklist allowed her to get much of the low hanging fruit, freeing me up to do deeper analysis and uncover issue less likely to turn up in a standardized checklist. In fact, I decided that a checklist could be a great tool in doing the initial analysis of a client and their website. Eventually, we worked out many of the kinks in our internal process and we began working together better.

Lesson Learned #11: It takes times to learn to work well with someone, so make time for it and don’t take teamwork for granted.

Lesson Learned #12: While checklists can be mechanical, rote, and less-than-comprehensive for qualitative evaluations, they can still be a helpful, time-saving tool, and a good way to delegate and a make sure you don’t forget anything.

Realizing the Freelance Work is Stretching Me Too Thin

After several months of working on Websites C and D, neither was showing much SEO progress, and the great progress we has seen in Website A and B was slowing down. Furthermore, I was personally being stretched incredibly thin trying to keep up on all the freelancing work while at the same time trying not to fall behind in my full-time day job and balancing the demands of a large family. While I had thoroughly enjoyed the freelance work for the first six or eight months of doing it, in the most recent months, I began to dread the work more and more. I have almost no free time as it is, and what little spare time I had was filled with the freelance work. I felt like I was not dedicating the time I should have to my wife and kids, yet we were all enjoying the extra income. The extra income allowed us to buy that third car for my daughter to drive, which was a huge benefit to my wife who no longer had to take her to and from school and other activities.hannah driving gold corolla car

Molly must have noticed that I was being stretched thin, and she suggested I hand off Website C and D to another freelancer, and return to dedicating myself wholly to Websites A and B. We made that transition, but I continued to be weary of the workload. I was taking on more responsibilities at my full-time job, and it became increasing apparent that I needed to spend more time with my family. I didn’t want to lose the extra income, but my health and my family were more important.

After nearly a year of doing the freelance gig, I happened to be on a family vacation. It’s always nice to have time off, but I particularly enjoyed the freedom from the demands of the freelance work. I dreaded getting back to real life and starting up with the SEO freelance work again. It was then that I realized that it was time to be done with the freelancing. When I made the mental decision to stop doing the freelance work, a feeling of peace and comfort (a feeling that I have learned comes from the Spirit of God) came over me letting me know that it was right. When I got home, I gave Molly notice that I could no longer do freelance work for her. She respected my decision, I wrapped up and handed off my projects, and we parted ways.

Lesson Learned #13: Trust in the feelings God puts into your heart and do as He prompts you. Decisions may be difficult, but the Lord is watching out for you, and will give you confidence to move forward.

Conclusion

It was a great experience to do freelancing for a year. I had many successes and also several failures, and in the process I learned much, as I have pointed out in the lessons learned above. I was able to accomplish my goal of earning some extra money to get a third car for our growing family. And in the process of freelancing, I learned skills and gained experience that will help me throughout my ongoing career, whether that continues in the in-house corporate SEO world or if it evolves into future consulting, agency work, or even freelancing again. While the time is not right to keep doing SEO freelancing right now, the time could be right again in the future. And if that time comes, I’ll be much more prepared.

User Intent Key in Landing Page Optimization

Note: This article was originally written in 2010 and published on a website I am not longer running. I am reposting it for the historical record and it has some good content. 🙂 

Your Website is like a Where’s Waldo poster

Earlier this year I attended a landing page optimization webinar on user intent that was excellent. The presentation was by Gord Hotchkiss, President of Enquiro, a search engine marketing agency out of British Colombia. Mr. Hotchkiss started out by comparing our websites to a Where’s Waldo poster. Without intent, a purpose such as finding Waldo, users will see the picture as nothing more than a detailed blur. But with intent, the user can match promising areas of the poster and information scent with what they know they are looking for–a man in blue pants and a red-striped sweater.

Focused Intent: A Case Study

Focused inter vs unfocused intentThe Belagio hotel website provides an interesting case study in which an eye tracking comparison was made on people with different user intent. The first group of users had unfocused intent, no specific task was assigned. They were sent to the site and the eye tracking indicated their attention was scattered all over the page.  The second group was given a specific task to register and book a room.  The group with focused user intent, according to the eye tracking, concentrated their attention in the top and side navigation where they were most likely to find links for registering and booking room. This study shows that user intent determines how people use the site.

Web User Intent Guidelines

Mr. Hotchkiss has found through his research that people generally follow these three steps upon arriving at a Web site:

  • Orientation Scan (elapsed time – 1 to 2 seconds).  Web site visitors first quickly decide if they are at the page they expected to be.  Does the site, the titles, the headlines, look and feel align with the user’s intent?
  • Primary Paths (elapsed time – 2 to 10 seconds).  Second, visitors begin examining the navigation and other, what he called, eye candy, or major calls to action. The user now begins to consider options and where those links will likely lead.
  • Choice (elapsed time – less than 30 seconds). Finally, the user will make a selection: either an action on your site, or the back button.  The information scent of the available choices, and how well that aligns with user intent will largely determine the choice. Visitors will, conscientiously or not, ask how rich is the information or experience on the other side of these links.

Intent Clusters

Intent Clusters on Apple's websiteFinally, Mr. Hotchkiss discussed what he called intent clusters using Apple’s website to illustrate the concept. He said that 80% of visitors can generally be found to have one of about 3 major intents in mind when they visit a site. (2018 update: I guess I didn’t make note of what those three major intents are. Perhaps they are informational, navigational, and transactional. Those of the three major intent classifications used to describe users on search engines.) Your site, to be successful, must meet those intentions and intent clusters is a powerful way to communicate to visitors that your site is the right choice for them. An intent cluster generally consists of an image (which communicates much faster than text), surrounded by reinforcing text, and a call to action. You’ll notice the intent cluster for the iPod and for iTunes in the illustration to the right of Apple’s Web site.

Conclusion: Understanding User Intent Is Key in Optimizing Landing Pages

Your home page and other key landing pages will perform better when you understand user intent and design the site to meet those end user desires. Here are some other insightful take aways from Mr. Hotchkiss’s presentation:

    • It is better to make assumptions about user intent based on research and data, than to ignore it and present your website visitors with a Where’s Waldo poster.
    • 70% of people listening to the Webinar indicated that they are too busy with current work load to spend time optimizing landing pages.  A sad trend common inside many organizations, but a real opportunities for those willing to take the time to understand user intent and optimize pages for it.
    • Most sites need a higher number of landing pages that better align with user intent. Other options also include personalizing landing pages based on web analytics data such as geo-location, search engine keyword, etc.

Landing Page Optimization Checklist

Landing Page Optimization ChecklistSome time ago, I created this landing page optimization checklist to make it easier for the people at my company who build landing pages to do them in the most optimal way. The checklist mentions 29 points, primarily to do with conversion optimization but also with search engine optimization topics. Download a PDF of the checklist with the button below or below that you can see the text of the checklist. Enjoy!

Landing Page Optimization Checklist

Landing Page Optimization Checklist:

Step 1: Planning
 Goal or goals of the landing page (LP) have been set by business sponsor
 Keyword research has been conducted to identify terms the audience uses most

Step 2: Content and Copy
 Duplicate content has been checked for. (Do a Google site search “site:yoursite.com ” and if a page on that topic already exists, consider using it instead of creating a new page.)
 Copy has clear and compelling value proposition and is aligned with goals
 Copy is concise and to the point, but detailed enough to help users make their decision
 Copy focuses on benefits to end-user rather than features of the product
 Important keywords are placed in prominent locations (headlines, titles, bolded, front-loaded)
 Links are descriptive of where they take the user (e.g. no “click here” or “read more”)
 Link text users click to come to the page match the LP headline (for our emails and website pages)

Step 3: Layout and Design
 LP has one, primary call to action (CTA) which is easily recognizable and above the fold
 The page is free from clutter, distractions, or undue cognitive load on end-user
 Images are relevant and add value (not just pretty and take up space)
 Brand guidelines have been followed for layout, fonts, graphics, tone, etc.
 Design and tone are consistent across all marketing channels (email, LP, fliers, post cards, etc.)
 All links, especially the primary and secondary CTAs, appear to be clickable
 The page, including copy and layout, are approved by sponsoring department, brand, and legal

Step 4: Technical Considerations when Building LP
 Page title matches H1 headline and is unique on website (Do a Google site search to verify)
 Meta description uses keywords, has compelling call to action, and is less than 160 characters
 CTAs are tracked as success events in your web analytics program
 Images use descriptive alt-text and title
 Image file names are optimized and human readable (screw-driver.jpg rather than 123xyz.jpg)
 Social media meta tags are populated for title, image, and description
 URL uses dashes “-“ rather than underscores “_” to separate words
 URL matches page title (e.g. if title = “Screw Driver” the URL should be “/screw-driver”).
 When the page is taken down, a 301 redirect to a relevant page is put in its place

Optional: Additional Search Engine Optimization
If the page is a short-term promotional page, these SEO elements are not required but still good to do.
 LP is optimized around a single, high-value keyword or phrase (i.e. the target keyword is used in the title, headline, URL, main body copy, and meta description)
 Keyword synonyms are used in the copy to make language more natural and varied
 LP has healthy amount of text (at least 100 words, preferably 500 or more) to give search engines an opportunity to understand what the topic of the page is
 High value keywords on page are linked to other optimized SEO landing pages, if they exist

Landing Page Conversion Optimization

Note: This article was originally written in 2010 and published on a different website I was running at the time.

Today’s post will discuss some of the principles of landing page optimization. Particularly, I’d like to talk about optimizing landing pages for conversion as opposed to optimizing for search engines, though those two disciplines have increasingly merged over the years as discussed in When Search Meets Web Usability. The quotes below are take from Anna Jacobson’s article in the MarketingExperiments Blog called Overcoming friction and anxiety: Suitable optimization suggestions for Men’s Wearhouse.

What is a Landing Page?

If you search the internet, you’ll find a variety of definitions of a landing page from very specific ones (like “a lead capture page”) to very general ones (like “any page a visitor lands on”). I personally prefer the more general definition with the caveat that a landing page is an entry point to your site and has a purpose to convert you, or entice you to take further action on the site. Landing pages are often arrived at in response to clicking an online advertisement, a link from a social media site, an email campaign, a search result, or a pay per click (PPC) campaign. Landing pages enhance the effectiveness of these off-site marketing channels be providing visitors with addition details (sales copy, videos, information, etc.), and provides your company with a better chance to win over those visitors.

Principles of Landing Page Conversion

Below is a formula published by Daniel Burstein of MarketingExperiments about the factors that lead to (or prevent) landing page conversion. A conversion, in this sense, refers to converting browsers into buyers, or in the case of media sites or non-commercial enterprises, getting people to take any key action. The “C” in the formula is for “conversion,” and the rest of the factors are labeled and explained below.

landing page conversion equation

Now don’t be overwhelmed is you are not a mathematician. This is not a formula to be numerically solved. The presentation as a formula and the numbers are there to help you understand how all the pieces fit together and to help you see the weight and importance of different factors. As you can see, if customers (site visitors) are properly Motivated and see the Value of the offer, it will overcome the Friction and Anxiety about taking the action (to buy something or perform another desired outcome). The friction and anxiety must be overcome by value, motivation and incentives communicated clearly on the landing page. If it helps, instead of thinking of it as a math formula, Dave Chaffey of Smart Insights points out that you can think of landing page conversion probabilities as a scale where the positive has to outweigh the negative, as shown in the image below.

landing page conversion scales weight

To help understand the equation, or the scale, whichever model you prefer, below I explain each of the factors in a little more detail.

Motivation

A landing page (including your home page) “must connect to the customer’s demand or need for a product. If they clicked on your ad, something in the ad motivated them to do so. To continue reaching that motivation, the landing page must immediately connect with your natural [or paid] search ad. The best place to do this is with a headline. Without a headline that connects with the channel, the visitor may initially question if they are in right place.”

Value Proposition

“Your value proposition communicates the unique value you have to offer your ideal prospect.” “You will also want to convey your unmatched quality.” Do not “relying on the visitor to do all the work, to search for this essential part of your value proposition.” Make sure the value is clearly communicated, not “buried on your site and you make visitors dig for it.”

Incentive

“An incentive’s function is to stimulate a desired action by your prospect.” With the Men’s Wearhouse, it’s a Buy One Get One Free offer. With you’re a religious website, the incentive might be to learn more about Jesus Christ.

Friction

“In order to identify sources of friction, we need to look for any element that may make it more difficult for a visitor to buy.” “And we cannot just identify sources of friction by looking at the page. We have to analyze how a visitor will experience the page, because friction is psychological, existing in the mind of the visitor.” “When someone lands on the page, they shouldn’t have to think about where to click. It should come naturally and instantly.”

Anxiety

As marketers, there are generally actions you can take on landing pages to help mitigate the anxiety of the end users. “Anxiety is associated with a concern about something, and [for e-commerce sites] is usually located in the payment process.” For Men’s Wearhouse, a money-back guarantee can make the difference in overcoming this anxiety. “When a customer is aware that any purchase is essentially ‘risk free,’ then it makes the final click on the purchase button so much easier.”

 

Menu Link Standards and Checklist

Menu Link Standards and ChecklistIn my work as a digital marketing analyst for Hilti, the subject of the website’s main menu comes up often. My colleagues often want to know how effective the various links in the menu are in driving traffic to the pages they care about. And the requests to put new content in the menus can be numerous at times. A recent request to add some items to the main navigation got me thinking about best practices and standards our company should have regarding the links in the menu. Such a checklist of standards could help us avoid some of the political battles we all face regarding inter-departmental competition for space in the website’s menu.

So I went back and reviewed much of the material I’ve collected over the years regarding menu purposes and principles, as well as my library of resources on information architecture (IA). What I came up with was this following checklist of ten items to consider when adding new links to the main menu of your website.

Download Menu Link Standards and Checklist

The checklist has both brief descriptions of things to check for and more details citations of why those things are important. You’ll notice that all my citations come from the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG). This is because a few years ago I took a course about information architecture for websites as part of my UX certification program from the NNG. During this course, we discussed the main purposes of website menus, the primary one being to help visitors find what they are looking for. On the internet, competitor websites are also just one click away. Therefore, it is important to help visitors find what they are looking for quickly to keep them on the site and engaged with us.

Good menus, says Jakob Nielsen, “improve the navigability of your site [and] by helping users find more, they’ll help you sell more” (see Mega Menus Work Well for Site Navigation). I believe if you and your company strive to follow the guidelines in this document you will achieve just that–users will be able to more easily find your content that they are looking for and your conversions rates will go up.

The following guidelines should help your site, whether your information architecture is the result of research and testing, or if your menu has a less than optimal IA that you inherited and has more influence by company politics than usability best practices. And while I think the checklist is pretty good, that’s not to say it can’t be improved. If you have any suggested edits or additions, please let me know. Thanks.

Here’s the Checklist:

Standard Details Citations
□ Link is truly necessary in menu Too many links in the menu can cause clutter, make things harder to find, and ultimately do more harm than good. Rather than cramming everything into the menu, “Instead, make each top-level menu choice clickable, leading to a regular Web page where you present all dropdown options in plain, fully accessible HTML.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/mega-menus-work-well/

 

□ Link goes to content that is important to end users The menu should reflect content most desired by end-users rather than company internal initiatives. Exceptions may occur but should be rare. “To engage users, website copy must speak to readers and not at them. …Users want to know what the product or service will do for them. …On the web, users are task oriented. They are often looking to answer a question, solve a problem, or find information.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/user-centric-language/

□ Link is at highest logical place in information architecture A flat shallow menu hierarchy is preferable to deep and narrow one. “Content is more discoverable when it’s not buried under multiple intervening layers. All other things being equal, deep hierarchies are more difficult to use.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/flat-vs-deep-hierarchy/

□ Link is placed where users are most likely to look for it Think like an end user hunting for information. Where would they look first, second, and so forth? “Information scent refers to the extent to which users can predict what they will find if they pursue a certain path through a website.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/wrong-information-scent-costs-sales/
□ Link text uses words familiar to our audience Avoid using company-specific jargon. Titles of menu links should be short, descriptive, and intuitive for the average users. “Ideally, jargon and branded terms that aren’t universally understood should be used only within the content pages, where users have context clues to help them understand what the unfamiliar terms mean. Findability is maximized by old, well-known words instead of new, made-up words.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/fixing-bad-intranet-navigation/

□ Link text incorporates high-value SEO keywords. Menu links are among the most crawled by search engines, and their SEO value is high. Do keyword research to find effective terms. “There are many elements to search engine optimization, but SEO guideline #1 is our old friend, ‘speak the user’s language.’ Or, more precisely, when you write, use keywords that match users’ search queries.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/web-writing-use-search-keywords/

□ Link text leads with high-value keywords The highest value keywords should be front-loaded in the menu’s hyperlinked text. “Start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice. …They’ll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/f-shaped-pattern-reading-web-content/
□ Link text accurately describes the destination page Users should easily understand what every link leads to and not be disappointed when they get there. “Any broken promise, large or small, chips away at trust and credibility. The words in a link label make a strong suggestion about the page that is being linked to. The destination page should fulfill what the anchor text promises.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/link-promise/
□ Link text and URL is unique on menu Each link in menu should be unique, both in URL destination and the link text should clearly differentiate itself from other options. “Unclear naming is one of the biggest and most important projects to tackle when it comes to [information architecture]. Each navigation category must be descriptive, specific, and mutually exclusive so that users can pick where to navigate without hesitation.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/intranet-information-architecture-ia/

□ Order of links is as meaningful as possible Menu items should only be in alphabetical order if there is no better way to organize. “Consider: Is there another organizing principle that would be more meaningful? …Usually, there’s another way to organize content that is better than alphabetical organization.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ia-questions-navigation-menus/

Writing Headlines for the Web

Note: This article was originally written in December 2010 and published on a different website I was running at the time.

writing headlines for the webWhen writing headlines for the Web, copywriters must take everything they have learned about traditional print headlines, and add to that the need to optimize for search and make them usable for Web audiences.  Striking the proper balance between traditional headline strategies, search optimization, and web usability needs will help improve the likelihood that articles will be found, headlines will be read, and articles will be enjoyed by the reading public.

Traditional Headlines

The headline is the first impression made on a prospective reader, so it better be a good impression to keep them reading. The importance of taking the time and effort to write good headlines cannot be overstated, and some say that nothing distinguishes a professional author from an amateur so quickly as the quality of the headlines.

When writing headlines or titles to articles there is a lot to consider.  Well-written headlines must distill the essence of the story, they should grab the readers get attention and lead the reader into the rest of the story.  Without a headline or title that converts a browser into a reader, the rest of the words in the article may as well not even exist.

Search Optimized Headlines

While authors and journalist have traditionally spent a lot of time crafting the perfect headline, if you are writing for the Web, there is even more to consider. In crafting traditional headlines, you can assume that potential readers have already found the article; they have the newspaper or magazine already in hand.  But on the Web, there is a crucial prior step that relies heavily on the headline content: making sure the article gets found. If the article can’t be found by search engines, and by the target readers query on a search engine, then the article may never be found, much less be read by the target audience.

SEOmoz, a leading search engine marketing consultancy firm, ranks the page title as one of the top elements in search engine ranking factors that will boost your article’s findability.  Therefore, the words in the title of your article will have a greater impact than any other on whether or not that article is found by search engines, and consequently, found by the majority of Web surfers who begin their Internet experience at a search engine.

So what does a search optimized headline look like? It is simply one that uses words that people use: words that people search for and scan for. So be sure to do your keyword research to find out what those words and phrases are. And of course, remember to consider information scent.

Usable Headlines

Frequently, search optimized headlines are naturally usable, but not always. With short attention spans and the competition being just one click away, Web headlines must also follow usability guidelines.  Jakob Nielsen, renown Web usability expert, gives the following guidelines for writing web headlines:

  • Keep headlines short because people don’t read much online.
  • Make headlines rich in information scent, clearly summarizing the article.
  • Front-load headlines with the most important keywords, because users often scan only the beginning of headlines.
  • Make headlines understandable out of context, because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results.
  • Create headlines that are predictable, so users know whether they’ll like the full article before they click it. (People don’t return to sites that promise more than they deliver.)

When Search Meets Web Usability

Note: This article was originally written in August 2010 and published on a different website I was running at the time.

When Search Meets Web Usability is a great little book by Shari Thurow and Nick Musica about how to help users find what they are looking for on your website. One of the first things the authors do is to establish that their view that traditional search engine optimization (SEO) should go beyond optimizing content for search engines, and even beyond optimizing content for search engine users. In the book, they talk about search usability, the combination of SEO and web usability, and how it means optimizing the entire experience of finding what you are looking for on the web, regardless of how you search.when search meets web usability

“On the web, it is easy to see why the word search is associated with search engines only…Billions of searches are performed on Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft Live every month. Millions of websites have a site search engine. Therefore, considering the tremendous use of web and site searches, millions of people associate online searching with search engines.”

“However, people do not use only the commercial web search engines to look for content on the web. People might go to a specific web page after they remember a reference from newspaper, billboard, television show, radio program, or even word of mouth…In addition, people might look for web content by clicking a link from an email, text message, or an online advertisement. They also locate web content by clicking links from one site to another, commonly known as surfing or browsing the web…When searching these other ways, we still “search.”

“On the web, search usability refers to how easily users can locate and discover content on a site via retrieval (searching/querying) and navigation (browsing).” When Search Meets Web Usability, pages 2 –3.

The book goes on to talk about information scent in great detail and many other search usability topics. Here are some of my favorites quotes from the book:

Understanding Audience Needs Up Front: “If searchers’ needs and abilities were not considered when determining the requirements, design, and programming of a website, then the site is likely to require more changes and enhancements. Result? Businesses must allocate more staff and/or more staff time to a website to fix problems that should have been addressed before the site was launched.” p. 14

Large Flash Animations and Videos Can Be Distractions: When users are on transactional searches, “don’t delay, diminish, distract from, or hide the scent of information by initiating an action” (p. 70) such as playing a video or displaying a Flash animation. “Many Flash sites appear to be misleading links in search listings because searchers do not see keywords in the search listing also appearing on the landing page.” p. 80

Searching Does Not End When a SERP Result is Clicked: “Searching does not end after a person clicks a link from a search engine results page (SERP) to a website.” At that point, “they have two choices: They can either stay on your site, or they can abandon it.” p 71-72. Much of that decision rests on the information scent on the landing page.

Place Keywords and Calls to Action Prominently: “Recent studies show that users only read about 20 percent of the words on a web page. Therefore…important keywords and calls to action need to be featured prominently (above the fold) on web pages.” p. 72

Help Visitors Get Oriented: “The presence of easily scanned you are here cues makes users feel your site is trustworthy and credible.” p. 81 “Websites that facilitate scanning and orienting help searchers reach their goals more quickly and efficiently; increasing user confidence, trust, and credibility; and can help sites achieve and maintain top search engine positions.” p. 85

Search Usability Reduces Costs: “The more a call center or customer’s support is resolved online the less need there is to staff a call center or customer service department. That could mean significant savings for a company’s bottom line. Search usability efforts can help control operational expenses by reducing the number of phone calls that customer service receives.” p. 98

Effective Landing Page Designs: “Everything cannot be the most important thing on a web page. Home pages are usually the biggest casualty of the ‘everything is important’ disease…By making everything look equally important, the message you are sending to users is that nothing is important…Additionally, the resulting web page often looks cluttered, which can irritate and confuse site visitors.” p. 110

Write with the Words People Use: Web “copywriters should have access to the results of keyword research to understand what words and phrases users use in  their queries…and scanning, foraging, and browsing on your website. If possible, web copywriters should observe usability tests, talk with focus groups, and have access to other market research noting the words users use to describe products and tasks.” p. 116

Search Usability Impact on your Brand: “The more users are forced to muddle through your website not finding what they are looking for, the more your website communicates a negative brand experience.” p. 117

High Quality of Search Engine Traffic: “Traffic from the commercial web search engines is user initiated, pre-qualified, and task-based. Therefore, [these] users…should be more interested in your content than users who landed on your website by clicking links out of curiosity.” p. 121

Importance of Keyword Research: “Web usability professionals should familiarize themselves with the paid and free keyword research tools.” Through these, “you’ll see the most popular keywords users use to query, keywords usage trends, and variations of keyword phrases users favor.” p. 125

Understand Users Before You Build: “If you don’t take the time to understand your users, you can expect they will abandon your site and go to your competitors’. As a result, a good portion of your website maintenance will go to correcting your lack of user understanding.” p. 126

Focus Groups Are Not Usability Test: “Focus group participants may tell you that they want specific information and functionality on your website, but you really don’t know if that’s true until you usability test…People say one thing, but do another. Therefore, do usability testing if you want to know how users will use your site.” p. 131

Avoiding Unnecessary Features: “Features are only cool if users think they’re cool. Users may find features annoying and distracting. Avoid worshipping the cool. Focus on the useful and relevant.” p. 136

Don’t Start Construction without a Blueprint: “One of the biggest and most common mistakes made when building websites is when graphic designers go straight to [a] graphics program and start designing. This is like a construction company starting to construct a building without a blueprint…Bad information architecture will cripple your [website].” p. 137

Look and Feel are Easy to Change, Information Architecture Is Not: “Look and feel, and the emotions evoked from images, are very important, but those shouldn’t be pursued at the expense of the website information architecture. More thought and discussion is typically put into a photograph that can be easily swapped out than the backbone of the site—the information architecture. This needs to change if search usability is to succeed.” p. 138

Insight by Watching Someone Use Your Site: “Watching a user freely explore your website will open your eyes to stumbling blocks that you may have never considered otherwise.” p. 160

Good Web Sites Require User Feedback: “There are plenty of software applications and tutorials online that will help you technically put together a website. This explains why there are so many mediocre websites. You need to interact with people similar to your users if you want to create a good website.” p. 164

Ignore Users and They’ll Go Away: “You can be apathetic and ignore your users until they go away, or you can be empathetic and help your users, and they will eventually make your site a success.” p. 166

Thrifty Loses a Customer for Life When They Could Have Gained One

A couple of months ago I rented a car from Thrifty Car Rental but never again. This week I got a bill from Thrifty, shown below, for $0.70 from a toll road and a $15 administrative fee on top of that.

Thrifty Car Rental Fine

 

Apparently, despite my best effort to avoid toll roads during that trip, I must have gone through a toll booth. Now Thrifty is chasing me down to make sure I pay that $0.70 toll, and they’re charging me an additional $15 fee on top of that for their trouble.

At first I was mad at them, but now I just feel sorry for them and their incredibly short-sighted business practices. Just think of Thrifty’s options:

  1. They could have paid the $0.70 toll themselves. I would have been none the wiser, and I would have remembered renting a car with them as problem free.
  2. They could have sent me a bill for the $0.70 toll. I would have thought it was a little silly to bill me for such a small amount, but I would have understood. Perhaps, regardless of how big or small the toll amount, Thrifty has a process of reaching out to their customers to collect the money for tolls.
  3. They could have sent me a letter, letting me know that I incurred a $0.70 charge from a toll booth during my recent trip, but also letting me know that due to the small amount, they would just pay it themselves. The letter could have thanked me for being a loyal customer and encouraged me to use Thrifty again in the future. And I would have been glad to do so.
  4. They could have sent me a bill for the $0.70 toll plus an administrative fee on top of that. This would reassure me that Thrifty cares more about their short term bottom line than having me as a loyal customer.

Of course, Thrifty chose the last option, and I’m writing this post to remind myself never to use that car rental company again. It amazes me that for $0.70 and the price of a stamp, Thrifty could have gained a loyal customer. But apparently, they’d rather have $15 now and never have my business again.

I don’t know how much Thrifty spends on marketing. Probably not a lot, since they are a discount car rental company. But they must spend something on occasional TV spots, billboards, or online advertising. They likely spend thousands, perhaps even millions a year, on marketing campaigns that may or may not be effective. Here, though, they had the opportunity to spend $1 on a marketing campaign that would almost be guaranteed to win them new business, and not only did they miss the chance but they used the opportunity to offend and lose a customer.

P.S. I also am amazed, if you notice in the image above, that they have the website, ThriftyRentalFine.com. This both cracks me up with laughter and saddens me. Apparently, chasing down customers to pay fines is something Thrifty does so often that they need their own website dedicated to this purpose.