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Is Your Web Site Driving Away Visitors?

Aug 17, 2007
Much has been written about optimizing your web site for search engines, but less emphasis is placed on usability. Optimizing for usability and for search engines is not a contradiction.

What is usability? Basically stated, can the visitor to your site find what they're looking for quickly and easily? If your site is not usable, visitors will go elsewhere. Here is a list of some of the most important usability factors.

1. Does the site load quickly? Inefficient code and large or too many images will slow down page loading. Remember, if your page hasn't loaded in about eight seconds, the visitor is likely to go elsewhere.

2. Are the pages attractive, appropriate, and is the information presented in a consistent, simple, and concise form? What is attractive and appropriate for a rock band won't work for an accounting firm. Use colors and style to project the image of your business that you want visitors to see.

3. Can the site be easily navigated? The location and presentation of the navigation buttons should be consistent on each page and the visitor should be able to go from any page to any other page on the site. Ideally, a visitor should be able to get to any page with one or two clicks, and not have to "drill down" numerous levels unless absolutely necessary. Fewer navigation clicks are better.

4. Text size. All web browsers allow the visitor to resize the text on a web page. This is done to accommodate visitors who have less than "jet pilot" eyesight. Yet remarkably, many web designers will "lock" the text to a specific size to keep larger letters from "breaking" the page layout. While it's a little more work, a web page can be built to allow the visitor to set their own text size preferences while preserving the integrity of the page layout.

5. Text color. For whatever reason, we're seeing an increasing number of sites in which there simply is not enough contrast between the text and the background. Maybe the designer thinks it looks cool, but it's hard to read. We also see sites in which the "mouse-over" state of a navigation button disappears into the background. Choose your colors carefully, and from a readability perspective. It's hard to beat black text on white.

6. A web page is not print media. Studies have shown that people read web pages differently from printed material. People tend to scan a web page looking for major points. They are not likely to read long paragraphs on the web. (The exception to this is informational articles you may have on your site. But you've used concise text to get your visitor interested to get them to the article.)

So keep your page text short, use outlines, short paragraphs, and sparingly emphasize major points with bold text. (Avoid underlining major points because users may confuse the underlines with links.)

7. Just as a written paragraph should have one basic topic, so should each page in your site. There's a tendency to cram everything onto the home page. Assume you have a site on which you sell a weight-loss medication. After the holidays, many of us need that. Anyway, use your home page to grab your visitor's attention and show them how you can solve their problem. Although you love your family and dog, and you spent years developing your secret formula, put all that wonderful information on some other pages.

8. Avoid splash pages. Splash pages are those introduction pages that serve no other purpose than to - well - introduce your site. They frustrate visitors and search engines don't like them.

9. Your navigation buttons must provide a clear indication of what the visitor will find when they click the button. Don't confuse and irritate your visitor who clicks "Products" and finds himself on a page with stories about your dog.

10. Provide the name of the page on the page so the visitor knows where they are all the time. If more than one level deep, provide "breadcrumbs" so the user can navigate their way out.

11. Finally, make your contact information easy to find and complete, including name, address, phone, Email, and address. Doing so exudes professionalism, confidence, and integrity.

Optimizing for search engines and real people are not incompatible concepts. In fact, search engines are becoming more "human-like" in how they rank sites. Make your site appealing to visitors and good things will happen.
About the Author
Janet Winter and her husband, Phil, are owners of Web Design Partners, a full-service Web design firm. If you have questions about Web topics, you can contact them at WebDesignPartners.com. They also operate three e-commerce sites, WildBirdGoodies.com, WelcomeBabyGifts.com and APamperedDog.com.
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