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Web Search & Marketing Newsletter - May 2007

Welcome to the latest edition of our monthly newsletter, covering current web search and marketing issues that can have an impact on business websites.

For the May issue we report on the new development that can help websites get indexed by the main search engines through using the robots text file. Following last month’s review of website elements that can help to improve a site's conversions, we’ve reversed the perspective this month and look at the things that can drive users away from a site. And finally, we reflect on the rapid growth in PPC advertising and the possible implications for the future.

Read more about these stories below, or you can also browse through previous editions of the newsletter, either by month or by subjects covered.

On to this month's edition...

Using the robots.txt file to help search engines index a website

There was a good piece of news announced in April by Google and the other main search engines - Yahoo! and MSN - concerning further enhancements of the recent Sitemap protocol. This standardised method of supplying these search engines with a recognised format to help with the indexing of a website has now been extended to the robots.txt file as well.

We reported in our December newsletter about the significant step forward made by the 'big 3' search engines in agreeing a standardised protocol for submitting a Sitemap document - in a number of different formats - which would enable these search tools to index pages from a website more efficiently and more often, if required.

Now Google and the others (who have also been joined by Ask) have taken this another step forward by announcing a simple addition that can be made to a robots.txt file, which will enable these Sitemap files to be identified and indexed by the indexing 'spiders'. Although not essential, the robots.txt file is something that the automated ‘spiders’ sent out by the main search engines will look for when they first arrive on a website’s server, as it should indicate which sections of the site can, or can’t, be indexed. This can help to streamline the indexing process and is something we recommend that every website should include – you can find out more about this file here.

Now, the search engines that use the standardised Sitemap protocol have extended the service to allow website managers to insert a command in the robots.txt file that will direct the spiders to the Sitemap file. This means that you don't necessarily need to register to use Google's Webmaster tools, for example, (although this can still be the best option) but you can just edit your robots file to include the location of the Sitemap file and then let the search engines do the rest.

There's more information about this on the official Sitemaps protocol website.

For more information or help on how to use the robots.txt file, or the Sitemaps protocol, please contact us for details.


10 ways to lose visitors to your website

Last month we considered ways that ecommerce sites could increase the sales conversions from the number of visits they received by improving issues on the site. This month we consider the issues that could drive visitors away from a site and many of these factors can impact all types of website.

Web users are an impatient breed. As they rest their hand on the mouse they can so easily click away from a site if they don’t see what they want, or things take too long to happen. The web is used in a highly visual manner, issues of site usability are important and every business website needs to consider – or preferably research – the issues that may be driving potential customers away.

Web users don’t like to waste time. However, they will linger and read content if the initial indications from a website that they are visiting - whether for a product, service or information - are good. Web designers and online marketers need to consider ways to retain users on a site and to get them to move through each stage to an ultimate contact, whether it’s an enquiry or a sale.

Your website needs to strike a balance between your own business objectives and the needs of your audience, which may be product related or general web behaviour. The following are some of the factors that research has shown can lose visitors within a mouse-click:

1) Provide too many options or choices – sometimes too much choice creates indecision or confusion. Good website navigation may help to channel users to the products or information that they’re looking for and other ways to guide users can also help. Ecommerce sites can focus on bestsellers or new products, or websites can highlight the areas that have proved to be most popular in the past.

2) Provide too much information – this can have the same effect on site visitors and so content needs to be organised and presented in an accessible and manageable way. Content has to be meaningful and to grab and retain attention from the prospective customer, so avoid irrelevant content that won’t engage the reader on that page.

3) Provide too little information – do users have to work hard to find the information they need, such as total prices or delivery information on an ecommerce site being hidden on the final order confirmation page after a user is forced to enter all their details. If users have to register to access parts of the site, what will they get for their effort?

4) Provide too many distractions – a website needs to work efficiently to direct the visitor to the intended aim. Distracting advertisements or flashing content can take away a visitor’s concentration or lose them to another website if they follow the links.

5) Provide too many barriers – the time that a website can take to load pages is always an issue that will drive users away. Also having too many levels to click through to can be frustrating, or getting lost within the site and having no clear ‘Home Page’ link can also be a negative message.

6) Provide too many ‘red flags’ – site visitors can be instantly turned away by small but irritating issues, such as outdated content, dead links, no obvious contact details or other information that may indicate whether the company is legitimate or not.

7) Provide detailed forms – web users hate to fill in lengthy forms or proceed through several levels of form where they can’t see at the outset all the information that’s being requested. Make your website forms as simple as possible whilst collecting the information that you need.

8) Provide unusual design layouts – most web users recognise the accepted ‘norms’ of web design, such as consistent navigation styles, Home Page links or page structure. The issue of usability is vital to enable users to work through your site with the minimum of effort, so anything that may detract from that is likely to drive users away.

9) Provide confusing information – poorly worded content or explanations about a website or the product or service being offered will confuse and deter users from trying harder. Your site needs to sell but also to be written for your target user in plain, uncomplicated, English.

10) Provide too many reasons to look elsewhere – together with the above factors, there can be a myriad of other reasons why your potential customers may give up and look elsewhere. Consider how your site compares to competitors in your market – not just on product / service range or price, but on functionality, usability, content and relevancy.

You may be able to identify some factors that could distract users straight away. Others may need an independent view or more detailed user research to indicate the key elements that are losing you business. We can provide a range of services to help you identify the issues that could be affecting your online business, so if you’d like to know more, contact us now.


The implications of PPC advertising’s popularity

Pay-per-click advertising (PPC) has become a marketing phenomenon with exceptional growth in spend being reported over the last 4 years. Many web businesses are now using this method of search marketing as a primary source of business, but with increasing competition within many market sectors, what are the implications for the future?

PPC advertising was first developed at the end of the 1990’s as GoTo, having a limited circulation and no shortage of criticism as being too commercial within the field of Internet search. This early PPC model rebranded as Overture in 2001, by which time Google had also launched its AdWords product and it has been this tool that has driven the growth in this market (and Google's revenues) over recent years.

PPC has been so successful because it has focused the power of search engine traffic into a controlled advertising model. We've compared the strengths and weaknesses of PPC v SEO (http://www.websearchworkshop.co.uk/ppc-seo.php), but a key advantage of PPC is that companies can easily achieve visibility on search engines, whatever their site design or optimisation may be like, and it can create highly relevant and cost-effective traffic for them within 24 hours. The 'pull' method of advertising means that people will find a company or product when they are actively looking for them, rather than the traditional offline advertising that 'pushes' a message out to a broad market using TV, press or radio.

This use of search can be so cost-effective and measurable that companies are now falling over (or, perhaps more correctly, out bidding) each other to get rankings through sponsored results. Consequently the average cost per click has been increasing over the last few years due to the increasing competitiveness of many market sectors, so that the huge success of PPC advertising is also now beginning to create barriers for many.

The entry costs for a PPC campaign are now becoming higher and many larger companies are now entering the PPC market to dominate rankings with higher bid levels, both to drive traffic and develop their brand, as well as to push competitors down the rankings. This process will begin to shut out those companies with smaller budgets, although there are still many ways to make this form of advertising successful.

Eventually PPC advertising will achieve a natural economic balance and advertisers will need to ensure that their websites convert visitors at a better rate to continue to achieve the best ROI (return on investment). There are some signs of a move back to search engine optimisation as a strong alternative to PPC costs, although we recommend a balance of both techniques to achieve the best opportunities for search traffic.

To find out more about the highly cost-effective business opportunities that still exist for many companies using PPC advertising, contact us for details.


We hope you've found this month's newsletter useful. Please contact us if you need any more information on the items covered, or our advice on any aspect of your website's performance. Also, if there are any issues you would like to see in future editions of this newsletter, please submit your suggestions to us.