Ten Tips for Making a Favorable Impression
Amanda G. Watlington, Ph.D., APR
Searching for Profit

Those submitting sites for consideration for Web Awards want to make a favorable impression. This article presents 10 tips for making a positive impression not only on the judges but also on search engines, those with disabilities and other visitors. The author would also like to suggest that fellow judges might want to consider some of these points when evaluating submissions.

First, let’s go back to basics. Following the advice given in Five Basic Rules of Web Design (http://www.grantasticdesigns.com/5rules.htm) designers who focus on creating search engine friendly sites should make sure their sites are: 1) easy to read, 2) easy to navigate, 3) easy to find, 4) consistent, and 5) quick to download.

Second, let’s consider those who must overcome substantial barriers to use the Web. With the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1998, Congress added provisions to ensure that Web pages delivered by agencies of the federal government be accessible to disabled Web users. This has dramatically increased focus on accessibility and its complex relationship with usability.

Third, search engine marketers have found compliant sites are more easily processed and ranked by search engines. This provides a powerful argument for implementation of search friendly and accessible designs.

The tips that follow provide some pointers and best practices for addressing all three issues outlined above.

Tip 1: Avoid Redirects and Refreshes – These create credibility issues for users. Spammers have used redirects to switch pages from one heavily optimized for search performance on a specific keyword to a page with a different URL often less likely to be deemed relevant for the target keyword. This technique tricks the search engine and the user. To combat this, many search engines do not accept redirected pages with the exception of permanent redirects (HTTP 301). If you really must use a redirect, search marketing best practice recommends a delay in the timing, not instant redirection. The redirect should delay approximately 15 seconds, adequate time for a reader to actually skim the content. Since most traffic comes through the home page, a lengthy redirect on this page can create traffic losses, another argument for avoiding redirects altogether.

Tip 2: Avoid Frames – The use of frames has declined in recent years, but some site designers persist in using them. Frames present usability problems since the user cannot bookmark a framed page accurately. As the user navigates the site, the URL does not match the content. The problem is compounded when the pages appear in search engines. Most sites today are carefully submitted to search engines via inclusion programs. With framed sites, it is common practice to submit just the content frames. If the content frame presents no links to the main navigation, the user coming from a search engine is stranded with no means to access the rest of the content. Many users do not like framed sites because of these navigational challenges. The major search properties, Google, Yahoo!/Inktomi and Lycos/FAST can follow the navigation on a framed site, but its presentation in search results is often problematic. There are workarounds that are popular with search-savvy designers for solving the search engine visibility issues; however, when site owners have run parallel sites, one with and one without frames, the frameless site usually draws more traffic. These votes should count for something.

Tip 3: Provide Search Meaningful URLs – Long URLs that pass multiple parameters present challenges for search engines. Search technology has advanced in recent years, but they still cannot parse lengthy URLs that include multiple parameters and CGI BIN codes. It is incomprehensible to these automated users how to sort out the multiple parameters relating to content, navigation and customer information. Human users also find meaningful URLs easier to interpret and remember.

Tip 4: Include a Site Map – A site map provides navigational assistance for search engines and human users alike. A site map is especially valuable when the site also uses scripting for mouseovers and dropdown menus. The scripted navigation adds visual appeal, but search engine spiders may not be able to traverse the site. The site map provides an access alternative. If the site is expected to appeal to an audience that includes the visually handicapped, you need to consider whether automated screen readers can meaningfully interpret the site’s navigation. Not all screen readers follow links that are embedded in scripting. An unscripted site map will provide another potential access point and increases the ease of navigation for automated readers.

Tip 5: Provide Multiple Navigation Schemes – With multiple navigation schemes, the site is easier for search engines and users of all types to navigate. Anytime the navigation of a site is made easier, it is more likely to provide a better experience for the user. This tip is almost a given; however, a surprising number of sites do not provide navigation schemes that can be traversed by automated crawlers and screen readers. This limits their audience.

Tip 6: Include an Abstract for Downloadable Files – Those sites presenting downloadable files, pdf, audio or other formats, should consider including a brief abstract to help the user understand what the file contains. At very least there should be an indication as to the size of the file. This is particularly important for large files. The major search engines can crawl and index pdf files, but an abstract provides additional meaningful content for the download page. This can improve its potential for ranking in the search results. This is a significant consideration when the download page includes useful content over and above the download. Audio content presents a different kind of challenge. The hearing impaired and most search spiders cannot access the content, so a description and even a link to a transcript provide access for these audiences.

Tip 7: Use ALT tags with Images – Most Web pages are replete with images which, unless they are augmented with text in the ALT tag, are invisible to search engines and to the visually impaired. At one time it was common practice for search marketers to fill (even stuff) the ALT tags with keywords relevant to the site. Most search marketers no longer follow this practice. A few keywords strewn in ALT tag does not provide the same level of clarity for the visually impaired user that a brief keyword-rich sentence does. It needn’t be great literature, but it should provide the reader with an adequate sense about the picture. Because the text in the tag relates to the picture and supports the content with additional keywords, ALT tags often improve the page’s search performance. With the availability of image searching, particularly on Google, some sites enjoy substantial traffic on their images. The use of ALT tags enhances the site’s audience and user appeal.

Tip 8: Offer Context Cues for the Disabled for FLASH and Graphics Used for Text – Non-text elements cannot be interpreted by search engines, and screen readers only interpret the source code of the page. FLASH elements, while often beautiful and informative, present serious challenges for both of these users. Although it is relatively easy to create an HTML version of FLASH content, it often impractical to manage the resulting multiple versions of the site. Similar problems arise when graphics are used in place of text.

Tip 9: Use TITLE and DESCRIPTION Tags – When a user bookmarks a page, it is the TITLE tag that is displayed in the “favorites” drop down menu. Users bookmark content of value, so the absence of a TITLE suggests valueless content. The same TITLE on every page – “Welcome to XYZ site” is only slightly more informative. Search engines consider the TITLE tag as a primary factor and record them. Most use the TITLE as the first text shown in the results. Similarly, many search engine give relevance to the DESCRIPTION tag; hence, their use improves search visibility. Using these two tags is an excellent opportunity to impress users and search engines.

Tip 10: Clean Up Your Code – Externally referenced Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and JavaScript (.js) files benefit search engines and impaired users. Without the extra weight of the codes, pages download faster since the cached script is reused by the browser improving the user’s ability to rapidly view the site. It is helpful to place the Robot Exclusion Protocol on the external script and CSS file directories so that search engines do not follow these links. Then, when search engines crawl the site, they can do so more quickly. Uncluttered clean code is more easily interpreted.

Those who design and submit sites to Web Awards want them to be found on search engines, widely read, easily used and appreciated by the judges. Following the ten tips above are no guarantee of success, but it certainly improves the odds.

About the Author: Amanda G. Watlington, Ph.D., APR, Searching for Profit (http://www.searchingforprofit.com) is a web marketing strategist, author and speaker at search and Web marketing events. She co-chairs the DMA/AIM Search Marketing Council, and has twice served as a Web Awards judge.







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