Web development and design are at the heart of successful online marketing, yet many marketers do not understand the importance of laying solid foundations here. Like building a house, solid foundations are key to stability, longevity, and even scalability. Developing a Web site involves more than choosing colors and header images.

9.1 Usability

Designing a site for best usability means that users don’t have to figure out what to do; they are just able to do it.

Use standard conventions, such as links that are distinct (blue and underlined is standard), menus top or left, and the logo in the top left-hand corner. Search boxes are usually on the top of the page and should use standard wording such as “search” on buttons. Following standards for important elements that are familiar to Web users means that they know immediately where to look for or how to use them. Important elements (such as menus, logos, colors, and layout) should be distinct, easy to find, and consistent throughout the Web site.

The information architecture of a site is crucial to usability. Topics and categorization should flow from broad to narrow and should be built around users’ needs and not company structure. An intuitively designed structure will guide users to their goals.

The site map should be available from every page and should clearly show the information architecture of the Web site. Dynamic site maps can be employed so that the site map is updated automatically as information is added to the Web site.

As well as carefully thought-out information architecture, the navigation should guide users easily through both top-level and deeper pages. Navigation should also let users know where they are in the site (especially since not all users arrive via the home page). Breadcrumb links, clear page titles, URLs (uniform resource locators), and menu changes all help show the user where she is.

Accessibility makes Web sites easy to use and easy to scale. In some countries, accessibility is a legal requirement of government Web sites. Some key points of accessibility include the following:

  • Ensuring that the Web site and all its functions are compatible across a range of browsers, including text-only and mobile browsers
  • Making sure that the Web site is functional to users who might have a disability. Some ways of doing so include the easy increasing or decreasing of text size and using meaningful descriptive tags in the code for when the site is accessed through a screen reader.
  • Not designing for high-bandwidth users only but instead making sure that low-bandwidth users do not have to wait for heavy page loads to access your Web site (unless you have a good marketing reason for keeping those users out)
  • Having a search box (that works) available

Content needs to be written so that users can grab the information they need in as little time as possible. Text can be made more easily readable by doing the following:

  • Highlighting or making bold key phrases and words
  • Using bulleted lists
  • Using paragraphs to break up information
  • Using descriptive and distinct headings

On the page, use an inverted pyramid style, or newspaper style, for your copy. The bulk of the information should be at the top of the page to make for easy scanning.

There are some key “don’ts” when it comes to building a user-friendly Web site:

  • Never resize windows or launch the site in a pop-up.
  • Don’t use splash pages. These are pages at the entry to a site that are usually animated and contain some variation of the phrase “click here to enter this site.”
  • Never build a site entirely in Flash—most search engine spiders cannot even crawl Flash sites.
  • Don’t distract users with “Christmas trees” (blinking images, flashing lights, automatic sound, scrolling text, unusual fonts, etc.).

Usability and accessibility guidelines are useful for checking that all elements have been dealt with. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Information Services and Technology provides a usability checklist online at http://ist.mit.edu/services/consulting/usability/guidelines.

9.2 Search engine visibility

Search engine traffic is vital to a Web site; without it, chances are the site will never fulfill its marketing functions. It is essential that the search engines can see the entire publicly visible Web site, index it fully, and consider it relevant for its chosen keywords.

Here are the key considerations for search engine optimization when it comes to Web development and design.

Labeling things correctly

URLs (uniform resource locators), alt tags, title tags, and metadata all describe a Web site and its pages to both search engine spiders and people. (And don’t worry: these words are all described for you in what follows.) Chances are, clear descriptive use of these elements will appeal to both.

URLs

URLs should be as brief and descriptive as possible. This may mean that URLs require server-side rewriting so as to cope with dynamic parameters in URLs. Does that sound a little heavy? The examples below should make this clearer.

Alt tags

Have you ever waited for a page to load and seen little boxes of writing where the images should be? Sometimes they say things like “topimg.jpg” and sometimes they are much clearer and you have “Cocktails at sunset at Camps Bay.”

Since search engines read text, not images, descriptive tags are the only way to tell them what the images are, but these are still essentially for users. Text readers for browsers will also read out these tags to tell the user what is there. Meaningful descriptions certainly sound a lot better than “image1,” “image2,” and “image3.”

Title attributes

Just as you can have the alt tag on an image hypertext markup language (HTML) element, you can have a title attribute on almost any HTML element—most commonly on a link. This is the text that is seen when a user hovers over the element with the mouse pointer. It is used to describe the element or what the link is about. As this is text, it will also be read by search engine spiders.

Title tags

Title tags, or what appears on the top bar of your browser, are used by search engines to determine the content of that page. They are also often used by search engines as the link text on the search engines results’ page, so targeted title tags help drive click-through rates. Title tags should be clear and concise (it’s a general rule of thumb that all tags be clear and concise, you’ll find). Title tags are also used when bookmarking a Web page.

Meta tags

Meta tags are where the developer can fill in information about a Web page. These tags are not normally seen by users. If you right click on a page in a browser and select “view source,” you should see a list of entries for “<meta name=.”

These are the metadata. In the past, the meta tags were used extensively by search engine spiders, but since so many people used this to try to manipulate search results, they are now less important. Metadata now act to provide context and relevancy rather than higher rankings. However, the meta tag called “description” often appears on the search engine results page (SERP) as the snippet of text to describe the Web page being linked to.

Search engine–optimized copy

When it comes to Web development, the copy that is shown on the Web page needs to be kept separate from the code that tells the browser how to display the Web page. This means that the search engine spider can discern easily between what is content to be read (and hence scanned by the spider) and what are instructions to the browser. A cascading style sheet (CSS) can take care of that.

The following text styles cannot be indexed by search engines:

  • Text embedded in a Java application or a Macromedia Flash file
  • Text in an image file (that’s why you need descriptive alt tags and title attributes)
  • Text only accessible after submitting a form, logging in, and so on
  • If the search engine cannot see the text on the page, it means that it cannot spider and index that page.

9.3 Design

With the foundations of usability and search engine visibility in mind, it is time to turn to making it all presentable with the design of the Web site.

Looks may not matter to search engines, but they go a long way toward assuring visitors of your credibility and turning them into customers.

Every Web site needs to be designed with clear goals (or conversions) in mind. Conversions take many forms and may include the following:

  • Sale. Where the user purchases a product online using a credit card
  • Lead. Where the user submits contact details and asks for more information
  • Sign-up. Where the user opts in for e-mail marketing newsletters
  • Download. Where the user downloads a file from the site

Before designing a Web site, research your audience and competitors to determine expectations and common elements to your industry. Mock up every layer of interaction. This means that before any coding begins, there is clear map of how the Web site should work. It’s all about foundations.

Design to establish credibility

Here are some of the cues that visitors use to determine the credibility of a Web site:

  • Place phone numbers and addresses above the fold. This assures the visitor that there is a real person behind the Web site and that he or she is in easy reach.
  • Create an informative and personal “about us.” Your customers want to see the inner workings of a company and are especially interested in learning more about the head honchos. Include employee pictures or profiles. It puts a face to an organization.
  • Feature genuine testimonials on each page. This is a great way to show potential customers what your current customers have to say about your organization. Trust is vital, and this is one way to encourage it.
  • Feature logos of associations and awards. If you belong to any relevant industry associations or have won any awards, feature them. Not only does this go a long way to establish your credibility, but it will show that you’re at the top of your game and a notch above the competition.
  • Link to credible third-party references. This is a way to assert your credibility without tooting your own horn.
  • Keep content fresh and updated. This shows that you are knowledgeable and up to date in your industry.
  • Ensure that your site is free of errors. Spelling and grammar mistakes are exceptionally unprofessional, and while the large majority of readers may not pick up on them, the one or two who do will question your credibility.
  • Include a portfolio of past work. Give your Web site visitors examples of your previous work to show what you are capable of.

Design also affects the accessibility of a Web site. You need to take into account screen resolutions, as designing for the biggest screen available could leave many of your users scrolling across and down to see the Web page. Subtle shading, background colors to text, and fancy fonts can also mean that many users cannot even see your Web site properly.

Using Cascading Style Sheets

A cascading style sheet (CSS) is defined by W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) as “a simple mechanism for adding style (e.g., fonts, colors, spacing) to Web documents.”

In the early days of the Web, designers tended to use tables to lay out content for a Web page, and many Web sites still do so today. However, different browsers, and even different versions of browsers, all support code differently, resulting in Web sites that only work on certain browsers or bulky code needed to cope with all the different versions.

The W3C (http://www.w3.org) was created in 1994 and since then has been responsible for specifications and guidelines to promote the evolution of the Web, while ensuring that Web technologies work well together. The Web Standards Project (http://www.webstandards.org) launched in 1998 and labeled key guidelines as “Web standards.” Modern browsers should be built to support these standards, which should vastly reduce cross-browser compatibility problems, such as Web sites displaying differently in different browsers.

Web standards include the following:

  • HTML (hypertext markup language)
  • CSS (cascading style sheet)
  • XML (extensible markup language)
  • XHTML (extensible hypertext markup language)
  • DOM (document object model)

CSS is standard layout language. It controls colors, typography, and the size and placement of elements on a Web page. Previously, Web developers have had to create instructions for every page in a Web site. With CSS, a single file can control the appearance of an entire site.

CSS allows designers and developers to separate presentation from content. This has several key benefits:

  • Sites are easier to maintain and update and are more accessible.
  • Content may be updated easily by someone who is not a Web designer or developer.
  • Global changes can be applied quickly and easily.

CSS can also do the following:

  • Reduce bandwidth and page-loading times
  • Increase cross-browser compatibility

To see CSS in action, visit http://www.csszengarden.com, where you can make a single HTML page look very different, depending on which one of the many designer-contributed style sheets you apply to it.

Using a content management system

As the name implies, a content management system (CMS) is used to manage the content of a Web site. If a site is updated frequently and if people other than Web developers need to update the content of a Web site, a CMS is used. Today, many sites are built on a CMS. The CMS can also allow content of a Web site to be updated from any location in the world.

A CMS can be built specifically for a Web site, and many Web development companies build their own CMS that can be used by their clients. A CMS can also be bought prebuilt, and there are many open-source, prebuilt CMSs available, some of which are free.

A CMS should be selected with the goals and functions of the Web site in mind. A CMS needs to be able to scale along with the Web site and business that it supports, and not the other way around.

Of course, the CMS selected should result in a Web site that is search engine friendly.

Here are some key features to look out for when selecting or building a CMS:

  • Meta and title tag customization. The CMS should allow you to enter your own meta tags and fully customize title tags for each page.
  • HTML tag customization. The CMS should allow for full customization of HTML tags, such as nofollow links. See Chapter 6 "Search Engine Optimization" for an explanation of nofollow links.
  • URLs. Instead of using dynamic parameters, the CMS should allow for server-side rewriting of URLs (uniform resource locators). It should allow for the creation of URLs that have the following characteristics:
    • Static
    • Rewritable
    • Keyword rich
  • Customizable navigation. A good CMS will allow flexibility when it comes to creating the information architecture for a Web site. For the purposes of adding additional content for search engines, a CMS should not require that all content pages be linked to from the home page navigation. This allows content to be added for SEO (search engine optimization) purposes, without adding it to the main navigation.
  • 301 redirect functionality. It is imperative that a CMS offers the ability to put in place 301 redirects to prevent penalization for duplicate content on different URLs.
  • Customizable image naming and alt tags for images. A good CMS will allow you to create custom alt tags and title attributes for images.
  • Robots.txt management. Ensure you are able to customize the robots.txt to your needs, or that this can at least be managed using meta tags.
  • Content search. Make sure you are able to include a useful site search.