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July 29, 2009

Cookie-Cutter vs Custom Web Site

There are many large web companies offering specialty web sites for retail stores, real estate, restaurants, travel, insurance, non-profit organizations and more. Many of them are very sophisticated and offer much more than your local web company.

The high quality web vendors have custom design, search engine friendly pages, content management systems, and plenty of bells and whistles. However, they often come with expensive setup fees ($10K or more) and monthly charges ($200 – $1,000/month or more). While these sites are professionally designed and can work very well, you can often duplicate this type of site with a local or inhouse webmaster who has access to programmers, designers, and other web professionals. Much of the site can be built for roughly the same price or slightly more than the setup fees, but the monthly fees can be kept to a minimum.

You need the proper host for the type of database and content managment system you’ll be using. For most small businesses, a simple hosting program for under $10/month will suffice. For many real estate sites where large daily downloads of MLS datafeeds are necessary, a virtual server may be required. These can generally be maintained for less than $50/month.

The problem with cookie cutter sites is not only do they have expensive monthly costs associated with them that can run from $200 to $1,000 per month, but they’re not portable. If you want to move your site to your own server, where you’re in control, you’re out of luck. If you want to hire your own webmaster for custom changes or a programmer for application changes, you’ll have to use theirs at extremely high rates, often exceeding $150/hour.

In an economy like we’re currently experiencing, large monthly fees can be devastating. What’s worse, if your web vendor happens to fall into their own financial woes, you could be left without the site you paid dearly for in setup fees. And have to start over from scratch!

It would be wiser to have your own site, your own hosting, control of your own domain names, and hire your own webmaster, designer and programmer as necessary, expanding as you go. Work with a trusted webmaster or hire one in-house (highly recommended), and contract out large scale programming or design projects through your webmaster.

Most webmasters have plenty of contacts with different areas of expertise such as programming, design, copywriting, search engine optimization, networking, content management and more. There are literally hundreds of disciplines used in the development of web sites, many of which overlap, and many of which are just different approaches to accomplishing the same goal. Your webmaster should be fluent in several of them, but no webmaster will know everything.

Many small business owners take on the web themselves, learning as they go, and hiring professionals for those things that just take too much time to learn while trying to run a business. These are the most likely to be successful, and will know who to hire and what services to procure to insure their web presence is most profitable, efficient and effective, depending on your needs.

If you don’t want to have anything to do with the technical details of running a web site, then a local or inhouse webmaster could be the best solution for you. Although they may not be the top in every facet of web development, they should be familiar with each discipline, and have the capability to expand on outsourced work. Your webmaster should be familiar with HTML, CSS, Javascript, web design, graphic design, copywriting, search engine optimization, site architecture, and at least one programming language such as PHP, ASP, C#, Java, PERL or a similar programming language to use in applications. They should also be familiar with at least one database program such as mySQL, SQL, MS Access, Oracle, or a similar database program that’s widely used with web sites. (You can use this list to qualify a potential webmaster).

In reality, anyone can build a web site in an afternoon. Software and online applications have been around for at least a decade that will allow even a 10-year-old to do this. But to have a web site that works for you, is customized to your needs, and delivers visitors that will purchase your product or services on a regular basis takes years of experience. All in all, by taking and retaining control over your web site, you’ll win in the long run.

July 15, 2009

Web Sites That Don’t Work Efficiently

Everyone wants a professional looking site with all the latest bells and whistles. But, are these gadgets driving potential visitors and search engines away? Flash files and javascript are the most common culprits.

If you have a new site designed, and when you first view it you’re prompted to download a file in order to use some of the features of the site, that’s your first clue. For visitors, a great deal of them are going to back out rather than download the plug-in. That’s a problem. What’s worse, sometimes the plug-in doesn’t install correctly, so the site doesn’t appear as it was meant to. These plug-ins are generally associated with flash files.

Flash files are not a problem if they’re commonly supported in most browsers. Generally, it’s just the latest and greatest new gadgets that may require an upgrade to a new plug-in. Sure, we all want to impress our visitors. But we don’t want to make them jump through hoops. If you’re selling Flash software, that’s a different story. But, most sites aren’t.

Another problem with flash files is that many search engines can’t read them. Search engines prefer text. That’s how they determine what your site is about, and what each page on your site is about… by reading the text. Flash files often use images that look like text. They do this to manipulate the images so they float across the screen, or fade away into another text image. Google had been working to improve the reading of text within flash files, because the actual text does exist within the flash file. But, if javascript is used in any way to display or trigger the flash file, that could block Google. 

Javascript is another problem for search engines. Most search engines generally ignore javascript. The reason for this is simple: malicious scripts can cause problems. Your webmaster should be able to find ways to insure that search engines have no difficulty in following the links in your site.

It’s great to have a smart looking site, but it’s even better to have a site that’s extremely accessible to your visitors and search engines. Make sure the company or web designer that creates your site is aware of these issues.

A good site design should also look very similar on various internet browsers such as Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera and Netscape. Many of these render sites differently, and not all of them support the same standards.

You should also look at your site in various screen resolutions. While the most common screen resolutions will be the default setting on most monitors, many people like to change it to widen the screen, make everything bigger, or make everything smaller.  Sometimes different resolutions can make your site almost unusable. Typically, smaller screen resolutions cause the most problems because they’ll try to squeeze a site into the screen, and different columns and elements of the site will overlap.

Make sure you go over all of these issues with your site designer before you sign off. You need to present a consistent look to as many visitors as possible. It’s imperative to insure that your site is accessible to as many visitors as possible, including search engines.

June 24, 2009

5 Ways to Get Natural Search Engine Traffic

Filed under: Search Engine Traffic — Jim @ 5:07 pm

While many small businesses own web sites, very few of them are set up to bring in traffic from the search engines. There are several things that need to be done to optimize a site and draw in free traffic. Most small businesses have certain relevant keywords they should consider first. They can be related to your location, a unique niche, or specialty work related to your business. Here’s what to look for on your own site to make sure you’re getting the most traffic for free.

  1. Unique titles on every page – This is done in the code on your page between the two title tags: <title>Place your keywords here in order of importance</title>. To check what you have for title tags, look at the blue section at the very top of your screen while your browser’s open to your site. It will always display the title, a dash, and the name of the browser. Each page should have a different title, preferably 4-8 words that would be very appropriate to search for and end up on that exact page. Say you own a seafood restaurant in Bridgton, Maine, and the restaurant name is “The Boathouse”.  A good title for the homepage would be: <title>The Boathouse Seafood Restaurant – Bridgton, Maine</title>. People looking for your restaurant by name will find it. People searching for a seafood restaurant in Bridgton, Maine will find it. On all your inner pages, use what they’re about, and put the name of your restaurant last. For instance, a page with your entrees would have a title like this: <title>Entree Menu – The Boathouse Seafood Restaurant</title>.
  2. Navigation – The navigation on your site should be in text links that describe the page they link to. In the same restaurant site, you may want to have pages with the following links: Entrees, Appetizers, Daily Specials, Directions.
  3. Meta-descriptions – You should have a meta-decription on each page. This isn’t visible except on your page’s coding. But it is visible when someone searches in a search engine. This should be one or two short sentences that contains a keyword or two, but really is a lure to make people click on your link. Let’s say you’re competing with another seafood restaurant that has the #1 position in Google, while you have the #3 position. Searchers will see your page titles and meta-descriptions in the results. With a sensible title and a tempting meta-description, you can get the searcher to ignore the top result. An example description (using the proper coding) might be: <meta name=”description” content=”Enjoy a lakeside seafood dinner in the most popular restaurant in Bridgton, ME. Specials every night, full service bar.” />.
  4. Links – Make sure you have links to your site from popular local sites such as the local newspaper web site, local guides, town or city web sites that list local businesses, your chamber of commerce, and any state guides and restaurant directories you can find. If possible, use keywords in the text that will link to your web site. Many places will only allow your company name. But some will allow you to change the title of the link. In the case of our restaurant, you would want the title to be “The Boathouse Seafood Restaurant of Bridgton, Maine”. That gives the name of the business, specialty, type of business, and the location – all possible keywords that would be used to find this business in multiple ways. At the same time, this adds value to your site in the view of search engines. And, they will find your web site through links from local directories. There’s no need to submit your site to the search engines if you list it in popular directories.
  5. Site Map – If you have a relatively small site, you should create a web page that shows all the links within your site, and it should be included as one of the links in your navigation. For each link in your navigation (other than the site map), use the exact same text in bold and link it to the appropriate page. Follow each link with a brief summary of what’s on each page, preferrably using keywords that someone might use to find the page. Example: Entrees – Fish, Seafood, Steaks and House Specialties.

For a large, database driven site, you would want to have an xml sitemap generated with special software. New xml sitemaps should be generated and submitted whenever your site has a number of changes. Naturally, there are many other elements that can get you great results in the search engines, but using these basic techniques go a long way.

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