Location, Location, Location – Findability on the Web

In a retail environment, we are taught that location is everything. Foot traffic, accessibility from major roads, proximity to anchor stores all greatly contribute to in-store sales. What does a good location imply? 1) Convenience for customers to physically get to where you are, 2) the ability to be known in the first place – the fact that your name or brand becomes associated with a product or service, and 3) the ease with which a potential customer can find you, when she is looking for something you are selling.

On the web, these three parameters also matter, but the overriding web marketing “location” equivalent is the ability to be found. At any one instant, there are many times more people looking for what you are providing online than you could possibly economically reach if you tried to find these potential customers through advertising. Over the last five years, search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and MSN have completely changed the dynamics of web marketing. A few years ago Overture (now part of Yahoo) sponsored a study that determined that far and away the most common way to find a product online was to use a search engine. (Source: http://searchmarketing.yahoo.com/srch/keystats.php)

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Since that time, using a search engine to find things online has become even more popular. According to eMarketer, 65% of all online clicks occur in algorithmic search (Search Engine Marketing – “User and Usage” February 2, 2005). (Source: http://searchmarketing.yahoo.com/rc/srch/tutr.php)

Much has been written about optimizing web sites so that they are more easily found by search engines – use keywords, get inbound links, etc. In fact, there is an entire SEO industry to support just that process. Yet well-intended companies continue to make basic mistakes with their websites that hurt their business by making it difficult for potential customers to find them. It’s as if someone built a store in a field, off a dirt road, 100 miles from the nearest town, didn’t tell anyone what lovely items could be found inside the store, and still expected people to come. What bank would fund that store? Yet marketing executives and business owners do the equivalent online and wonder why their websites costs so much given the business they generate.

Let’s state our goals:

  1. We want potential customers to find our site and to find exactly what they are looking for within our site.
  2. We want people to spread the word about what can be found on our website, either by emailing others a link, or, if they have their own website, linking to our website from it. Inbound links from other websites makes raises our visibility in search engines, making it easier for people to find us.
  3. We want people to come back to see us again, so we want to make it easy for them to bookmark the relevant content of our site.

All of these goals point us to the need to have our content available in a way that people can find them using search engines. Unfortunately, many companies make their precious content jewels available only through pop-ups, or through dynamically generated pages that don’t get indexed. So most of the investment in developing great site content in the first place not realized. Worse yet, many companies require visitors to jump through registration hoops just for the privilege of seeing their content. There are sometimes lead-generation reasons for registration, but often the benefit of leads is more than offset by reduced search rankings and traffic.

What are the most common mistakes?

  1. Displaying content-filled web pages on Flash-based pages that are not indexable by search engines. Yes the pages are pretty, but if you don’t even know the content is there, who cares?
  2. Keeping useful content only in pop-ups. Not only do these pop-ups often fail to get indexed, they are annoying to viewers.
  3. Creating a new directory structure for your site content (e.g. a new URL) without putting in redirects from the old pages to the new. This happens all the time and ignores the fact that people may be bookmarking or linking to your static pages. When you change location of that content without inserting redirects, you generate a bunch of 404 errors for the very people who are most interested in your content.
  4. Requiring registration to view content – a pet peeve of mine, sometimes barely justifiable and usually not at all. Why in the world should a newspaper require registration of their online content? We need to register to look at ads? Ultimately the same problem occurs – the content doesn’t get indexed, people don’t link to it if they know their viewers will have to register to see it, search engine rank suffers.
  5. Annoying viewers by not letting them use the back arrow to back out of a site. I call this the “tar baby” approach to web marketing. Or, back to our store in a field analogy, once they finally make it to the store in the field a hundred miles away, we now lock the front door and make them climb out the window if they want to leave. This is a sign that the company truly does not “get it” and will send viewers running, never to return.

Finally, the biggest mistake of all is to let one’s ego hankering for a gorgeous site get in the way of helping viewers find and reference the content in the site. Remember the old saying, “Age before beauty”? Well, in the web world that saying could be “Usability and Findability before beauty”. Too many companies spend tens of thousands of dollars to create a gorgeous, flash-based, animated, visually rich site that only a few hundred people will ever find.