Small Business Website Blog

Welcome to the Boost Your Small Business Website blog from Sole Control Solutions. From design, to marketing, content generation, search engine optimisation and useability, we discuss the issues that will help you make your small business website a success.

WSJ Interviews Stephen Hanson on Creating Buzz

January 14th, 2010 by Alastair

The Wall Street Journal interviews Stephen Hanson, founder of B.R.Guest Restaurants in New York.

Here’s a take from New York on building a business and on what’s important in these difficult times.  Specifically, note his response on how to create Buzz in a world as tough as restaurants in New York.  It’s about viral marketing and the Internet.

The world really is changing

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Google SEO and Web Design

November 26th, 2009 by Alastair

I posted a little while ago on the subject of Google’s website design and what we could learn from it. Today’s post is about designing your website with Google and SEO in mind. So here it is. 7 tips on how your web design choices can get you better rankings in Google.

1. Unique titles and descriptions

Allow Google and other search engines to get a handle on the content of the page. The search engine’s aim is to match relevant, high quality, content to the searcher’s intent. Unique titles and descriptions help Google know what each page is about and are an important part of your SEO. A whole site with the same Titles and descriptions on every page is an awful waste. You should be able to set and change the Title and Description tags for each page. If you have a Content Management System it should allow you that flexibility.

2. Site structure and spiderability

How your pages link together has important effects in terms of how Google will be able to find and index the content on your site. At the very minimum, your web designer needs to give thought to making sure that search engines can follow links to all of your content.

Better still, it would be nice if they understood how linking relationships between various documents reinforce their themes and help with SEO. It would be good if they understood the use of keyword rich text in your internal links.

3. Use of Flash animation

Animation can add a lot to a site. We use it on this site and on the sites we design. When we use it, we understand the effect it has for Google and for SEO. You want your content to be readable by the search engines so that they can determine the relevance of the page and give you higher rankings. Google and other search engines cannot read your flash content. If your whole site or very important parts of your content are hidden in Flash animations then Google won’t be reading it and your search engine rankings will suffer.

You want to use animation for its benefits while keeping most of your content indexable by the search engines. You need to understand these principles when designing for yourself. If you are contracting the design of your site, work with a designer who understands.

4. AJAX and it’s effects on SEO

You can achieve some very, very, cool things with AJAX. AJAX is the shorthand for the use of a combination of technologies which in essence allow parts of a web page to be loaded with different content or perform functions without needing to reload the whole page. It has many benefits and can greatly smooth out the user experience.

There are important SEO considerations to the use of AJAX though. Google will read the page as it is initially downloaded.

For example: Let’s say you have five tabs on a page and clicking on each tab makes an AJAX call to repopulate the main content area with the relevant tab’s content.

Human visitors with javascript enabled will see five tabs and by clicking on each of the 5 tabs will view 5 distinct sets of information.

When each tab is clicked, however, the browser makes a call for only the extra information. That information is not on the initial page. It is not available to Google and therefore it is not indexed and has no chance to get you search engine rankings.

AJAX can be used to help your rankings but many of its pretty cool effects can be harming your site’s potential in the search engines if it is implemented without an eye to SEO.

5. Content first for accessibility and Google

Google and other search engines will give more weight to more prominent content. I.e. that which comes higher up in the underlying HTML of your page. Often you will have a column to the left of your main content column. This will typically come first in the underlying HTML.

It is an easy enough task to structure the HTML of your page so that it displays how you want it but puts the main content column first in the HTML document. Will your designer know this? Will he bother?

6. Search Engine Friendly urls

The url is the web address of each individual page. It is displayed in the address bar of your browser and points at the individual resource you are trying to access. Search engine friendly urls become an issue when your site is drawing content from a database. This might be because you are running a directory or an online shopping site etc. or it may be because there is a content management system installed to allow you to change the content of your site.

Systems that draw content from a database need to pass parameters in the url to tell the database what content is required. When done in it’s simplest form you get urls like this:

www.example.com/index.php?product_id=7&color=15&sess_id=2EDD334475gg6

You can see that this url is pretty ugly. The search engines don’t like it because multiple parameters in the url makes it hard for them to do their job. I suppose how and why isn’t terribly important here. They are getting much better at it.

Generally speaking, however, you are better with no more than one or maybe 2 url parameters and understanding how they will be treated. You are even better with none.

Here’s a search engine friendly url:
www.solecontrolsolutions.com/web-design

That page is served out of a database but we have prepared the site to make it accessible via a url with no parameters.

It is probably better to think of search engine friendly urls as human readable urls. Honestly, people make too much of the direct effects search engine friendly urls have on SEO. But humans find the second url above much more appealing than the first. Which would you be more likely to click on? To link to? Which one gives you some indication as to the content you are about to click through to?

So, human readable urls will result in more clicks where your url is displayed = more visits. They are more likely to be linked to, more likely to be bookmarked. These things all effect your SEO and your rankings in Google (albeit indirectly).

7. Duplicate Content

Unique content should ideally be available at only one, unique, address. If you have the same content available at two different addresses then you cause confusion for Google and the other search engines. This confusion will not help your rankings. Developers seem to find new and interesting ways to screw this aspect of SEO up every time they put a project together. If your designer is not thinking about SEO during the web design process you’ll end up with needless barriers to the rankings you want in Google and other engines.

We do site assessments from time to time for clients or potential clients considering SEO work. We have looked at some very good sites. To date, we are yet to see one that does not have some fundamental error standing in the way of their SEO success. They are not always big errors and not always important but they are avoidable breaches of best practice. Search engines are an important source of traffic and Google is an important audience for your site. If you want to get rankings, then make sure someone is thinking about Google, SEO and your web design from the very start of your project.

Having got to the end of all that, I think it’s probably best if I point out that this list is not in any specific order.  It is simply a list from the top of my head of some of the things that could help your SEO that seem to be missed in most Web Design projects.  Doing these things won’t shoot you to the top of Google.  SEO is a process and this post barely scratches the surface.  These are things that we would think about while implementing any web design project and before we even begin to seriously consider SEO.

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Aristotle’s Website part II

November 11th, 2009 by Brian

‘Take an axe to your website’

The most common example used to demonstrate Aristotle’s approach to design is an axe.  Given that a website plays such a crucial role in business these days, the example is the better of the two.  (see part I)  The worst a badly designed teapot can do is burn your fingers or drip on your tablecloth.  A badly designed axe can wound or even kill ( or, in the case of a warrior’s axe, kill the wrong person!)  Chopping wood is hard work; you want an axe that feels right, that seems to know what to do.

When I am browsing the Internet, particularly when I am not ‘working’, I find the best sites are the ones where I am never conscious of thinking: Where is?….How do I?….What do they mean?….How do I get to?   Of course I was thinking those things but the great sites guide you to the answers before the thought becomes conscious.

If your customers are saying things like:  ‘I couldn’t find’  etc.  Listen to them.  Maybe it’s time to take an axe to your website and make some improvements.

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Aristotle’s Website part I

October 30th, 2009 by Brian

‘How well does your teapot pour?’

Aristotle’s thoughts on design came up in a book I was reading and I decided that if Mozart can design a website then so could Aristotle.  Those thoughts centre on the achievement of two levels of perfection: first and second.  First it must look good;  Second it must work.  Crucially second perfection is considered the higher level with first level alone being virtually worthless.

My father and indeed grand-father used to insist on putting water in a teapot and testing it before buying.  How it felt in his hand, how well it poured and whether it would drip on the table were what concerned him……. Hardly surprising then that when, as a child, I saw a colourful, zany looking teapot at a craft fair I failed to resist the temptation to ask the maker ‘how well does it pour?’.  ‘It isn’t meant to work’  came the reply ‘it is just a design idea’.   Opening my mouth long enough to put my other foot in I said  ’so it isn’t a teapot at all then’……

Apply the test to your website: Is the weight balanced when you lift it? Does it burn your fingers? How well does it pour? Does it drip? ….  What really makes a good teapot?

How you translate these questions into web related language will depend on the business you are involved in.  If your website fails too many of these tests, no matter how good it looks, then perhaps you need to take an axe to it. (see part II)

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Are your customers on the Internet?

September 30th, 2009 by Alastair

You can bet your very last Euro on it.  I got sent some stuff by Google last week and I thought I’d share some of the figures they provided.

  • 69% of Irish people are regular Internet users
  • 1.25 million have broadband
  • 50% of Irish consumers look for advice online before purchasing
  • €2.5 billion was spent in total online transactions in Ireland in 2008

They also mentioned that Ireland is ranked 10th in the World for online buyers.

I’ve written about this before, a few months ago:

The Internet is Important to Your Potential Customers

The interesting stat for me in this new info is that 50% of Irish consumers will look for advice online before purchasing.  

Even if you never aim to sell a single thing online, even if that is not suitable to your product or just not the way you choose to interact with your customers. 

Your customers are online.

Your customers are researching online.

Your customers are seeking purchasing advice online.

Many of your customers are online when they make their purchasing decision and there are sales that are going to the business that meets them there.

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Can we learn from Google’s website design?

August 31st, 2009 by Alastair

This post is about lessons we might be able to learn from Google’s web design.  If you are  more interested in web design for better rankings in Google, that’s fine too.  Try this post: Google SEO and Web Design.

google_today_smThe Google web design is basically a blank white page with a logo written in bright colours and a search box.  That’s the homepage covered, anyway.  Can we learn from that?

I think so.  I could bang on about the sparing but elegant use of colour or the clean and crisp presentation, or the use of space, or the thought given to the clear display of the results but I’m not going to.

I was talking to Brian the other day about this post and I was reminded that not everyone was around when Google came along.  There is a whole generation of Internet users now (and even Internet professionals) who don’t remember life before Google.  They don’t know what you’re talking about if you say AltaVista or HotBot.  It also occurred to me that these were fairly early days for the Internet.  There is a whole other generation of people, older than me for the most part, who now use Google but who also hardly remember their precursors because they weren’t big Internet users in those days.

I was just out of college, in my first job, and used the Internet extensively and on a daily basis both for research and because the company had just launched a commercial Internet venture.  Search engines were important to us at work and we noticed Google.   As daily users of search services, we were among the early adopters that Google would have been targeting.

So I thought I would take a look at Google’s website design from back then and outline some of the things I think they did right.  Some of the things that encouraged me to switch and to visit this upstart several times a day instead of their established competitors.

Google filed for incorporation in 1998.  In late 1998, their site looked like this:

Google 1998 screenshot 

By the spring of 1999, the homepage already had a look that you’ll be familiar with:

google_1999_sm

Nothing revolutionary here so far, until you consider that the competition looked like this:

yahoo_screenshothotbot_screenshotaltavista_screenshot

Click on the thumbnails to view larger screenshots.

Google was launched into a market where its competitors were tripping over themselves to be Portals.  Your homepage for the Internet.  Everything, all in one place.  Whether you wanted it or not. Crammed into so little space that even if what you needed was on the page you probably wouldn’t see it.  Google broke the mould.

What do we do? they asked themselves….  We’re a search engine.

What do people do when they visit a search engine? …. They want to perform a search.

How do we give them what they want and do it better than the competition? ….

Let’s see.  What did Google do about that?  Well, they had their groundbreaking technology and they managed to do a better job of finding relevant results.  They did a better job of returning less spam and they set about indexing more of the Internet, faster, than their competitors so in a short while they were more comprehensive.  These things were vital but so was the design.

In 1999, we had Internet at work but it was still dial-up.  Our first fibreoptic, always on, connection wasn’t much faster.  Google’s sparse design wasn’t just great because I didn’t have to look at a garish mess of a page filled with stuff I didn’t need.  It loaded much, much, more quickly than the others.  When they returned their super fast results page they actually told you exactly what fraction of a second it took to return your results.  Just to twist the knife on the slower competition. 

The faster results page wasn’t just about the simple page design.  In fact, it was probably more influenced by the technology used to store, index, retrieve and rank the results.  But bragging about how quick they were right at the top of the results page, that was genius.

Google’s design carried simplicity from the homepage through to the results which were clean and uncluttered.  I’d hate to be wrong about this but I am almost certain that initially they didn’t even have ads.  This simplicity created a purity of function in what Google was about.  I wanted the best search engine available and they gave me a site that reinforced their technical achievements by removing the clutter.  It said, we have the best search because we focus on doing it well.  We don’t need all that clutter.  You can come here, get straight down to the business of searching and have your results before the competition’s homepage has even loaded.

As a user, I switched to Google because they gave me better results and gave them to me faster but it wasn’t a purely logical, fact based, decision.  Google came from nowhere to compete and eventually overtake what were massive, established, properties.  This was a company that launched a search engine with a stated ethos of “Do no evil”.  They gained not only users but evangelists.

The techie nerds of the world loved Google and we told everyone who would listen that Google was by far and away the best search engine and they should switch.  This is the benefit Google achieved by thinking about its visitors.  This is how they built a massively dominant, worldwide, brand with almost no marketing spend.  They thought about their visitors, and their visitors did the PR for them.

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Web Content Copywriting

July 29th, 2009 by Alastair

Websites, succeed or fail based on how cool they look, right?

The other day I read this post on Bob Bly’s copywriting blog: Web Copywriting: Ted Nicholas vs Jacob Nielsen.   For anyone who doesn’t know, Jacob Nielsen is probably considered the World’s foremost expert on web usability (on making your website easier for people to use). 

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Mr Nielsen taken on by a copywriter.  The disagreement goes right back to 1997 when Nielsen wrote about How Users Read on the Web.  In 2001, I remember reading a rebuttal to Nielsen’s findings which stuck in my head.  I just spent 2 hours looking for it and here it is, Writers Unite: Stand Up to Usability Experts.

Writing good copy is a vital element if you want your website to achieve its goals.  To sell the occasional widget, or generate the occasional enquiry, or reinforce your marketing efforts and add credibility to your offline sales pitch.   To do these things, you need to talk to your visitors, you need to convince them of something.   The visual design of your site can help with your online image for sure but the visual design of your site is not likely to convince anyone of too much.  For that you need content.

It’s not altogether easy to get clients to put due effort into the content on their site.  This is understandable, they are busy and they don’t understand.  They want a nice looking site and they want me to go make them one and stop asking them irritating questions and trying to get them to waste half a day concentrating on writing something.  I get it.  I have been that client. 

More to the point, I have written reams of poor content in my time and occasionally something that does a really good job.  It’s not easy and if you don’t understand how important it is, it doesn’t seem worth it.

Jacob Nielsen and the copywriters that disagree with him all seem to agree on one thing.  It is something that any small business website owner should take note of…

Neither of them think you are going to sell anything, or have a successful site, just because it looks pretty.

I suppose the point of this post is to give a brief window into the extent of thought and research that successful online marketers put into the sales copy on their websites.  Also, the level of research that is continually ongoing into how visitors interact with websites and how their experience can be improved.

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SEO Help from Google’s Matt Cutts

March 27th, 2009 by Alastair

I found this on YouTube the other day.  It’s a video interview of Matt Cutts where he discusses some search engine optimisation (SEO) issues that should be of use for small businesses trying to improve their websites.  Matt Cutts is Google’s head of Web Spam and deals with issues of search quality.  Cutts is probably best known because his blog has sort of become Google’s unofficial (or semi official) interface with the world of SEO.

The interview was conducted by Reachd, an SEO company from Vancouver in Canada.  It’s over a year old at this stage but there’s some good basic information in here and it’s interesting to hear from the horse’s mouth occasionally.  If you are looking for SEO help then hopefully these words from Google will point you in the right direction.

 

 

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The Business of Blogging - Irish Blog Awards

March 12th, 2009 by Alastair

Late February saw the Irish Blog Awards take place.  I don’t know much about the Irish blogging community, or these awards but I thought we might all be able to learn something from the winners.  Blogging is part of the small business’s online marketing arsenal and these guys know enough to win an award.  Maybe they are doing something right.

The awards were in many categories and you might see something in your industry, your niche.  Maybe they are doing something really well that you could learn from.  Maybe you could do it much better. 

Either way, I think these blogs are a useful resource and can provide an insight into the business of blogging for business.  These are Irish blogs that have achieved at least some measure of success.  Perhaps how other people use their blogs might give you some ideas as to how the Internet can do more for your business.  Perhaps not, but we’ll give it a go just in case.

The winners are posted on the Irish Blog Awards site and are as follows:

Best Popculture Blog
Raptureponies

Best Blog from a Journalist - Sponsored by Mamut
Markham Nolan - expad.ie

Best Food/Drink Blog - Sponsored by Bord Bia
The Daily Spud

Best Fashion Blog - Sponsored by Spinnakerpro
Beaut.ie

Best Arts and Culture Blog - Sponsored by Poetry Ireland
Pursued by a Bear

Best Political Blog - Sponsored by Digital Revolutionaries
Cedar Lounge

Best Group Blog - Sponsored by DineToMeet.ie
Dublinblog.ie

Best Use of the Irish Language in a Blog - Sponsored by Edgecast Media
iGaeilge

Best Technology Blog/Blogger - Sponsored by Bitbuzz
Justin Mason - taint.org

Best Sport and Recreation Blog - Sponsored by Boards.ie
The Kop Blog

Best News/Current Affairs Blog - Sponsored by IGO People
Suzy Byrne - Maman Poulet

Best Specialist Blog - Sponsored by iQ Content
IrishEconomy.ie

Best Newcomer - Sponsored by Teamworkpm.net
Trust Tommy

Best Blog of a Business - Sponsored by RedCardinal.ie
The Blacknight Blog

Best Music Blog - Sponsored by DownloadMusic.ie
Nialler9

Best Personal Blog - Sponsored by Microsoft Ireland’s Developer and Platform Group
Annie Rhiannon

Best Humour Blog - Sponsored by Beecher Networks
The Swearing Lady at Arse End of Ireland

Best Photo Blog - Sponsored by Pix.ie
Ryan Whalley - glasseyalley.com

Best Blog Post - Sponsored by KRO IT Solutions
K8 the GR8: “The Secret Fire”

Grand Prix Prize - Best Blog sponsored by McConnells
Suzy Byrne - Mamanpoulet.com

I’ve posted all the winners because they might be in your niche.  The five or so finalists in each category are listed on the blog so if you have a special interest you can go have a look.

Most of the niches aren’t of any special interest to the subject of this blog but here are a few posts I found that might be interesting.

Expad.ie - beating David McWilliams for best blog by a journalist is no small achievement.  Here is a recent post on getting your image slightly wrong when using the powerful communication tools provided by the social web.

Blacknight won the best blog by a business, so that has to deserve a special mention.  I am going to mention this post on the IRMA’s appalling attempt to censor the Internet simply because attempts to censor the Internet are something that I am very strongly opposed to.

Here’s a fairly strident post from another of the business blog finalists with advice on use of Signature files in your business emails

Here are the rest of the “Best Blog of a Business” nominations:

blog.blacknight.com/
www.curiouswines.ie/blog/
brightspark-consulting.com/blog/
www.sabrinadent.com/
nicedaydesigns-ruth.blogspot.com/

Not that many of these blogs are directly related to helping you run your small business website or to the content we generally add here.  Hopefully, your niche is covered somewhere in the blogs listed or the tone and content of one or more of the blogs might give you some ideas and help you see ways that your own message could reach out and benefit your business.

I imagine this post will be fairly hit and miss.  If you’ve got nothing from it, we’ll try and do better next time.

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Internet Marketing Services

March 11th, 2009 by Alastair

The other day, my girlfriend was asking about a project we are doing and I said something like “blah blah blah, blah blah but this one is more on the Internet marketing end of things”.  On hearing the word marketing, her face sort of screwed up.  You see, she knows that I associate marketing with fairly attractive 20 something girls and young men in sharp suits who, way too often, turn out to be deeply unimpressive.

I wouldn’t want to seem dismissive of marketing and marketing services in general.  There are concepts in there that are vital to the success of your business.  It’s just that she works in one of those large companies and sees these types every day.  They wanted to go into “business” when they left college.  They were too posh for anything else so they did “Mawrrrrrrrrrketing”.  She just didn’t see me as the type of person who swans around the place talking about branding while spending hundreds of thousands of someone’s money for some intangible result.  It just didn’t seem like me.

This is interesting because Internet marketing has been the core of my professional life for somewhere around 10 years.  I do occasionally talk about broad concepts like branding but she is right.  I am way more direct than that, in general.  When I saw the look on her face, I knew exactly what it was about and my response says a lot about the approach we take with our Internet marketing services.

My response: “No, not that kind of marketing.  I mean.  Get people to go to the site and then get them to do what you want.”

“Get people to go to the site and then get them to do what you want.”

I think that might be my mantra and you might consider adopting it as yours.  If you are looking for Internet marketing services for your small business website (or for a large one for that matter), that’s what I’d be looking for. 

If you are running your website yourself, without outside help then don’t forget this step.  You don’t need to get into high minded concepts or flashy business talk and you don’t need to spend a fortune.  You do need to get people to go to your site.  Too many companies have put up websites and stopped there.  With little or no traffic.  They have either declared the site a success or a failure but they have stopped driving it forward.

In some ways, the only thing that surprises me about that is the number of companies that have sites that are obvious failures that have been declared a success.  They look nice (hmm) and they are top of Google for the company name, job done.

You need an Internet marketing strategy.  I’m guessing cash is tight at the minute, so you need one that is deeply practical.  You need to get people to go to your site.  Once they are there, you need to pay attention to your site and it’s content and then you need to get them to do what you want.

I tie all of the marketing I do very closely to it’s Return on Investment.  The Internet gives that benefit.  Not only is it more effective than traditional marketing options but its direct benefits are much easier to measure.

Your website should be making you money, not costing you money.  If it is already performing, then you already know that it can make more.  You simply need to get more people to your site and improve the chances that more of them will do what you want.

If you are marketing your business through your website yourself then I wish you well and hope that this blog can help.  If you would like to find out more about the Internet Marketing Services that Sole Control Solutions provide then that’s fine too.  Just contact us here.  We’ll be happy to talk with you and obviously there is no obligation.

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