As an internet marketing company, we are often asked to evaluate websites and make recommendations about improving them. In order to do that we look at several aspects of the website, including layout and design, usability, technical aspects, competitors, search optimization, and effectiveness.
Some of the tests we do to the website are subjective, especially in the layout and effectiveness areas, but most of the evaluations are based on metrics that are very measurable. This article attempts to share our website evaluation strategy so that business owners can use these ideas to measure their own sites and make positive changes to them.
The first thing we look at is the layout of the site. There are certain elements that are proven to work on websites, and they include:
- quick branding and messaging
- visual attractiveness
- easily accessible navigation
- video, awards or testimonials
- search functionality
- a sitemap and custom error page
- policies such as privacy
- shipping linked from the footer
- copyright and contact information in the footer
- social icons with links to social media sites
- and easy access to best sellers or main subjects
Of course, there are many other items that can go on a home page of a site, but in general, all these elements should be present on every site. Some of the questions we ask at this stage include:
- Does the website effectively promote the brand value online?
- Does the website showcase products and services – especially the most popular of these?
- Is detailed product and service information easy to access?
- Do visitors get a complete picture of what the website offers from the home page?
- Does the website have a section such as a blog that allows for user interaction?
- Is the website properly linked with social media sites?
- How user friendly is the website – we may test this by asking new visitors to perform a simple function on the site such as purchasing a product or sending a contact form.
- Does the contact or about us page have consistent information with local listings, and does it use hcard format for easy search access?
The next thing we check is the navigation structure of the site. We want to make sure the navigation works easily for both visitors and search engines. Navigation should be done using cascading style sheets, a search feature (if necessary), drop-down menus with graphics (if applicable), and an easy to use footer with most searched links.
Sometimes certain call-to-action buttons can be visible from certain pages of the site, but the main navigation should be accessible and consistent on all pages. Breadcrumb navigation links at the top of the page allow visitors to see exactly where they are on the site, and are very helpful for search engines as well. At this point we also run a broken links report and check to make sure the navigation uses search phrases that will boost SEO with a good internal link structure.
It is very popular with newer websites to have drop-down navigation that can include more than one column (so that the website home page is still visible when the navigation is moused over), graphics, and even call-to-action links. Sometimes this navigation style is even duplicated in the footer. The footer (or section at the bottom of each page) needs to include important links as well as call to action buttons so that search engines and customers can find important pages on your website much more consistently and with relevance.
Content: Product and Service Pages
Each product and service page should be loaded with unique and compelling content, including:
- images and videos
- related products or services
- and any special deals or offers.
The URLs of these pages should have the main search word in them, and microformats should be used for reviews, products and contact pages. Especially if the site is a shopping cart, it is important to take advantage of Google and Bing’s shopping feeds so that the website products show up during shopping searches. It is also very important for product and service pages to make it easy for people to rate and comment on them. Perhaps the most important aspect of the internal pages of your website is that each page should have compelling information, and be written as a “landing page” for a specific search result, just in case the visitor comes directly to that page via search, rather than finding it after viewing the home page.
A blog is also very important for most websites. In a blog, the company can not only express opinions and solicit comments from visitors, but it can also post articles about products and services, new offers, press releases, and how-to articles. The blog can allow for visitors to sign up via RSS (really simple syndication) or email subscription. Posts to the blog should use search phrases that would bring in potential visitors, and someone from the company should be responsible for making sure that comments are answered and posts are written frequently.
We also check that content on the website has not been duplicated on the web. Even redirecting the www to the non-www version of a website can make a huge difference in the way the site ranks on Google. Redirects made for this purpose should be permanent 301 redirects.
The site should be checked for load time (Google likes faster loading sites), broken links, HTML and other coding errors, and meta verification tags. It should also have an XML sitemap that contains every page of the site and it’s priority to search. An HTML sitemap and custom error page with an index of all the pages on the site will help visitors. Page titles and meta descriptions should all be unique and keyword rich. A properly optimized Robots.txt should be present, and exclude certain bots from accessing the site, as these slow down the load time. We also look at the domain itself to see how old and how long it has been registered (trusted by Google) and how well it describes the business.
Social media continues to grow as people find new ways to use social networking websites and social media websites. Since it is easy to reach customers through social media, we recommend creating profiles on several of the most used social networking sites (such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook), connecting these to your website, and updating them regularly.
Finally, we take a look how many links and the types of links that are pointing to the website. If the number of incoming links to the website is very minimal, we recommend an SEO and linking strategy because the more incoming links the better for search engine visibility and ranking.
At the conclusion of our report, we prioritize our findings and try to help individual companies work within their marketing budgets to create the most effective website possible.