For almost a full year we have been preaching a brand of search engine optimization that quotes heavily from the gospel of Usability. Under our marketing philosophy, sites should be designed and optimized in order to make transit from any given entry point (not necessarily the index page) to the desired goals and expectations of both visitors and site owners, as simple and intuitive as possible.

Sadly, this user-focused facet of our overall website marketing philosophy was not reflected in the five-year old face of our former website. Late last week, we uploaded a new version of the StepForth website, one we have been working on for nearly four months.

Call it a case of the “cobbler’s shoes complex” or an old-school fear a site redesign would cause an immediate loss of our own Top10 search engine placements, we had put off a redesign longer than we should have. Now that it is completed and posted, we can start to publicly explore how a commitment to Usability is common sense SEO, without feeling like we should smile while we say such things. The experience has also given us a greater appreciation of the challenges faced by other businesses when contemplating the redesign of a fairly large site.

As we near the end of the process, we have completely updated the main sections of our website and are performing document-by-document re-optimization of the entire domain as time allows. We will also be converting our sub-domain network over to the new site templates in the coming weeks, again as time allows. Who would have thought our site would balloon to contain over 1200 documents in just a few short years?

Case Study – StepForth

We knew we had a problem when we examined stats from WebTrends, Alexa and Google Analytics. Our website receives a fairly high number of visitors through two primary entry points (pages) and a number of secondary ones.

The first primary point of entry is the SEO Blog we have maintained for eighteen months or so. The second is our INDEX page, which ranks in the Top10 on all major search engines and is also page linked from articles reprinted by other online publications. Our stats tell us we have a very high bleed rate. Most visitors view one document before leaving and that is obviously problematic. We know we are very good at getting them there, it’s the keeping them around part we appear to have had problems with.

Visitors to the blog tend to read one or two articles and split, likely off to find other search marketing news or information in other places. That is understandable and to a large degree expected. Blog visitors are more likely looking for information or opinion than they are for our firm’s services. We do know that a few blog visitors moved to our site-review or services pages and can assume that some of these visits have led to successful conversions (based on our average contact / conversion rate). We believe the number of blog visitors who choose to move further into our website should be higher.

While we expect to slightly increase traffic and conversions from our blog, our self-analysis showed we desperately needed a new front face. Our second primary point of entry is our Index page. WebTrends revealed a startling situation. Over 94% of all visitors to our index page choose not to travel further into the site. That means only 6% of our site-visitors were immediately interested in reading about our services! To make matters worse, the vast majority of visitors to the Index page only visited once. Our old design was text-heavy, built and optimized for search spiders that ranked sites based largely on keyword content. While the site has sat squarely in the Top10 for most of its existence, that Top10 placement was not enough to convince more than 6% of visitors to consider doing business with us.

The 19th century retail advertising pioneer John Wanamaker once said, “I know half of my advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half!” While we would love to enjoy the 50% retention rate Wanamaker based his dilemma on, at least we knew exactly where to look for an answer to our problems. Our Index page was our problem.

Gord Hotchkiss wrote a piece, The 50 Millisecond Judgment, which was published in Search Engine Guide last week. In it, he outlines the findings of researchers from Ottawa’s Carlton University suggesting website visitors can, “… accurately judge visual appeal in just 50 milliseconds, or one twentieth of a second”. Visitors were leaving our site because they simply couldn’t find their way around it quickly or easily.

Here are some of the steps we have taken to improve our overall site, starting with the Index page.

We spend a lot of time looking at other sites from the search marketing field. Our colleagues are often our best teachers and keeping up with their sites is an important part of staying on top of the immense professional learning curve in SEO. We choose our overall layout based on a number of elements we saw in other websites, tending towards a design that we think reflects the conventional wisdoms of the crowd we work around.

One thing we noticed about sites run by SEO firms we consider important competitors. They all have eye catching looks, a focal point that captures the viewer’s eyeball longer than 1/20th of a second. The challenge and the task fell to our in-house designer Mark Johnstone who created the new look.

The use of eye-catching graphics is good to engage the interest of the observer however, a web document is really only as good as its content. In website marketing, all content should be viewed as a call to action. The goal of commercial websites is to convert visitors into participants of one form or another. A converted visitor is moved to choose to remain inside the domain. Ultimately, commercial websites exist to push product.

Our firm has two products, information and technical skill. We tend to give information away for free, and that information is often mass-propagated across other search marketing related sites so that goal is easily met. Mass publication of our free-product does not necessarily provide a clear trail to the revenue generating product our company offers, our technical skill in search engine optimization. That job is supposed to be accomplished by the Index page.

We sell our skills to make a living. While our own rankings and those of our clients have proved our technical acumen time and time again, that reputation does not necessarily precede us when visitors come to the Index page. Like any other business, we need to constantly convert new visitors to new clients, a job made much more difficult as time passes in the increasingly competitive search marketing sector.

In order to convince more visitors to stick around, we have made a number of drastic changes in the look of the site though we were able to retain the overall site structure. Above the fold (before scrolling down), we:

  • Have increased the spacing between lines in order to make the text easier to read.
  • Are trying to make effective use of columns, headlines and color so visitors can more easily scan for information.
  • Are using an easier to read drop-down menus
  • Have placed right-side “call to action” boxes for website reviews and newsletter subscriptions, along with a clearer right-side navigation menu
  • Created body text with clear information about the company, our senior staff and our ethics.
  • Clear division of visitor interests expressed above body text:
    • business owners
    • resellers and webmasters
    • news and information

We placed our text outlining our service information and links to internal service pages below the fold believing that visitors who see the top will either scroll down or use the drop-down menu or right-side navigation options if interested.

Retaining visitors is key to success in the new search algorithms, especially in relation to Google. Figuring out what motivates visitors to our site is important to us. We believe we have created a smarter, more intuitive site that mixes the pillar of Usability in with the other pillars (wise use of SEO technique, adoption of useful Web2.0 technologies and clarity in the tone of messaging) of our overall website marketing philosophy.

The site looks much fresher and is much easier to use, especially for visitors unfamiliar with search engine marketing. We look forward to hearing from our site visitors both directly at, and indirectly through continued analysis of our site stats.