Google has to get past one main sticking point if they hope to stop sucking at social media. They need to think about user experience before trying to figure out how social signals can best improve search.
If the main motivation for creating a social platform is to improve organic ranking algorithms through social signals, it’s destined to fail.
It’s as if Google is so desperate to get into the social media game that they’re choking from performance anxiety.
From one failure to another, they just can’t seem to get it right: Google Wave, Google Answers, Orkut, Knol, Google Buzz, Dodgeball, and many of their other platforms have failed to make the grade.
Google’s latest foray into the social milieu is Google +1. It’s similar to Facebook’s ‘Like’, and votes for websites are intended to improve the quality of Google’s search results. Social votes are popular, but who wants to share a search result before they ever click on the link to begin with?
After striking out in so many areas—including search—Google should be concentrating on giving their users a great social experience. They need this now more than ever.
If Google could develop just one social media platform that pleases its users first, with less focus on retrieving user data, raking in more Adwords revenue, or search integration, they’d be halfway there.
With all the money Google has poured into dead-end social strategies and misguided acquisitions, you’d think they could afford a loss-leader.
Landing page tactics are just as numerous as your conversion goals, but some are consistent winners.
Many of the best practices for landing page optimization are simply Web usability guidelines that allow your site visitors to accomplish tasks quickly and efficiently. Some of these best practices, however, have more impact on conversions than others; these are some of my favorites.
- Remove unnecessary navigation elements. In some cases—as with landing pages designed for promotional email marketing campaigns—it can be wise to omit your site’s main navigation. Members of your mailing list already know about your webite, and the presence of your main navigation can make them lose focus of your offer.
- Keep important content above the fold. Your landing page’s key points should be in clear view without the need for scrolling. If visitors don’t immediately see what’s in it for them when the page loads, the chances are pretty good that they’ll leave.
- Minimize noise. Don’t overwhelm your audience with too many options or links to choose from. Too many choices create anxiety and result in lower conversions.
- Don’t use captchas. Audio and visual captchas frustrate visitors, resulting in form abandonments. My favorite weapon against spam bots are user-friendly and just as secure as captchas. Since spam bots fill fields automatically, a simple script can prevent a form’s submission when a hidden text field is filled. I’ll describe this method in detail in a future post.
- Keep required form fields to a minimum. Don’t make the phone number a required filed unless it’s absolutely necessary. Gather other non-crucial information at later stages in the relationship with your clients.
- Add email privacy information directly next to email input field. Instill trust where it matters most instead of near the submit button.
- Remove ‘clear fields’ button from your forms. Having a button that resets form fields next to the submit button is useless and can be accidentally clicked.
- Take advantage of your form submission confirmation page. Once a visitor has hit the submit button to request contact or a whitepaper download, they’ll be in a receptive mode. Don’t waste this opportunity with a standard ‘thank you’ or ‘submission confirmed’ message; instead, use this window to promote your newsletter, blog, or other webinar.
- Match your headline to its lead source. Match your landing page’s headline with the anchor text or main idea of the page that leads to it. This helps your visitors confirm that they’ve arrived on the page they expected to. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this point.
- Keep your copy focused. Don’t stray from the offer your making on your landing page—this isn’t the place to talk about your company’s qualities or achievements.
- Let go of the words. Trim away excess words, and unnecessary sentences from your copy. If you get the same compelling point across with half the text, do it.
- Keep your focus on your reader, not on you. Minimize the use of words like ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘our’. Stay focused on the needs of your readers with the ‘you’ and the ‘your’.
- Write benefit-oriented copy. Your readers want to know how they’ll benefit from your offer, so address that before getting to features. Make your very last paragraph benefit oriented as well; people often read the first and last paragraphs on offer based pages before anything else.
- Keep your paragraphs short. A paragraph should be no longer than 4 or 5 lines. A wall of words is a great way to lose the attention of your visitors.
- Drop the caps. We have a tendency to read words whole when they combine upper and lower case letters, but letter by letter when they’re all caps. Using all capitals for passages of text will only frustrate and slow down your visitors. Big no no.
- Dark text on light backgrounds. Black text on a light (or close to it) background is much easier to read that the other way around. Unless you’re designing an official motion picture website, think dark text, light background.
- Keep paragraphs under 60 characters wide. Lines of text longer than this make it difficult to track back to the next line, hurting readability.
- Add captions under your images. People read captions as a result of being drawn to images; don’t miss out on this short yet valuable piece of copywriting real estate.
- Make offer-related images clickable. Clicking on a product image should result in additional product information or a higher resolution.
- Make your call to action button obvious Your landing page’s call to action button should be big and in clear view where your copy is the strongest.
- Use enough contrast to make it stand out from the rest of your design. Some studies show that red is best, but if, for example, orange stands out on the page, it’ll work.
- Place your call to action buttons above and below the fold.
- Be descriptive with the button’s text. ‘See plans & pricing’ works better than ‘click here’ or ‘learn more’.
- Choose real people over stock photo models. If you have receptionists and sales reps, use pictures of them in action instead of stock images. “Real people” look real, and help instill trust.
- Include client testimonials. Testimonials increase your brand credibility and can and substantially improve your conversion rates.
- Display randomly selected testimonials in your sidebar each time a page is loaded.
- Place your sidebar’s random testimonial within view of either a contact form, phone number, or any other call to action.
- Use real testimonials Keep everything legit. If you only have 1 testimonial, use it by itself, or wait until until you get more.
- Add a link under your random testimonial to a page with all your testimonials once you have enough of them.
- Add a phone number. A prominently displayed phone number on a landing page can instill a sense of security from the fact that there’s a real person available to talk to if needed.
- If you’re promoting local services, add a phone number with your local area code to show that you’re not actually a call center in Timbuktu (Unless of course, your business actually is in Timbuktu).
- Display trust seals. One or more legally obtained trust seals located near the top of your landing page is a good way to boost customer confidence, as they can help lend credibility to your business.
- Data security seals validate that your website uses Secure Socket Layer (SSL) protection for transmission of sensitive data via Web forms (McAfee, VeriSign, Comodo, GeoTrust, etc).
- Privacy seals signify that your company respectfully uses the personal information visitors provide. Privacy seals are the most difficult to obtain, as they require an extensive certification process (TRUSTe, Trust guard, etc).
- Reliability seals vouch only for the basic identity of your company (Shopzilla, SquareTrade, BBBOnline Reliability, Comodo Authenticity, etc).
- Consumer Ratings Seals link to reviews and ratings left by your customers (Shopzilla, Shopping.com, etc)
- Video can help engage visitors, especially on landing pages for software. Screencasts give an immediate peak at your software along with a stimulating voice-over.
- Keep your videos as short as possible. 30 minutes is a good length for a commercial style video, but sometimes longer is necessary. Experiment with additional calls to action midway through videos that are 60 seconds or longer.
- For screencasting software, take a look at Techsmith’s Screencast.com. You can export your screencasts directly to YouTube in great resolution, and delete them from the Screencasts.com server’s if you want to.
- Put the video controls into the visitor’s hands.You can test auto-playing video, but a/b testing will usually have you switching back.
- Have the play button in the middle of the video screen, opposed to the bottom of the player where it’s less compelling.
The most challenging aspect of landing page optimization can be making it all work without your landing page looking like the Web version of an infomercial; clichée, over-aggressive, and too loud.
Loud can be okay, if it’s in the right place—as in your primary call to action—and if that “loudness” is in balance with the other elements that make up your landing page.
Once you get more comfortable with optimizing your landing pages, you’ll want to begin A/B testing them, because nobody’s a better judge of how compelling a call to action is than your visitors.
Remember that the more you consider the Web usability implications of your landing pages, the more naturally they’ll come together.
When I read Chris Dixon’s piece claiming that SEO is “no longer a viable marketing strategy for startups”, I didn’t know what to make of it—ignorance or linkbait? The one-dimensional blurb headlines the article, which is supposedly supported by evidence of lower value websites outranking high value ones due to link popularity.
SEO is not the problem, people that use SEO to index garbage content of no value are the problem.
2011 SEO ≠ 2004 SEO
According to Chris, high-quality content is losing the battle of the SERPs because of the tens of thousands of blackhats working to “game SEO”.
Yes, we know many that claim to be SEOs are selling nothing but links, keyword spam and directory submissions, but anyone that equates SEO in general with the spammy blackhat demographic is obviously more than a bit confused.
When you criticize SEO as being a “dark art” or snake oil, you’re confusing the shady work of internet hustlers with skills of search visibility professionals that work on a daily basis with content strategy, Web usability, Web standards, content marketing and Web analytics.
Dixon goes on to condescendingly offer that “Some of the SEO industry is “white hat,” which generally means consultants giving benign advice for making websites search-engine friendly” (my emphasis). This is where his lack of knowledge regarding search visibility becomes crystal clear.
SEO isn’t just about keywords and anchor text anymore.
Before you accuse SEO, take a look at yourself
There is a lot of garbage on the Internet. Sharing that same garbage heap—you know, that one with the shady, spammy Internet hustlers—are members of the media that sniff out current news items, take them out of context (usually without understanding the subject matter) and run with them around their pathetic little sensationalist race track. This is even more damaging than black-hat, spammy, snake oil SEO, because at least the stench of the latter is obvious, unlike editorial FUD disguised as fact.
Criticizing SEO because of spammers is just as silly as criticizing journalism because of wannabe-relevant authors and their misguided editorial efforts.
I was happy to see some recognized search professionals chime into the comments on Chris Dixon’s piece; including Laura Lippay, Alan Bleiweiss, Dharmesh Shah, Andrew Shotland, AJ Kohn, Ross Hudgens, Terry Van Horne, Doc Sheldon, and others. All good examples of people in the industry that know the difference between adding value and pretending to add value, à la blackhat.
Your Web content is in a constant battle against a number of variables competing for your readers’ attention: A link to another website, the back button, their task at hand, the size of their monitor, the number of hours in the day. For those reasons and many others, it’s crucial to give your readers easy access to the information they want, without making them think, and without getting in their way with marketese and fluff.
Here are some of the most useful guidelines I’ve come to appreciate in my quest to continually improve my content writing.
- Create personas
- Write your headline first
- Keep your headings and lists parallel
- Write how you talk
- Write drunk, edit sober
- Use the active voice
- Write in inverted pyramid style
- Think of writing as revising drafts
- Let go of the words
- Stop when you are going good
1. Create personas
We all know how important it is to focus on our audiences when writing for the Web, but without a method, that advice can be somewhat abstract. Personas are fictitious users you create to ensure that you keep your different audiences’ perspectives in mind as you write content. Here are the basic steps involved:
- List your major audiences: Think of which groups of people (not departments or institutions) that might be using your site.
- Gather information on your audiences: Don’t assume you know what your different audiences are like; instead, compile information from various points of interaction with them to better understand who they are, and what their needs and questions might be. Potential sources of information include contact form emails, interviews, your past consultations, your customer service department, and even questionnaires.
List major characteristics for each audience: Each of your site’s user groups may have identifiable characteristics. For example, a poison control website will surely attract a large number of anxious visitors that need information very quickly, whereas an airline site will have a wider range of visitors with varying levels of travel experience. Plan for your visitors’ terminology, demographics, cultural backgrounds, potential emotions, and experience with your website’s subject matter.
- Use your information to create personas: Once you’ve compiled information on your different audiences, you’ll want to bring all that data to life with a few personas that represent the typical visitors to your website.
Each persona should be given a name, picture (stock photos are good), and characteristics.
- Use your information to write scenarios for your site: Once you’ve identified some goals that each of your personas are likely to have, come up with some tasks they’ll want to accomplish on your site. This is a great way to organize your content according your visitors’ needs.
Refer to your personas by name when strategizing content instead of calling them “users”. Creating personas will greatly improve the focus of your Web content writing as well as the user-experience of your website. Dive deeper into the nuts and bolts of creating user personas:
- Using Personas During Design and Documentation – UXmatters.com.
- Personas – the definitive guide – WebCredible.co.uk.
2. Write your headline first
Writing your headline, aka primary heading, before diving into the content forces you to stay focused on the purpose of your article. Your headline makes a promise to your readers, and writing with that in mind is a good way to keep your content structured and to the point.
Brian Clark’s Copyblogger.com is the place to start for tips on writing compelling headlines:
- 10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work – Copyblogger.com
- 9 Proven Headline Formulas That Sell Like Crazy – Copyblogger.com
3. Keep your headings and lists parallel
People are very pattern oriented. Headings and lists with consistent grammatical structure help your readers remember and compare successive portions of content.
Compare these 2 problem solving checklists, one written with an inconsistent style, and the other using parallel grammatical structure:
|Inconsistent grammatical structure||Parallel grammatical structure|
|1. The problem Must be defined||1. Define the problem|
|2. Analyzing the problem||2. Analyze the problem|
|3. What are the possible solutions?||3. Generate possible Solutions|
|4. Solutions analysis||4. Analyze the Solutions|
|5. Planning the next course of action||5. Plan the next course of action|
Table 1 shows how a list or group of subheadings with parallel grammatical structure clarifies their meanings and relationships between them.
|Complex words||Simple words|
4. Write how you talk
When you’re writing about complex concepts it’s easy to get carried away with complex words as well.
If you have performance anxieties associated with writing, resist overcompensating with big, important-sounding words. Write for your readers, not your ego.
Trying to sound eloquent can have the reverse effect. It’s better to write clearly and sound authentic than it is to risk coming across as being pretentious.
5. Write drunk, edit sober
Before you pick up that bottle of Jack…
You don’t need to be quite as devoted to this piece of advice as the man who originally offered it. This nugget of wisdom from the late Ernest Hemingway simply reminds us to write without inhibition—especially your first draft.
It’s better to write with a bit too much passion, editing some of it out later, than it is to deny your readers of your personality, or voice.
Enthusiasm makes for compelling reading; dry, self-conscious writing doesn’t.
6. Use the active voice
Create a clear and engaging tone by using the active voice with direct sentences such as “Content drives traffic”, instead of wordier sentences like “Traffic is driven by content”.
In the active voice, the object receives the action of the verb:
In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb:
|Traffic||is driven||by content|
In tables 3 & 4, notice how with the active voice, the action is in a verb, whereas with the passive voice it’s in an adjective. Action verbs and the active voice add intent to sentences, giving your words clear meaning.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t ever use the passive voice; in fact, in scientific writing, the passive voice is usually preferred, as the object (result) of the action is more important than the subject (scientist). Politicians also often use the passive voice to put emphasis on events rather than on those responsible.
Unless you’re writing a paper on your recent findings in the lab, or if you’re trying to use weasel words to hide blame, keep your tone assertive with the active voice.
7. Write in inverted pyramid style
Inverted pyramid structure is a fancy way of saying ‘write the important stuff first’.
Don’t make your readers scroll through a full page of content to get your key points and conclusion. Start with the who, what, where, when, why and how, and then get to the details.
8. Think of writing as revising drafts
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? Unless you’re one of the fortunate minority, the answer is probably a resounding well duh!
When you’re having difficulty getting the ball rolling with your Web content, remember that you’ll likely be editing much of it once you’ve stepped away from it for a few hours and sometimes days. Returning to what you’ve written after a break gives you a fresh and objective perspective of your work, and this fact alone should help you relax a bit and get into your writing without worrying about it being perfect on the first pass.
9. Let go of the words
Janice (Ginny) Redish named her book Letting Go of the Words after one of my favorite pieces of advice on writing for the Web. Whatever you’ve written, you can probably edit out at least half of the words without losing important meaning.
Busy Web users should be able to grab the information they need quickly and efficiently without having to endure any kind of fluff, to slow them down. The more you focus on the goals and needs of your readers, the less content you’ll find you need on each page of your site to satisfy them. Efficient and focused content allows people to and grab the information they need and go on to whatever they need to do next.
If you are worried about the search visibility implications halving your content, don’t be; if the fluff you are chopping out has anywhere near the amount of keywords that your focused content does, you’re probably spamming.
10. Stop when you are going good
This final piece of advice is another rule that Hemingway applied to his writing process. It might seem counterintuitive, but give it a try, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.
- Letting go of the words – Writing Web Content that Works by Ginny Redish
- Killer Web Content by Gerry McGovern
- Clout – The Art & Science of Influential Web Content by Colleen Jones
- Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug
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