In a previous post about optimizing a website for the user experience in addition to the search engines, I touched on several website pitfalls that even the most professional-looking sites sometimes fall victim to. I would now like to take a minute and explain why these issues could be costing you a visitor.
Optimizing a website with poor usability is like advertising for a brick & mortar store that has horrible customer service. You posted advertisements all over town — in the newspapers, on the radio, through word-of-mouth — and have finally piqued the customer’s interest enough to check out your store.
The hard work is done–the customer is actively seeking your product. However, upon entering the store the customer is ignored by the staff, the signs for each aisle are improperly labeled, the gardening supplies are in the same section as the electronics, and in order to get any of your questions answered by the staff you have to complete a 5 page questionnaire. Your customer, like the one on your website with poor usability, has now left your store screaming and sobbing uncontrollably.
In my personal experience, here are 10 of the top ways to confuse and frustrate your visitors and eliminate any benefit you may have received through search engine optimization.
Poor Website Navigation
This is probably one of the biggest turn-offs for visitors. Visitors to your site are in search of information and their time is valuable–they need answers fast. Make sure that your navigation scheme allows your guest to easily find the information they are seeking.
Create an intuitive branching structure for your site and group common pages under one category. I’ve noticed a lot of Flash websites that try to be avant-garde by introducing a radical new or interactive navigation system. While it may look slick, it can be extremely confusing. If your visitors can’t understand how to navigate your site to find the answers they need, they will leave.
Giving Fancy Names to Common Labels
Don’t call your “FAQs” section “Helpful Questions,” because the online community has already become accustomed to the term “FAQ” and knows what they will find when they click that link. Although you may think you are being clever by calling the “Contact Us” page “Communicate,” in reality you are making it very difficult for your customers to contact you.
Long Forms for Simple Inquiries
Forms are not fun. Forms are less fun the longer they get. Unless you absolutely need information from a customer (ie, registering for a new bank account), do not insist that they complete a 5 page form. No one wants to get carpal tunnel syndrome on your website as a result of inquiring about your pricing. I can not remember where I read it, but I believe it has been said that the longer the form gets, the less likely people will be to fill it out.
They pollute your screen with excess windows that you never authorized on your nice clean computer desktop. Some websites tend to force any link taking the user outside the original site to open in a new window. The belief is by keeping the main website in the original window, the user need only close the pop-up to return to the original website.
This poses several problems. First, pop-ups confuse people. In a pop-up there is no “Back” button; the only way to return to the original site is to close the pop-up. Most people are more comfortable using the browser’s “Back” button to return to a previous page and will, in fact, click the “Back” button several times rather than navigating directly to the page though a menu link.
If you must use a pop-up window, warn the visitor about it with a special icon or parenthetical comment.
Choosing the wrong font size and color can really hurt the readability of your site. Setting the body text of your site at a font size of 8 pixels is going to send visitors running to their local optometrist, seeking answers to why they get splitting headaches every time they read content on your website.
Computer monitors are getting bigger every year and their resolutions sharper. This means that a 10 pixel font that looked great on your 17 inch, 800×600 monitor is not going to look so hot when your customer views it on his 30 inch widescreen iMac monitor with a resolution of 1920×1200. Also, make sure that there is enough contrast between your font color and the background color. Nobody wants to see dark red text on a red background.
Long Download Times
Make sure your site downloads quickly. Large images and Flash files will ensure that your visitors see a nice blank screen while they wait for your content. There are still a few folks on dial-up that want to see your website too. Make the content accessible to everyone.
All Flash, All the Time
Flash isn’t inherently bad. It just got a bad rap. There are some amazing things that can be done with it; unfortunately, many sites haven’t used it properly. Not only is Flash lower on the search engine friendliness totem pole, but it often prevents the use of helpful browser features like the coveted “Back” button.
Also, if there is a lot of animation on the site it can appear sluggish and unresponsive on older computers with slower hardware. Not all of us have souped-up Alienware computers so keep Flash to a minimum unless you know how to wield it.
[UPDATE: As of October 2015, Adobe Flash had a serious security flaw and every user of Flash needed to update this program in order to protect themselves. Apple has prevented Flash from running on their mobile devices. Any site using Flash to communicate important information to their visitors is going to suffer.]
Huge, Unending Paragraphs
Visitors don’t read your website. They scan, scour, search, sift and browse.
They look for main ideas, headings and bold text. If they can’t find what they are looking for quickly they move on. Make it easy for your visitors by categorizing your thoughts with paragraph headings and creating bulleted lists rather than full paragraph.
It makes it much easier to scan.
Inconsistent Branding Throughout Site
Ensure that there is one common theme running through your entire website. Use the same font, color, layout and navigation on every page so that your visitor experiences a degree of fluidity in navigating your site. Inconsistencies in page layout, fonts and colors can confuse the user.
Body Text Written for Search Engines Rather Than Visitors
Search engine optimization should be an integral part of your marketing campaign. There is no doubt that you should optimize the content of your site to its fullest, including all its meta tags, links, anchor text, and body text.
On the other hand, you should never write solely for the search engines. Your sentences should make sense to human visitors who come to your site. If you’re optimizing for the keyword “Chicago luxury cars” you wouldn’t want a sentence like this: “Matt’s Chicago luxury car dealership is your premiere luxury car dealership for luxury cars in the Chicago area, offering a variety of luxury cars.”
It’s packed to the brim with keywords so not only will it probably be considered spamming the search engines, but it makes the entire sentence almost unintelligible to your readers. There is a balance between pleasing the search engines and providing your customers with readable text.
Make It About Your Customers
Do your customers and your business a service by making it easy for visitors to access the most important features of your site. In the end, getting the customer more of what they want from your website can usually translate into money in your pocket, so be sure to spend extra time honing the navigation and functionality of your site.
Your customers will thank you for it.