This morning brought me the usual number of e-mailed questions and the comment "I found your website interesting but not eye appealing." So let's examine my options. I can spend some money on new software and invest a couple hundred hours in designing a new website around my existing content, or I can spend a couple paragraphs explaining why aesthetics don't make it onto my priority list. Since my site draws over two million unique visitors a year, I'm going with the latter option. But it does give me an excuse to review why website design and SEO cannot be treated as separate job functions, with the design coming first and the content optimization coming later.
Website aesthetics are the Achilles heel of most content based Internet sites, and not because the sites are ugly. Rather, the pursuit of a high grade aesthetic forces these publishers into expensive and unwieldy approaches and a high degree of reliance on outsourcing and custom design tools. I can't count the number of people I've known over the last decade who have locked into one proprietary content management system (CMS) after another, nor how many of those CMS systems have been orphaned, leaving the publisher with an expensive conversion task. The quest for a high aesthetic can postpone (sometimes indefinitely) the launch of the website, and cost of paying an outsider for every change can lead to an existing site languishing. Content publishers who commit to a high aesthetic are preparing for the big show by braiding the hair over the horse's eyes, rather than its mane and tail. Or to use a publishing analogy, it's like writing a book based on the cover design.
But website designers, who are the first stop for most publishers looking to build or expand their website, insist that the design function stands apart from the critical mission of drawing visitors from search. If your business is already famous, or has a government granted monopoly, then you can focus solely on the aesthetics and navigation and not worry about drawing visitors. But for the rest of us, drawing visitors from search to sell our products is the main mission of the website. So let me pose a question to you. How many websites have you visited, ever, because you Googled something and got back a list of results based on aesthetics?
The only way to draw visitors to your website without advertising or cheating is to provide content. Increasingly, the job of an honest SEO firm has less to do with optimizing your existing content and more to do with helping you determine what content you need on your website to achieve your goals. There are only two types of content that matter for most publishers: existing content, usually in the form of published books or excerpts thereof, and purpose written content, produced in order to have your say in the world and attract visitors to your website. Existing content is easy, the only decisions involved are determining how much of it to put online and how to organize it in the hierarchy of the site. Purpose written content is much more of a challenge for most publishers because it represents a future, ongoing task, and because it requires a knowledge base or research skills in the area in which the publisher aspires to become prominent.
Here's a simple example of a purpose written piece of content, my annually updated article on book sales, gathered from publicly available information. The page averaged just under a hundred visitors a day in 2008, who spent an average of three minutes on the page. That's more traffic than most small publishers get for their entire website. It's a subject I'm interested in and track, in part, so I can draw my own conclusions from the data. It probably took me a day to put together the original page back in 2003, and I might invest an hour or two a year in keeping it up-to-date. The only changes to the page's aesthetic design in the last six years are that I added a pair of videos and pasted the horses into the top right corner:-)
Many of my strongest web pages for drawing visitors are book excerpts, usually whole chapters that cover self contained subjects, making them a stand-alone resource that visitors consider worthy of linking. But one great advantage of purpose written content is that it's much easier to keep up to date, and allows you to address subjects that you wouldn't consider publishing an entire book about. And blogs are not the answer. I've written quite a bit about why blogs normally do poorly in drawing search visitors. Even though it's possible to produce blog posts with the exact same content as your would put on a static page, those visitors who give you links will often prefer to link to the main page of your blog. That leaves your blog with a lot of incoming links for diverse subjects which the main page will rarely address, while the specific blog post will starve for relevant links.
I think my greatest failure as an Internet publishing guru has been failing to get major publishers to follow my content based website approach. One reason is that I refuse to charge for advice, something which scares off most professionals who are either distrust or despise something for nothing. I don't blame them, having the same outlook myself, but I'm not interested in selling my time. For those of you who aren't comfortable accepting free advice by e-mail or phone, I'll put it in writing.
Forget about hiring somebody to build a website that will meet your needs until you figure out what your needs are. At that point, if you don't want to build the website in-house, you can hire somebody to do the job, based on their track record in meeting needs like yours with other websites. And remember, whether we're talking about existing content or purpose written content, it has to come 100% from your end. If you're looking to hire somebody to produce your website content for you, that means you're looking for somebody to who knows more about your business than you do, which means you're in the wrong business.
In conclusion, to prove I do have a sense of aesthetics, I'm re-running my website publishing video with the best backdrop: