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Website Aesthetics and Content SEO

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:

15 comments:

Gary Roberts said...

Morris

Spot on. "...figure out what your needs are" should be the byword for anyone putting up a website. I've continually downgraded the graphics and other bells n whistles of my primary website in order to feature content. There are only those graphics that are needed in both the blog and website. As a librarian, archivist (and soon to be publisher), I espouse content over flash.

The more I trim the content, the more traffic I get. As you have said, keeping SEO separate from gewgaws is the way to attract and keep attention.

Clearly, I'm a fan of yours. It's rare to hear someone who advises people to stick to the basics and give the customer what they want, not what you think they should have.

Gary Roberts

Charlie said...

Thanks for pounding the content over aesthetics theme. I always need that driven home. And yes, your aesthetics are purposely ugly.

Morris Rosenthal said...

Gary,

It's funny, but content is just one of those concepts that most publishers seem to reject because it's too obvious - after all, if it's so easy, why isn't everybody doing it:-)

I did notice today that one of the name SEO guys. Jamie Low, is starting a new business doing SEO specifically for publishers, so maybe the situation will start to change. I should drop him a line and see if he wants to do an interview for the blog.

Morris

Morris Rosenthal said...

Charlie,

I hope you're referring to my site and not the backgrounds for my videos. I put quite a bit of effort into them.

I have considered changing this blog to the even plainer Blogger template, all white, but haven't gotten to it.

Morris

Anonymous said...

You are dead right. I was going to make just one silly remark about 'readability' (in the typeface sense) & say that typefaces without serifs read better on computer screens....then I realised I'm not using my usual IE browser. Darn it...it's another of those issues that too many gewgaws, as someone above refers to them, also gets in the way. Google Chrome does horrid things to some sites!

IG

Gary Roberts said...

Morris

Ah yes, Content. At my day job, we have regular team meetings to review content to be, what was, and what is for the various library and archives websites (I work at a research lab). Ongoing traffic reviews tell us what has worked, is working and where we should be going.

I rely on Google Analytics along with a variety of traffic tools from my ISP to gauge what is going on. In my latest site rebuild, I trashed some sections that I happened to like, but no one else did.

I think that publishers tend to think that they have to be on the cutting edge, which means the latest and greatest software fads.

Morris Rosenthal said...

Gary,

You're not kidding aboutpublishers wanting to be on the cutting edge. A couple years ago, I had an interesting discussion with a NY agent who thought all publishing sites had to be "interactive", which was the latest buzz word at that time, but couldn't name a single interactive feature. People can make a living spouting buzz words, it's amazing.

Morris

Morris Rosenthal said...

IG,

With the exception of Blogging templates (which I don't alter), my site never serves up a specia font, it's all default. My basic feeling is that any font tweaking for usability should take place on the user end, and users are all different. Of course, I'm also lazy:-)

Morris

Ernie J. Zelinski said...

Morris:

I agree with you about Website Aesthetics. It is a waste of time and money creating a "professional-looking" website.

I took a two-day seminar from the Internet Marketing Center in Vancouver (from which many Internet Marketing Millionaires got their start). Jason Bax, the presenter, said that generally speaking, "Ugly websites make a heck of lot more money than the professional-looking ones."

What's more, Internet Marketing Millionaire Tom Antion says that he intentionally makes his websites just a little bit ugly and his $200 websites will outsell the $1 million websites every day of the year.

The one thing that I have noticed is that most of the people with "cool" websites are broke. Also a lot of people who think they are so cool as individuals are broke too.

My motto is "Do It Badly - But At Least Do It!"

I started 6 websites in the last 3 weeks. Here are 3 of them:

Love a Recession

The Fun at Work Cafe

The Money Cafe

As you can see, these are not the prettiest websites on the Internet and I intend to keep them this way.

I should mention that one of the webpages on "The Fun at Work Cafe" already comes in the number 3 to 5 spot on Google for the search term "Goodbye Letters for Work" - out of 7 million websites - and this website is only about 4 weeks old. Actually, about 6 days ago it came in the number 1 spot on Google. Not too bad for an ugly website and only abut 4 weeks old, wouldn't you say?

Ernie Zelinski
Author of The Joy of Not Working
(Over 225,000 Copies Sold and Published in 17 languages)
and How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free
(Over 100,000 Copies Sold and Published in 7 Foreign Languages)

Morris Rosenthal said...

Ernie,

Boy, you cast a wide, wide net. Have you ever tried building traffic through a single website with resource content, rather than churning out top 10 lists and bullet content? I assume your current approach is working for you or you wouldn't be doing it, but I can't imagine it's very much fun, or that it brings you anything in terms of joy or reputation other than the immediate sales.

It's tough to imagine anybody linking to those sites, unless you're part of a swapping network, so I'd think that there's some risk there as well, but maybe most of the traffic comes from Yahoo and MSN, which aren't as clever as Google about the wisdom of crowds.

You mention phrase targetting "Goodby Letters For Work" - is that a phrase anybody ever searches on? I don't think in terms of phrase targetting myself (except maybe on blog posts) because I find Google does a better job of categorizing content than I do, and mainly ignores tagging and labeling. There's a tremendous interest in high end SEO (libraries, universities) in building taxonomies, which may be great for internal search purposes, but I think Google goes with the content, not with the tags.

My joy in running a website is writing a new page to help people understand a subject that interests me, and watching it slowly build from a few visitors a day to a few hundred. Those people who do find it useful promote it for me through discussion groups, links, all organic. It certainly doesn't happen like that for every new page, and blog posts aside, I only generate a dozen or two new pages a year, but when it works out, it adds a nice bump to my site traffic and brings me all sorts of interesting feedback. It helps me decide where to put my efforts in writing a whole book, rather than writing a book first and then desperately trying to find buyers.

I'd never heard of the "Internet Marketing Center" before, very interesting that such a thing exists. If their general approach is building large networks of small websites with promotional content, I'd worry that they are 100% focused on making a quick buck than doing anything useful in the world, but I suppose there's always room for argument on what's really useful.

I'm up to three websites myself (in 13 years), with the third being one I started this year in part to see if my approach to building resource websites was still valid. My only traffic goal for the site (www.ifitjams.com) was arbitrary, set higher than I thought I could manage in six months, to get it to 200 visitors a day. It ended up at nearly double that, so I remain convinced that deep content that you invest a lot of time in is the way to go.

Morris

Charlie said...

Here's a pdf article by Nobel Prize winner William Sharpe.

http://www.stanford.edu/~wfsharpe/art/talks/indexed_investing.htm

It's all default font, with the title a little bigger in red. There's a certain beauty in this spare rendition, even though some graphics people would consider it ugly.

Now, he could show up for a speech in his pajamas, and the audience would listen to him. But I had better put on pants and shirt before talking in public.

Charlie said...

Correction - that link is simply an ordinary internet page.

Morris Rosenthal said...

Charlie,

No matter. Blogger automatically nofollows all links in comments.

Morris

Gary Roberts said...

I eschew the idea of the 'ugly' site. It's harder to create a spare site that delivers content in a logical and fluid manner. Balancing white space, color, graphics and fonts takes a whole lot of thought, much more than throwing all the bells n whistles in. Remove the junk and a poor layout screams out at you.

A really good site is one that focuses on the content and leads the viewers to where you want them to go... without their realizing they are being directed.

I use a gateway page to direct people to where I would like them to go. The hit numbers reflect the usability of this approach. 50% of viewers link to the gateway page as an entry. The simpler and more direct the page becomes, the more people link to it instead of to the subdomains.

It also helps to be somewhat color blind when choosing a color scheme...

Morris Rosenthal said...

Gary,

I don't shoot for "ugly", I just don't worry about "beautiful".

Not sure how using a gateway page affects search visibility, seems like it would over-concentrate links, like a blog. I prefer deep links to relevent, specific pages.

Morris