Wednesday, October 04, 2006

How to have a reasonably successful website

I can't pretend to know a lot about making a website a huge success, none of the sites I've been involved with have been massively successful, but I've kind of worked out how to get a reasonable number of visitors to a site without any kind of massive outlay. Here are a few of my thoughts.

Don't spend a lot of cash

Websites are pretty cheap to run. Even if your website is your business, you can probably keep it running with no visitors and no income for a pretty long time. Blowing any money you do have on advertising before you're even sure your site is up to scratch is a sure fire recipe for disaster. Better to get just a few visitors in who'll give you a good idea if you're heading in the rifgr direction and you can fix any problems you have before too many people spot them.

I think advertising in the old media is pretty much a waste, it's very expensive and it's hard to see if it's been a success. You can advertise using AdWords for next to nothing, giving you the chance to see if it works at all and also trying out different advertising approaches.

Don't ignore SEO

Google is fond of saying that you should optimise for the end user, not the search engine. I can understand where they are coming from but essentially this is pretty much untrue. If end users can't find your site, whether the site has been optimised for users or not is pretty much irrelevant, they'll never see it. Chances are search engines will be the biggest source of traffic to your site, so of course you need to optimise for them. I managed to triple the number of visitors to the Random Pub Finder just by applying some simple SEO, all completely above board and not impacting on the end user at all. I found this free download a very useful read.

Design isn't too important

There are many examples of butt ugly sites being pretty damn successful (craigslist being the most obvious example) and plenty of examples of beautiful sites that have crashed and burned ( comes immediately to mind). The fact is if the idea behind your site is appealling, people will come back. If the idea doesn't appeal, it doesn't matter how good looking it is, people will go elsewhere.

One company I worked for redesigned their site about 4 times in one year, in an attempt to get more conversions. I've no idea how much they spent in total but the effect on conversions was pretty minimal, so it was pretty much wasted cash. Every redesign brought a host of new problems that needed fixing, along with pages stored in search engines that no longer existed. Not only that but time spent on those redesigns could have been spent refining and improving what was already there.

Keep focussed

I've never really stuck to this advice (this site covers whatever I can be arsed to write about) but if you want to get people coming back to your site it sure helps if your site covers a single topic, or a few related topics.

Iterate and watch

I come from a software development background and I've always practised a kind of iterative development technique. And I use the same approach when developing websites. Make a small change, see if it works, move on. Unlike software development, when developing websites the 'see if it works' stage doesn't just mean 'make sure it runs OK'. it also requires looking to see how it has affected traffic, so the iterative cycle can be somewhat longer. and to see if it works, you need to have some data. The cheapest tools (i.e free) for this job are Google Analytics and Google Sitemaps, which tell you how many visitors you're getting and what keywords are driving them there, along with heaps of other information.

Take advantage of free advertising

There are plenty of opportunities to get more hits on your site that cost nothing. When I post to a forum and I'm given the opportunity to provide a URL I always do. Of course, posting randomly to forums just to get a link to your site is generally considered as spam and will likely cause more harm than good. Sites like Technorati and digg can drag in more readers and directories related to your site can help pull in yet more eyeballs.

Wait, and wait some more

I have no knowledge of the search engine algorithms but I'm pretty sure, all other things being equal, a site that has been around for 5 years will rank higher than one that's been around for 1 month. So if you just hang around doing nothing, your site should start to get some more hits. I've never really done anything to get hits to, but I now get about 200 visitors a week.

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