Building Search Friendly Navigation

Building search friendly navigation is more than using text links instead of graphics. In fact, a well planned sitemap can allow you to continue to use graphics as your navigation with good search results. For this blog post, I’ll be discussing a different sort of search friendly navigation–the sort that allows every page of your site to become an effective landing page. This is achieved simply by working your call-to-action into the navigational graphics.

HitTail assumes a few things to be true in order for the HitTailing process to be effective. The first is of course the search engine optimization built into certain blogging software, which was the subject of a post last week. Today, it’s time to talk about how to move your audience from the blog “landing page” to your call-to-action. Sure, you can get the traffic using HitTail, but what do you do with the traffic? How does it convert?

The concept of optimizing landing pages is big in the pay-per-click world, because you have the explicit ability to control which advertisement leads to which landing page, providing the increased ability to control the experience. It’s not as straight forward with natural search, but there are some saving graces, and some best-practice techniques that should be used.

The saving grace of natural search landing pages is that it is the very content on the page that attracted the search in the first place, making it optimized by nature. But since you’re probably using blogging software, there’s a chance you’re using the default templates and have not inserted a call-to-action in the navigational graphics.

Huh?

Yes, that’s right. Every page on your website should contain somewhere in the navigational graphics your most desired call-to-action. If you take this one simple precaution, both in your blog and main site navigational graphics, then every page of your site is a potentially effective landing page–an important consideration in natural search strategy. I like to think of it as “idiot-proofing” a site.

To give an example, I will provide an anecdotal story of the battle between me (the sales guy) and every designer I ever encountered that worked on the Scala site.

Scala sells digital signage software–that is the software required to remote control flat panel TVs being used as information displays and signs scattered throughout stores and companies. It’s a big emerging market, and to make people understand what it is, there is exactly one image that does the trick–and that’s a person walking by one of these TVs, glancing at it as if it were a sign. Easy enough, right? It perfectly encapsulates the idea, communicates it in a blink, and can be rendered small and discreet enough to become part of the omnipresent navigational graphics.

Simply put, no matter how many times I laid this out as a design criteria and how explicitly I said it, no Web designer would give it to me. All I got were abstract designs copying the fluff web trends of the day, saying nothing about the company itself. I had to go in and retroactively refit every design so that every page worked as a blink-able landing page.

Imagine the first half-second glance at a Web page after you click a search result from Google. Was your story told? It should have been. If you want to tap into the power of natural search, you’ve got to start thinking about that approach to Web design. Every page is a landing page, and must tell the most important part of your story at a glance. This usually means graphics and a tagline/slogan, plus a call-to-action such as “click here for more details” or a 1-800 phone number. The graphics can be rendered in just about any style that suits your website and audience. Cartoons are fine in some cases, and photography is suitable in others. But in the same way that literal headlines help you in natural search, literal graphics help natural search. If you sell nuts and bolts, then working nuts and bolts into the navigational graphics that appear on every page is probably a good thing. Once you go abstract, you are completely undifferentiated from the billions of other generic “say nothing” pages on the Internet.

What is the most important call-to-action that is equally appropriate for your entire audience? This can simply be a link back to your main homepage, where you hopefully put your top-level messaging and attempt to send people in the right direction. If you’re a direct sales organization with a toll-free phone-number, then use that. In t case, prospects need surf no farther than the one page they dropped-in on. If you’re a high-end product with long selling cycles, then it may be the “contact us” link to get them into your salesforce automation system.

HitTailing is mostly about getting the qualified visitors to your system in the first place. In the overall sales cycle, it is the equivalent of the first touch. Occasionally, HitTailing will provide further touches in the sales cycle by virtue of corralling prospects back in each time they go researching (subject matter for a future post). But most of the time, what happens once the prospect reaches your site is in your hands. Usability testing and drop-off page analysis can go a long way towards fixing a broken site. But I recommend the one universal easy site fix that makes your call-to-action clear and one click away, no matter what page the visitor lands on.

Previous Next Arrows Vs. Previous Posts for SEO

So, if previous/next arrows with keywords are so influential for SEO, why am I not using MovableType or WordPress that support them, and instead using Blogger, which doesn’t? The answer is in the “Last 10 Posts”—or in the case of my Blog, “Previous Posts” links. It’s always ONLY 10 posts. So the voting power within the page is diluted on a per-link basis. Each link you construct on a page is casting that much less of its Google-juice voting power to other pages. But because EVERY permalink page has a similar “Last 10 Posts”, and the list is slightly different on each page (by one link), it’s a zero-sum game. It all evens out, and each page is being proportionally EQUALLY buoyed by its neighboring pages as if it were the less-diluted version of prev/next arrows found in MovableType and WordPress.

Building Search-friendly From the Start

OK, now it’s time to apply a graphical header across both Blogger and the main site. And it’s time to make some commitments to a CMS system for the main site. There are many CMS systems out there, and the last thing I’m going to do is go through the learning curve on even an easy one. Is a website a Web application or a bunch of HTML files? For manageability, it has to be thought of as a Web app, but for search optimization, it needs to be thought of as HTML files.

Blogging software has long ago solved this by “outputting” static HTML files from their database. This has a plethora of advantages, including reducing server load (serving static HTML files is much easier than executing code). Even if your dynamic pages are masquerading as static HTML, you’ve got increased server load—now two-fold: first, from the invisible reformatting of the URL that takes place with the Mod_Rewrite technique, and second by executing code that probably queries a database, populates variables, then finally serves up the page. Static pages, while providing less customizability, are much better for high volume sites.

I believe I’ll be using our own home-grown CMS system for the rest of the MyLongTail site. The back-end controls don’t have the features or the polish of other CMS systems, but I know it inside and out. It gives 100% uncompromising artistic control (unlike most CMS), and it creates pages that are perfectly optimized static HTML for search engines. And best of all, when things change on the Internet, I can just re-work the XSL transformations, and appease the search engine algorithms du jour, at least as far as internal link structure is concerned. Our home-grown CMS system was designed specifically with SEO in mind, and more particularly, with non-commitment to website architecture or technology decisions. Very advanced XSL queries “knit” the website together, very much the way blogging software can rebuild the static pages of a blog. But because we control that transformation.

Anyway, I need to go through the steps I would take for any website using our CMS for SEO system. I will need at least one page on the site. From a scalability standpoint, my home grown system is great when the entire site is going to be HTML. But much of this site is going to be an application. So, while I’m starting it this way for expediency’s sake, I very well may switch over to Ruby on Rails for an SEO-friendly app site. Additionally, much of the application will be written with AJAX, which is inherently SEO-unfriendly.

So as the site becomes more application-like and cooler and cooler, it will simultaneously be becoming less friendly to search engines. That’s part of the reason why the blog is so important (Blogger is inherently SEO-friendly). Blogging lets us roll out content in a friction-free environment. Anyone who has managed corporate websites knows what I mean when I say friction. Because I’m blogging from Microsoft Word, I can roll out content with almost no friction. But the content that becomes the navigational framework of the site will be from my home-grown CMS, which is also inherently search engine friendly. Together, the blog and the navigation pages will create a very competent placeholder, so it can start setting properly into the engines.