Did Google give web designers their groove back?

November 20th, 2009 by Kimi 8 comments »

Clean code is groovy

hippieOne of the perks of hiring a web designer to develop a custom website has always been clean code; although it is sometimes hard to quantify that benefit in light of the ongoing savings associated with content management systems.  I’ve always taken the high road when it comes to clean code for the simple reason that it is easier for someone else to step in and modify down the road, and it can also prevent browser compatibility issues in the future.  And, o.k., I’m a neat freak!  Still, it is often hard to communicate the value of clean code to a client when the words “page rank” aren’t involved.

Clean code took a blow in 2006 when Vanessa Fox (Google) stated in an interview with Rand Fishkin (SEOmoz):

“Google doesn’t really care all that much about the code to text ratio, we’re going to pick up the text, extract it from the page, and we’re really going to ignore the code.”

 And again in March 2007 when Adam Lansik, SEO Strategist at Google, stated in an interview:

 “…But, here is the core problem why we cannot use this in our scoring algorithms currently: There are a ton of very high quality sites, pages and sites from universities, from research institutions, from very well respected ecommerce stores, of which I won’t name any, that have really crufty sites, and sites that won’t validate. On some of these you can view the source and cry. And, because this is quality content, we really can’t use that as an effective signal in search quality. So, you can quote me a saying, I would be thrilled, it would make my day if people would decruft their sites, but it’s not going to directly affect their Google ranking.”

But recent comments made by Matt Cutts’ (head of Google’s Webspam team) regarding the possible impact of  page speed on website ranking in 2010 may have finally given weight to the fact that clean code can impact search engine rankings.

 Webpro News said regarding their interview with Cutts on November 13, 2009:

“From the sound of it, speed is going to be a huge factor in SEO moving in to 2010. He says that a number of people within Google consider speed to be very important to the web, and they are considering if that should play a role in the rankings of websites in search results.

According to Cutts, speed hasn’t played a role in rankings in the past, but that may very well change. Watch the video for more details about Caffeine and Google’s resources for helping webmasters improve site speed.”

Why is this important? Clean code = fast web pages.

I’ll use a CMS if I have too!

Because of my love for graphic art and my passion for clean code, I have always had a hard time accepting content management systems, although I do recognize that they are a valid solution in certain circumstances.  In cases where a website has to be updated frequently (real estate agents, photographers, churches, large organizations, etc.) site owners can lose their shirt in maintenance fees unless they learn some html or use such a thing.  But still, they are confining and stifling and ugly and…

Recently, when I took on a real estate company as a new client it only made sense to use WordPress.  I spent a great deal of time customizing the site so it would not look like a template – and I have to say I was surprisingly pleased with the code generated on the home page.  Not perfect mind you, but not nearly as crappy as some of the code I’ve seen generated by other content management systems. WordPress has come a long way and installing a SEO plugin to allow the customization of title and description tags helped as well.

For a moment I almost waffled.  Maybe content management systems aren’t evil…

 But thanks to Matt Cutts “encouragement”, I have come to my senses again and am warmly embracing my roots.  I got my groove back!  CMS is a solution, but it will not be the ultimate solution any time soon. Here’s why…

Awesome tools, but now what do I do?

In his interview with Webpro News Matt Cutts mentions a couple of tools to help analyze your website’s page speed, one of which is the Firefox plugin “Firebug”.   I Recently ran the Firebug page speed analyzer on my website and blog because I wanted to improve load time.  I have to tell you, it was SO cool!  My website was no big deal to optimize since it is hand-coded and I only use one CSS sheet and no javascript,.  The blog, however, was another beast!  Some of the suggestions, which I think will be common to the majority of sites running CMS, are not that easy to implement.  My blog runs on WordPress, which Matt Cutts says takes care of 80-90% of SEO mechanics, and still had to deal with half a dozen style sheets and over 14 javascripts.  I can’t imagine the work involved on a site running a less optimized software.

One of the standard suggestions is to minify javascripts and CSS, which basically means removing all of the extraneous line breaks and white space generated by CMS & many html editors.  You can actually click on links in Firebug to get the minified versions to copy and paste into the style sheets (sweet!), but only the main template style sheet is easily found.  Other minified versions refer to inline CSS and javascript located within various plugin files – the source of which is not specifically given. 

Another common suggestion is to “leverage browser caching” which involves modifying the hidden .htaccess file on your sever, and enabling gzip compression which is way over the head of your every day blog owner. 

While Firebug provides some simple suggestions that are not difficult to implement, such as optimizing graphics and including image sizes, many of the “meatier” suggestions, in my opinion, take the skill of a web designer.

Also, on my blog, many of the bloated style sheets and javascripts noted by Firebug were referenced externally from plugin websites so I could not modify them anyway.  Even though WordPress has come a long way in cleaning up their code, they have little control over the code generated by plugins.  One of the great features of a custom design is that you have total control over the code and scripting. One of the great features of hiring a web designer is they know what they are doing!

Web design is easy… uh huh!

Several years ago one of my clients moved to a hosted CMS and used a web creation tool to build a flash website.  After the new site was created, she called me with genuine concern in her voice.  “I’m really afraid that once people find out how easy it is to create their own site you will lose all of your business”.  I told her not to be concerned, that the benefits of a custom design ensured that it would always be in demand.  Six months later she called wondering why her website did not pull up in Google even for her company name.

 Still, it makes you wonder.  CMS are becoming more popular than ever, and right now with this tough economy “free” sounds good to everyone.  But if results count, a custom design, coupled with web design skills, still has more to offer.  As a matter of fact they may be even more valuable in 2010.  What do you think? 

White space is not wasted space

November 12th, 2009 by Kimi No comments »

When designing a website or piece of media I many times work with clients who view white space as something that needs to be filled.  Often, open space motivates a client to think “what can I put there?”  It is easy for a design to get bogged down with unessential information if white space is not valued.  In a proper design white space is just as important (if not more so) than the copy space.  Here’s why…

Space gives the impression of quality

When looking for “cheap”, we mostly run to Wal-Mart, Target or The Dollar Store; where isles are so narrow and the shelves so packed full of goods we can barely maneuver our carts.  But when we are looking for quality, we head to the mall where the stores are more spacious and elegant.  Our senses “feel” quality from the second we walk through the doors.  And, since we have made the decision to invest more money, there is a certain level of expectation.  What makes the difference?  Clutter!

Take a look at the two publications below.  Note how the use of white space lends to the feeling of “quality products” in the ad on the right.

why we need white space

cluttered design uncluttered design

white spacePlanned white space can activate a design

Used wisely, white space can make a design come to life.  Centering all of the elements on a page causes the white space to “disappear” because it is too predictable.  The problem is the design becomes predictable too!  By creating a “passive” design you ensure that it will most likely not catch anyone’s eye.

Take a look at the two graphics below.  In the graphic to your right not only does moving some of the elements off-center make the graphic more dynamic, the white space becomes more dynamic too.good design

centered designs are passive activate your design

the importance of white spaceWhite space is just as important as black space

Have you ever looked at a poster that displays an obvious image with another image hidden within it?  At first the hidden image may be hard to see, but once you have seen it you wonder how you missed it to begin with.  In the same way, white is sometimes hard to see.  Even so, white is a color, just like black, and it adds value to a design.  Do you see more white in the picture on your left or right?  Which white is more dynamic?  In either case, now that you are looking can you see the white?white is a color

use of white space another use of white space

balanced designWhite space can prevent a “bad acid trip”

A fear of white space often leads people to add too much color to a design.  Empty spaces are turned into blocks of color, graphics are colored, and sometimes color is used excessively to make important pieces of text stand out.  When visitors arrive on your home page or see your media for the first time, their eyes have a split second to decide where to land first.  Too much color, bolding and capitalization causes the eye to become overwhelmed and move on.   For a website owner this means a quick click away from your site.  For others it may mean people passing right by your poster without any desire to read it.

The examples below show how color can actually diminish the importance of your message.  In the example on the left everything looks either important or unimportant, depending on your perspective.  In the example on the right, the important parts of the message stand out quickly.  Note how the white space has added value to the design – nothing has been wasted.designs need space

design with too much color clean designs use less color

white space connectsWhite space provides direction and keeps us connected

White space should be used like a traffic cop, directing eyes in the direction you want them to go.  It is the glue that connects images with text and can be used to move the eyes up and down or left and right.

In the example on the left it is hard to know which way the eyes should move or what text goes with what image.  In the example on the right, the image and description problem is solved and the evenly placed white space tells the eyes to move from left to right.white space directs movement

white space connects elements white space moves the eye

eye strainSpace is soothing to the eye

Since the eyes can only take so much strain, cramming too much text into too small of a space can cause eye fatigue.  Website owners especially need to take this into consideration because the hard-to-read text is combined with the glare from a monitor.  White to the rescue!!  Take the same amount of text, add sufficient white space, and the problem has been solved.spacer

text block with little space text block with enough space

spacerHopefully now that you’ve learned to SEE and appreciate the power of white space you understand that white is not a thief, it is a super-hero!

How your behavior affects Google

October 27th, 2009 by Kimi 2 comments »

In a recent interview with techcrunch.com, Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, explains that in order for Google to continue to improve it:

…needs to move “from words to meaning.”  In other words, Google needs to understand queries better, and return results that best match the real meaning of a query. “We have to get from the sort of casual use of asking, querying…to “what did you mean?””

In its quest to “read your mind”, Google has begun to factor in past search history, as well as i.p address (geographic location), when serving up its results.  

While some people view this as an invasion of privacy, Google believes it is necessary in order to provide you with the best results.  Not to mention, most of us have agreed to this “tracking” method by simply signing up for a Google Account (gmail, etc.)

According Google Account Terms of Service:

 “Creating a Google Account will enable Web History. Web History is a feature that will provide you with a more personalized experience on Google that includes more relevant search results and recommendations.”

Although you can choose to not enable web history from the account set up page, enabling web history is set as the default, so MANY people do not disable it.

google1sm
Google also scans the emails you send from gmail (using a formula, not human eyes)  in order to customize the ads displayed on your gmail page.

Google states:

“By offering Gmail users relevant ads and information related to the content of their messages, we aim to offer users a better webmail experience.”

google5sm

The various forms of tracking – user search history, i.p. address, scanning of text within emails, is known as “behavioral search“.

What does this mean for gmail users? 

You either have to get used to a certain level of privacy invasion or use a different email client.  Some people actually prefer to have their ads modified.  It creeps me out!  I only use gmail as a throw-away account.

What does this mean when I do a search using Google?

Similar to the ads being customized (above) many times search results will be customized as well when you are signed into your Google account.  Note the following examples when searching for “per diem nursing”

Notice that when I am logged into my Google account, the #2 listing is for a local company where I live in Colorado Springs. 

google6sm
In this example, I have not logged into my Google Account and you will notice that the local listing has disappeared.

google7sm

What does this mean if I am a website owner?

It means that ranking reports are no longer accurate, as the results you see are probably not the same as the results someone else is seeing.  You should turn to your webhosting logs and Google Analytics for a better picture of how well your website is performing.

Understanding Google & Ranking

October 24th, 2009 by Kimi 1 comment »

Old dog, new tricks

While most website owners are concerned about ranking well in Google, most do not have a full understanding of how Google operates and what it takes to have a well-ranking site.

Some of you may be completely new to the whole industry of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which means optimizing your website so that it ranks higher on search engines.  Others may have read many articles on the subject and know the difference between “white hat SEO” (acceptable optimization practices) and “black hat SEO” (un-acceptable optimization practices).  And some of you may have already worked with SEO companies in the past and are wondering why the “tricks” don’t work anymore.

In the end, your level of experience does not really matter.  Google has gone through major changes in the last year so we all need to be re-educated and, at the very least, adjust our plans and expectations.

Google a,b, c’s

Very simply put, Google owns and operates a free search engine and attempts to provide its customers with a list of the most relevant websites based on the keywords typed into its search box.  The operative words here are “free” and “relevant”.  Since you do not pay to be included in Google’s organic index (natural, unpaid listings), you also have no say over whether or not your website is listed.  Google alone (through its search formula) determines which sites they believe are most relevant and contain the most useful information.

Google does offer a PAID sponsored link program for website owners that would like to ensure a first page listing.  This program is called Adwords.

What do Google & Hitler have in common?

Nothing.  It is amazing how many website owners view Google as an evil dictator, bent on destroying their business by not putting their site on the first page of its results.  In reality, website owners are not Google’s main concern or target audience, searchers are.  As a company, Google has earned a reputation for being the best search engine on the planet.  Relevant results are all it has to offer.  If results aren’t relevant, searchers go away, and so does its business.  To improve ranking, website owners must first understand that Google does not owe them a listing.  Rather, a listing must be earned.

Obtaining Google zen

Although Google is moving with the times and is starting to put an equal amount of attention on shopping, media and social networking, its first love is information and education.

A website that contains good information, especially information that is in demand, is considered relevant to Google and stands the best chance of earning a higher rank.  Since there are so many websites on the Internet though, other factors have to be taken into consideration to whittle down and order top results.

Google DOES like websites that:

  1. Contain unique, educational or sought-after content
  2. Are book marked or suggested to friends
  3. Have been linked to (naturally) by other authoritative websites
  4. Include media (videos), FAQ’s, Tutorials, Articles and active blogs
  5. Are created in a structure that allows their search “spiders” to move from one page to another through the site’s links
  6. Meet their quality guidelines

Google DOES NOT like websites that:

  1. Contain un-useful, duplicate, or stolen content
  2. Have tons of incoming links with the same anchor text, i.e., alabama attorney (This is a red flag that the links were paid for or exchanged, and therefore of little value)
  3. Show signs of deception, such as hidden links or pages stuffed with keywords
  4. Are created for search engines and not people

1 + 2 = first page on Google?

Not necessarily.  However, if you don’t follow the guidelines or design your site using the correct structure then you basically have little to no chance at all and your long-term outlook is gloomy.

Even if you do everything right, a high listing cannot be guaranteed because there are ranking factors you have no control over, such as:

  • Level of competition
    If you are selling really cute nursing t-shirts to moms you have a much better chance of ranking well then someone selling Adidas tennis shoes simply because the market is smaller and the competition not as great.  Also, it is easier to rank higher when you own a regional business because you are not competing with the world, only your area of the country.
  • Your website is new
    Google gives more weight to “mature” websites.  There may be a delay (6 months or more) before a new website sees any appreciable ranking.
  • The Inn is full
    Large, well-known, educational websites are already filling the top ten slots.  Face it; you are not going to bump Nike, CNN or Amazon.
  • Behavioral search
    Over the past year, behavioral search (a user’s search history and the geographic location from which they are searching) has greatly affected the way Google serves up its search results.  By signing up for a Google account (and with the popularity of gmail millions of people have) you give Google the right to use your search history and i.p. address to customize search results to better fit your profile.  That means, when signed into your Google account you may be seeing completely different search results than your aunt in Florida, and possibly even your next-door-neighbor.

So ranking is not important??

No, ranking is important – in that more exposure means more possible sales, but it should be kept in perspective.  It cannot be accurately measured by typing your key phrase into Google and some elements of ranking are completely out of your control.  Constant monitoring of ranking only serves to create paranoia.  It’s like worrying over the weather.  You can worry, but it won’t change anything.  Also, ranking is not everything.  Of more importance is that your website is bringing in good, targeted traffic – traffic that converts to sales.

Balance + patience = success

Like a healthy diet, balance is everything for a website owner.  Obsessing over your website’s rank for one set of keywords is unhealthy and it will stunt your growth!!  Instead, a more accurate, “bigger” picture should be developed by spending time going through the logs/statistics provided by your web host.  Information should also be gathered through analytical software such as Google Analytics (free) which provides much more in-depth, specific information about visits to your website and how people arrive.

Also, instead of putting all of your eggs into one basket and obsessing over one major key phrase, spread out and target multiple popular key phrases.  It is much more effective to bring in traffic from many sources then to spend all of your energy targeting one, highly competitive phrase.

Does plural mean more than one? Not to Google, not always

June 26th, 2009 by Kimi No comments »

Google plural singular searches

One question I am asked a lot is why searches performed on singular and plural forms of keyphrases pull up different results in Google. People cannot understand why their website ranks higher for one form then the other.

The answer is, to Google cat does not necessarily mean “one cat” and cats “more than one”. In many cases, Google sees a clear distinction in the intention of searchers when using the different forms.  In this case the singular form of “cat” might pull up search results for the animal, a tractor or a type of pump, whereas “cats” will pull up results for the animal.

Sometimes search results are mixed due to the ambivalent nature of a search term, i.e, “mold removal”.  Is a searcher looking for environmental information or a mold removal service?

To illustrate further, let’s take a look at the top 10 search results in Google for “medical vacation” and “medical vacations”.

Using the singular form “medical vacation” you will find that the top results mostly include websites that coordinate medical vacations. So, if that’s your business, great! However, a search on the plural form “medical vacations” provides a more mixed bag of goods, and mainly focuses on the concept of medical vacations, the rise in popularity, whether having surgery abroad is a good idea, rental homes, etc.

Another example…

Searching for “credit card machine” will mostly pull up companies offering specific equipment and merchant accounts, whereas the results for “credit card machines” lean more towards sites that offer price shopping, like wholesale equipment, warehouses, low price guarantees, etc.

You can see the logic behind this. Someone searching for a specific credit card machine or merchant account is more likely to search on the singular form i.e., “credit card machine for my business” and someone shopping for the best prices is more likely to use the plural form, i.e., “best deals on credit card machines”.

Can your site rank for both singular and plural forms of your keywords?

Many times it is important that your website rank highly for both the singular and plural forms of your keywords.  To be successful, you have to understand that Google takes human search behavior into consideration when deciding which results best match a searcher’s intentions.  You cannot simply repeat both forms of the keywords on your home page and expect to rank for both, because Google may be targeting a completely different audience for each.  Google will draw its conclusion as to which category they think your site fits best based on the content of your page.  Therefore, different pages with different focuses have to be created.

How do you know which form to use?

First do a search on the singular form of your keywords and look at the “big picture”. What types of sites are pulling up? Do you see a pattern? Are they offering the same type of product or service, or are they providing educational information? Do the sites seem to target customers searching for specific products and services or customers shopping for deals or looking for information? Now do the same with the plural form.

After performing the searches, determine which form is most relevant to your business or service. That is the keyphrase you should focus on first. The reason? Increasing traffic to your site does not mean a thing if the visits do not convert to sales. Make sure you are focusing on the most relevant category.

In other words, if an individual is doing research and looking for background information on the rise in popularity of “medical vacations”, then chances are he is not interested in a medical vacation himself, though there is always the possibility that he will read something that will convince him that he should take a medical vacation in the future. But if Google has determined that an individual uses the singular form “medical vacation” more often when looking for a website coordinating those types of services and that is the business you are in, then chances are the singular form will bring more targeted traffic to your site (yes, more sales). Though you do not necessarily want to blow off the “down the road” opportunity, you should focus on the most relevant category first.

Also, keep in mind that Google REALLY likes educational and informational sites and they are almost impossible to compete with. If searching on a plural form of your keyphrase pulls up a majority of websites that are informational in nature, then you have your work cut out for you and that may make the decision for you!