As I write this, I am listening to a rather annoying and repetitive series of cutesy little beeps. Why? Because I’ve been reading an article I first found back in April of this year and keep meaning to review here. Its not very long, but it packs a good deal of punch and should be read by anyone looking to build a new site or reconstruct an older one.

The article is found at Search-Engine-Optimization-Help-Website-Spider-and-Visitor-Usability and is written by Ivan Strouchliak. He starts off with a small number of examples of how NOT to design sites. The examples are actual working websites that someone, somewhere expects to generate revenue. They are by no means amateur constructed sites for the most part. The list includes 3 apparently expensively produced FLASH websites.

The key mistakes they made include unusable navigation, site structure that is obtuse or worse, excessive use of color, effective but unfamiliar navigation user interface schemes and excessive use of slang vernacular.

Not an exhaustive list of crash landings – but not a bad group to start a good discussion of web usability with either. Ivan goes on to offer some good general advice on site optimization which may not be directly applicable to ecommerce sites using dynamic content management, but which should certainly be shaping development of such systems.

The key points are:

1. Use a widely accepted format for your website (Usually including navigation areas, header, content area and footer) and include contextual links in the content area.

This is important because familiarity breeds usability. A simple concept often ignored in the search for brand differentiation. Its also important in that most users focus their attention on the content. Why not? – it is what they are looking for after all.

2. Follow two simple rules of writing :
A. Use small coherent paragraphs
B. Use Headlines

These rules are important in that people rarely read every word on a page. They scan the page and read what is of interest to them. So breaking the content into readable chunks with attention drawing headlines can improve the rate at which a page captures the users attention.

3. Minimize use of Javascript and include it from separate files whenever possible. He rightly points out that CSS has improved enough to drastically lower the need for Javascript and that spiders can’t process it as well as text markup even though they have improved this capability.

4. Be consistent.

While bots see the page as code, human users get confused if the page structure changes too often and will bail from the site.

5. Make finding stuff easy by:

A. Keeping file size small.
B. Include an internal search engine
C. Provide a clear trail of information

He refers to this latter as “information scent” – a reference to the phenomenon of users following the trail of references relevant to the target of their search throughout a sites page content.

I think to me, it may be more important to keep the pages content area small and focused than to keep the file size itself small. Not that the latter is unimportant – but that keeping the content tightly focused on a specific set of associated keywords should generate a more effective search target AND keep the page size lower.

Ivan closes up with a warning about using flash websites. He cites continued difficulty in indexing by search engines and general poor usability as compelling reasons to avoid FLASH as a primary means of site construction – or perhaps at all.

Food for thought.

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