As a rule of thumb, your average business owner is going to pay a lot more attention to the way their website looks than they do its actual performance. They’ll obsess over layouts, graphics, and colors, but don’t devote a lot of mental space to how quickly their pages load or the reliability of their web hosting.
A website’s business owner attention is understandable, given that the look of a site is visual and immediate. However, the various aspects of web performance and user experience (UX) impact the impression buyers get from their visits and interactions. Aspects of a website that can seem minor or trivial during the developmental phase can significantly affect the bottom line.
Think about this way: In the first chapter I advised you to give your website a job. By emphasizing website performance and UX, you are having your site show up for work on time and dressed for success. This has always been the case, but it’s more important in 2017 than ever before. Because I have learned over the years that business owners’ eyes tend to glaze over when I bring up topics related to usability, I’m going to be brief and non-technical in the details. But there are a few things you have to know about the way your website performs.
Website Speed, Hosting, and Accessibility Matter
You’ve probably noticed in the past that some websites load up significantly faster than others. And, while the differences might not be that extreme when you’re using a broadband connection from a desktop or laptop computer, they become more pronounced when you’re accessing the internet from a tablet or phone.
Website loading speed has become a hot topic within our industry because studies have shown that potential customers are several times more likely to leave your site (and go back to their search results to find another answer or competitor) if it takes more than a couple of seconds for your content to load. Page load times remain valid with subsequent clicks, as well. The slower your website is, the more sales opportunities it’s going to cost you.
There are essentially three ways you can speed up the delivery of your web content. The first is by improving your web hosting, which, in addition to making your website faster, will likely decrease your odds of being hacked and give you access to features like automatic backups. It’s also worth pointing out that premium web hosting is incredibly cost-effective.
The second way to speed up your website is by optimizing menus, images, CSS tables, and other portions of your layout. The older your site is, the more likely you are to have old bits of code and photos that are larger than they need to be. All of these slow your website down and cause frustration for visitors.
Another choice is to implement accelerated mobile pages (AMP) into your web content. That’s something I will address separately in a different section, but it essentially means you structure your site in a way that lets a stripped-down version of your content display faster for mobile users.
You don’t have to care about the details of web performance to know that it’s important. It takes so much time, effort, and money to bring buyers to your pages, so why let them leave in frustration? With a few small improvements to your site and a bigger monthly investment in quality hosting, you can probably make your content easier to access. That’s always going to be a great decision.
You Must Have a Mobile-Friendly Website
At some point in 2014, something happened that industry insiders had been predicting for years – mobile web users going online with smartphones and tablets have surpassed so-called “traditional” computer users. They became the majority.
Without mobile compatibility, you’re putting your business at a huge disadvantage. Customers who come to your site and find that your content loads slowly, or doesn’t format itself correctly, are almost definitely going to take their business elsewhere.
For some reason, however, lots of businesses still treat mobile web users as an afterthought. Perhaps they think their customers aren’t the ones using iPhones and Androids, or that buyers are doing their “real” research and shopping via computers. The statistics show that both of these assumptions are almost always wrong. Mobile e-commerce is booming, customers are using apps and voice-assisted searches now more than ever, and the share of mobile web traffic is rising to the point that traditional computer users are becoming more of a rarity.
Again, I’ll tackle the bigger implications of this trend in the chapter on mobile computing, but I want to take a second to point out that you do have to have a mobile-friendly website in 2017 and beyond. Your pages should be responsive, at the very least, meaning they adapt themselves to any size of screen or browser.
Without mobile compatibility, you’re putting your business at a huge disadvantage. Customers who come to your site and find that your content loads slowly, or doesn’t format itself correctly, are almost definitely going to take their business elsewhere. Given that they make up a growing majority of most markets, why would you make it harder for them to work with you?
The best part about a mobile-friendly, responsive web design is that it works perfectly well with traditional desktop and laptop screens, too. So you aren’t giving anything up by adding mobile compatibility, but you are opening your business up to millions and millions of customers who stay connected to the web through phones and tablets.
Where Do Customers Go?
Improving UX isn’t just about the speed of your website, or the delivery of your pages on mobile devices. It also includes your navigation and the flow of traffic from one part of your site to another.
In real life, though, the vagaries of search listings, bookmarks, and emailed links mean visitors might show up on sub-pages instead of your home destination. It’s imperative that they be able to get from that point to what they need in a flash.
Put yourself in the shoes of the potential buyer, and then ask: How easy would it be for me to find the information, products, and services, or answers I was looking for if I were to arrive at the site for the first time? How many layers or menus would I have to navigate?
Sometimes, the answers to these questions are intuitive. In other cases, you may have to study your web analytics to see how real-life customers are going from one part of your site to another. Either way, the goal is to make it as straightforward and frictionless as possible for any person to reach their destination. That might mean adding a search bar to each page, or “flattening” your website, so there are fewer sub- menus and topics to get through.
One way to streamline your website is to create a flow chart that shows options that lead from the main navigation bar, along with links from one page or topic, to another. When designing a website, it’s easy to imagine that a potential customer will simply arrive at your home page, click on whatever it is they are looking to find, and then take the action you want them to. In real life, though, the vagaries of search listings, bookmarks, and emailed links mean visitors might show up on sub-pages instead of your home destination. It’s imperative that they be able to get from that point to what they need in a flash.
As with everything else related to website performance and UX, this is all about making things easier for buyers and keeping them on your site. So try to make it simple to get from one page or topic to another, because that clarity will pay off in the long run.
It’s Time to Clean Up Your Pages
Imagine for a moment that you failed to do any regular maintenance to your company’s office or retail location. What message would it send to customers if the paint was chipping, windows were faded, and signs were cracked and broken? How much credibility would you have if your brochures and contracts contained many typos, or if your phone numbers went to missing extensions?
We advise the organizations we work with to conduct website audits at least once per year. That gives us a chance to take a deep dive into their content and HTML to look for technical issues that could cause problems and to explore any openings that can be exploited by hackers or online thieves.
Most business owners would realize pretty quickly that these types of glaring errors would destroy their ability to win new customers and would take steps to correct them immediately. And yet it’s not particularly unusual to come across websites with broken links, old images, missing or scraped content, and other obvious problems.
You could probably get away with these kinds of issues as a marketer a few years ago, but in 2017 your closest competitor – whether they are down the street or half the world away – can be found with a few clicks of a mouse. If buyers can’t trust you based on what they see when they visit your pages, they’re going to look for someone with more credibility.
We advise the organizations we work with to conduct website audits at least once per year. That gives us a chance to take a deep dive into their content and HTML to look for technical issues that could cause problems and to explore any openings that can be exploited by hackers or online thieves. It also serves as a prompt for the business to make sure its content and messaging are up to date, and to look for parts of a website that need a bit of refreshment and improvement.
If you haven’t been paying as much attention as you should be in maintaining your website, now is the time to do a bit of spring cleaning. Your site is going to be the first (and sometimes only) thing people see when they are looking into your business. Make sure it gives accurate information and shows your company in the best possible light.
The Two Sides of Performance and UX
So far, we’ve been addressing website performance and UX from the perspective of winning customers. After all, that’s the goal of most business owners. However, some considerations go beyond the one-on-one interactions buyers have with your pages.
First, it illustrates the importance of following best practices and not falling behind your competitors when it comes to the engine of your website. Second, it makes an excellent illustration of the “forests and trees” problem that is so pervasive in internet marketing.
Specifically, Google is paying a lot more attention to website performance in 2017. The trend started years ago with revisions to its search algorithm, but today factors like website loading speed, availability, and mobile compatibility are critical to search signals. In other words, if your content comes up slowly, your website is frequently offline, or you don’t have a responsive web design, Google may choose to ignore your website mostly.
These Google algorithms create a powerful incentive for companies to get with the times. It’s ironic, but many marketers are more (immediately) concerned about their Google ranking than they are generating conversions. The same men and women who ignored mobile computing and the value of business web hosting in the past, despite the fact that it mattered to buyers, are now discovering that they want to get up to speed because it’s going to cost them search traffic.
I mention this for two reasons. First, it illustrates the importance of following best practices and not falling behind your competitors when it comes to the engine of your website. Second, it makes an excellent illustration of the “forests and trees” problem that is so pervasive in internet marketing. Things like search engine algorithms, social engagement formulas, and pay-per-click Quality Scores are important; at the same time, they are symptoms more than causes. If you focus on giving customers what they want, the technical details of your plan will mostly take care of themselves.
That’s especially true when it comes to website performance and UX. Paying attention to these details will help you improve your search visibility on Google. But that shouldn’t be your first reason for looking into them.
Don’t Overlook Web Development
Because the phrase “web design and development” is often used by marketers and industry professionals alike, business owners tend to assume they mean the same thing. They are closely related, but a few distinct differences should be noted because of what they mean for your company.
By working with your web design team, you could explore apps and plug-ins that automate marketing, connect e-commerce to inventory, calculate currency conversions, or even help with tasks like scheduling or invoicing.
Web design refers to the way your site looks. It’s about graphics, fonts, images, and other visual elements. Web development, on the other hand, has to do with the coding that lives behind the scenes in your pages. It incorporates custom maps, plug-ins, and other bits of functionality that might not be reflected in a layout or display.
Business people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the development end of things, and they usually don’t have to. When considering the usability of your site, however, it’s worth considering whether there are features, or even custom bits of software, that could make your pages more valuable to customers, vendors, or even employees.
By working with your web design team, you could explore apps and plug-ins that automate marketing, connect e-commerce to inventory, calculate currency conversions, or even help with tasks like scheduling or invoicing. Alternatively, you could examine the existing tools on your website to see if there are ways to make your existing plug-ins faster and more stable, or to close known security exploits.
The topic of web development is a huge one, and the possibilities are virtually endless. And so, rather than advising you to pick up a particular tactic, I would recommend you consult with a web development professional and see if there are ways to better align your website with the business goals you’re trying to meet. You might be surprised at what’s possible, and how little time and money it costs to implement the perfect solution.
Assessing and Improving Performance and UX
You may be too close to your website to identify issues with performance and UX, and you might not have the technical expertise to deal with them. However, my goal in this chapter isn’t to turn you into an expert on traffic flow or web development. Instead, it is to get you thinking about the different techniques and usability factors that ultimately determine whether customers can find your website, and how they’ll react when they do arrive.
A well-designed web presence is a beautiful thing. But it’s not enough to help you improve your bottom line. If you want your website to do its job, you have to invest in performance and UX on an ongoing basis.
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