Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have thought to spend last Wednesday night watching a panel give a live website review.
Listening to people assess websites I have no stake in sounds great and everything, but on the other hand, Wednesday nights are pretty good couch nights, and Netflix finally started streaming the third season of Better Call Saul…
Anyway, when Jill, our president, was invited to serve as the panel’s SEO expert for last week’s Chicago HubSpot User Group (HUG) live website review, I registered to go — and I’m glad I did. And not just because of the free beer and sandwiches.
The review consisted of assessments from three panelists, who analyzed three attendee-submitted sites from their respective areas of expertise: analytics, search engine optimization (SEO) and user experience (UX). These websites were submitted by various Chicago HUG members, ranged in design from brand new to somewhat dated and were comprised of the following businesses:
A software company offering web-based case management and agency collaboration solutions
A slot machine operator serving restaurants and retail
A software company offering teaching tools and support for educators
The format worked nicely. Other than those having their websites reviewed, I think many of us found ourselves identifying with the businesses under the microscope — eager for both approval and useful critiques.
Here are a few of the more notable takeaways from the event.
Analytics: Focus on Improving User Engagement from the Channels You Can Control
Maria Thimothy from OneIMS was tasked with assessing the three sites through the lens of the web analytics made available to her (which were fairly limited and, in one unfortunate case, essentially nonexistent).
Her reviews started with a diagnostic overview. Is the traffic diversified? Is it growing? How long are users from the various channels staying on the site? Are they bouncing? (Cheat sheet: you want diversified traffic, you want it to be growing and you generally want bounce rates of lower than 50%.)
From there, she laid out recommendations for short-term wins and long-term gains. In the short-term, one recurring piece of advice was to look at the traffic coming from channels you can control and work on improving engagement from those users.
For example, if you’re running paid ads, you can usually expect these visitors to stay for less time and bounce at a higher rate than someone who came directly to your site, because paid visitors are often shopping around while a direct visitor is looking for your business and/or content specifically.
That said, you’re paying for that traffic, so it’s worth putting in the time to make sure you’re bringing in the right people (with precise targeting) and delivering content that speaks to their intent when they clicked the ad (with good messaging). By monitoring your analytics, you have the data to tell you which tactics are actually improving engagement — and which aren’t.
In terms of the long-term gains, much of this had to do with developing and refining a strong content strategy. By creating, distributing and promoting useful content, sites are better positioned to drive more relevant traffic and increase engagement from a variety of channels.
SEO: Make Sure Your Audience Actually Uses Your Target Keywords
Our own Jill Wilson also started each review with diagnostics to establish a general sense of the website’s current search optimization, including a rundown of:
Domain authority (an evaluation of how well a site is positioned for search based largely on the number and quality of inbound links to the site)
Onsite optimization such as proper use of page titles, keyword usage, meta descriptions and image text
Site performance including a look at site speed, mobile-friendliness and a report on any broken links, duplicate content or other site errors
The diagnostic rundown generated some easy fixes and tips for making the site more search-friendly, which she followed up with additional longer-term ways to increase domain authority through tactics like content distribution (i.e. getting your original content shared or published elsewhere online with links pointing back to your site) and competitive research (using tools like Moz or SEM Rush to see your competitors’ inbound links and if any make sense for you to go after).
What was noteworthy to me was one site in particular (the slot machine company) that was generally following SEO best practices but had a target keyword that was very technical and sounded more like the legal definition of service than anything an actual person would ever search for on Google. To dig deeper, Jill uncovered that a search for their target keyword brought up businesses in a completely unrelated industry — further indicating that the keyword needed to be revisited.
This was a good reminder that you can follow every rule in the SEO playbook, but if your market isn’t searching for what you’re optimized for, you might as well delete your site and go bowling because the people who find your site won’t be the ones you want to reach.
User Experience: Nothing Beats Direct Feedback from Your Target Market
Dennis Kardys from WSOL was in charge of reviewing the websites from a user experience standpoint. Dennis had plenty of good feedback in terms of general UX best practices to follow and common issues to avoid (i.e. too many font sizes on the same site).
But, here’s where it got interesting. After listing a number of problems he personally found with one site, he compared it with feedback he gathered from someone matching the company’s buyer persona, who had no complaints and said the website “looks slick” and “seems to have everything I’d need.”
The conclusion was clear: best practices don’t matter nearly as much as the actual preferences of the site’s target users.
Dennis put this paradox into the broader context of a hierarchy of UX testing methods — which was basically a ranking of ways in which businesses should get website feedback. I’ve done my best to represent this below using a very advanced and little-known design tool known as Word SmartArt.
Tier of UX Feedback Methods
At the bottom is UX feedback from an informed stakeholder — someone internally in your company who at least has some knowledge of how your customer might engage with the site. This is not ideal by any means, but it’s better than nothing.
One better than this is to use heuristics, or UX best practices, to assess your site. Heuristics don’t account for the unique preferences of your target users, but this at least ensures your site isn’t in flagrant violation of any rules of thumb for usability.
Better than heuristics are surveys with your target market, which arm you with feedback specific to the types of people you need to like your site. (For his audit, Dennis used a tool called userinput.io. Check it out; it’s cheaper than you probably think.)
Ideally, you should aim to have in-person website reviews with people in your target market (the more the better). While the surveys can generate good feedback, the in-person reviews will show you things like where the users get stuck, linger and gravitate. These little things are gold for improving a website, and a survey won’t always catch them.
Putting It All Together
Optimizing a website, in the abstract, sounds like a huge project. And it usually is. But following through on small, achievable tasks through data analysis, SEO and UX improvements can make a big impact on the effectiveness of your site. Or, check out our Website Design Services to see how Simple Machines Marketing can help!
Charlie is the Chief Strategy Officer at Simple Machines Marketing. When he's not doing the marketing, he likes playing guitar, hanging with his family in Chicago and lots of other stuff too but this seems like a good amount for a blog bio.