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Who to listen to, when to embrace and when to ignore

Who to listen to, when to embrace and when to ignore When you make a website you get a lot of conflicting advice from different people and it's hard to know who to listen to. Everybody has their own idea what a website should be like:
  • Ask an SEO guy to review a website, they will probably look at keyword densities and keyword prominence for some non-competitive but appropriate search terms.
  • Ask a designer, they will probably look at the feel of a site, use of space, and that you have strong imagery.
  • Ask a copywriter or a sales guy, they will probably talk about driving effective sales conversions through an effective, well-structured pitch.
  • Ask a social media expert, they will probably talk about how engaging and human the site is, and how good the content is.
 You can usually try and meet all these angles, keeping all these people fairly happy, but there are real conflicts. For example, the designer is likely to want to lead with large images with small headlines, while the SEO guy probably wants a lot of text on there for search engines to pick up on.

An example

Let's pretend we want to buy some fitness products… An SEO guy might like:

It was very near the top of the Google results for “fitness products” and you'll see “fitness product” comes up in the source 16 times (8 are visible). The word “fitness” is visible 29 times.

The site isn't ugly, but it's certainly not a design masterpiece, and the text is rather clunky due to efforts to get many secondary search terms in there. You can see the clear purpose of the site is to attract hits from Google and then to make money from the the Google ads. It's not particularly designed to be good, but it doesn't matter so much because they don't need to get the visitor to do anything and thus they don't need any particular inherent quality. It sucks in visitors and spits them out to advert links. It probably makes the owner quite a lot of money, but a designer would probably have more than one or two things to say about it. What do you think really matters to the business owner?

A designer might like this:

It has a much more attractive design with interactivity and an interesting blurring effect.

However, it makes absolutely no attempt to sell anything from the front page, so from a sales point of view it is not grabbing visitors like it could. However it will be building up some more respect from the visitor, and thus the visitor is much more likely to pass on links to the site or come back.

A copywriter might like this:

It is a pretty ugly site (clearly it hasn't been professionally designed), but it has a lot of copy and links through to affiliate schemes (referred to as 'reviews') which will be making them lots of money.

A social media expert might like this:

It is all about community, with people able to review products. Prominence is on user-generated content rather than design elements; meaning it won't look and feel so high quality, but is probably more useful. The site makes money off Google ads.

Then who to listen to?

The key take away from this post is that people in a profession will have strong views about how things should be done, but you need to take a few steps back from this when in business and really think what you're trying to achieve. If you're trying to build a brand, or get repeat business, image is very important. If you're trying to get direct sales, copy and SEO is probably important and imagery would just waste good screen space. You can make a great design with great copy and pretty good SEO, but you need to think whether it will create a return on investment, and that really depends on context.

Some professionals will object really strongly to this kind of pragmatic approach, and throw out loads of terms like 'engagement' or 'brand image' or 'differentiation', but these kinds of marketing technique do not apply to every business (a professional is not necessarily very business-savvy, so may not understand this). Does a market stall need brand image? Do you really care to build an engaging relationship with your favourite cheese producer? Do you care about your bank's differentiation?

What's really important is to see what matters in the market you are in and let this guide your decision process. If you can get quick wins in areas that are not key then it's worth it, because everyone consistently cares about relationships and design and authority to some basic extent, but don't waste time and money trying to be all things and respond to every bit of advice you get, however angry it might be (some professionals can be really rude with how they give feedback, and it can be disheartening).

If in doubt, you could survey what is important, but chances are you won't get an accurate result using this technique (people tend to say 'yes' to most “would you like” kind of questions). A better approach is to step through some scenarios with your customers, as that will really show you what they care about, and probably also where your competitors have exploitable weak points.

This was article 8 of 8 in my "Entrepreneur reality check" series of blog posts.

If you think it's good advice, please share this link with others. If you think I'm wrong or have something to say, please discuss below.

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