Websites – time to make a web presence!

Wait, make a what?  Web presence.

Web Presence
Web Presence

What does that even mean?  Well to be totally straight, it is more than just a website, but a website is a good starting point.

So first things first.  I think I’ve heard of HTML and stuff related to websites somewhere. I suppose I better learn about it.  Let’s read up about HTML (the language that powers the web), and CSS (the format scripts that help your site look homogeneous), and WWW, oh wait, HTML5 is new let’s look into that, oh and URL, which is of course much different than UML   And PHP!  Yes, we better learn PHP Hypertext Preprocessor, and MySQL, and PostgreSQL, and, and, and … wait, where is my Ritalin.  I’m exhausted already.  Isn’t there a better way?

Well, I’m glad you asked.  In fact, there is a better way.

Web design in the wild west days

Early screen capture of Alta Vista web search engine, circa 1997
Early screen capture of Alta Vista web search engine, circa 1997

Way back at the turn of the century and even ten years ago, when it was time to start a web site, a web developer needed to learn all this and more.  Web sites were coded, Dreamweaver was king.  Back then a content editor would create the perfect prose and package it up for the web developer.  The content editor would then tell the web developer where to put the important stuff and where to put… well, you get the idea.

But today it is different.  That was the Old Covenant of the World Wide Web.  Today, we are under a New Covenant. It is totally different!

Well kind of different.  And kind of the same.  The content editor’s job is very close to the same.  But it is true, the web developer portion has changed a lot.  There is still a web developer, but the developer’s job has changed.

Today, most web sites are not home brewed, new framework sites.   Today when we think of web sites, we think (or should think) Content.  As such, we will have the web developer look for a Content Management System (or CMS) to handle most of our back end work.

Foundry
Foundry

Think of it this way.  If you were going to build a home, what would you change?  Right, you’d change the doors, and the windows.  Oh, and the color of the house, and the size of the rooms.  But would you use custom sized doors that required a custom builder?  Would you hire a metal worker and forge your own water faucets, or buy them ready made off the shelf at Home Depot or a supply shop?  Would you hire a light company and create custom light bulbs, or use standard Fluorescent T8 and Edison screw light sockets? [ Bet you didn’t know they were called Edison screws… 🙂 ]

Edison Screw
Edison Screw

In most situations — scratch that, almost all situations — creating a brand new from scratch anything is just way more expensive, and also causes a lot of issues with the customers and users.  I mean, who wants to go to a special light bulb manufacturer and pay that extra special price when they need to replace a light bulb?  Not many people.  It creates a hard to build, hard to manage, and hard to maintain solution.

Same goes for web sites.  People have become used to seeing a certain format on web sites, and the easier we can make our site to use, the more likely we’ll have customers that stay around.  So for web development, keep it, well, normal.  Unless you have a very special need, there is no need to home brew a web site.

Get me started!

So now that we’ve decided we really don’t want to learn all this stuff, we just want to get on the web.

Person blogging
Person blogging

We want folks to be able to see news articles we find important, or rants about our children, or ideas that we’d like to share — like this page you are looking at right now.  We don’t want to be web developers, we want to be content editors.  We won’t be creating a brand new web development platform, so what do we want?  We want a content management system all our own.

Great!  Let’s go read about that.  What is the CMS paradigm?  What is a CMS engine?  Searching for Content Management Systems leads to WordPress, and Joomla, and Drupal,  and…. wait, gosh darn it!  Where is that Ritalin again?

Let’s look at this from a different perspective.  Is it really the case that these CMS solutions are appropriate for what I want to do?  Okay, I’m glad you asked that too.

  • WordPress is likely the most popular web imprint for blogging.  It is known for its easy management and thousands of free themes.  It powers the likes of The New York Times, eBay, and Samsung.
  • Joomla is a powerful and highly configurable CMS.  Joomla powers the likes of MTV, Barnes & Noble, and General Electric.
  • Drupal is the beast of CMS.  It is a very highly configurable and extensible framework that powers the likes of Warner Bros Recordings, NASA, and The White House.

So what is our take away from all this?  The shortest of answers is:  It just doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that we get out there and publish.  Sure, the CMS engine does matter some, but remember, content is king!  If we make a big mistake on using the wrong content management engine?  We can transfer the data later.

Choosing your CMS

Okay, time for a little candidness.  I’m new to this blogging stuff as well.  The last time I built a web site was ten years ago.  Guess what I used?  I built it using Dreamweaver, HTML, and CSS.  But like we’ve already discussed, times have changed, and it was time to learn a more modern approach at web sites and blogging.

When I started this article, I was going to approach it from the technical side — after all, I am an engineer.  I was going to get into the grit of how to install whatever engine on any given host, blah blah blah.  But you know what I’ve learned?  Everyone has a site like that.

This article is the essence of what I’m trying to convey — content matters.  As I’m new to this as well, I had to select one of the CMS engines.  I chose WordPress.  Why?  Because:

  • It had the largest number of free themes available.  I didn’t want to spend any money during the learning process, so free was desirable.  Since everything on this site itself is free, I didn’t want to impose any fees on the reader to get started.  My first impression of Joomla and Drupal was highly configurable, but with fewer free gadgets.
  • It was “configurable enough”.  I wasn’t looking for The Configurable King, I was looking for something to get content, like this article, out to you … oh, and the world, of course. 🙂

I did install Joomla after the fact.  My first impression was it is just like WordPress, just the menu system is different.  It looks as though it might be more highly configurable than WordPress, but again, I only installed it.  I didn’t work on it.

Is that enough?

But is this really enough?  Well, maybe.

  • If I wanted to develop a web imprint for general use?  I would develop a WordPress theme.  Why?  Because of market share.  Of course, the market is highly competitive as well, so keep that in mind.
  • If I wanted to develop a highly scalable web imprint, like that might power a Facebook or dating web site, I would likely develop a Drupal theme.

Well gosh though, with this in mind, you might ask why use a CMS engine at all?  I mean, if you are going to develop a large part of the engine and theme manually, why not just start from Java or .NET?  Three things come to mind.

  • Security.  If the Drupal or WordPress engine is compromised, rest assured the world will know about it, and a patch will be forthcoming.  If a site is home brewed, the site designers have to be particularly aware of security issues.
  • Speed of initial development.  Since the engine is off the shelf, a web site can be fully operational in weeks instead of months leaving the developers to concentrate on content.
  • Less expensive to maintain.  Since a large part of the management is handled by the engine itself, the content designers can focus more on the content and presentation instead of focusing on how that presentation might be coded.

WordPress pros and cons

I am already a big proponent of WordPress — can you tell?  There are great things, and there are a few things that I’ve noticed are difficulties.  The difficulties might be my fault, and these might be issues with all CMS engines, but just to note a few things…

  • It isn’t very easy to edit great content.  What I mean by this is the actual editing process.  For example, this page.  It doesn’t autosave (might be a plugin for that), and it just isn’t as natural as say using Open Office or Libre Office (haha, can you tell I support free software?)  Realize I’m new at this, so it might just be a learning curve.  I’ll edit this note if I figure out a better way.
  • It seems as though the site is going to become a little difficult to manage as the amount of content (especially pages) grows.  Managing WordPress is likely a learning curve issue, and I’ll post a note when I get this figured out.  I expect if The New York Times can manage tens of thousands of pages, it must just be a learning curve fear of the unknown.
  • There’s an app for that.  By itself, WordPress is really just a security engine.  What makes the magic happen are the plugins and themes and widgets.  Just remember, there is an app for almost anything you wish to do.  Sometimes it might be difficult to find, and sometimes especially difficult to find a free one, but someone somewhere has likely developed a widget or plugin that perfectly fit your needs.
  • Pages and post and plugins and themes and comments and administrators and editors and… Well, what I’m getting at here is, there is still a learning curve.  Once you pick the CMS engine of your choice, give yourself a few weeks to just poke and prod.  Create a page or even a site, and then start modifying it.  Add an image, change an image, add a page, just poke around.  Do it in a non production environment — like, create a wp2 instance for your eyes only, and break it.  Then see if it is easy enough to fix.

The WordPress platform

WordPress
WordPress

Out of the box, WordPress is a great platform, but what makes it a great engine is its extensibility.  This happens in part through plugins.  For example,  have you seen those CAPTCHA requests that are annoying to you as a user, but do a great deal to help reduce the amount of SPAM and spammy links to sites?  Well, there’s a plugin for that.  And for contact forms, so you don’t have to create your own, and for many other extensions you will likely use during your life as a web blogger.  We have an article on notable plugins that will help you learn to search for plugins, and help you get started in using them.

“…Let’s get this party started!”

Great, you’ve told me all this stuff, but how do I do it?  The easiest way is to open a WordPress account, and let WordPress handle the chores for you.  You can do that here, and learn about how to get started too.  Once you get an idea of how blogging works, you can install your own WordPress on your own site.  That task is host specific though, so you’ll have to find out how to do that through your domain host, or you can ask me individually and I’ll help you out.

As always, let’s be careful out there!  Happy blogging!

 References

  1. Elements of a successful business web presence, http://mashable.com/2010/02/10/business-web-presence/.
  2. WordPress Blogging introductory article, http://codex.wordpress.org/Introduction_to_Blogging
  3. Drupal Famous Sites, http://www.tributemedia.com/blog/erika-meissner/famous-drupal-sites
  4. Joomla Famous Sites, http://community.joomla.org/labels/joomla-portfolio.html
  5. WordPress Famous Sites, http://en.wordpress.com/notable-users/
  6. Get Started with WordPress, http://codex.wordpress.org/Getting_Started_with_WordPress
  7. Install your own WordPress, https://wordpress.org/

Search Engine Optimization

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is a common phrase for “How do I get my web site highly ranked on Google!?” I’m simplifying this of course, but it is good enough for our use.

But really, let’s think about this a bit.  Do you care about SEO, and being highly ranked on Google?  Well, sure you do!  But … not really. Let’s be honest.  What you really care about is business.  Traffic, and driving traffic to your site, and converting that traffic into… business.  So what you really care about is business, and increasing that business.  I’m with you, and this “getting started in SEO” article is going to help you along.

To SEO, or not to SEO.  Is that even a question?

To start this exercise, let’s consider our goal again.  Our goal is to increase business, and we are going to do that by increasing traffic.  There are a few kinds of traffic:

  • There are new visitors who happen along our page because we’ve distributed business cards, or put up billboards, or paper advertising, or a customer or visitor has referred them to us, or we’ve had other personal contact with them.  These are direct contact visitors.  Any Page 1 ranking doesn’t matter for these visitors — but SEO is still very important.  Why?  Because we want to retain those customers, and have them visit again.
  • There are new visitors who happen along our page because they are referred to us by other web sites.  These are referred visitors.
  • There are new visitors who happen along our page because they searched for a certain term.  These are SEO visitors.  This traffic is directly influenced by our SEO work that helps our ranking.  We want to grab that person’s attention, and have them visit again.
  • There are visitors who happen along our page because they’ve already visited.  These are repeat visitors.  We definitely want to capitalize on repeat visitors and have them return to our site!  Why?  Because it is very costly to get that first time customer.  Customer retention is important in any business.

In the following chapters, we’ll visit each of these types of visitors, and try to better understand how to keep them around.

Backlinks

Let’s start with the now infamous backlink.  Don’t worry, it is okay if you haven’t heard of them before.  There was a day when ranking was almost purely based on keywords and the number of backlinks to your site.  The more the backlinks, the higher the ranking.  The idea was, a spider would reason if so many people feel confident about this particular web site, then well, maybe I should feel confident about this particular web site too.

But then backlink farms started growing.  These were web sites almost purely devoted to backlinks.  No real content, just hey, pay me a dollar and I’ll let you have your very own backlink to your site to help in your ranking.  What was the response?  Right.  The search engines realized the failure, and the algorithm changed a bit.  A site would be ranked based on a rough estimate of backlinks to outlinks.

I got caught on outlinks with my first web site.  I achieved front page status on all the popular search engines of the time (yay!), then I decided to outlink for key words to dictionary sites (to help my reader with unusual words and technical jargon), and outlink to companies I did business with (to help my reader more easily find companies in the “digital era” of web sites), and outlink to the weather reports (because I am a boater and pilot, and weather is important to both of those interests), and to financial times news (since at the time I was actively involved with heavy day trading, it just seemed to make sense to link to these sites).  Well, what happened was… my first page results went to page 167 on google alone (no lie, I checked!).  At first I didn’t understand what happened.  It was a week or two between the time I started adding the outlinks, and the time I noticed that the site was no longer on page one.

I was able to get back to page one, but it was a slow process.  Just like the stocks I owned, they went down quickly, and took a long time to recover.  Eventually I was back to page one — unlike my stocks that mostly never recovered, but that is another story…

Anyway, today backlinks are “likely” part of the puzzle for these highly secretive proprietary search engine algorithms, but there is more.  Let’s get to a few others.

Be awesome in your field!

So let’s consider this a bit.  The first thing you need to do is define your business.  What are you doing?  Are you running a dry cleaners?  Then be awesome at it!  Are you opening a restaurant?  Then be awesome at it!  Are you creating a web services company?  Then… right, be awesome at it!  Why?  Well, here’s why.

If you open a restaurant, what do you provide to your customers?  Right, you provide food.  But you do more than that.  How do you keep customers coming back?  It usually isn’t only food, and not even only good food.  Think about it, why did Seinfeld revisit The Soup Man?  It is the atmosphere, the attitude of the wait staff, the cleanliness of the restaurant, the cleanliness of the restrooms, and even more.  If it were just food, most people would be just as satisfied to eat out of a can from the local grocery store.  But by providing good food, and good service, you are building a solution.  Even McDonald’s and Burger King do more than provide food.

Content

Just as in the “develop your own web site” document, let me reiterate that content is king.  If you have good content, a few good things happen.  First, the search engines themselves recognize that it is really content and increase your rank.  Second, people will actually look at your site and look over the content — I mean, what good is it if you have achieved the legendary Page 1, but you don’t have any decent content?  Right, you get hits with no retention.  Not good.  And third, people will begin to backlink to your site without your even needing to ask!

Consider also, the better the content, the more rich, fully vetted content you can provide, the more easily the search engine is going to be able to realize what your site is about.  Not only that, the better, more rich, fully vetted content you can provide, the more easily a human reader is going to enjoy your site, and the more likely the human reader is going to return.

Fresh content

Okay, so you are awesome in your field.  People love your < pizza | law office | physical therapy practice | weblog | insert widget here >. You have great content on your site, you’ve written all about your cookie recipe, and how it won an award in 1999, and how you won the gymnastic gold medal in 1986.  How do you keep the visitors coming back?

The answer is:  Fresh content!

If someone visits your pizza palace and enjoyed the experience, they might be inclined to return — but you ought to be providing fresh pizza ingredients!  In the same way, if someone has visited your page once and enjoyed the experience, they may be inclined to return — but you ought to be providing fresh content!

But what is fresh content?  It depends.  If you are msn.com, you provide fresh content in several categories — International events, weather, local events, sports, the stock market.  These are reasons customers revisit msn.com.  If the content is stale, then fewer people are likely to return.  You get that first costly hit, and then… nothing.  There is no reason to return tot he site.

Are you involved with homelessness and child welfare?  Well, how about fresh newsworthy content on developments in the world and the community that directly affect homelessness and child welfare?  That might entice people to return.

Are you the pizza palace?  How about fresh content like coupons, or discounts for the day, or “special events” where you give away a free pie, or free wine tasting with a the purchase of meat lovers pizza?  Right, there are ways to encourage people to revisit your site.  But mostly, you are trying to convert those site visits into business, and business is buying that pie!

If you are a web services company, you also need to build content, just like food is content.  But more than that.  You need to build good content, and fresh content to keep your customers interested in coming back.  That first click is hard to achieve — just like getting that first customer through your door at a restaurant is hard to achieve.  After spending thousands of dollars on advertising, you reasonably have one chance to convince that customer to return.  Having good fresh content is a great way encourage that return visit.

Keywords

Keywords will definitely help your search engine ranking.  Consider, how would a search engine know you are a lawyer without actually using associated key words and phrases like law, attorney, law firm, criminal, defense, injury law, or contract law?  But consider also, every other lawyer out there is going to be interested in using those same key words.  Well what about key word stuffing?  Like, if I can repeat “attorney” on my site more than the next guy, will that help me?  Likely not.  In fact, it likely will hurt.  Key word stuffing is like ballot box stuffing.  It has been caught, and most search engines are going to penalize the site for stuffing that key word box.

What do we do then?

As we’ve seen, SEO is more than just getting on Page 1.  It is about providing such a great service that your existing customers are talking.  It is about providing such great content that people want to return.  It is about building a solution that people want, and the Page 1 rank is almost secondary.

Okay, well, all that except for the last part.  Page 1 is SEO.  But all that other stuff is critical to convert a traveler through your page to a traveler who builds your business.

So then, how can you stand out?  With key words alone, it is going to be tough.  With backlinks along, it is going to be tough.  With static web page content alone, it is going to be tough.  You need a splattering of key words through your fresh, awesome content that people want to read!

What do we do?  We write articles that will entice the reader to return to your page, and that will entice him or her to say, “Hey, I found this great law site, and the content is awesome!  You need to check it out.”

That is what we do.