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Google and the Development of SEO

Published on September 30, 2011
Tags: SEO

Building a successful website relies on a combination of things. First of all, you need a good web design. If you want your site to appear on the search engines, you web design also needs to be ‘search engine friendly’, which means that SEO (search engine optimisation) plays just as big a part as the web design. To round things off, your site needs high quality, unique content to draw in and keep visitors interested.

No one wants a website that never gets noticed, especially if you are trying to promote and grow a business in a competitive market. This means that the aim of good web design, SEO and content is to get people to your website: persuading them that, out of all the websites around, yours is the very best. Arguably, search giant Google plays one of the most important parts in this. Even with the best web design in the world, if your site isn’t ranked highly by Google, you’ll find it hard to turn it into a success.

We’ve written before about recent developments from Google, such as the Farmer/Panda update, which have had a significant impact on how SEO and website ranking works. But where did this all begin? How did Google get to be so influential in the world of web design and SEO? Aren’t they just a search company?

Some of the answers can, perhaps, be found in some comments recently made by Eric Schmidt, who is the ex-CEO of Google. He said that the four most significant technology companies in the world right now are Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. On the face of it, these companies are very different. If you look a little deeper, however, you start to see that they are all moving in a similar direction, focused on information. For instance, all four of them focus their attentions largely on ‘ordinary’ people rather than corporations. They all do lots of work in what has become known as ‘the cloud’.

These two facts are interesting and can shed some light into the issue of SEO. In the case of Google, for example, their mission is to ‘organise’ the world’s information to make it more accessible. This makes a large part of SEO in relation to Google about collecting data; the more data that Google has, the more they are able to do with it and the better search results they are able to produce. Then, thanks to their improved services, more people will use Google, enabling them to collect even more data and repeat the cycle. As the world’s most popular search engine, it’s easy to see why this makes the company so important when creating web designs or developing an SEO strategy.

So, how does Google decide which websites rank highly and which are pushed to the bottom of the pile? It’s hard to give an accurate answer as search engine algorithms are closely guarded, but it’s possible to trace current ranking systems to something known as PageRank. This was invented by Google’s current CEO, Larry Page, and was based on the concept of scholarly citation. This means that the more ‘citations’ pages have, the better they rank. In this, we can see the importance of link-building in SEO and web design.

This isn’t the only information that Google uses, though. The behaviour of web users is one of the most important factors taken into consideration. For instance, if you click on the top search result only to immediately click back because it wasn’t what you expected, this tells Google that it wasn’t what you were looking for, helping it to refine its results for next time. If you click on a link further down the page and then don’t go back to the search results, however, this suggests that that website should be higher up in the rankings than it currently is. Similarly, if you have to refine your search terms because you didn’t get what you were looking for, this again teaches Google new information.

All of this means it’s hard to pin down exactly what makes a successful SEO strategy. One thing is for certain, though: Google is now the ‘go to’ search engine for the vast majority of web users. With so much information being collected every day, through the search engine and other Google projects (notably Android devices), this makes Google very clever – and powerful. In 1999, Google updated its web index once every three or four months. Ten years later, there were so many webpages on the internet that predicting a speed for how often the index was updated became impossible. Now, the index is updated as soon as things happen, with Google sometimes even able to reflect changes in the web index before events are reported on the news.

This makes the issue of SEO continuously evolving and a long term development as well as something that requires short term attention. The lesson in all of this? There’s a lot of information out there ready for analysis but, as Google has demonstrated, there is nothing more important than the web user. So, when you are developing your SEO strategy or updating your web design, don’t just worry about the search engines: make sure you create your website for your users, not just for Google, because if someone comes to your site and leaves immediately, that’s actually telling Google something about the quality of what you’re offering and you’ll get ranked accordingly.

By Chelsey Evans

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Does Your Business Need an Ecommerce Website?

Published on September 23, 2011
Tags: Web Design London

A recent study from the Institute of Direct Marketing reportedly found that Amazon has an 80% market share when it comes to buying books online. This is in contrast to high street chain Waterstone’s, which has only an 8% share of the online market. These figures help to demonstrate the power of ecommerce, especially when the big players such as Amazon are involved.

They also raise an interesting question: should you have an ecommerce site for your business? After all, if the only major high street book chain in the country is finding it hard to break into double figures in terms of the online market share, should you consider ecommerce web design or focus your efforts on growing your business elsewhere?

It’s an interesting dilemma for many and one for which there isn’t a clear answer. While many businesses may well benefit from an ecommerce site, others may prefer to focus their efforts on building up their online identity in other ways. For instance, an authoritative blog on the industry or aspect of the industry your business works in also has the potential to be beneficial for your company’s revenue by helping you to stand out as an expert in the field.

However, for many companies, ecommerce web design could well help them. One of the reasons sometimes given for having an ecommerce site as opposed to an ‘identity’ website is that it’s a relatively simple way of helping businesses operate continuously. You might not be able to keep a shop open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, but you can easily do this with an ecommerce store.

Also, as more and more people start to shop online, it increasingly makes sense for businesses to think about adding an ecommerce aspect to their website. Figures for the end of 2009 show that, month on month, there was a 25% increase in people shopping online. The fact that these figures are from 2009 make it even more significant: even during a recession, when the high street was struggling, online business was still growing. This suggests there is definitely potential for businesses interested in ecommerce web design to develop their online operations.

Once you’ve made the decision to have an ecommerce site, you need to think carefully about how you want to execute the plan and what the aim of your site is going to be. Of course, one of the main aims of any ecommerce website is going to be to ‘increase revenue’, but how are you planning to do this? A good website design company will be able to help you create a site that’s appealing to web users, easy to navigate and simple to make purchases, but the selling strategy has to come from you.

This means thinking carefully about your business: what do you sell? What is your existing offline market share? What is the competition like online? For example, if you sell books, the figures above show that it’s going to be virtually impossible to beat Amazon. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t steer clear of that particular market, though, it just means you need to be savvier about how you go about ecommerce. Perhaps your business has a particular niche that it could work in, such as rare first editions of out of print books, or something comparable in your own industry.

This suggests that ecommerce web design is about much more than just ‘putting your products online for people to buy’. You also need a good, long term strategy, just as you do with all other aspects of your business. Increasingly, websites are something that need to be incorporated into business plans as they form an important part of many companies’ brands and identities. This is even more important when the websites in question include an ecommerce aspect, as your online sales projections will need to be incorporated into the rest of your financial projections.

Overall, in answer to the question ‘should you consider an ecommerce website?’ the short answer is ‘yes’. The qualified answer is consider it, but be clever about it. Don’t launch in without a plan, and don’t forget that while a website design company will be able to create you an exciting, appealing website, that by itself isn’t going to be what increases your revenue. Don’t forget the other aspects of your online business: blogs, social networking and your main website all have an important part to play in backing up your authority and building up trust with your potential customers. Without this, you may have an ecommerce site but not necessarily increased revenue. If people trust your business, however, you should have a much better chance of success with your new ecommerce website.

By Chelsey Evans

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Should You Use Videos in Corporate Web Design?

Published on September 16, 2011
Tags: Web Design London

It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but is this always the case in corporate web design? There is clearly a massive appetite among web users for video content; the huge audience of YouTube and other video-sharing sites is testament to how popular online videos can be, as well as the impact of the messages they can convey. This suggests that videos do have a place in corporate web design, but as with anything else, there are a few things to consider.

The Corporate Brand

A brand is more than just your company logo or trademark. It includes your customer’s entire experience and expectations as to how you conduct business with them. So, in the quest to include video you should be mindful of the entire brand experience.

At the highest, visual level one thing to keep in mind is that your website is a strong visual identity for your brand. Just as when you are designing logos and other graphics, any videos you include on your site need to fit in with the rest of your web design.

However, at the experiential level, any video you include should also meet with your brand message; that is to strike the right tone for you company and present it in a way that is consistent with the way you want your customers to experience your company. For example, if you’re in investment banking, a humorous video of a cat playing a piano is unlikely to appeal to your target audience.

Brand consistency is important, so choosing or creating videos should ensure that the design, customer experience and customer expectations all match.

Browser Capability

Including videos in a site’s web design often sounds like a great idea – in theory. In practice, it can be a little more complicated. For instance, not all web users have fast connections and so they might have trouble viewing the video properly. Also, if the video makes use of Flash, it might not play for all users, either.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid videos: it just means they shouldn’t replace other means of imparting information to the people who use your site. Most websites aim to sell something, whether it is a product, service or an idea. Web users need to know what you are selling no matter what their browser capabilities; videos are great for embellishing existing content, but they shouldn’t be the only content.

So, if you are going to use a video, try to have a text alternative, or perhaps a PDF download that offers the customer another means of reaching the same, or similar, information.

Video Quality

Another rule of using videos in corporate web design has to be that if you are going to include videos on your site, they need to be of a fantastic quality. Essentially, they need to sell the image and brand you no doubt want to portray. Uploading a video to a website might only take a few seconds and so it can seem, on the surface, like a fairly simple thing to do. Behind the scenes, however, it requires time, effort and money to get your video absolutely right.

You’ve probably seen videos on the websites of other businesses: some of them are fantastic while some can leave you a little disappointed. A good video doesn’t necessarily need to cost a lot to make, but it does need to be well-thought through.

For instance, what is the aim of your video? How can you best convey that aim? Are you going to use people in front of the camera or rely on a voiceover? Does the plan for your video fit in with the rest of the branding and image of your business?

Added Value

As mentioned above, videos in corporate web design shouldn’t replace the written content of your site entirely, as you need to take account of the fact that not everyone can or wants to access video material. However, you should always aim to add value with your videos. If you are thinking of putting a certain video on a site, watch it back and ask yourself what you got out of it. Even if you didn’t get any new information from it, did it leave you feeling positive about your business? Asking focus groups or selected contacts for feedback to questions like this can help you to create a better video that users will appreciate more.

Why use them at all?

But why should you think about using videos at all? Your corporate web design might have been perfectly fine all along and you might not see any reason to change it – and that’s fine. There are, however, a few good reasons to consider using short videos on your site if you decide they might complement your online activity well.

  • It’s another way of getting your message out there, adding to your presence on the web and giving you another means of communication with your audience.

  • A video showing your products or services in action might be the thing that convinces someone to use your business.

  • Videos can complement the existing content on your site, helping to keep it fresh and potentially help you appeal to a wider audience.

Overall, there is no hard and fast rule as to whether you should build videos into your corporate web design. You might decide that you want to pursue other interactive content instead. However, using high-quality, clever videos can make a difference to your site, adding another layer of interactivity to hook people in. So if you think you have material that would make a good video for your site, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go for it.

By Chelsey Evans

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Outsourcing Web Design Overseas The Magic Bullet to Saving Money?

Published on September 10, 2011
Tags: Web Design London

More and more companies are looking to save costs on the design and / or development of their web site. In a bid to do this, many are looking overseas at the promise of having their web site built for a fraction of the cost that might otherwise be the case in the UK. Many web design companies here in the UK also use overseas outsourcing though will often not tell their clients that this is the case.

But, does overseas outsourcing really offer realistic cost savings, or could you end up with a sub-standard web site, that takes twice as long to build, and that’s if it actually gets completed?

This article aims to provide you with the answer, by highlighting some of the causes.

Where in the World?

The most frequently used countries and geographic regions for outsourcing are India, Indonesia, Eastern Europe and Russia. New regions are appearing now though, such as South America. Different locations will have different living and working standards and different access to technologies. Each will also have its own cultural nuances, public holidays and staff working hours that need to be taken in to account if you’re to successfully work with them.

Access to Education, Training and Resources

One of the starting points for understanding why outsource projects can fail is to understand the local access to education and resources.

As an example, whilst a developer in India might have a degree from an Indian university, is that degree comparable to a developer that has studied at a UK university? Further, does the outsourcer have access to strong Continuing Professional Development (CPD) resources such as certified training organisations or is ongoing training ad-hoc, and using free resources on Google. Is CPD structured and provided, or purely down to the individual developer’s initiative to develop themselves. Whilst these might not concern you at the higher level (you’re just looking to get your site built), understanding the quality of who’s working on your site does affect you.

Before you begin your project with a selected company, you can ask them about their staff qualifications and CPD arrangements. It’s also worth asking them about their total team size as smaller teams will be more risky than larger ones. This might give you a good insight into how the company manages and treats its staff and the resultant level of quality you can expect.

I Promise You

Certain cultures can make it really hard to say ‘no’, and some companies will say anything to win your business. So, you go along with your six-month development specification, say you want it in three months with all the bells and whistles, and you get a positive ‘yes’, that it can be delivered in the time you want.

Great! You sign up, you start the project, because you’ve been promised just what you want; fast delivery, everything you’ve asked for, at the price you want. Brilliant news! Or is it?

One month in, the project deadlines start to slip, two months in they slip further, three months in, you’re still waiting and then one month overdue comes the delivery – not what you asked for, not what you expected, and you find out it needs a further three months to put right – if it’s possible at all.

But where did it all go wrong? Very often it can be down to the company simply wanting your business then worrying about how to deliver later, but equally it can be down to misunderstanding the web design brief or elements within the brief.

It pays at this time to remember the golden triangle: TIME QUALITY PRICE - you can’t have it all ways. If you want it fast, it will come at the compromise of quality and / or price. If you want it well-built, it will come at the compromise of time and / or price and if you want it cheap, it will come at the compromise of time and / or quality.

So, before commissioning a web development project first seek out several quotes and not just from outsourcers but from UK companies with UK teams. Identify how many resource days are needed to develop the project and multiply by 2.5 and divide the figure by 22. This will give you an approximate delivery window for the project in months (do note this is a really rough rule of thumb as the project complexity could increase / decrease the multiplier).

So, as a working example if the average number of resource days (number of days the designers and developers work) for a project is quoted as 15, then 2.5x15 = 37.5, divided by 22 = 1.7, and on that basis you could envisage that a 15 resource-day project will take 1.5 to 2 months to complete. If a company comes back saying it can be done easily inside a month, you should consider that as potentially a risk to the golden triangle and how that might affect your project.

Batten Down the Hatches

If we’ve learned anything from 2011 it’s that this year is the year of the hack; spamming has started to take a back seat in favour of direct attacks on web sites; from high profile sites like Sony down to the lowly home-based business.

It is worth bearing in mind that all code is not created equal, and to an advanced hacker no site or web server is off limits or couldn’t be accessed. The key is to make your site and web hosting server as secure as it possibly can so the hacker chooses to go elsewhere – and that largely comes down to two things; the quality of the code and the security that your development team use.

Code quality and security comes in the form of making sure three elements are in place;

  • First, a correctly structured three-tier architecture where the design, the business logic and the database are all separated into individual segmented layers of code

  • Second, your site is reliant and protected against SQL Injection attacks

  • Third, your site is resilient and protected against HTML Injection attacks

The security that your development team use is also paramount; do they have up-to-date anti-virus and anti-spyware products installed on all of their machines, do they have policies in place to prevent accessing certain web sites that commonly host viruses and trojans, and do they have anti-virus and anti-spam scanning on their email? We have seen cases where web site passwords have been stolen from a developer’s machine only to then be used to directly hack and upload hacked content to a web site. If you’re handing over access details to a developer, it’s important to make sure they’re going to be able to protect that information properly.

This is probably one of the biggest areas right now that should concern you; making sure your web site is as watertight as it can be, and the way to find that out from any development partner is to ask the questions above. Quite often, outsource providers do not have the resources to adequately protect their computers and do not have access to the education needed to put in place best practices with regards to code quality and security.

The Outsourcer’s Outsource

When you commission an outsource project you might be forgiven for thinking you are actually outsourcing to the company you have commissioned. Think again though. We have seen numerous cases where an outsource company will then employ freelancers, other companies and even university students still doing their web development courses (shocking, we know!) in order to fulfil a project.

So, before you begin, make sure you ask exactly who will be working on the project and that they are directly employed by the company.

Lost in Translation

One of the trickiest aspects of outsourcing to a country where English is not the first language is communication. You might get to deal with a project / account manger who’s English is pretty good, and then your comments are passed on to the developer in their native language who’s grasp of English is less or non-existent. You’ll generally never know if this is the case though.

So, first establish the English levels of the people you’ll be working with. It’s okay if the developer doesn’t speak English but it does then mean a lot more work at your end to fulfil the project. You’ll need to provide far more information graphically rather than textually as to how you want things to be delivered, and you’ll also need to provide details of all the system messages to save you getting something back that clearly looks like it was outsourced or doesn't work at all. For example, if you have a form on your site that needs certain fields to be filled in, those error messages will need to look perfect for your site visitors to feel trust in your site; that probably means you’re going to need to write them.

A further problem in relation to outsourced web design is proximity to your market. If you’re employing someone to design a web site that’s leading edge in the UK market, that mirrors some latest brand, TV or print campaign, or that requires an understanding of where UK design trends are heading, employing a designer sitting in India is unlikely to give you that edge.

In that respect, you may want to rely on a local web designer, even if the coding (development) is then done elsewhere in the world.

Protect Yourself

So many times we’ve seen companies engage outsource providers with an inadequate contract for services, a minimal or non-existent brief and overpayment at the start of a project. Consider that your agreement should:

  1. Define exactly what is going to be delivered detail

  2. Define the price it will be delivered for

  3. Define the companies involved in the agreement (you and the outsourcer)

  4. Define terms in relation to who owns the rights to the source code and confidentiality

  5. Define where the agreement is bound (for example – and preferably - by English law if you are in England)

  6. Define the payment stages for the project, making sure you don’t pay too much upfront if any of the points in this document give you cause for concern.

In Conclusion

Let us state that outsourcing is not bad. There are some very good outsourcing companies, but they are outweighed by a huge number of companies that are incapable of project deliveries to the highest standards.

We know – we take over web development project rescues almost every week from failed outsource projects.

And to highlight that we’re not against outsourcing, we should state here that we do it - so this article is based on experience and real-life observations. But we are strict and we have years of experience (since 1997) in outsourcing so we know how to spot a good provider and a bad one.

We work with just a couple of very good providers who we’ve partnered with for several years; they provide us with high quality services to high standards, under extremely tight service level agreements (SLA’s) and whilst we pay more than the bargain-basement outsource providers, we get what we need; quality development teams that allow our business to be flexible and win awards. We don't look at outsourcing as a cheap alternative, but as an extension to our in-house team to provide more flexibility and a wider skillset. The hourly rates might be less than in-house staff, but on the other side of that, we have to invest more in the management of the relationship so the cost actually balances out.

On average, we turn down 20-30 outsourcing requests a week simply because the companies don’t meet our standards. That gives you an indication of the ratio of good to less-than-good suppliers out there.

So web outsourcing is not for everyone; it takes a lot of skill to find a good supplier and even more to make that relationship work. Success once a company is selected relies on knowing how to work with the chosen supplier in the right way, and investing more time than might otherwise be the case with a locally based supplier.

Finally, the above doesn't only apply to overseas outsource suppliers. Ask the same questions of any UK web design company too (or US, or wherever else in the world you are whilst reading this!). And, if you do you a local company, ask them if they're going to outsource your project overseas.

By Chelsey Evans

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Choosing Keywords and Phrases for Search Engine Optimisation

Published on September 9, 2011
Tags: SEO, Web Design London

When you have a website, one of the things you may need to think about is search engine optimisation (SEO). There are quite a few different things that make up SEO, but arguably one of the most important components of it is keywords. For those not in the know, keywords are words or phrases that you choose to target on your website in order to boost your ranking in search engine results for those terms.

On the face of it, choosing keywords is a fairly simple task. For instance, Ampheon is a web design firm, and so one of the keywords related to that will naturally be ‘Web Design London’. However, when you type ‘Web Design London’ into Google AdWords, it comes back telling you that there are approximately 74,000 local monthly searches for that term. If you type ‘Web Design London’ into the Google search engine, it gleefully informs you that there are about 50,000,000 results in total.

This means that getting to the top of the rankings for a term like that is extremely difficult, but when you consider that research has shown that 40% of people don’t look past the first three search results that come up and that 99% of people never look past the first page of results, you can’t just rely on a single keyword or phrase – especially one that so many other websites are targeting, too.

Let’s take ‘shoe shop’ as an example. With 550,000 local monthly searches for the term ‘shoe shop’, it suggests that it’s going to be quite hard for a website to stand out using this search term. This means that it’s a good idea to look for other, relevant search terms that are useful for your site’s SEO but that perhaps aren’t quite so competitive. Helpfully, tools such as Google AdWords and Wordtracker offer you lists of alternative keywords as well as some helpful data to let you know details such as how many people search for those terms each month.

For instance, terms such as ‘shoe shops’, ‘shoe shopping’, ‘shoe shops online’ and ‘womens shoe shops’ are still popular but probably much easier to tackle in terms of SEO. Another trick is to add a geographical marker to your keyword terms. So, if your shoe shop was based in London, one of your key phrases could be ‘shoe shop London’, making the term more specific and hopefully appealing to an audience that is more likely to buy from you.

But does this mean you should ignore those popular terms such as ‘shoe shop’ and ‘web design’ entirely? Not at all. If those terms are relevant to your business, of course you should target them as keywords. After all, people will expect to see them on your site as that’s what your company is about – it would be really hard to write anything about Ampheon, for example, without using the words ‘web design’.

Also, SEO is not always about the quick fix. A good SEO strategy will have a long term plan, so while it’s unlikely a website will immediately break into the top results for a massively popular term, that’s no reason to assume that it never will. The search engines will still scan your site for those terms and, the more high-quality content you add to it, the higher your rankings should (hopefully rise).

This means that a combination of keywords is generally an effective strategy. Use popular terms, but also add other words to make them more specific. As mentioned above, adding the location of your business is one good option. Being more specific about what your company does is also a good idea. For instance, is your shoe shop just a general shoe shop, or does it specialise in certain types of shoes? Does it have a focus on children’s shoes or women’s shoes or extra wide shoes? All of these things would provide good qualifiers that can help you target more specific terms.

Finally, it’s important to do your research on keyword tools such as AdWords or Wordtracker. These can provide you with valuable information that can sometimes really pay off. There might be some keywords and terms that are specific to your business and are popular search terms, but they are still relatively niche and don’t yet have much competition among other websites. If you could target those words, you could be well on your way to success.

Overall, choosing the right keywords for your website is not an exact science. Some will be easier for you to choose than others, but as long as you keep in mind the fact that you’re playing the long game, there’s no reason to assume you won’t be successful. A combination of the right keywords, good content and a good web design really can make a difference. Some of it is going to involve trial and error, but in the longer term, if done properly, your business could thrive as a result.

By Chelsey Evans

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