Category Archives: Website Design

Worst Practices in Site Search

If your website has a lot of content, you need to make it easy for visitors to search your site for the information they want. The easiest, quickest, cheapest solution I typically recommend to clients is to implement Google Site Search. It works flawlessly, and your users are already familiar with its user interface and the way it delivers search results.

Despite the availability of Google Site Search, I still see countless custom site search engines that for the most part just don’t work well. The most common problems are irrelevant or meaningless results, far too many results to be useful, or infrequent indexing.

Here’s an extreme example of things gone wrong. The search function within the online help system of a popular e-commerce platform has a bizarre quirk. If you search for “how to add a product”— a very common search string for an e-commerce platform— you will get six pages of results like these:


There are a few obvious problems here. First, the search engine is not smart enough to ignore words like “to” and “a.” Second, the results highlight every instance of “to” and “a,” even if the characters are part of another word. As bad as these two problems are, there’s a much bigger problem: of the 40+ results you get, not one comes close to explaining how to add a product!

Another problem site: Try searching for “Schedule C”. The good news is, the very first search result is for the PDF version of the Schedule C form, and the second result is for the instructions on how to complete Schedule C. The bad news is that there are 3,930 results thereafter, with unhelpful results like these:


Another common problem I encounter are site search engines that don’t re-index sites frequently enough. Some engines don’t even do this automatically from time to time – the webmaster has to manually re-index the site. This can result in outdated results with broken links.

Take some time today to test your site search functionality. If it’s not up to par, a small investment in Google Site Search — which starts at just $100 per year — will be money well spent.

Take a Shortcut

A primary goal in all your online marketing initiatives should be to make it easy—not tricky—for your customers and other interested parties to connect with your organization. Which is why I was shocked to come across an advertisement in Car and Driver magazine for Purolator oil and air filters. At the bottom of the full-page ad for was this sentence:

Save up to $6 by logging on to

Seriously? How many people will type in that URL? And what percentage of people who try will make a spelling error that will prove fatal, such as typing “.com” instead of “.net,” or “.asp” instead of “.aspx?”

A better way for Purolator to have handled this would be to use a simplified URL such as (to indicate the campaign source as Car and Driver). I’m guessing there were minor technical issues that made it easier for Purolator to implement it the way they did, but that’s not the point: they should do the extra work to make it easier for their customers, not make their customers do extra work.

Another approach to shorter, easier to use URLs is using one of the many free online shortcut URL services, such as,, or Using budurl, for instance, the long Purolator URL would become a much more manageable Moreover, these shortcut URLs mask bizarre or hard to spell company names. Another key advantage of these short URLs is that they’re easy for your customers to spread virally, such as in Twitter updates, in emails, or in status updates on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Help your customers help you!

Clicks gone wild!

I wouldn’t profess to be an expert in website usability, but I know enough to be dangerous. Here’s a fairly obvious but often overlooked tip: make it as easy as possible for your returning site visitors to take the actions they will take repeatedly. You can quantify this with a click count, which is, simply put, the number of clicks it takes a user to accomplish a task.

Google Search provides an example of how to do this right, with a click count of one—you type in what you want and click “Google Search” (or just press Enter).

Here’s how to do it wrong. Lightning Source, Inc. (LSI) is a company that prints books on demand. The #1 thing publishers return to their website to do (typically once per day) is to check an online sales report indicating how many books were ordered. In fact, for the vast majority of publishers that print books through LSI, checking this report is the only thing they will come back to do for months at a time. You would expect, then, that there would be an obvious link to run this report, wouldn’t you? Here’s how LSI actually implemented it.

First, you must log in by clicking the Login button at the top of the homepage to bring up the login form, enter your login credentials, and click “Login” to submit your credentials. Pressing the Enter key doesn’t work here (bad design). That’s two clicks.


The next step requires dexterity. You must navigate to the My Account pull-down menu, select the second option (cryptically called “Financial Information (View and Pay),” then select “Publisher Compensation.” One more click.


Next is where the click count tally really adds up. The publisher compensation report users will want in most cases is U.S. sales, for the current month, for all titles, displayed on the screen (not sent via email). This should be the default choice. Instead, there is no default choice. You must select the “LSI period” using two clicks of two drop-down menus, one for the month and one for the year. Then, you must check the box for “United States.” And then scroll down (below the fold on most screens, another bad design issue) and click “Submit” to see your report.


Grand total: seven clicks.

This entire process could be done with two clicks. The home page could include form fields for a login name and password that are always visible, so that a visitor wouldn’t need to click “Login” to see the login form. There’s one click to submit the form information. Then, on the page that appears after logging-in, there should be a prominent button labeled “Run Publisher Compensation Report” or similar. That’s the second click. Done. Either under that button or on the report page, there could be a link to “Customize this Report” so that a user could run a report with parameters different than the default.

So, food for thought. Check your own website to make sure you are not asking visitors to jump through hoops to perform common tasks, such as signing up for your e-newsletter or finding your organization’s phone number. Remember, unnecessary clicks aggravate your website visitors, giving them a reason to abandon your site.

Top 5 best practices in writing Web copy

Writing for the Web is not fundamentally different than writing for something that will appear in print. However, following a few simple best practices can make a dramatic difference.

1) Break it down
Webpages are typically skimmed, not read. Few visitors will read your Web copy carefully, nor will they read it all. It’s therefore important to break down Web copy into easily-digestible “bite-sized chunks” (paragraphs) of no more than five sentences each, each with a meaningful section heading to help readers easily find the information they seek. Keep your writing concise.

2) Get the meat above the fold
Most website visitors won’t scroll down, so make sure the most important information on each webpage is above the fold, and preferably in the first two paragraphs. Keep in mind that different screen sizes and different browser-enabled devices (like the iPhone) preclude any consistent definition of just where the fold is. Still, most people will view your webpage using a desktop computer with at least a 17” diagonal screen at 1024 resolution.

3) Don’t ignore SEO
You want to make sure search engines will pick up your copy in organic search results. To that end, it’s important to use keywords and common phrases or industry-specific jargon in the copy that people might search for. However, loading up the text with meaningful words and phrases should never be done at the expense of writing clean, meaningful and readable copy.

4) Make it action-oriented
One of the great things about the Web is that taking an action—such as downloading a white paper, contacting a salesperson, or signing up for an email newsletter—is always one click away. Actions like these help companies acquire sales leads, and good website copy should encourage readers to do something after reading it.

5) Practice good Web style
I’m amazed how many websites have underlining or colored words or phrases in their copy, because these are easily mistaken for hyperlinks. If you must emphasize something, use bold or italics instead. Also, indents are not good style on webpages—left-justify all text, and leave the right unjustified.

Case study: landing page redesign boosts conversion rate 700 percent

It’s well known that a few simple changes in the design of a landing page for an SEM campaign can result in a significantly higher conversion rate. To wit: after redesigning a landing page, Gresham Storage Solutions saw a 700% increase in conversions. How did Gresham do it? By implementing a few simple best practices in landing page design.

Original Landing Page

The Original Landing Page Design

New Landing Page

The New Landing Page Design

Keep it focused
The biggest issue with the original page was that the first two paragraphs had nothing to do with the call to action. These paragraphs read more like an advertisement and probably deterred visitors from reading further to learn about the white paper. The new page cuts to the chase: download a free white paper.

Make images relevant
The central image is now more relevant. The image was changed from a picture of a hardware component that Gresham sells to an image of the actual white paper that this landing page offers for download. There is now no ambiguity about what the offer is. This helps reinforce that the landing page is not so much an advertisement for Gresham as an offer to obtain something of value.

Make it easy
In general, the less work the visitor has to do, the higher the conversion rate. The original form required four pieces of information. This was reduced to three by combining the first and last name fields. Also, the label for the form “submit” button was changed to a more compelling, action-oriented label: “click here to download your free white paper.”

Words and layout matter
Subtle changes to the text and layout make this page more compelling overall. For example, the first sentence—now placed in a paragraph by itself—makes it crystal clear what the offer is. And the second paragraph now introduces the critical word “free” (in bold), which was missing from the first version.

Together, these straightforward changes made all the difference in boosting Gresham’s conversion rate. If you’d like expert assistance in taking your landing pages to the next level, contact me.