Thursday, January 24, 2008

Page Not Found (error 404): Rules of Engagement

Why aren't more people paying attention to 404s? This is a hot button of mine — not only is the fix for this cheap and easy; the cost of not doing it is high.

Open a new browser window right now and enter your domain name or that of your client's. Wait - don't hit return/enter yet, instead, add garbage characters at the end like http://www.webmama.com/errr. This simulates a visitor following a search result that points to an non-existant page. Now hit enter. What do you see? Do you see a beautiful page telling you that this URL is no longer a part of the site you wanted to see, and offers you other pointers to interesting pages on the site that are available with a touch of the finger? Or, do you see the dreaded (and ugly) ERROR 404 page served up by the browser?

While search engines catch dead pages and stop included them in their index, it takes time, sometimes up to 3 months. Why drive traffic to your site just to baffle and irritate visitors when they try to visit? There is really no excuse for an irritating and useless page when you can easily make sure that all pages that have EVER been indexed by a search engine — current or obsolete — point to a valid page on your website. All you need do is to TRAP the "Error 404s" and bring up your own tailor-made error page kindly guiding your visitors, and potential profits, right into your website. Of course, redirecting old pages to new ones is the best course of action but no one can do that consistently or completely for large sites. Or you can redirect to the home page but that doesn't return the right code to the search engines so I don't recommend it.

The Components of a Perfect Error 404 Page

While I am on my soap-box preaching about creating a custom-designed Error 404 page for your website, I think it only fair to list the components of a good error 404 page. Each component is geared toward letting a customer know where they are and helping them get to where they want to be. So, the components are:
  • high-lighted links to popular pages on your Web site
  • your standard navigation bar
  • your look, feel & branding of the company/site
  • a search box in case your links aren't what they want
  • a friendly tone, with plain, polite language
  • something that helps sell your products/services
Consider presenting them with specials, teasers or free samples/downloads. Weigh the advantages and disadvantages carefully. If they reached your error page, they wanted something from you and they are a captive audience. On the other hand, they were trying to get somewhere and are probably anxious to get there. Don’t hold them up, unless you are sure they’ll thank you for it.

Good Examples:

WebEx (WebMama client), VMware (WebMama client), BabyCenter , Hewlett-Packard (WebMama client), SpaFinder (sends visitors to an error page that doesn't look like one - certainly a valid tactic)

Bad Examples:

Amazon , WebMD (redirects to home page), Cingular (redirects to ATT Wireless which is inexcusable in its appearance - shame on them), NY Times (takes you into the member center- confusing), Zazzle (just weird)

In the WebMama Journal in November 2001 I pointed out a few bad 404 pages; believe it or not, the are still bad today. [Disclaimer: when visiting the old WebMama Journals the content may still be relevant but they have not been updated to reflect the SEM stragies and tactics of today or checked for broken links.]

Exxon, Macy's (even has an old trademark date), Nasdaq (defaults to browser error page - STILL!)

Tell me what error pages you like (and dislike).

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posted by Barbara 'webmama' Coll @ 12:07 PM     Permanent Link

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Blurring of Business Strategy and Search Strategy

It has been a wild ride being in the search marketing business for over 10 years. Part of the success of WebMama.com has been the razor sharp focus on Search Engine Marketing and nothing but SEM. This certainly gets the company in the door. Once in the door things change and I find myself talking business strategy even if it is thinly veiled as search marketing strategy.

Examples: Helping (insisting) a client decide on a list of keywords to use for search optimization is in essence asking the client what is it that generates sales on your site. Asking pointed questions like, 'what is a lead?' touches on their key online strategy and not just direct marketing. Bringing up subjects like 'metrics' and tools, profit margins, etc really forces them to think through entire areas of reporting. And I can't think of anything more important in business beyond sales then what is the image they want to convey to the public.

Is Search Marketing unique in this way; that it touches on Business Strategy often? I don't think so, but it is something clients don't necessarily expect from their SEM agency. So keep saying things like, 'but my opinions stem from the search point of view', and you will stay undercover as a business strategist.

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posted by Barbara 'webmama' Coll @ 2:44 PM     Permanent Link

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What is the First SEO Question?

So, you are starting with a new client. What is the first question you should ask the 'team' who hired you? It would be easiest if I could say to them - 'and why did you want to hire an SEO company?' - to get directly to the root of their needs but that may sound just plain stupid. So how about:

What would the first page of search results look like if you could dictate them to Google?

Notice I didn't mention keywords, sales, products or technology. I ask the question and sit back and see what they have to say. All of the other information can be gathered at a later date or as follow-on questions. This start-off question is especially important when we are being hired by a division of a company that has multiple websites that could be considered competition for each other. So try this one next time and let me know how it goes.

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posted by Barbara 'webmama' Coll @ 1:41 PM     Permanent Link