Eager for my expertise, a company recently hired me to improve their web traffic by reviewing their web design, content, and structure.
I don’t do “web traffic” work. Traffic isn’t important. The numbers aren’t important. The ones who stick around, and pay for the privilege, aren’t on a normal score card. To influence me to take them on, they told me that they wanted to improve their online presence, visibility, and really connect to their customers, expanding their reputation to a global market, as well as be more attractive to modern shoppers and web users.
Basically, their site was six months old and not working for them. They wanted an expert to tell them why. With misgivings, I decided to take them on. In the end, I gave them their money back. Here’s why.
At first glance, I knew immediately what was wrong, and what they were doing wrong. Totally wrong.
You know the site. Not personally, but you’ve seen them everywhere. The look is pure template. Cookie-cutter. It looks like it was either cut-and-paste or signed-up-for-cheap-hosting-got-design-with-it. It looks like a table-based design template form from pre-1999. Even the colors look 1990.
The photographs come right out of the free or cheap stock photos where no one looks sincere, and everyone is beautiful and posed.
There are ads stuffed into every free spot, but the design makes them “work”, even if they are annoying.
The whole thing looks plastic. Fake. Even the writing.
The writing is immediately recognizable as “bought” or free articles you can find anywhere around the web. It lacks personality, a personal connection, and is written at a distance. Most of the articles feature tips rather than experiences, things anyone could come up with given 30 seconds and a topic.
There is no personality, no character. Not even a single voice. It’s just writing, like you are being “written at” rather than for. It doesn’t feel like someone cares or is talking to “them” personally. It looks like a corporate site.
In today’s market, if you can’t connect personally, you lose.
But We Paid For This Design
Their first response to my negative review was that “we paid for this design”. Yes, you did. And now you are paying me to fix it.
“But we paid for this design!”
“This isn’t an answer. Why did you want to hire me to fix it?”
They couldn’t answer, but I knew the answer.
They’d already thrown good money into bad work. They’d probably hired a friend or family member, or someone fresh out of school with old 1999 design ideas. Or found a web design how to book on the cheap table at the local bookstore, or, as I did once, in a grocery store (I didn’t buy it, just stood there amazed). Admitting that they’d wasted money, and my insult to their inexperienced-but-well-intentioned friend, family member, or trusted book, wasn’t acceptable.
At the least, they probably bought the template from one of those mass produced template sites, going for pretty, not experienced, practical, web development sense.
They didn’t want to hear what I said about the design, even when I got them to admit that they, too, can recognize when a website or blog is “faking it”. They just couldn’t see it in their site.
But We Paid For the Writing
After they got past my criticism of the design, their response was then, “We paid for the writing.”
Again, my reply was, “Then why do you want to pay me to fix it?”
Just like the design, they didn’t want to admit that they had again thrown money down the drain with plastic, artificial and disconnected articles.
They could have hired top writers who know how to research a subject and write in the voice needed to connect with readers. They could have researched all the writing out on the web today and found top bloggers willing to be paid to write the occasional or regular article for their site, already specialists in their industry, and eager for some extra income. There were a lot of choices they could make along the writing path, but they chose fast, cheap and easy.
Now, they were faced with that bill, plus mine, to tell them to hire better writers. They couldn’t justify the added expense.
But Ads Make Money
Yes, ads make money. Sometimes a lot, more often a little. However, if the purpose of your site is to make money, then why feature ads from other companies to help them make money with your site? Ads often unrelated to your business. Ads over which you have no control. Ads that make the site look cluttered and ugly. Ads that tarnish rather than enhance your site.
This client had an expectation that the site would earn them an additional $25,000 a year, justifying the few thousand they paid to set it up, and an additional $10,000 in ad revenue.
In the first six months online, it had only reaped $2,000 in additional business income, not covering the cost of the setup. I asked them how much ad revenue had come in during those same six months. It took a while for them to admit it, but it came to a grand total of $1,600.
“So, your budget plan called for the site to earn $35,000 in sales, fees and ad revenue in the first year, an average of about $2,900 a month. In the first six months, you’ve earned $600 a month. Why do you think you are not reaching your earnings goal?”
Their answers – or should I say “justifications” – were typical.
- It’s a new site so it takes time to be found.
- It doesn’t have a very high Page Rank, yet.
- Our customers are only learning about the site now.
- There is too much competition on the web.
- The market is slow right now.
I asked them if they thought the ads on the site might be a bit off-putting to visitors? Of course not! They were necessary. The income must cover the expenses of making the site.
Wait a minute. Didn’t they tell me that the purpose of the site was to improve their reputation as a quality company offering their services online, and improving customer service and relations? Isn’t marketing and publicity, the main purpose of a website, part of their advertising and marketing budget? Is the site about them and their company? Then why are there ads from other companies on the site?
“We have to pay for the site!”
I told them the ads on their site were costing them. A lot. In reputation and integrity.
“Ads make money!”
Let’s see, if you remove the ads, clean up the site, make it more personable and give it the human touch, focus on content through reputation, integrity, and a personal connection, is it possible that people searching online would find your site, feel a connection with the products and services, recognize your passion for those products and services, and want to “invest” in them? Do you think that it is possible the site could then earn more than $600 a month?
“Oh, that would be risky. It has to pay for itself.”
We Want To Pay You To Help Us Get Traffic
This is where I gave them their money back.
If you have a store and it’s closed most of the time, and when open, is dimly lit, filthy, has little worth buying, and a bored shopkeeper, and you don’t want to change anything in or out of the store, no advertising plan will improve your sales by more than a very slim margin. Without investing in the store, creating a place worthy of visitors, and giving them a reason to return, how can you expect to get more?
With all the talk about Web 2.0 and the Social Web, the marketplace is changing. Web users are more experienced, more knowledgeable, and they can spot a fake. If your site lacks personality, and a connection to the reader personally, you’ve lost them. If it is covered with ads, especially unrelated ads, they don’t care what you are selling. If it doesn’t meet their needs, they are gone.
I gave them their consultancy fee back. Now I’m going to give you the same advice for free.
- Design Simple and Clean: Choose a web design that is simple and clean. Black letters against white background remains extremely popular, with lots of space and bits of color to attract attention. Make it easy to read, easy to navigate, and put all the focus on the content.
- Go Blog Not Website: While websites still have their purpose as billboards on the web, if you want to connect with your audience, get a blog not a website. It’s familiar, easy to use on the front and back ends, and already packed with top SEO features – so all you do is focus on content, not tweaking.
- Use Real People in Real Photographs: Every other person has a digital camera or camera in their cell phone. Ask friends and family to model or snap them as they go about their daily lives (with permission) to include pictures of people doing the things you are writing about. If the pictures aren’t award-winning and the people are wrinkly and odd-looking, even better. They will look real. Or skip the cliché pictures. It’s words that matter.
- Write It Yourself: Whether you are a good writer or not, try writing the articles yourself. Work it it. Practice. Take lessons. Do whatever it takes to improve your writing. If you are totally useless when it comes to a keyboard, then record it and have someone type it for you, or use a dictation machine that types it up automatically in the computer. If your writing really stinks, hire an editor. If that isn’t possible, then research the best of the best to write on your site, and pay them well because they are saving you time, money, and energy, and working hard to bring you the traffic you want, the reputation you earn, and the customers you need.
- Rethink Ads: If you are selling yourself, your business, services, products, or reputation, then get rid of the ads on your blog. YOU are the income generating force on your blog. YOU make your blog pay for itself. No Adsense, Link Ads, or any other advertising will help you sell you, unless the ads are for you, about you, and by you.
- Think Personality and Personable: To succeed in today’s market, you have to have a “face”. We want to connect with individuals, not anonymous companies. We want humans with humanity and kind words, customer service that puts the customer first, and we want friends. We need friends. We want to do business with friends.