Opinion: Auditing your site

As we approach the end of the year, it's a good time to review your site and changes that may need to be made in the coming year. Many of the people I work with are looking at tighter budgets. Many companies have cancelled or delayed projects that don't deliver a clear and quick return on investment.

Companies can often make significant site improvements, even with limited resources, by identifying and correcting site deficiencies. A web site audit can identify where these problems lie and how to correct them. Companies can also use a web audit to make sure that they are allocating their web resources effectively.

A web site audit can look at many things, depending on a company's needs:

Goals - Business planning and market analysis* Is the site aligned with current company goals?

* Are there gaps between company goals and customer goals?

Functional design and content review

* Do the site's content and services meet goals?

* How easily can customers complete key tasks compared to competitive sites?

* Are there significant problems with the site's structure, navigation or usability?

Performance and availability

* Download time

* Availability

* Security

Maintenance

* Stickiness

* Search engine compatibility

* Content currency

Marketing

* Marketing - What ROI do promotions get?

* Aesthetics - Content presentation * Is the site fun to use?

Many approaches can be taken to a web audit:

* Task analysis* Heuristic review (expert review)* Use case model* Usability validation test* Surveys* User feedback * Comparative analysis (before/after testing, and competitive comparisons)Each of these approaches has its place - the combination that you use will depend on the your needs. Rapid improvements can often be made through an expert review of your site, combined with comparative analysis. Web experts can often quickly find the most significant problems within a site.

Unfortunately, every expert has individual biases and preferences that may or may not reflect the needs of your customers. You can verify the suggestions from the expert review by following up with before/after user tests of the changed areas.

Here are five problems that I've seen show up frequently in site reviews that I've been involved with:

1. Site resources are allocated to content that is rarely used.Many sites squander their limited resources by devoting time to maintaining and updating content or applications that are rarely used. Companies should allocate resources to developing the most important content of their site.

Unfortunately, many companies don't understand how their site content is used. Web analytic software can be used to generate reports that show this. For example, content groups can be defined that match the folder structure of your site. The web statistics reports can then generate a report showing the percentage of your site traffic that each directory gets, and which content groups get the most traffic.

Many sites find that a small number of pages get almost all of the site's traffic. By allocating resources to the content that is most frequently used, you make sure that visitors get fresh content every time they visit, while minimizing your maintenance costs.

2. Customers can't find what they are looking for.One of the mysteries of the Internet is this: Everybody has trouble finding what they are looking for on the Internet, but nobody thinks that their site has search problems. If you don't have a process in place to improve your search process, it's very likely that some of your customers can't find what they are looking for.

Test your site's search accuracy, and correct problems. Web site log analysis can be used to determine common search phrases. These phrases should be tested. If these common search phrases don't return the right results for business goals, the page content needs to be modified, or the search index needs to be tuned to provide correct results.

3. Many sites damage their credibility with minor page errors.Researchers from the Stanford Web Credibility Lab have found that details such as spelling errors and broken links reduce a site's credibility. Many tools can crawl a web site and identify these sort of problems automatically. These types of mistakes cost little to fix, but eliminating them improves a user's perception of your site, which can lead to higher sales.

4. Many companies don't understand the effectiveness of their web marketing.The web makes it possible to measure the effectiveness of various marketing approaches, yet this is seldom done consistently. Find out if the effectiveness of all of your online marketing approaches is being measured. If campaigns aren't being consistently monitored, it may be impossible to understand their effectiveness.

Often minor changes to your site may be needed to make it possible to measure marketing efforts. For example, you may need to create unique URLs that can be used for promotions. These URLs can be redirects that point to any content on your site. By creating a unique URL, you can promote the URL and measure your results.

5. Slow pages still frustrate many customers.Slow pages are one of the most common complaints of web users. You can identify slow pages several ways. Web stats software can be used to determine the most bloated pages on your site. Site monitoring software such as Sitescope, or monitoring services such as Keynote can be used to get a measure of how your pages perform for external users. Slow pages are usually the victims of bloated graphics, which can often be reduced in size or eliminated to speed up the page.

The next few years look like they will be tight ones for many companies. Companies with limited resources can still make important improvements to their sites, though, if they identify and fix common site problems, and allocate their resources to the content that is most frequently used.

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