Web Site Traffic Quantity vs. Quality

by demtron on Monday, November 17, 2008 09:19 AM

I've had numerous people approach me about how to bring traffic to their Web sites.  Of course, everyone wants more traffic, but is traffic volume really the ultimate goal?

Attracting and retaining the right audience is the most important consideration for any Web site, whether for a business, government, school, non-profit, or informational resource.  Without the right audience, there's no real purpose for a Web site.  Here’s a set of basic steps for getting a handle on understanding traffic quality.

First, determine your target audience.  If you organization has significant off-line operations, does your Web site target the same type of customer or a different one?  For example, a law firm may offer services in several facets of law but only promote one of them on their site, making their off-line marketing needs different from those on-line.

Second, find out the source of your traffic.  This is where a good traffic analytics tool can help out.  A popular and free tool for this is Google Analytics.  Think about the attributes that make up your desired traffic.  Is local traffic or regional traffic important?  Are you advertising on sites related to your industry?  How much traffic is coming from keyword advertisements versus natural searches?

The next question is perhaps the most important.  Which type of traffic is most valuable?  Again, an analytics tool can be used to track conversions.  A conversion is a specific action that the visitor is expected to make, such as purchasing one or more items, requesting more information or free written materials, or becoming a subscriber to a service offered.  Matching conversion rate to traffic types is critical to a site’s success.  Which would you rather have – 10000 hits per month with a 1% conversion rate or 3000 hits per month with a 7% conversation rate?  I'll take the higher quality traffic any day of the week!

Finally, consider whether the current traffic aligns with the strategy of the site.  There are three possibilities: 1) traffic does not align well and produces poor conversions, 2) traffic does align well and produces good conversions, or 3) traffic aligns well in an unintended area yet still products good conversions.  The third scenario is intriguing.  I’ve seen a number of situations where a site generates quality organic search traffic based on keywords or themes not previously considered.  After additional research, it’s possible that this traffic arrives because the topic is poorly represented in search results, meaning that it could be ripe for exploitation on your site by adding more related content.

Web site traffic generation is more that just an exercise in "playing the numbers".  Web site visitors know when they’ve found a site with quality content that separates itself from those that favor extreme traffic generation.  Those visitors will be the most loyal, buying goods and services and returning in the future for more great content.  Understanding how to identify, track and measure your exposure to this target audience is crucial to an effective web site.

Broken Link Checking for Your Web Site

by demtron on Friday, November 14, 2008 04:54 PM
Broken links are one of the most frustrating experiences for a web site visitor.  A broken link is one that leads to a non-existent page, either on the site or an external site.  Unless special code or custom error pages have been added to a site, the visitor is presented with a bland "404 Page not found" error or an equivalent that gives the user no indication of what to do next.  This is a surefire way to encourage a visitor to go away and maybe not visit again.

For a designer, finding broken links on a site can be a vexing problem.  There’s no visual indication of a problem on the site, and neither design tools nor markup editors will expose these problems while they’re being designed.  Finding broken links can be a tedious and time-consuming task without automated tools.

Some of the best tools for this purpose are available on the web for free.  One of my favorites is available at http://validator.w3.org/checklink.  The World Wide Web consortium develops the specifications and guidelines for Web design standards, so you can be sure that this tool works!

Upon opening the page, all that's needed to start is to type in the URL to examine and click the Check button.  This process will take between 20 seconds and several minutes depending on the number of links it needs to examine and the responsiveness of the pages represented by those links.  During this time, it examines the page markup for the existence of anchors and links then makes a call for each page to determine its status.  It also checks for redundant links and can provide warnings for indicating when destination pages have been moved and redirected.

Both a detail and summary output is provided.  The list of links examined is shown for each copy and pasting into a spreadsheet or other tracking document.  Following the detail section is summary of all problems shown in both tabular format and list format.  They identify the problem, the HTTP error code, the count of occurrences, what corrective actions to take, and even the line number of HTML code that caused the problem.

All site designers and webmasters should consider using this tool to find errors on their sites.  An error-free site improves visitor retention and maintains the professional image of your organization.

Choosing a Shared Hosting Provider - Tip #4

by demtron on Monday, November 10, 2008 10:34 AM

Upgrading to a New Plan

So, what happens when your site becomes fantastically popular and your need more storage space, bandwidth, or features?  Often, when starting out a new site, a site owner will intentionally choose a low-cost plan to save a few bucks.  When more resources are needed, you might need to upgrade to a better plan.

Each host handles this process a little differently.  Here are a few questions you might want to ask.

How do I initiate the upgrade to a new plan?  Some hosts offer an on-line form to automatically request the upgrade.  Others require a phone call.

What happens during the upgrade?  For many hosts, the upgrade is completely transparent to you and handled automatically.  For others, or if you are moving from a now-defunct plan to a new plan, the host needs to have a technician move your site to a new server.

Will your site be moved to a new server?  Some hosts will cluster sites with similar plans on the same server, so when you upgrade to a new plan, you may also be moved to a new server.  Be aware that your site’s performance will often increase (but sometimes decrease) when it’s moved to a new server.

When will the upgrade be completed?  Most hosts I work with tell me that an upgrade will take 24-48 hours to complete, while one in particular can get upgrades completed in 12 hours or less.

Is there a fee associated with upgrading?
  Usually not, but I’ve found two hosting companies recently that charge $10 and $20 for a plan upgrade.

What testing will the hosting company perform after and upgrade to ensure that the upgrade was successful and that the site, database, and e-mail plans work correctly?  When I have asked this question, I often get an uneasy silence and an answer like, “Well, we’ll check that the home page comes up.”  If your site uses database access or more sophisticated features, you’ll want to have a plan in place to check all major functions of your site.  If you use a designer, make sure your designer is on-call to put out fires.

How will you be notified when an upgrade is complete?  Surprisingly, some hosting companies I work with don’t send a notification upon completing an upgrade.  I’ve also found that these hosts are poor when it comes to sending notifications for events like planned outages, upgrades or support follow ups.  (I wish I could switch these clients to different hosts, but that’s a story for another day.)

Choosing a Shared Hosting Provider – Tip #3

by demtron on Saturday, November 08, 2008 04:14 PM

Database Features

Most hosting plans advertise database storage space.  Compared to a few years ago, the amount of space is usually ample for most applications.  Don’t be fooled by the amount of space offered – there are many considerations depending on how your site will be used.

Do you need a database?  Many sites require a database to store a blog, eCommerce elements, forum, or custom data for reports.  Even if your site doesn’t require one today, be prepared to use a database if you plan to add one of these features.

Which database do I need?  There are three main database technologies that are offered with hosting plans.  MySQL is generally offered with Linux hosting plans, whereas MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server or both are offered with ASP.Net hosting plans.  A third, Microsoft Access, is occasionally offered, although it’s falling out of favor due to the decreased costs and greater capabilities of the other two flavors.  If you’re considering a blog, forum, image gallery, or eCommerce site, there are more choices that use MySQL than the others.  In my opinion, it’s generally safe to choose a plan that offers MySQL and only consider the others if your other tools require it.

Does your host perform backups?  This is REALLY important.  All hosting companies will back up databases, but most will only use them in case a server goes down and the server’s image needs to be restored.  As the customer, you won’t have access to them.  Some hosts will offer to restore backups for a fee.  Especially if you run a blog or forum, losing a database without a backup means a complete loss of the entire site.  Which brings me to the next question…

How can you perform backup yourself?  Check with the host’s tech support or knowledgebase to find out how to perform a backup, how long it will take, where it will be stored and how you can retrieve it.  Also, if check in your blog, eCommerce, or other software to find out if there are any other considerations to back up their data.  You NEED to do backups, so figuring this out is vital.

How can more space be added to the plan?  Many plans cap database space at 50 to 200 MBs, which may be plenty for small sites.  However, if your site becomes popular and you need to grow quickly, you need an upgrade path.  Some hosting companies will charge an extra monthly amount to add more space to a plan, while others will ask that you upgrade to an all-around higher-capacity plan.  Check the costs of these options and think about how likely it will be that you need this capacity.

In a future post, I’ll discuss some of the more technical aspects of assessing databases. 

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