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How to Build a Useful Site

Usability ScentWhat are visitors arriving at your site for?

It’s a question worth asking because if you don’t know, how can you provide it?

Search stats will tell you, as will some of the visitors if you ask.

In general your readers have followed a scent, a trail that will lead them to their goal. What is their goal likely to be?

Understanding Reader Missions

There are several missions a reader will be on, and while the specifics will be as unique as the individual person, people are always looking for …

  • Specific information
  • A solution to a problem
  • News and commentary about current events
  • Ideas, concepts, tips, education
  • Further details of the information they have found
  • General information on the subject area
  • More entertainment
  • Just something interesting – “surprise me”

The person who lands on your homepage will be in a different mode than the person who lands three levels deep on a specific article.

Mission Accomplished?

Once they have arrived, you need to deliver what they were looking for. Knowing how this works will let you understand why

  • You only get one page view per visitor
  • Some comments get more clicks than the article itself sends
  • Adsense works for some sites and not for others
  • Brand banners get fewer clicks than Adwords and contextual ads
  • “Click Here” can work to drive more link clicks than product names
  • Some people spend only seconds on your site and never return
  • While other subscribe and visit regularly
  • While further others give you feedback that you are writing about “the wrong things”

You need to get into the mindset of each type of visitor to your site. Take your own browsing behavior as a guide. Here is my standard browse session:

  • BBC News – I want to know what is happening in the world, and will look through the front page and entertainment for interesting headlines. Sometimes I get all I need to know from the headline, sometimes I will click through to the article, sometimes I will click through to the further information links.
  • Blog Reading – Again, it is all about interesting headlines, but also it might be an image or a subhead that grabs my attention and pulls me in. Each blog will have a different reason to be in my reading list, some are friends I want to keep up to date with, others are topics I want to learn more about. For example, I subscribe to a couple of blogs just because they will let me know when there is a new piece of photography equipment available, but I won’t read every article as I have a loyalty to Canon cameras and not Nikon or Sony.
  • Digg/Reddit/SU and BoingBoing – I will generally take a look at several sites just to take a break and see what is out there that is interesting. Although I am saying “surprise me”, I know from referral or past experience that these sites contain the sort of stuff I like to read about. A personal blog could contain the same sort of stuff but is going to have to work extra hard to convince me that they can do a better job, so would need to provide something unique and special.
  • Forums – I visit forums to read and ask questions, or answer them. Most people are going to be in the former category more often than the latter, simply because human nature is such that we focus on our own needs or passively consume media most of the time, just as there are more listeners on radio than callers, and more readers than commenters on blogs.
  • Searching – When I search I want the answer to the question I asked. It’s very rare I will search for anything general, it is almost always looking for something specific. That specific question though might get more detailed as I find answers and follow the scent. Think of researching a purchase, you might have a problem, then find products exist, then find reviews, then look for outlets, then find the best price. While you are making progress and the scent trail is there you will keep following it until mission achieved, even wading through swamps of spam to get there. If we lose the scent we change searching strategy.

I hardly ever visit directories. The way I discover more sites on a topic is to follow links, and usually it is through a specific article that has been linked rather than “go look at this blog it is great”.

Your own behavior might well be different, as might your audiences, so understanding how your niche works and the kind of reader missions they might be on is important to knowing if you are going to serve them or frustrate them.

Frustrating Browsers

Much that has been written about traffic is about getting the visitors to arrive. The problem is, by only focusing on attracting people and not serving them we can often create more problems than we solve.

Consider the searcher who thinks they have found the perfect “Britney Lohan” site only to see a bunch of advertising links. They might well click the links, but only because this site hasn’t got the information they want but the adsense headlines look promising. That site is going to only receive one visit per visitor but they don’t care as all they are about is driving more people in so more people leave via the clicks that pay them. The more people they disappoint the more money they make.

Think also about the blog that starts off promising to be “the number one walrus polishing resource” but has a front page full of politics and election stories.

Make Your Site Useful

The key to a happy, return visitor is to

  1. Promise benefits in your titles and headlines and actually deliver on it.
  2. Make your navigation suit the missions your readers are on.
  3. On your homepage provide links for first time visitors who want to explore and long time visitors who read via the web and not RSS.
  4. Individual articles should provide the content they promise, then provide links to more on the same subject.
  5. Add clear signposts to all your best stuff, and your subscription options, while keeping your visitor on the scent of their hunt with series, related articles and category links

Track where your visitors come from and what they are after, and if you can actually talk to them. If you know why visitors arrive you will be in a better position to make them happy.

Table of contents for Does your site frighten readers?

  1. Does Your Site Frighten Readers Away?
  2. Does Your Website Have These Friendly Features?
  3. How to Build a Useful Site
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Comments

  1. Great post, Chris.

    I’m a new blogger and this is a great post with some good ideas for me to get my “arms around.” I’m often wondering how my prospective readers decide what to read, how long to stay, etc. As my blog has a unique niche, it’s sometimes difficult to gauge what content is “attractive.”

    Thanks for your insights.

  2. Great post, Chris.

    I’m a new blogger and this is a great post with some good ideas for me to get my “arms around.” I’m often wondering how my prospective readers decide what to read, how long to stay, etc. As my blog has a unique niche, it’s sometimes difficult to gauge what content is “attractive.”

    Thanks for your insights.

  3. Chris —

    Many thanks for the tips…

    Since you shoot Canon, check out my post Free Money From Canon on PixSylated

  4. Chris —

    Many thanks for the tips…

    Since you shoot Canon, check out my post Free Money From Canon on PixSylated

  5. Hello Chris. Good article. I usually tell people when designing a website to keep in mind the “so what?” factor.

    One of the first things new visitors to your site will ask is, so what?

    Answer that quickly, clearly, and don’t be clever.

  6. Hello Chris. Good article. I usually tell people when designing a website to keep in mind the “so what?” factor.

    One of the first things new visitors to your site will ask is, so what?

    Answer that quickly, clearly, and don’t be clever.

  7. Wow. Just great post Chris. I’d surely love to try these tips for my newest blogging project. Thanks a bunch for spending your time to bring all of these for us. 🙂

  8. Wow. Just great post Chris. I’d surely love to try these tips for my newest blogging project. Thanks a bunch for spending your time to bring all of these for us. 🙂

  9. Great article

    I am about to start another blog and I will use some of your articles as inspiration.

  10. Great article

    I am about to start another blog and I will use some of your articles as inspiration.

  11. I get all my information from Google Analytics. It tells me the keywords people are typing in to get to my site organically, which posts are getting the most views, and the goals tell me which path they follow.

    It’s amazing, because usually the results I get prove that what I think people will read (or what links they will click on) is usually wrong 80% of the time.

    You need to be focused on “whats in it for your reader” and be creative.

    Cheers Ian

  12. Hi Chris!
    Thinking of my own blog reading, I use Google Reader more and more for convenience, and usually only “jump” to the site if the author has not allowed full posting via RSS. What other tips/tricks have you used to get readers from the RSS feed to your site?
    Thanks for your help!
    Dan

  13. I get all my information from Google Analytics. It tells me the keywords people are typing in to get to my site organically, which posts are getting the most views, and the goals tell me which path they follow.

    It’s amazing, because usually the results I get prove that what I think people will read (or what links they will click on) is usually wrong 80% of the time.

    You need to be focused on “whats in it for your reader” and be creative.

    Cheers Ian

  14. Hi Chris!
    Thinking of my own blog reading, I use Google Reader more and more for convenience, and usually only “jump” to the site if the author has not allowed full posting via RSS. What other tips/tricks have you used to get readers from the RSS feed to your site?
    Thanks for your help!
    Dan

  15. thanks for helping to re-focus on these issues. very important stuff to make a blog truly an enjoyable experience for the readers

  16. thanks for helping to re-focus on these issues. very important stuff to make a blog truly an enjoyable experience for the readers

  17. Thanks for the info. I too, am just starting in the blogging world and it all feels so overwhelming. I find the info you provided to be commeon sense and I’m sure it will make a difference in the content I provide to readers.

    I’m so thankful for folks like you who provide this service.

  18. Thanks for the info. I too, am just starting in the blogging world and it all feels so overwhelming. I find the info you provided to be commeon sense and I’m sure it will make a difference in the content I provide to readers.

    I’m so thankful for folks like you who provide this service.

  19. Thanks for the reminder. These are items we probably all know, or should if you’re in the business of marketing, but tend to forget. Very concise.

  20. Thanks for the reminder. These are items we probably all know, or should if you’re in the business of marketing, but tend to forget. Very concise.

  21. I really, really enjoyed this article. Its a great reminder for ideals already known – and a great opener to the unknown. Information was well put together – and I thoroughly consumed the entire piece. Thank you.

  22. I really, really enjoyed this article. Its a great reminder for ideals already known – and a great opener to the unknown. Information was well put together – and I thoroughly consumed the entire piece. Thank you.