Website Optimization

By

This book review was published by Slashdot, 2008-11-07.

Website Optimization

As Internet users' expectations continue to ratchet upwards, it is increasingly essential that every website owner maximize the chances that those users will find the site in question, and, once found, that the site will perform well enough that those visitors become customers or members, and recommend the site to others. Key elements of a successful strategy include optimization for search engines, pay-per-click advertising, and visitor conversion, as well as responsive Web pages and fine-tuning of all the above, using various metrics. These topics and others are explored in Website Optimization: Speed, Search Engine & Conversion Rate Secrets by Andrew B. King.

The book was published by O'Reilly Media on 15 July 2008, under the ISBN 978-0596515089. Website Optimization is organized into two major parts: search engine marketing optimization and Web performance optimization. The book's material, spanning 394 pages, is divided into 10 chapters, covering a range of topics: natural search engine optimization, an SEO case study, pay-per-click optimization, a case study thereof, conversion rate optimization, Web page performance, CSS optimization, AJAX optimization, server- and client-side performance techniques, and website metrics. The book begins with a forward by Jim Sterne, a Web marketing and metrics consultant, followed by a preface in which Andy King provides an overview of what is to follow, as well as credits to four other individuals. These credits are confusing, because they do not make clear for what exactly the individuals are being credited! The reader will be left wondering: Are these people the technical editing team? Or did they write some of the material in the book, without byline? Or did they only provide research material to the primary author? In personal correspondence to me, Andy King mentions that this book was "written by a team of experts let [sic] by me". Thus, they are apparently co-authors, but not identified as so in the book.

The first five chapters of the book focus on optimization of search engine marketing (SEM), which comprises search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, and conversion rate optimization (CRO). The author(s) begin by demonstrating, through cited statistics, just how critical it is for websites to appear within the first few search engine result pages (SERPs), otherwise the sites will probably not be found by the roughly 90 percent of Internet users who do not bother looking at any subsequent pages. This documented selectivity should alone serve as an energizing wake-up call to any website owners who — either through ignorance or laziness — make no effort to improve their rankings within the major search engine results. The first chapter delineates the most common SEO mistakes, as well as basic techniques for achieving higher rankings. The two categories could have been combined, simply by inverting the language of the first category; for instance, "develop an adequate number of popular inbound links" could replace "[avoid] a lack of popular inbound links". The bulk of the SEO information will be familiar to most Web marketing veterans, though even they should glean some new pointers. All of the advice is correct, up-to-date, and worthy of implementation on any site — existing or under development. However, the "Step 3" and "Step 4" in Figures 1-6 and 1-7 may be confused by some readers with the identical section headings in the book's text. Note also that the KEI of "84,100" should instead read "84.100" (page 17). Lastly, the first and third sample URIs are missing GET keys (page 29).

The strategies for natural search engine optimization, presented in the first chapter, are illustrated in the second — through a case study of the SEO overhaul of a Philadelphia dental practice's website. The original version of the site was lacking keyword-rich headers, body copy, inbound links, etc. (In addition, the dentist's e-mail address was revealed to spam harvesters in plain text. Andy King mentions the use of a contact form to resolve this problem, but does not mention that there are methods of displaying an e-mail address to human visitors, while hiding it from spambots.) This site's search engine results were dramatically boosted through two iterations of SEO fine-tuning, redesign, and release. While this particular dentist's site was greatly improved by the work described in this chapter, the book itself is not improved by inclusion of said chapter, since no additional SEO techniques are offered to the reader, and the first chapter already had enough HTML code snippets to exemplify the concepts discussed. In fact, the case study results should have been boiled down to a few paragraphs and better presented as a sidebar at the end of the first chapter, or moved to the back as an appendix. This latter approach is further supported by the fact that the second chapter illustrates best practices discussed in chapters that the reader has presumably yet to read (5 and 6). The material that composes the actual last sidebar in the first chapter — on metadata and microformats — could have been relegated to an appendix.

Search engine-based ad campaigns are the most important elements in the marketing strategies of countless online vendors, and in Chapter 3, Andy King explains how to increase a site's pay-per-click results, click-through rates (CTRs), and conversion rates. He begins by explaining some key terms and concepts, which should be quite helpful for most readers — especially given how much the online marketing world is laden with terminology and acronyms. The chapter reviews the advertising programs of the three top search engines, and discusses PPC optimization for those programs, with special emphasis given to Google AdWords. Like the first chapter of the book, this one does a competent job of explaining and illustrating the key ideas, and making clear topics that can be quite daunting to anyone new to the field. However, additional clarification of some terms would be helpful, otherwise many readers may be uncertain as to what is meant by terms such as "negative keywords", which unfortunately are left undefined. Even phrases outside the online marketing industry, such as "second-price sealed bidding system", could confuse countless readers. More importantly, some of the material is discussed at a level higher than what would be really usable for most site owners and developers — in contrast to the first chapter, which generally presented more actionable details. In fact, for readers unfamiliar with all the factors involved in running a PPC ad campaign, the early portion of this chapter could prove quite bewildering. Returning to the issue of how best to present case studies, the "Bid Optimization in Action: The E-Grooming Book Example" section shows how illustrative examples can be presented much more concisely. In contrast, Chapter 4, which consumes eight pages, shows how not to illustrate concepts already discussed.

Considerable SEO and PPC efforts could pay off in the form of a huge increase in traffic to one's website. But all of that would be in vain if there were no corresponding increase in turning those visitors into customers. Chapter 6 is devoted to conversion rate optimization, and presents some key elements of persuading online prospects, as well as the top 10 factors for maximizing one's conversion rates, from an online marketing and sales perspective. This chapter is rich in material that should inspire site owners to critically reevaluate their sites' contents, as well as their competitors'.

The sixth chapter, on Web page optimization, commences the second part of the book, and explores the most common pitfalls that lead to poor site performance, as well as ten techniques for increasing page display speeds — many of them based upon Steve Souders's book High Performance Web Sites. Andrew King correctly notes that this optimization can result in increased profits, customer satisfaction, and accessibility. However, he also claims that it will decrease costs as well as improve site maintainability and search engine rankings. He should have made it clear that faster page loading per se will not provide those last three benefits, but rather those are potential secondary gains that result from changes to code and other factors with the goal of decreasing page load times for site visitors. Nonetheless, even the most experienced Web developers should find one or more ideas in this chapter for reducing the total bandwidth consumption of the pages they create — particularly for anyone serving video content, which receives substantial coverage in this chapter. Chapter 7, on CSS optimization, follows a pattern similar to its predecessor, by presenting ten methods for improving one's CSS code, as helpful rules. The advice is spot-on, and well illustrated with examples. The suggested methods are preceded by brief discussion of reset rules, including mention of the (differing) reset rules advocated by Eric Meyer and Yahoo. It would be interesting to have learned the author's perspective on the technical differences, and why the author chose one set of rules over another. Incidentally, the paragraph describing the section, immediately below the "Tip #1" header, should have been located above it. Also, on page 195, " | inherit" should have been explained, or, better yet, excised. Lastly, the "|" appears to be missing from the similar instances on the three subsequent pages.

During the past several years, there has been a huge increase in the usage of Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) to reduce dynamic Web page reloading, and to make websites behave more like desktop applications. Unfortunately, there are pitfalls in this approach, and Andy King discusses them in Chapter 8, in addition to numerous best practices for minimizing these problems within one's own AJAX code. Incidentally, in the tip on page 225, the author states that the sample AJAX application will not run on your desktop; this apparently means that it cannot run on a local Web server. An explanation as to why, would most likely be of interest to the typical reader. Prior to getting into the details of JavaScript optimization, some tips on evaluating and choosing an AJAX library are presented.

Chapter 9 covers additional optimization techniques — aside from the Web page and code techniques covered earlier — on both the server and client side. The former category consists of parallel downloads, frequent caching, HTTP compression, delta encoding, and rewriting URIs. The latter category consists of load delaying, caching of off-site files on the server to be loaded locally, JavaScript packing, and inlining images.

The last chapter delves into website metrics for measuring the effectiveness of websites and changes made to them. The author explains some of the most popular and telling metrics, the leading Web analytics software (both Web server log analysis and JavaScript page tagging), and how they can be used for improving one's search marketing strategies and results. The chapter concludes with a detailed discussion of Web performance metrics — i.e., measures of page load times, oftentimes broken out by site, request sizes, and content type. The material clearly shows that there are a great many options for testing the optimization techniques presented in all of the earlier chapters.

There are two websites that have additional information about the book: O'Reilly's book page offers book descriptions, the table of contents, and confirmed and reported errata (of which there are no significant ones, as of this writing). There is a more substantial author book site, which has chapter summaries, full color figures, worksheets, all the sample code, and links to external reviews.

In general, the book achieves its goals. Aside from the occasional marketing term that will most likely puzzle the majority of readers (more on that in a moment), the writing is clear and the examples cited are applicable. The illustrations created and chosen for this book are more than adequate in quality and number, although some of the graph labels would be confusing if not clarified by the text, e.g., "Mean Fixation Duration" (page 2). Website statistics and other data are well referenced throughout the manuscript.

On the other hand, the brief chapter summaries add nothing new to the reader's understanding, and could be disposed of without loss to the book's usefulness. Chapter summaries are more appropriate for books whose material is far more lengthy and dense, thus justifying summaries as a way to convey the highlights to the reader. As noted earlier, the case study chapters similarly add very little value, if any, to Website Optimization, and could in future editions be folded into the relevant chapters, as sidebars, or at least made much more concise and moved to the back as appendices. There is a fair bit of repetition, in the form of allusions to techniques that are covered in more detail in earlier or later chapters, and other times in the form of redundancy within chapters. For instance, the sidebar on page 156, concerning CSS and JavaScript placement, consists of a uselessly brief mention of information covered later in more detail. Trimming away all of the repeated material and the chapter summaries, and folding the case studies into the relevant chapters, would make the book leaner and a faster read. Furthermore, some of the phrases are not entirely clear in their meaning, at least to readers who are not SEO marketers. For instance, "flagged sites" (page 12) — flagged for what? Some of the phrasing is confusing, if not downright bizarre, e.g. "information scent" (page 2) and "the scent of a link" (page 122)

Admittedly, a website owner could learn much of this information by reading numerous articles freely available online. But most businesspeople value their time much more highly than that, and would probably find a significant amount of repetition among those articles, because they tend to "borrow" a lot from one another. This is especially true in the cases of writers who have never done SEO optimization to a website themselves, or run a PPC campaign.

Aside from the aforesaid weaknesses, Website Optimization is an engaging, comprehensive, and valuable resource for anyone who wishes to improve the online marketing results of their own businesses websites or those of the clients they support. Online business owners and Web developers unfamiliar with core SEO and site optimization techniques, are urged to read this book.

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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