Building Findable Websites: Web Standards, SEO, and Beyond

Reviewed January 15th, 2009 @ 01:14AM

[Book Cover] Building Findable Websites: Web Standards SEO and Beyond

While at it's core this book is about SEO, Aarron's first task of the book is to step back and look at the big picture of things and answers the question what is findability? My first experience with this term was through reading Ambient Findability by Peter Morville, and I found myself very fascinated by the subject. Aarron cites Morville on his definition of findability, and then graphically shows how this blends into the process of building a website. There are many pieces of the puzzle that fit together to portray the big picture, and it is up to us as web developers to make sure all of those pieces are in place for the end users. Some of these things include accessibility, usability, copywriting, information architecture, design, and more. That's what this entire book is about - putting the pieces of the puzzle together to create a useful, usable, search engine friendly, and ultimately, findable website.

After the first overview chapter, Aarron dives head first into the strategies and techniques he deploys. The first of these sets the foundation for all other pieces: the HTML Markup.

The Markup

This section starts off with a brief primer into what web standards is and how it is actively being applied by developers. There is no need to sell or preach web standards, as we soon see all of the benefits that are by-products of simply having semantic markup at the core. He walks through some of the essential tags that help you give context to your content. Having a clean organization and structure will allow both your end users and search engines to make sense of the content at the core. Some of these tags even include the meta tags you find in the head. He clarifies some often misunderstood conceptions of their value and use, shows how they have been abused, and then shows how they can be used for good. He makes the strong claim that accessible content is findable content. This directly relates to the different elements that can be found on a website that could potentially impede findability. Content inside of images, audio, and video are just a few of these things. He walks through the proper ways to overcome these as roadblocks, and make sure that the core content is accessible outside of those mediums. He rounds off this chapter by sharing a little bit about Microformats and how they can help add more semantic value to your pages. Through constructs such as hCard, hCalendar, and hReview, you can begin to add more meaning to your core content.

All of these things shape and set the foundation for making your content findable. It starts with good, clean, semantic markup at the core, and then we start building on that. Now that we have these pieces in place, it's time to shift gears and take a peek into the server-side.

The Server-Side

Equally as important as the markup you use to build your core, the server-side needs to receive attention to the little details to make the website work as a well oiled machine. This often times means understanding the nature of HTTP and some of the response codes associated with it. These codes are what tells your visitors where your content is. It's important for you to have one central point of entry for your visitors. Be sure you choose a canonical version and stick to it (www or non-www, it doesn't matter - just stick to one). Not only should you have one central point of access, but you should have descriptive URLs that are reflective of the content people will find on the page. The URL, used intelligently with your markup, can give you great keyword density and quality to your pages. This means stripping your URLs of their query strings or non-sensical naming conventions. This can be done through folder naming directly, or utilizing rewrite rules to make your pages accordingly.

I have moved several times in my lifetime, and one of the first things I have to do is have my mail forwarded to my new address. Without doing this, I would miss all of those oh-so-important bills. The same is true of your website. Your website is an evolution, and sometimes that can mean you completely move things around, whether on your own domain or to a completely new domain. Regardless of where the content moves, you need to let the search engines and servers requesting your website know where the content has been moved to. You do this by issuing an HTTP status code of 301 (Redirect Permanent). This means that they will now know where to find the new content, and will continue to look there in the future.

Sometimes you forget to forward your content. That's fine, but then you need to understand that your content is now in an abyss of the Internet. After looking for your content and not finding it, the server will then issue a 404 status code, letting the person requesting the site know that it can't find the content anywhere. This can range from a bland message stating the server information, to some really creative uses of letting you know the content has been moved around and lost in the shuffle. You can carefully craft this page to guide people in the right direction as they continue on in their wayfinding. This is your chance to redeem yourself and set your visitors on the right course. Using this wisely will help visitors follow their information scent and end up where they were looking to be.

Lastly you want to make sure that people can find your content, and they can find it quickly. Take some steps to optimize your content for quick response times and download speeds. Aarron introduces an array of different techniques that you can employ to make your site a little snappier for the end user. Some of these things include caching, compressing, and optimizing files.

Now the site has come to life. We started with a solid foundation on the front-end, then optimized the back-end to be prepared for all sorts of different requests. All of this keeps in line with our goal of making everything findable for our end users. It's time to add the real value to the site, the content.

The Content

It has often been said that content is king, and this still holds true on the web today. The Internet is massive. Noise is everywhere. The goal you have is to create solid content that communicates effectively and passionately about your subject matter. This chapter focuses on some steps you can take to make sure that your content is meaningful and helpful to your end users. It doesn't matter if your site is an e-commerce site trying to sell pens, or a personal blog talking about what you had for breakfast - it is important to make sure your content is quality at the core. Findability is a by-product of well organized, structured, and written content. When you start to think about the content from your end users perspective, and you are able to shape and mold your site for them, you will naturally create content that is useful.

There are many different strategies taken when writing copy. Some write solely for search engines and advertising campaigns. Some write for themselves. Some find a good blend of writing style that lets them express themselves while also inviting the user into a digital conversation. Some of the different types of content you may come across include blogs, articles, case studies, reviews, code examples, and more. Some sites let their users populate their content, either through direct articles or engaging in comments. Still others simply syndicate their content from other sources. No matter how you get the content on your site, the goal is to make it useful and relevant to your end users. This also means crafting your content wisely. Building on the core from the first chapter, using the right markup, and adding in the right mixture of keywords can help make your site more findable. Having lean markup also gives you an advantage of having a higher keyword density without all of the noise of superfluous elements and words. Use that foundation you built in the beginning to craft and place your keywords wisely throughout your content.

I still believe content is king. Take the time to make sure you have great content, and you will start to see more visitors, and repeat visitors, coming to read what you have to say. One of the types of content that Aarron discussed, and is one of the most prevalent types of sites out there, is the blog. Next we are going to look at some of the strategies in action as he shows us what it takes to build a findable blog.

The Findable Blog

This chapter is devoted to the almighty blog and what you can do to make yours more findable. Blogs, by their very nature, are saturated. Anyone can have a blog. That is why this is one of the most important content types that you need to focus on making findable through the techniques presented up to this point in the book. Aarron breaks down what it takes to build a findable blog, and this includes many habits such as writing regularly on a focused topic, give yourself a unique identity, organize your content by topics, archives, and popularity, promote your content, and encourage the sharing of your content. He then moves on to show how to do this within a Wordpress blog. He talks about installing and setting up your Wordpress installation, and then updating it to make it more findable. This includes showing some useful plugins available for you to install and coordinate with your content structure.

While a blog is not the only content construct out there, it is one of the most popular. This section walks us through the steps to creating a usable, well organized and structured blog. Many of the same practices could easily be applied to a different content construct with the same results. Hopefully by now your wheels will be turning as you see the many different possibilities. Now it's time to move on to another aspect of a findable webste: the search.

The Search

Search is never an easy task. Sure, some could use a simple LIKE query and call it a day, but there is so much more to it than that. You have taken the time to add all of this quality content, and having a robust search is your chance to really bring items to the forefront or give weight to different pieces of content. To some this may sound easy, but the reality is there are many factors at the core of building a quality search index. Luckily there are many different tools available to use to aide us in the process. Aarron brings several different options to the forefront, and discusses briefly how each one could be used. He includes both free and paid options, as you will want to find one that suits your custom needs.

Building a search engine and index is something that is out of the scope of this book alone, but this chapter gives us insight into some of the tools and resources at our disposal to start taking advantage of search without having to know all of the intricate details. With all of this discussion on creating content that is findable, Aaron shifts gears slightly to talk about some of the common roadblocks to findability and how they can be avoided.

The Roadblocks

We briefly saw some roadblocks earlier in the book related to images, audio, and video, and then looked at how we could overcome the inherent problems. This chapter goes a little more in-depth on each of those items, as well as focusing on another roadblock: JavaScript. Now, before you begin to persecute me, I am not saying that JavaScript is evil, I am simply saying the mis-use of it is evil. Aarron agrees. He discusses the inherent problems with JavaScript and the ability for search engines to follow some of the different commands. It may seem minor at first, but when you realize some of the areas you completely shut out by using JavaScript you begin to think twice. An approach to solve this problem has been around for a while now, and it's called Progressive Enhancement. Using progressive enhancement, you progressively build on to your foundation from chapter 2. You craft the core. You build the design and apply the CSS on top of your markup. This gives you great visual flexibility. Finally, you can add a presentation behavior with JavaScript which can override some default actions and present the user with a slightly more slick interface. Those who can't execute JavaScript still get the content at the core - everybody wins.

When you are dealing with audio and video, things become a little tougher. This medium can't be directly translated to the Markup layer, and therefore will require a little extra work on your part to make this happen. The techniques he presents to us are to embed Flash and video elements properly, relaying a message to those who may not be able to see that content. When dealing with audio, it is good to take some time to prepare a transcript of what was being said. This allows the content to still be present at the core.

The good news is that none of these are impossible to overcome. They are not permanent roadblocks. When you build with the proper techniques that he lists in this chapter, you are simply making your content that much more valuable to all audiences. Remember: accessible content is findable content.

The Mailing List

As we have already discussed, the Internet is a noisy place. There are many sites vying for people's attention. We can't possibly think that we will instantly win over all visitors at all times. This is why we employ different strategies to open up the doors of communication with them. We have seen this briefly with RSS in previous chapters, and now we look to the mailing list. The tough part about this is that e-mail has often been abused (and continues to be abused), and users are likely to be very protective of their information. After all, they don't want an overflowing inbox of items they never asked for. This first step is to earn their trust, and then request permission to contact them in the future. Be specific about your reasons for contact them. Let them know you will take good care of their e-mail address and won't let it fall into the hands of malicious users. All of this needs to be communicated quickly and effectively.

Just as with search, it isn't always as simply as just getting their email. You want to have a good system in place to manage, protect, filter, and prepare your email campaigns. There are many tools available for us to use (see Campaign Monitor for some great resources into managing your email lists). Again, we walk through a few use case examples, with some of them using Ajax to submit the emails - making it a quick and painless process.

It's important to keep in communication with your visitors. You can use this to let them know when you have new content of their interest. You can let them know about your new products. You can even let them know if you have moved, and invite them to check out your new digital residence. Be sure to take care of this list. Too much abuse and you will quickly find people unsubscribing. Too little and you will find the messages fall in with the rest of an often times noisy inbox.

Putting it All Together

It's time for this book to come to a close, and that means looking back at what all we have learned and how we can instantly start implementing some of our newfound knowledge. It's time to create a roadmap and plan of action. I'll say it again, your website is an evolution. The beauty is that you can make iterative changes and then gauge their effectiveness. You can see what content people enjoy the most, and conversely, what they don't like at all. Managing all of these things can sometimes seem like a daunting task. However, again, Aarron introduces some of the readily available tools at our fingertips for helping us manage our findability. The key is to remember that instant success won't happen overnight. It takes time and attention. It takes the willingness to know when you made a wrong move, and creating a plan to move in the right direction. It takes an understanding of your end users. Also, it is important to mention that each website has different goals. Be sure to continually monitor your goals and gauge your effectiveness in light of those goals.

Parting Thoughts

There are many books out there on SEO. There are several out there on Findability. There are a handful of books on HTML, CSS, and DOM Scripting. Though concise in nature, and small in size, Aarron does a great job of bridging the gap between the different disciplines and pulling those together to build a truly findable website. While I would encourage you to read books on all subjects, if you want to get a quick primer and get your feet wet, then be sure to check out this book to get you started.