Website Optimization: Speed, Search Engine and Conversion Rate Secrets

Reviewed December 15th, 2008 @ 12:12PM

[Book Cover] Website Optimization: Speed, Search Engine and Conversion Rate Secrets

The first line of the preface to this book reads, "We've had a website for years now, but it hardly pays for itself." This book aims to solve the mysteries that many site owners feel about the performance of their website. Some owners don't know any better, some don't know where to start, and still others rely on false metrics to make their site seem as though it is doing better than it actually is. This book doesn't contain myths. This book doesn't contain "feel-good" stats about websites. This book contains in-depth information related to every aspect of your website, and how you can turn your website into something that works for you and, ultimately, achieves the goals you set in the beginning. This may be a financial goal and your website is responsible for driving sales. This may be a social networking goal, where you want to nurture a growing community. This may be an advertising goal, where you can optimize your site for advertising campaigns. The core of this book will help you, no matter what the goal of your website. Andy King has done an incredible job of thoroughly covering the areas of performance, optimizing these areas, and then properly analyzing the results.

This book is divided up into two parts: Search Engine Marketing Optimization and Web Performance Optimization.

Search Engine Marketing Optimization

Natural Search Engine Optimization

Anyone who has ever been in charge of optimizing a website for search engines can attest to the many challenges they may be presented with. These challenges are, often times, unique to any given project. Andy starts off the book by introducing natural, or organic SEO. He explains the benefits, shows some of the core SEO techniques, and wraps it up into a very thorough ten step process to achieve higher search engine rankings. He covers many aspects such as using a professional design, the pitfalls of Flash, and lists out some of the barriers to SEO. I personally liked that he took the time out to explain what a professional design looks like. He introduces the concept here, and then goes into more depth in a later chapter. I have always seen this as one of the most important aspects to your SEO campaign. Having a solid look, feel, structure, and organization will ultimately help both humans and bots find your important content. I also liked the fact that he had a nice section devoted to Microformats while explaining the benefits of Meta Data.

Natural SEO Case Study:

So how do we know what he says is true or even works? The next chapter dives into a case study. Enough talking about what works, let's see some real world examples. This specific example,, took a site that was not professionally designed, and turned it around into something much more meaningful. While the copywriting was re-organized, much of the re-structuring took place in the markup. By employing quality markup, he was able to achieve better results, as things were all put into context. He makes brief mention of using the Lynx test to make sure things make sense. Strip your styles away. Strip your behavior away. Does the content make sense at the core? By re-working the core structure and copy-writing, they were able to see much better organic SEO results than the first iteration. This is just the first step.

Pay-per-Click Optimization

What we have seen in the previous chapters were methods and techniques of natural, or organic, SEO. These techniques revolved around the things that could be instantly done without putting money towards any campaigns. Organic SEO was about setting a good solid foundation for your website. Now that we have that solid foundation, we can look to setting up a pay-per-click campaign. PPC advertising revolves around setting appropriate goals, and targeting the right keywords for the right audience. I found this chapter to be one of the most important chapters in the entire book. I read through it twice. He breaks down setting up PPC campaigns, and then monitoring their health. He has things broken down to their mathematical equations to let you truly gauge your campaign. He mentions many helpful resources and tools for selecting your campaigns, A/B testing your campaigns, and then making sense of the results. He also mentions some of the struggles you will ultimately face while trying to manage a campaign, and some things you can do to alleviate the pain.

PPC SEO Case Study:

Again, instead of just talking about what you could or should do, Andy presents us with another Case Study to put his words into action. Here was the kicker for me: This case study wasn't all about the success of the campaign. He presented the campaign, setup the pricing, and then dove into integration. However, this was for items that were in a very competitive market. While improvements were seen, they didn't always come easy. The end of this case study was not a magical story of success, but a story of planting a seed and nurturing your campaigns - even in a competitive market.

Conversion Rate Optimization

At first glance one might confuse this with PPC Optimization. Andy defines CRO as

[...] the art and science of persuading your site visitors to take actions that benefit you, by making a purchase, offering a donation, or committing to some positive future action.

This chapter presents us with the social aspect of being on the web. We started with a core foundation, and moved to setting up campaigns based on our keywords and target market, now we look to converting the visitors into users of our site. This involves an array of tactics that revolve around the Psychology of Persuasion. This psychology is broken down into many useful strategies and topics. Next up he provides us with an exhaustive list of factors to maximize your conversion rates. Each of the 10 factors he mentions are discussed in great detail. He wraps the chapter up with important advice to Test Everything. All of the lists, and understanding how users make decisions, are useless unless you can test against them and make sure you are still achieving your goals. He shows how to test each aspect by using your analytics, but ultimately each scenario will be different based on the needs.

You have just finished the first half of the book, and you studiously implement the suggested plans and techniques. You find out they were successful and brought loads of traffic to your website, only to have your website crumble under the load. Now it's time to shift gears to a more technical aspect to find out how we can optimize our Markup, our CSS, our JavaScript and Ajax, and our Server.

Web Performance Optimization

The two-fold nature of this book may turn certain people on or off, but all of this comes under the umbrella of optimizing your site. I encourage you to read (and possibly re-read) through the different areas, even if they may seem too deep. While the first part of the book was about keeping your visitors happy, this half makes sure your server is happy.

Web Page Optimization

This chapter seems to be a quick overview of what is to come in the next few chapters. He gives a brief introduction into some of the common performance problems that servers can face, and then gives us a list of things we can do to optimize our site for the request and response life-cycle. This list is exhaustive, but many of the items are discussed in more detail in the coming chapters. This is just to get your feet wet and understand some of the common pitfalls. These include items such as optimizing your markup and removing the load of tables, optimizing your images for display on the screen, optimizing your CSS and using things such as CSS sprites to keep your styles lean and re-usable, and optimizing your JavaScript.

CSS Optimization

Some of these items may be commonplace for different developers, but include a good discussion nonetheless. He breaks down the anatomy of a CSS file and the rules inside of them. He advocates the use of a Reset Stylesheet, and then dives into another list of ten things you can do to optimize your CSS. This list includes things such as:

  • Replace Inline Style with Type Selectors
  • Use Descendant Selectors
  • Group selectors with Common Declarations
  • Use Inheritance to Eliminate Duplicate Declarations

Obviously, these are just a few items abstracted from the full list. This chapter is about not just taking CSS from a WYSIWYG output, but truly crafting your CSS to fit your needs. It's about making the CSS readable, re-usable, and taking advantage of the Cascade that we have. Simply accepting the output of an editor isn't enough. I have said it before, and I'll say it again: There isn't an editor out there smart enough to understand your cascade and needs. The advantages of crafting your own CSS means that it's more extensible, maintainable, and semantic. You can group items as your needs require, and by using the cascade and CSS2.x and CSS3 selectors you can begin to achieve an array of different effects that would otherwise be achieved through dirtying up the markup (content layer).

Ajax Optimization

Ajax became all of the buzz for a while. Everyone wanted it, but very few fully understood all of the impacts that it had on many outside factors. This chapter starts off listing some of the common problems with Ajax, and then lists out some proper applications of Ajax. Remember, the goal here isn't to just use Ajax for the sake of using Ajax, but to use it tastefully where it will ultimately enhance the user experience without negatively impacting your SEO visibility. This chapter also breaks down a list of many items you can do to optimize your JavaScript while building your Ajax applications. As with CSS, much of this refers to writing the JavaScript yourself (or assessing and relying on one of the many great frameworks out there) and keeping optimization at the forefront. Don't just accept the output from an editor, you can take the extra steps to make sure your JavaScript is performance friendly for the visitor. For small tasks, this also means you may not need to include a library. Read through this chapter to get a better understanding of what Ajax is, how it can be used tastefully, and how you can make sure it doesn't hinder performance. This chapter is by no means exhaustive on the topic, but it is an excellent primer.

Advanced Web Performance Optimization

Now that we have found ways to optimize our assets (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript), lets look at how we can optimize the server to manage the requests. This chapter includes techniques such as server-side optimization, reducing DNS lookups and also utilizing DNS domain aliasing to balance the requests, caching your frequently used objects and using HTTP compression. I especially enjoyed the topic of caching, and the many ways you can manage caching on both the server and client side, and planning for a proper caching strategy based on your needs. This chapter focuses on squeezing the most performance you can out of each and every aspect of your website. Using CDN to manage assets, using mod_rewrite to map your URL's, and taking another step of optimization to your files in the process. Using monitoring tools will also help you monitor your HTTP requests and make sure they are being served in a timely manner.

Website Optimization Metrics

This last chapter brings everything full circle. Now that you have taken the time to optimize your website, how can you measure that any of this has helped? Through the use of many helpful tools and analytics programs you will be able to constantly evaluate the performance of your website. We have briefly seen the mention of analytics software in some of the earlier chapters, but this chapter takes it to another level. This chapter is all about breaking down the analytics programs and understanding the different reports and terminology, and how they are affected by the entire gamut of changes you have made in the previous chapters. I found this chapter to be rather dense, but very useful. Entire books have been written on this subject, so this is really just another primer - but an excellent primer for you to instantly start gauging the performance of your website. Using your analytics software will allow you to evaluate the performance of your pages, run A/B testing, manage PPC campaigns, and monitor your keywords. All of this is done under roof, and can be used to cross compare against an array of other sets of metrics to get any reports you may be seeking.

So, now what? (Summary)

Creating a successful website simply won't happen overnight. There are many aspects that need to be addressed, and this book covers those in great detail. If you are working on a high-traffic website, or simply want to find a way to optimize your website for goals, then you need to pick up a copy of this book. It is very well written and organized. You don't necessarily have to read it all in order, you could pick and choose based on the topics you are interested in. The writing style also kept things interesting along the way, making great use of lists and callout blocks with more information or resources.

Companion Site

The Website Optimization Secrets companion site has sample chapters, chapter summaries, full-color figures, code, worksheets, videos, and more.