Care & feeding of your web presence: from competitive analysis to information architecture & content strategy

Courtney Jordan
17 min readDec 8, 2017

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This started off as just an article to help those digitalizing their SMB companies and even for those just establishing their first web presence, but ultimately became something that should be helpful for large companies as well. So, if you’re an SMB company, here are some things that will help you make the best first impression and continue driving more traffic to your site. If you’re a larger company, here are some things to optimize your SEO and search results, understand your competitors better, optimize for task flows, and more.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • Competitive analysis
  • Information architecture and flow
  • Storyboarding
  • Style inventory
  • SEO and metadata analysis
  • Keywords, Adwords and PPC
  • Analytics and optimizing for search and performance
  • Establishing a blog and social media presence
  • Logo design
  • A/B Testing
  • Customer journey

Competitive analysis

Take a look at who else is out there. Even if your company is a lot smaller, you can still learn a lot from companies that have spent a fortune on their user experience. What elements do they use in their logo, what main navigation elements do they use (tabs at the top or on the side), are there particular audiences they’ve provided special links and experiences for? What words do they use in their titles, headers, body content? What action words do they use on CTAs (calls-to-action) like buttons and links?

Are there any reviews out there on your competitors? You never know. Are there any out there on you? Remember, just because you might not know about a complaint doesn’t mean it didn’t happen and isn’t forever preserved on the good ol’ Internet. Forewarned is forearmed. And if you do have a bad review, make sure you respond to it and try to mitigate it.

Decide what your brand wants to convey, and align your voice and tone to it. Do you want to be serious? Dependable? Funny? Fun? Check what your competitors are using. Will that work well for you? Or do you want to differentiate yourself with a different tone to your web experience?

Information architecture and flow

Take a look at what your competitors are doing. What terms are they using in their main navigation? Do those terms match with what you are using or planning to use? What are the main offerings of their site? Are they using Solutions or Platform? Products or Services? Both?

If you don’t know your competitors, get to know them! If your services are local only, search on your industry and main offerings in your area, such as “family law colorado”. If you’re global, search on your main offerings. Who is returning with your top keywords? Are they higher in the rankings than you? Take a look at their content. Can you figure out why? Do they have any ads? Remember, ads will display at the top of the search results, at least on the first page. What words do they use in their ads? I cover this more in the Keywords section of this article. All of these subjects are so intertwingled in building and maintaining your brand an

What are the main tasks you want people to be able to perform in your site? You probably want them to be able to learn more about your products and services, maybe sign up, contact you, even make a payment. How many steps does this take for each of these critical paths? Can you streamline anything?

If your customers can create profiles, what is your sign up flow? Are there steps you can streamline, less information you can require at this point in establishing the relationship with the user? What flows do your competitors use? Can you learn anything from them? Do you think theirs is better than yours, or vice versa, and why?

As will be discussed, this is also where analytics will be very helpful. With Google Analytics, you can tell what search terms people are using to find your site. With your internal site search (and a report of those search terms), you can see what terms people expect to find information for on your site, and make sure that you align your content with their expectations.

Storyboarding

One way I’ve found very effective is to sketch out the personas (representatives of who you understand to be your users, such as an API developer, relationship manager, mother going through a custody battle, whoever it is) and have them walk through your site. I do this by making mini versions of the pages and have the persona walk through either on their mobile or laptop (heck, even in the car or on the metro, if that applies!) and talk aloud during their experience. Where do they have questions? Where are they confused? Where are they frustrated? Is there anywhere the process is broken? What can you do to fix it? Do they have to hop between multiple user interfaces? Can you streamline this to one? Can they always access help? Can they get proactive notifications? Is the sign up process working well? Can they easily perform the most important tasks?

For a platform experience as so many companies are working on their digital transformation, what are the personas’ experiences across the different products and services? Does it seem seamless to them? Is the branding experience the same? Is the navigation the same? Do they know where they are at all times? Can they get back to where they were easily?

Style inventory

Again, what are your competitors doing? If you haven’t checked out Austin Kleon’s great book, Steal Like An Artist — you should. Learn from what your competitors are doing, see what you think works well, what doesn’t. Start building your own design IQ :). Take screenshots of their homepages, sign up forms, contact forms, product & service summary pages, product & service detail pages, blog pages, anything that you’d like to include. I love using Mural to throw these things up — kind of like the old mood boards we used to make :). But if you’re just looking for free, print them out! Put them up in your ideating area for inspiration. See which elements you like and can steal and make your own. Remember, Kleon says that if you’re going to steal something, you have to make it better! :)

Analytics

I’ve used a few analytics programs, but Google Analytics is my favorite when it comes to measuring Customer Experience and User Experience. I love their HEART metrics (Happiness, Engagement, Adoption, Retention, Task success). If you can’t see your traffic, you can’t see how anything you do to improve traffic such as posting content on Medium and linking to your site or tweeting or setting up a Facebook page are making any difference. It’s super-easy to get yourself set up with Google Analytics. If you have a gmail account, you can use that. If you don’t, you can set your email address up as a Google account. Just go to sign in on Google, then select the More options link — it will display the Create account link. Click this to set your non-gmail account to a Google-ready account.

To get your analytics set up, type in analytics.google.com — sign in with your email. You’ll need to add your site URL — well, here’s what Google has to say about it: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1008015?hl=en. You’ll then have to create a property for your site and tag it with Google Analytics: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1008080?hl=en&ref_topic=1008079. Go to your site, then check your analytics — you should see yourself there under Real-Time reports. As for the other data, be patient — it can take up to 24 hours to start seeing data rolling in!

Once you’ve got your analytics rolling in, then you’re really cooking with gas, as they say in Maine (where I spent my young adulthood)! Now you can look at the critical paths you have and see how many people are actually getting to those critical pages. I love the Chrome add-in for in-page analytics. This will show you how much traffic is coming to each page and what they’re clicking on — so you can see just what people are interested in, what main navigation items they click on, which page elements they click on. It used to be in Google Analytics proper, but for some unknown reason, they removed this most valuable of reports :(.

Make sure to set up your event tracking up in Google Tag Manager if you want to do things like measure how many people complete a sign-up process or fill out a contact form or download a resource or watch a video, or just about anything. You’ll have a birds’-eye view on what people are doing on your site and what they’re most interested in! To get started here, take the courses I did at the Google Analytics Academy.

If you’re a larger company that has grown through acquisitions, in order to ensure that you’re collecting data across the user journey, you’ll need to set up cross-domain linking in Google Analytics — a developer is recommended. You can then apply metrics to your entire customer journey, as I’ll talk about later in this article.

SEO

You know the old saying: content is king. Well, it is. Make sure that your headers and page titles clearly state the main offering of your site and align with what you’ve put in your metadata description and keywords. Test your site on Google — how high up in the rankings are you for some of your main offerings? If you’re not very high, make sure that those keywords are in your metadata as described below. You can’t just stuff your metadata full, though, Google is wise to these tricks! You need to adjust your site content so that it clearly emphasizes your key offerings.

Metadata

Take a look at what competitors are using in their site metadata — that’s your <meta description> and <meta keywords>. You can either do it the old fashioned way and dig through the <head> section of their pages, or you can do it the new-fangled automatic way by selecting Tools > Analyse metadata from this great site: http://www.exadium.com. Then enter in each of the URLs you want to check on a separate line in the box, click the button and discover the magic of metadata!

Keywords, Adwords, & PPC

Again, look at what your main offerings are. Search on these terms. Chances are, your competitors, especially the bigger ones, already have ads out there. PPC, or pay-per-click, is a marketing term that is just measuring how effective your ads are — whether you’ve used the right keywords and powerful enough calls-to-action to draw traffic to your site. You can also add up to four descriptive links to each of your ads to your main offerings.

You as a site owner can learn about Google Adwords and which keywords are best for using in your ads to drive traffic to your site. Boost your AdWords IQ and get a free certification! What topics are most important for your business? Let’s say your specialty is a messaging API. Well, first let’s check our handy dandy Google to see where you show up when you search for this term. Are you on the first page? Where are your competitors? Are they using ads? Where do those display? What keywords are they using? Take note of these, as you should probably be using them as well. If you’re willing to pay for an Adwords account, you can find out which keywords are used most often and which will likely be most beneficial to you. But if you’re just a small company, I would just start with optimizing your metadata and site content.

Questions to ask in any continuing or future SEO & PPC analysis:

  • Who is returning with your top keywords? Are they higher in the rankings than you? Take a look at their content. Can you figure out why?
  • Do they have any ads? Remember, ads will display at the top of the search results, at least on the first page. What words do they use in their ads?

PPC/AdWords Overview

An AdWords account can show you how valuable particular keywords are, how your competitors’ ads are faring over yours, which keywords are best for driving more conversions, and much more.

Why does an ad display?

Whether the ads display for a particular query is based on the advertising company’s keywords, but mostly on their Ad Rank, which is how Google Adwords assesses ads for quality and relevance. Thus, even if a company bid a lot to show their ad for a particular key word, it is their Ad Rank that determines whether an ad will be able to display at all and if so, where it appears in the ad ranking (in the top 2 at the top of the page, in ads at the bottom of the page).

If a competitor is displaying high in the ad locations, that means that Google finds their content highly relevant, and it should be analyzed for additional keywords/phrases for metadata, AdWords, and content optimization.

You can choose to display only when people are searching on Google, or you can choose to also display on relevant topic pages, such as external developer communities like StackOverflow, developer-centric YouTube videos. You can limit your ads to only display to certain demographics, such as 20–35 year old developers, for example.

Why are my search results different?

Google’s algorithm is constantly changing and tweaks to competitor’s content and ad strategies and even day and time of the search can impact your search results. Competitors can choose to have their ads display evenly throughout the day (using a Standard setting) or at an Accelerated pace. Additionally, their ad will no longer display if they have reached their monthly budget or have changed their campaign to de-emphasize or remove a particular keyword. Thus, the information in this section will change and is just a snapshot in time. Clients too can optimize particular days or times when people seem to be searching on APIs if the analytics data that you receive indicates that that factor is important.

What are your AdWords campaign goals?

Determine what your campaign goals are. In the case of a mobile telecommunications client, some will be number of sign-ups, number of trial users who convert to paid subscriptions, driving adoption of particular APIs or types of APIs, building brand awareness and recognition among the new target developer market, driving traffic to the website, getting developers engaged in the community — gamification is another great way to get developers participating in a community and sharing their knowledge and expertise to improve the quality and reputation of your community.

When creating ads, you can add Ad Extensions. These include deep links into your site, such as to a particular product or service page, click-to-calls, download links for an app, a video link to build awareness and recognition. Adding these manual extensions is free. There are also automated extensions AdWords can add for you if they will help increase the likelihood of a conversion, such as your customer rating.

You can check how your ads are performing versus your competitors using the Auction Insights report. This will also help you to optimize your keywords further.

More about keywords

You can add both negative and positive keywords. Adding negative keywords will keep your ad from showing when that term/phrase is searched. For example, if you didn’t want to return when someone searched on YAML, you would add it as a negative keyword.

You can check how your keywords are performing via the paid & organic keyword report.

Evolve campaign and keywords

You will need to manage and monitor your AdWords campaigns and evolve them over time as you start getting more data to optimize them.

Search analytics

Once you have Google Analytics installed, you can see exactly what people are searching on to find your site (organic search terms), where they’re coming from (referrals) — then you can ensure that your site content is optimized for those terms. If you have a site search, make sure that you test your site search yourself and see what results are coming back for those terms as well as any other terms that are important. If there are any search terms that are not returning results, either make some content to fill that gap, suggest other relevant results or tag your relevant results with those keywords. Also, make sure that you don’t have any outdated and irrelevant content. Weed that out if you can. If you can’t, make sure that it’s not coming up with your optimized search terms.

Why optimize for search? Here are a few things to help convince you:

  • The top 14 most common queries account for 10% of all search activity
  • Just making these top 14 perform well will improve the search experience for 10% of users
  • If half of our site’s users use search primarily (as opposed to navigation), then 10% x 50% = 5% improvement
  • Little improvements of 5% and 3% here and there add up quickly!
  • Optimizing results for the top 42 queries will improve the search experience by 20%!

If you’d like to read more on this, I’ve written about this more extensively here: https://medium.com/@courtneyjordan/does-your-site-have-a-poor-search-experience-heres-what-to-do-b381593b556c

If you have a lot of content, especially from a lot of acquisitions and different cultures, figure out which content is most similar. If you’re optimizing your search using a free search engine like Solr, you (or your UXer) could create a synonyms file. For example, you might find that a Technical Bulletin and an Announcement are basically the same. Or you might want to return user and administration guides with any query on “getting started”.

Logo design

Do some Google searches. For example, if you’re a law firm, what elements do other firms generally use in their logos — a gavel, the scales of justice, a courthouse column? If you have a particular specialty in your industry, such as family law, search on logos in that area. In this example, I found elements such as an interconnected family, a growing tree, parents sheltering children.

Consider what you’re trying to convey with your brand and especially with your logo. Font counts, sharpness of image counts, elements count. Are you a female law firm that wants to appear professional and dependable, but also approachable and personable? Try one of the newer serif fonts — for example, I used Josefin Slab on a recent law client’s logo. I had originally gone with something more sedate but when I tried this, it felt right and fit with the other elements in the page. Consider what elements mean to people — for example, a diamond signifies excellent quality, a lock means security, an interconnected circle of people means community or family. Try doing some searches on icons and images to get ideas. Flaticon.com is a great place to find elements to start with for your logo. There are a ton of other free or paid icon sites out there. Feel free to ask me for my opinion, too — I love learning things about industries I’ve never worked in yet, and have also worked in quite a few!

Blog

If you’re looking to establish yourself as an expert in your area, you should start writing a blog sharing your ideas, knowledge, and expertise — like yesterday. Seriously. Then share your blog posts on your social media — that is a sure-fire way to drive traffic there. Remember, the more followers you have on social media, the more people will be able to see your post and the more traffic you will get to your site! There are a lot of Wordpress and Bootstrap templates that have built in blog feeds. See what’s out there that meets your needs!

Social media

At a minimum, if you don’t have one yet, you need to get yourself a LinkedIn profile. Add the skills you’re good at. If you can, start asking people for recommendations through LinkedIn. A good way to get recommendations is to give them :-D. Have them start +1-ing your skills if they know your work.Other good places to establish a presence for your small business are Facebook, Twitter and Medium. As of this writing, 79% of Americans are on Facebook and about 25% are on Twitter.

Take a look at what your competitors are putting out there! Search on your industry and your particular specialty on each social media you want to use, as well as on Google. Who is out there establishing themselves as a thought leader and sharing their knowledge, expertise, and even their learning journeys? Follow them! Expand your horizons!

Medium is a great place to publish your own original content or write about someone else’s research. What have you done that is really impressive and that you’d like to share with the world. We live in the age of collaboration and collective knowledge — gone are the days when people hoarded knowledge. Get yourself out there — establish yourself as a thought leader! Even if you’re just learning, write about your journey. Make yourself human and approachable. Make connections with people all over the world. If you’re lucky, a publication may pick up your article and ask to include it on the Medium site — Towards Data Science did for me. Then you’re a published author! (Do all the tech writing manuals I’ve created over the years count?
;-D) Just take a chance on yourself and put yourself out there for the world to know!

Load performance

Site performance is a big part of the user’s perception of how fast and responsive your company is. 40% of people on many sites will leave by 3 seconds. By 10 seconds, they are multi-tasking and have probably already left your site, never to return. Also, Google has started taking site speed into consideration for their ranking. The good news is that page size and loading time can be greatly reduced by optimizing images. Your web experience gives your customers and potential customers their first taste of what their experience with your company will be, so you need to make it a great one.

There are many reasons to improve performance:

  • Keep users on site and on task — a site that loads too slowly will cause users to multi-task and even abandon the site.
  • Meet needs of customers in low-bandwidth areas (developing countries, and often much of Europe due to demand. India and China also tend to be markedly slower than the US or EU areas)
  • Beat the competition
  • Align with your company’s digital identity

It’s a subject I’m pretty passionate about — often, image size and number of images is a major culprit! You can read more here: https://medium.com/@courtneyjordan/are-you-losing-customers-due-to-poor-site-load-performance-heres-how-to-fix-it-7bf23d161a10

A/B Testing

If you’ve got two great design variations and really aren’t sure which one customers will react better to, try A/B testing. Google’s Optimizely is a good place to start for a free or lower-cost exploration. Once you have your A/B testing results, you can add those to your critical path mapping and overall customer journey to convince even the most recalcitrant stakeholder! I haven’t had a lot of hands-on experience in this area since none of the companies I worked for have used it, but I did take a great free A/B testing course through Udacity that I recommend: https://www.udacity.com/course/ab-testing--ud257. There’s also one just for business analysts (I haven’t taken this one, but it’s on my list): https://www.udacity.com/course/ab-testing--ud979.

Usability Testing

Obviously, you can’t beat the magic of actually showing your designs to your users or better yet, having them co-design with you! I’ve written on this topic as well (of course I have :-D) — check this out if you want to learn more about questions to ask them to understand who they are, any limitations they have, their goals, their frustrations, survey questions to measure how individual tasks and your overall site as perceived by your users, making the most of your data, and a lot more: https://medium.com/@courtneyjordan/testing-in-a-lean-ux-world-7d2122ac18a3.

Customer Journey

Now it’s time to put it all together. Take screenshots of your pages, put them on the afore-mentioned Mural or up on your walls. Lay out your critical paths. Add the analytics data that you have over the top. Is there anywhere analytics is not being tracked — maybe event-tracking is broken, maybe you’re not tracking a particular step of a campaign at all, maybe you need to add something to your product or service to collect a particular type of data, such as the type of resource a quarry or mine is extracting. Do you have multiple products and services — have you created a platform experience? How many users are using each one? How many are using multiples? Which combinations are most common? How can you optimize for those? What is your overall platform usage — how many users do you have per day? How many do you have over the course of a month? 3 months? 6 months? Beyond?

If you’ve done A/B testing, that’s a great way to convince stakeholders to overcome their own personal preferences and go with the winning design variation. Add that to the mural or your war room or office wall as well!

If you’re looking across the entire process from sales through off-boarding, collect NPS (Net Priority Score) scores from your customers on these various steps (sales and onboarding, support, adding new services, etc.) and add those to the various sections. This will help you see where customers are happy and where you need to put more effort in to the care and feeding of your customers.

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Courtney Jordan

Storyteller, process optimizer, relationship builder, stakeholder uniter, experience creator. MS, HCI/AI/UX. Traveling this life w my soulmate and awesome teens