Why I Am Comfortable with Web Site Clinics

Filed in Conferences/Educ., SEO, Web Design by Matt McGee on March 8, 2009 6 Comments

doctorKim Krause Berg got me thinking last week when she wrote Why I’m Not Comfortable with Web Site Clinics, an article that questions the value of those site review sessions you see at almost every search marketing/design conference.

At the risk of paraphrasing, Kim’s argument — which I generally agree with — is that the brief interaction you get between web site, web site owner, and “expert” panelist isn’t nearly adequate. Kim says:

In nearly every site clinic I’ve been to, what the presenter says is a “problem”, to me, isn’t a problem. It’s often a matter of taste. I need time with a site, to “get into its head” and experience it for awhile. I can never look at a design and say it’s a winner or loser in one minute, which is what happens in a site clinic or quickie site review. I need to take it out for a walk first.

I’ve been on the panel of a few Site Clinic panels, and sat in the audience for others. And while I agree in general with what Kim’s saying, I think there’s a flip side of this coin that small business owners need to hear:

If you go into a Site Clinic session with reasonable expectations, you can get valuable information even in a 10-minute conversation about your web site.

The key is “reasonable expectations.” No one would argue that the most valuable consulting advice comes from a deeper engagement than an hour-long Site Clinic. But, based on the sessions I’ve been in, there’s no doubt in my mind that many of the people who offer their sites for review walk out of the session smarter than they were before.

There are things you can see immediately on a web site and point out as an opportunity for improvement. Pretending that I’m the expert panelist, here are a couple examples:

SEO

It only takes a few moments for me to click through four levels of an e-commerce site (home, category, sub-category, and product) and see if the web site has well-written Page Titles. Obviously I wouldn’t have time to do keyword research and know if they’re using the right terms, but I could pretty quickly say something like

“You have your company name at the beginning of your page titles. Those should be at the end. Your primary keywords for each page should be at the beginning of the page title. Do some keyword research to make sure you know the right words to target on each page, and then put those words at the beginning of the page title.”

Likewise, it would only take me a few moments to see if there’s an adequate amount of text on the pages, or if the web site is doing a good job using anchor text in its internal links.

Usability

Kim’s right that a truly valuable usability review involves “taking the site out for a walk.” (Love that phrase.) But even in the brief space of a Site Clinic, you can look at a few pages of the site and identify things that can be improved. I’ll play the expert again and, after visiting 5-6 pages of the site in this Site Clinic, I might be able to offer this feedback:

“You seem to have good content, but the font size is so small that it’s hard to read, and it’s formatted so that the user can’t make it bigger. Users might be missing the message, not reading what you’ve written, and you could be losing customers because of that. Also, your nav buttons have blue text on a light blue background … it’s hard to read and probably doesn’t meet the W3C’s suggested color contrast guidelines.”

Neither this nor the SEO feedback above are incredibly deep, but don’t you think feedback like that still has value to the site owner? I do. If the recommended fixes are made, it only takes $1,000-$2,000 in increased profit and the cost of attending the conference is justified.

Final Thoughts

Kim’s right that the more time you can give to a client, the more value you can impart. No argument there. But I don’t think that it’s impossible to provide value in a brief Site Clinic environment. If the site owner goes into the clinic with reasonable expectations, and the experts do their job correctly, the site owner might walk out with some actionable advice and … in the best-case scenario … a desire to learn more through a real consulting engagement.

That seems like a Good Thing to me. :-)

(photo courtesy [lauren nelson] via Creative Commons)

Comments (6)

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  1. Karl Foxley says:

    It’s so very true that an experienced eye can give you some great info in a ten-minute view of your site.

    It is also true that a ‘deeper’ look into the ‘under-the-hood’ workings of a site and the end-user-experience takes a bit longer…

    The combination of the two will give you some great feedback to work with.

    Another source of insightful information for your site is to let a total internet ‘newbie’ loose on your webpages; one of the best tests for ease-of-navigation testing around’. Give the user a few tasks and see how easy they complete them.

    Thanks for posting,

    Karl

  2. All great points and well described! I think we both make a good case. I think small businesses are smart to get advice and with their limited budgets, free may be all they can afford, or a 5 minute alarm check.

    I wished to get site owners thinking. It’s typical for new ones to approach anyone and ask, “What do you think of my new web site” and not understand what they’re asking, or how to apply the feedback they get. Some have no idea if the feedback is accurate.

  3. Hi Matt!
    I agree with you on the whole – there is a TON of useful information that can come out of a 10 minute review. When you’ve been doing SEO for a decade, there are some things that just pop right out at you.

    However, your SEO example: “You have your company name at the beginning of your page titles. Those should be at the end” makes me think of an example to the contrary. One client of mine in particular has a large amount of brand loyalty, a major competitor who has nearly identical page titles, and rather long product names which their CMS requires be included in toto. Here’s an example where I believe keeping their brand prior to the rest of the titles really works best. It’s a judgment call which couldn’t be made in the 10 minutes you get at site clinic.

    I just signed up for SMX advanced in Seattle – hope to see you there!

    Gradiva

  4. Matt McGee says:

    I thought about that when I wrote the post, Gradiva — was wondering who would call me on it. :)

    To me, maybe 5% of all companies have such a strong brand that they can use their company at the front of the page title. And in this quick example, I was writing with the assumption those companies wouldn’t be attending a Site Review clinic. ;-)

  5. Julie says:

    Usually a lot of action points for improvement can be found within the first few minutes of looking at a website. So many websites are missing out on opportunities due to things like a lack of CRO etc. It’s good to be able to identify things quickly! It gets trickier when the site has underlying issues.

  6. Chris says:

    This was a great article. Thanks for writing it. :)

    I believe there are some things (like you say, on page SEO etc) that are quite easy to spot and improve upon. But things like usability can even be subjective. These things really need to target the end user. And that may not be me so who am I to say if it’s “usable” or not?

    At the end of the day the client/user/buyer is the person it has to work for. And only testing and asking can find that out.

    Chris

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