Don't rely on Google for Web sales
Success doesn't come from driving traffic to your site - it comes from retaining that traffic and turning clicks into sales.
(CNNMoney.com) -- Question: I have contemplated selling my business, but hesitate because I assume that if I invest enough time and resources with the right people, I could make it more successful. We'd like to achieve higher search rankings - I feel certain visitors would find our site useful.
-Mike Braswell, owner, ScenicRentals.com
Dear Mike: Though there are tips and tricks you can implement to boost your biz to the top of Google searches, your real problem is sales.
"Think of traffic like water pouring into a bucket," says Bryan Eisenberg, executive vice president of Web marketing firm Future Now in New York City. "No matter how much water there is, it's not going to stay if the bucket has holes. Pay attention to the balancing act of ranking well in search engines and getting sales out of those who make it there."
So let's start with the issue of Web search placement. Robert Wright, owner of MrWebGuru.com, applauds your use of unique title tags on each page, which helps Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) index your site. You also have a healthy number of "backlinks" to your site from other, outside Web sites driving traffic to your homepage.
But he notices right away that your site needs a "canonical URL" - a fancy term for an authoritative Web address. Although you see http://www.scenicrentals.com/ and http://scenicrentals.com/ as the same site, Google sees them as two. To prevent this, create a redirect from the one without the www to the one with the www.
Another tip is to use an HTML validator to identify erroneous code. Sites like W3C.org can show you where your validation warnings are. Don't be alarmed by the number that show up. If you start by tackling the list from the top, you'll notice that the fixes will knock off groups of other, related problems further down the list.
A third issue, also not apparent to the average viewer, is your "code to content" ratio. Wright sees that you used a lot of code, such as tables inside of tables, to fit your design restraints. This code trips up search engines that are looking for text. To rehabilitate your site, Wright recommends replacing tables for alignment with CSS styling.
And while you're at it, take away the "..........." lines in the "Click on Map to Start" table in the upper left-hand side of your site. In a keyword density analyzer, these dots actually show up as words, appearing nearly twice as often as the keywords "rentals" and "vacation."
Now let's tackle the issue of plugging the holes in the bucket so that you retain the traffic that reaches your site.
Your potential customer needs to have a good experience on your site. The first obstacle: There's too much going on in your homepage. The user doesn't know what to do first.
Improving the user experience
"Visually, all the elements are competing. Instead of listing all the places, consider drop-down menus that can help the user refine the search," Eisenberg says. "I would suggest date, place and price to start, which is the model people are used to seeing on travel sites."
Having these options to play with right away will encourage the customer to explore more, using the options they deem more important, whether that's cost, location, amenities or timeframe.
Once a user lands on a property that she wants to rent, there's no easy next step. Instead of a link to e-mail the owner, create a contact form directly on the page for each property.
"The goal is to make sure that a first time renter is feeling comfortable each step of the way," says Eisenberg. "Another tactic to gain that trust is by explaining the process, from reserving the property, to paying, to getting the keys, to checking out. Do this prominently on the site, perhaps in a sidebar that's on all the listing pages."
Your search options are also hard to use. The "sleeps" sort operates inconsistently, sometimes ordering results from most-to-least, sometimes least-to-most, and sometimes in a completely jumbled order. The best option would be to change all your sort options so that users can decide how they want the results ranked - in ascending or descending order.
More problematically, users can't search across cities. Your site allows users to directly compare multiple properties in one city, like Orlando, but it doesn't let them search across all properties in Florida, in one country, or even worldwide. That's a problem if someone is looking for a rental with, say, five bedrooms, and is flexible on where it's located.
Viewers may also benefit from a ranking system or feedback as they research the rentals. To offer ratings and reviews of the listed properties, check out third party solutions such as bizaarvoice.com or powerreviews.com.
To better analyze your user's experience, visit usertesting.com, where, for a fee of $95, five people will record a video of themselves trying to rent a property on your site and tell you where the challenges are.
Keep in mind that you are in a very big space, competing with large realty companies. Though there's certainly enough to go around, our experts suggest finding your customers through social networking, instead of relying entirely on search engines.
"Getting involved in social media will help you rank better, thanks to links, and be trusted, thanks to community," Wright says. Two outlets to consider are Twitter and Facebook. "Also, to fish where the fish are, get your site on directories such as dmoz.org."
Consider blogging about travel destinations, as well, to entice community involvement. Then, make sure your blog is accessible through sites such as technorati.com.
Being small can be advantageous in your industry, as travelers want to work with companies that are trustworthy and customer-friendly. The key is to find them via creative means, and then present them with an easy-to-use service.
In our "Website remedies" feature, CNNMoney.com enlists Web marketing and search-engine optimization specialists to analyze small-business Web sites in need of an overhaul. Could your site use a makeover? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Plus, share your tips for improving our featured sites in our discussion forum.
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