Many times we are asked by our clients questions like “What’s wrong with my website?” or “Is it adequate to support the interaction with bloggers?” Achieving link popularity (i.e., having many people who link to your website) is very important, as it is one of the most important parameters used by search engines to build their result rankings; if one such adage existed, we could say that “One incoming link is worth 1,000 tweets”. Experience shows that a very effective way to address this issue is by defining as precisely as possible the functional specifications (i.e., what we need the website to do), leaving to the client’s IT department to figure out how they will do this, keeping into account whatever technical and policy restrictions they might have. Functional Specifications 1. Channels – Are we making it easy for people to recognize themselves in our website structure? In other words, was the structure designed to service our company or to address the information needs of our visitors? Is information clearly categorized or am I asking visitors to wade through the mix of all I have to offer to find what’s relevant for them? Think of the difference between generalist TV and satellite TV if you need inspiration; of course, deciding which channels requires understanding the needs and behavioural profiles of our (potential) visitors, which in itself may represent a challenge.
2. RSS Granularity – RSS is a very powerful “push” mechanism that allows our content to be syndicated to the outside world, thereby establishing a more permanent bond with visitors: even when they are not on our site, an RSS feed alerts them about the fact we have published some new information we believe might be relevant. The key word here is “relevant.” Nobody wants to hear when a company updates the biographies of its board members (unless I’m an investor or someone who’s interested in corporate governance). Here’s another example. If a person came to a site looking for the technical specifications of alloy wheels for the Fiat Punto, it’s probably pointless to alert them to the fact we have a new design available for the Maserati GranTurismo. So if we did our channels definition well, each channel should have its own thematic RSS feed that makes sure I only get the information I want. Ditto for any other mechanism the website offers for navigating content (see below #3 and #6).
3. Search RSS – Every website on the planet has a search function; but only a small fraction offer an RSS feed from the results page. This is an untapped opportunity for many because it’s capitalizing on something that our visitors told us they are interested in. See my Puntos example in #2.
4. Permalinks – Many websites serve their content using a database back end to quickly access the information; this is very efficient, but it sometimes means that each page does not have a static URL, but instead a dynamic URL is generated with each query. For social media use this is a deadly issue, because it means that all deep links to my website content generate 404 errors every time they are followed. Bloggers learned to recognize this and therefore refrain from deep-linking content on sites that use dynamic URLs.
5. Embedding – Pictures and videos are often used by bloggers to support a post, but they are much more likely to do so if the resources are legally and technically usable. From a technical standpoint, we must make it very easy for bloggers to embed our material, which means providing embedding code snippets (please see YouTube or Flickr for an example). From a legal standpoint, pictures and videos should be properly licensed (e.g., through the use of creative commons licenses or equivalent).
6. Tagging – However carefully we may have selected our channels, there will always be cases where something fits in more than one channel, or doesn’t really fit in any of the existing channels. The solution for this is tagging, allowing qualifiers to be added to any piece of content (text, picture, video, podcasts) to make it easier to find relevant information. This is especially important for nontextual content, which would otherwise escape the internal search engine. Tagging should not be open to visitors, but should be usable ALSO as an RSS feed and should be easily accessible (i.e., clicking on a tag queries the website for all the content thus tagged).
7. Newsletters – While powerful, RSS is not universal, and there might be visitors to our website who do not use or are familiar with RSS feeds. It is therefore a good idea to provide an alternative mechanism: such as an e-mail newsletter. Users should be able to select the topics they would like to keep abreast as well as the periodicity of the newsletter. Format-wise, while PDF offers the absolute guarantee of layout fidelity, the vast majority of e-mail clients are able to digest properly written HTML. Obviously, the newsletter must be powered by an automated system which collects information from the website content management system based on the user profile and automatically sends the newsletter with the appropriate periodicity.