Optimize Your Landing Pages

Oct 20, 2009 9:15 PM  By

An effective landing page can rank highly in organic search, and deliver a strong sales-per-click ratio in paid search, and convert shoppers who reach their destination through myriad acquisition sources.

Still, visit more than a handful of sites and you’ll see that many site owners still struggle to optimize their landing pages for what they perceive as multiple masters: paid search, organic search and human shoppers.

Some sites are over-engineered to game the search engines. Landing pages on these sites are often stuffed with keyword-laden links and cluttered with text that offers little value to human readers. While they may make short-term gains in search rankings, such pages are far less likely to convert the traffic they attract.

On the other hand, we find pages that are aesthetically pleasing and easy to shop—yet limit the size of their market by remaining nearly invisible to search engines.

If your site’s landing pages fall into either of those two categories, or simply fall short of expectations, there is hope for you. There are several ways to make your landing pages more effective for paid search, natural search and the human shoppers who ultimately place the order.

Where to start? First, make this your mantra: Design for humans first, search engines second.

Your entire team—writers, designers, marketers, merchants and programmers—must embrace this mission. No matter how sexy the search metric, or nifty the Web trick, everything must be subservient to helping your shopper find, choose and buy. Is your landing page’s essential offer apparent to your shoppers within seconds of their arrival? In The Big Red Fez, Seth Godin says every commercial Web page is an offer page, and that the offer is one of three things: Buy something; Give me some information; Click deeper into my site.

Take a look at your landing pages. Is their offer immediately obvious?

If not, take another tip from Godwin: Make sure every page has a banana. “Banana” is Godin’s shorthand for an unmissable, primary visual element.

When your landing page is a product detail page, for example, this element is the buy button. More often, however, your landing page will be a product category page. Here, an effective banana could be the lead image that draws attention to the list of products below it.

Talking about your landing page’s offer in terms of bananas and buy buttons could lead to some heavy-handed design. Avoid this trap by ensuring the landing page has a true visual hierarchy where some graphics, headlines and text are more important than others. Your prioritized, well-organized page helps your shopper recognize your offer—and the key elements that support it.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe and shape successful pay-per-click landing pages across multiple categories. No matter what the retailer is selling, the most successful paid search landing pages typically share several common traits. Here are six of them.

1. Follow established design conventions. As usability guru Jakob Nielsen points out, your users spend 99% of their time on sites other than your own. By following conventions, you help your visitors avoid the needless burden of figuring out your site, and you help them to more quickly discover your essential offer.

2. Provide a “why” to buy. If you’re advertising on Google, your products are likely available from multiple sellers. Why should someone buy from you instead of your competitors?

Your page should highlight your differentiators, be they price, exceptional service, or strong guarantees. Often your selling proposition will be more effective when spoken by a voice other your own. A well-chosen testimonial adds credibility to your landing page, as do endorsements from third-party certification sites.

3. Provide a clear path to conversion. You’ll often be driving your search traffic to category pages. Your landing page must make obvious how to get to the pages where items can actually be purchased.

4. Map precisely between keyword and landing page. If your visitor clicked on an ad for “KitchenAid mixers,” that’s what she expects to find. Sending her to a page with all your mixers or all your Kitchen Aid products or your best-selling Kitchen-Aid mixer is all likely to cost you sales.

5. Provide easy navigation to related categories. Shoppers have unpredictable wants. Make sure links to product categories related to your keyword are easily scannable. Links to popular, relevant site-search results can also help.

6. Offer decision aids: How will your shopper choose the mixer that’s right for her? Your landing page will help her by offering multiple decision aids. These include basic sorting and filtering, guided navigation, how-to-choose articles and blogs, and highlighting hero products. Product demo videos are also effective, as is user-generated content like ratings and reviews.

A mini-homepage
Designing a good landing page is a lot like designing a good homepage. Thinking of your landing page as a mini-homepage is useful as we introduce the wild card that, when misplayed, can cause good design to go bad: optimizing your landing page for organic search.

Recognize your landing page as a homepage for the keyword it serves, and, in many cases, as your shopper’s initial introduction to your brand, and you’ll probably be reluctant to muck up that page with repetitious, spammy text and links.

How, then, to optimize? Re-member the three pillars of search engine optimization: offer great content, format for search spiders and humans, and get links.

Offer great content Google states its mission clearly: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” So it’s not surprising that Google favors content-rich pages in its page-one results. In fact, Google has stated that its natural search results seek to highlight editorial content, while Adwords (Google paid search) is more appropriate for pages that sell.

Does this mean that your product category landing page is barred from page-one results? Not at all, but it does mean that the quality and volume of real content on this page matters. Refer back to the paid search tips on fortifying your landing pages with how-to-choose articles and blogs, user reviews, product demo videos—each of these can also play a significant role in getting this same landing page to rank highly in natural search results. If, that is, the engines can find it.

Format for search spiders and humans The search spiders (or bots) that crawl the Web for Google and its competitors cannot read, watch or listen to your great content. Rather, they rely on the way your source code is formed to help them “see” what’s there. Your task is to make sure that your content is tagged to make it visible to the search engines. Because most on-page SEO occurs “under the hood,” it is complementary to and not at odds with good design for human shoppers and paid search.

  • Here are some of the key questions to ask as you optimize your landing pages for natural search.
  • Does each page have its own unique title tag? Use the title tag to describe the specific content of the page.
  • Are H1 tags used effectively? A strong headline is likely a visible component of the page you offer your shoppers. Wording this headline concretely and enclosing it in an H1 tag helps search engines recognize the importance of this text.
  • Are your links keyword-rich? Bad: Click to learn; Good: Learn how to choose a mixer.
  • Does the landing page have a keyword-rich, descriptive URL? If necessary, rewrite database-generated URLs to help humans and search engines understand page contents.
  • Are your images tagged for findability? Include descriptive alt text with every image on the page and name your image files descriptively—not with internal inventory numbers.
  • Are your videos easy to find and share? Tag your videos with appropriate keywords, make each video’s URL easy to find and send, and place social bookmarking buttons near all videos.
  • Get links . The search engines reward good content and they also reward popularity. Early on, Google realized that every link to a page was a “vote,” and this helped shape its algorithm.
  • Link building is a broad subject, and the rise of social media has added to the excitement—and complexity. (For more on this, see the October article “Want Google rankings? Build up your links!”)

    Foundationally, if your landing page provides good content it is well positioned to attract links from relevant sites. It’s also worthwhile to ask for—but never buy—these links.

    Remember, if you design for humans first, search engines second, optimizing for paid search, natural search and your many shoppers from multiple sources need never be at cross purposes.

    Larry Becker is a Website effectiveness consultant specializing in online retail and Web marketing. You can find him online at www.LarryBeckerWeb.com .