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Review: Building Findable Websites

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In: Reviews > Book Reviews

By Matthew Pennell

Published on June 9, 2008

If you’ve ever tried to sell a client on the benefits of web standards—or even more specialized features such as microformats—the chances are that at some point you’ve promised improved search engine rankings. But have you ever had anything concrete upon which to base your claims? The promised land of web standards was one of immediate search engine benefits, but in the years since adoption became widespread it has been easy to become disillusioned with the actual benefits.

Aarron Walter’s new book, Building Findable Websites, is a welcome change from the many books on specific technologies or languages. It attempts to bridge the gap between code and strategy to take a look at the more general and business-focused subject of ‘findability’ (a term first popularized by Peter Morville in his 2005 book, Ambient Findability)—and, at least partially, it succeeds.

Who Is The Book For?

The focus on findability might lead one to conclude that it’s a pure SEO guide, but as Walter states early on: “Findability is a multifaceted subject in which SEO is but a piece. Upon reading this book you’ll have a complete picture of how a holistic approach to building websites using web standards will…make your sites more search engine friendly [and] more successful.” Walter reframes the SEO argument in terms of the user—findable content is as much to improve the web for our visitors as it is to attract search traffic.

There is something here for everyone; whether you are a marketeer, front-end developer/designer or programmer, strategy is mixed in with hints and tips to improve the overall site experience you are producing.

What Will I Learn?

After a brief introduction to web standards that will be familiar to most readers, and a discussion on the benefits of semantic code choices, we head off into an exploration of front-end findability techniques. Short hints are scattered throughout the book, introducing such concepts as including keywords in filenames and shortening folder names.

While there are some goes-without-saying moments (one would hope that using CSS backgrounds for decorative images is standard practice by now), other decisions that perhaps were more intuition than knowledge are here backed up with evidence of their benefit. We discover the recommended way to construct the all-important <title> tag, and the section on microformats is not just more banner waving with precious little in the way of evidence; Walter is cautiously optimistic that the major search engines will introduce ΜF-aware search indexing in the near future.

After dispensing with the client side of things, the book turns its attention to the server. Findability, Walter says, can be significantly improved by paying a little attention to aspects such as file and domain names, URLs, custom 404s, and server optimization. Many of the approaches recommended by Yahoo!’s high performance work are included, with detailed looks at .htaccess, caching, and compression, as well as using the YSlow plugin to tweak site performance.

Many cheatsheets and other useful references are linked to in the book, and the official website features four additional chapters not included in the book.

With both client- and server-side code under control, the book turns to the most important aspect when it comes to findability: Your content. As Walter states, “code alone will not win the SEO war, but when combined with the right content, it can be the factor that pushes you to the top”, and content is rightly given significant attention. Findability has three goals—help people find your site, help people find what they’re looking for, and encourage repeat traffic. Great content, according to Walter, can even be a form of karma—help other people, and they will help you achieve your site aims; the book cites the Blueprint CSS framework as an example of altruism converted into benefit (inbound links, in that case). Recommendations for creating great content, the benefits of giving away stuff, and managing user-generated content are all discussed, and some myths are dispelled—such as the search benefits of regularly updated content.

One of the most important aspects of SEO is keyword selection and targeting, and the book includes a guide to identifying, selecting, and distributing your chosen keywords. Keyword density evaluation is discussed, and recommendations made on the optimal keyword distribution.

Too many hats

At times the book can’t seem to decide whether it is for business types, marketers, or developers. Transitions from straightforward marketing decisions into object-oriented PHP are jarring, and could easily have been omitted or pointed to external resources.

Chapter 5 focuses on “Building A Findable Blog”. While this may appeal to a narrower audience than the rest of the book, the advice is generally good (if mostly simple common sense), although the focus on Wordpress and more PHP examples dilute the overall message of the book and feels like a hurdle in the middle of an otherwise engrossing read. Another chapter walks the reader through choosing and configuring a site search mechanism (Google, Rollyo, Atomz, and others are discussed) or creating your own PHP+MySQL-powered search. While no doubt useful for some, again this has the effect of de-focusing the book’s message.

Luckily it gets straight back on track with a look at findability roadblocks; how some content types—JavaScript, Flash, and audio and video—can make finding content more difficult, and discusses ways to mitigate their effects. Other chapters cover the ever-popular subject of Ajax—an Ajax-powered catalog system is used as part of a long-winded demonstration of Hijax-inspired scripting—and mailing lists also get the overly-detailed example treatment.

Summary

The final chapter recommends a staggered effort to implement the many findability strategies covered in the book, and ends with a word of caution not to expect magical results immediately.

Overall, the book is certainly full of useful, actionable advice for anyone beginning a career in web development, and contains many hints and tips that seasoned veterans could benefit from. The lack of focus and occasional wanders into too-specific areas are distracting (unless you are a Wordpress user in need of a mailing list), but the quality of advice in the rest of the book more than makes up for these minor annoyances.

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Related Topics: Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Planning, Information Design, Information Architecture, Browsers

 

Matthew Pennell works as a senior designer for one of Europe's leading hotel booking websites, writing semantic XHTML, bleeding-edge CSS and JavaScript that usually works. He is the former Managing Editor and former Editor in Chief of Digital Web, and blogs at The Watchmaker Project.

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