I recently had a few meetings with a French tourism company that needed help figuring out how to build traffic to their website. Their website wasn't anything special; honestly, it was just another directory website. Directory websites are a very common business model that range from large sites like CitySearch.com to local Chamber of Commerce websites. Niche focused directory websites can usually better serve their community than the larger sites.
Directory websites make money either by paid advertising or by charging fees to be listed on the site. If done right, the directory will gain a lot of search engine popularity and attract a lot of visitors looking for local businesses. These websites can bring a lot of good sales leads to the listed businesses.
Although the French tourism company is targeting luxury wine tours all around the world, their initial focus was in the Bordeaux region because that's where their offices are. Although they have a good idea, they were suffering from the same problems that plague all these niche directory sites.
I decided to write this post as a mini-case study and for anyone thinking about creating a business directory of their own.
The outline of a directory site
Enormous directory sites like SuperPages, CitySearch, and MerchantCircle make their money through paid advertisement placed next to every business listing. These sites are always overloaded with paid ads because they don't charge companies to be listed. The information found on these sites is usually limited to address, phone numbers, and customer reviews.
Google's own Maps service is also limited to an address, phone number, business categories, and a brief sentence. Google Maps has the added benefit of their very popular customer review system. Google Maps is a free service for everyone.
In order for a niche directory website to work well, it must have more information than the large directories mentioned above. Specifically, it needs to have detailed information about every business that's listed. Every listed business should write their own detailed description of their products and services is ideal. This is the type of information that will increase the popularity of the site and build visibility in search engines.
Pay closer attention to SEO on larger sites
Online directories have the typical chick-and-the-egg problem. In order for the site to become popular in search engines, it needs a lot of content and listed businesses, but most businesses won't pay money or spend a lot of time adding their information to a website that doesn't already have a lot of traffic.
The wine tourism company hired an SEO company to help them build their initial website traffic. Their idea of SEO was to provide a continual list of keyword phrases so the in-house blogger could write evergreen content.
The SEO company had not analyzed the website speed, duplicate content issues, navigation structure, or any other technical SEO aspects of the site. You don't hear a lot of people talking about technical SEO problems very often anymore because the more popular content management systems have corrected the issues that were common before 2012; Google doesn't penalize small sites that have these problems either.
On the other hand, directory sites can grow very large very quickly. This wine tourism had the goal of adding 500 worldwide destinations within their first year. Each destination will have 5 pages of information along with 10 photographs. That works out to 2,500 potential pages on the website.
During my brief analysis of the wine tourism site I identified how confusing their navigation structure was and how difficult it would be for both users and search engine spiders to find the main sections of the website. I also found a problem with the way their contact form worked that would lead to a Google visibility issue; an issue that I assumed any SEO agency would be able to spot.
In my opinion, any site that has more than 100 pages should carefully monitor technical SEO because one little mistake can cause a site wide problem. Any SEO company that only talks about keywords and content topics isn't really worth the money you'll pay them.
Information consistency makes everyone happy
Although the wine tourism company had more than 100 destinations already paying for membership and a listing, they had a difficult time getting them to participate. This is a typical problem with all business membership websites because business owners have a limited amount of time and often fear learning how to use a website.
I've worked on several community websites over the years ranging from Chambers of Commerce, LeTip groups, BNI groups, jewelry organizations, and even systems that listed all the businesses in single towns. Even though each of them was completely different in their needs, they all suffered from the same owner participation problem. I've always found that a few businesses will fill in all their information while most just upload 1 photos and fill in their name, address, and telephone number--which really adds no value to the internet than what's already on Google Maps.
No one will want to use the directory site if it only has the same information found elsewhere. Information consistency across all the business listings will play an important part in keeping visitor attention. Users will stay longer if the information is more detailed than other thin directories, but those same users will get frustrated if only a handful of businesses have details while all the rest are blank business profiles.
Information consistency isn't just good for the user experience, it will also give the search engines the information needed to rank the site well in the results. Search engine ranking of the site will also be quite low if it doesn't add more value to the internet that's not already published in the larger directories.
Based on my previous experience I recommended that the wine tourism company take on the responsibility of populating all the business information instead of leaving it up to each individual business. Every business could submit their basic information and for the tourism staff writers to edit or embellish upon if needed.
Be honest with your developer
Building a business directory website is much like building your own social network. The website platform you choose must be able to support multiple user accounts that can also edit their own information while still allowing full administrative and editorial power to the website owner.
The wine tourism company chose EZ Platform 1.7 as their content management system. Although this CMS has been around for several years, it was incorrectly suited for a directory website. This CMS only allowed the company to add new blogs to the website but did not give any ability to edit information on the home page, about us page, or even the staff page. Additionally, they had no control over the information in each business listing, nor could they reset passwords for any of the businesses.
If you're thinking of developing a directory website, then you need to choose a website platform that will allow you full control of users and all the content. Even though users have accounts, it's still your website to control and you should be able to edit the information that businesses are adding to your site.
The Junior CMS is the website platform that my company uses to set up directory sites. It has a lot of good features and makes it easy to maintain all the content, blog posts, and all the information that businesses would upload for themselves.
The wine tourism company was unwilling to spend any more money to redevelop their website until they started to turn a profit, but at the same time they contacted me to help analyze and create a plan to deal with the current technical problems. I tried to explain that they would probably spend more money on consulting fees, paid online marketing, and employee payroll than the cost of redeveloping their website again.
It's hard for me to tell someone that they made a mistake and they should just start over, but I do see this happening to many first-time website owners. No matter how well you plan out your website design and concept, ideas always change during development as you begin to discover how things will work in practice.
Redefining the parameters of your website will usually incur additional development costs, but having a correctly running website will either make or break your overall website business.
Know thy customer needs
For as long as I can remember, I've always felt that the best way to understand your customer is to put yourself in their situation. Don't just sit at your desk and pretend to think the way you hope they're thinking; instead, change your physical location and try to use your website how and when they might be using it.
Mobile devices allow us to use the internet everywhere now. It's easy to get caught believing that your customers will only use your website from a computer or from a smartphone and to design the site accordingly, but that's only a small piece of the design process. You also have to consider what your customers are thinking when they are at home, at work, sitting on their couch, riding a bus, and even driving a car. There are motivating factors behind each one of those usage situations that you should tap into.
Exactly what type of information will the person need if they are driving a car compared to leisurely sitting in their living room? Can you plan your website design and content to account for both purposes? This is good food for thought for any website, and it's part of creating a customer avatar to better understand who your customer is and what their needs are.
The wine tourism company built their website to capture attention of people planning their vacations about 90 days in advance. This would give plenty of time to create an itinerary and arrange the tours. However, they had another area of the site that was supposed to connect local tour guides with tourists that were already traveling and wanted to find something fun to do at the last minute.
Last minute needs are very different and very demanding. Tourists will most likely be using their smartphone to look for something to do and they will need immediate replies to their requests. Once this scenario was identified, it became very clear that the website didn't suit their needs because the design focused only on pre-planned travel.
Watch your language
As an American, I was asked to review their wine tourism website to see how well it would target American tourist. They had already spent the better part of a year writing blog content for the website and struggling to populate the business listings. Perhaps the most surprising thing I noticed was their sentence structure and word usage; the entire website was using British English instead of American English.
Their in-house staff writers were all trained in British English and no one considered that it would be a problem. I pointed out the language problems that I found quickly and suggested that they hire an American writer to review and rewrite everything.
This might seem like a small detail, but the subtle differences between UK and US English are enough to limit your website from appearing in google.com results vs. google.co.uk results.
The lesson here is that you should always hire a native speaker from whatever country you want to target.
There's a big difference between a simple business website with fewer than 30 pages and any type of ecommerce or other business website. Simple websites are easy to plan out and build while the more complicated sites seem to run into cost overruns and delays.
Innovative website ideas are very difficult to build because you'll have a lot to learn and figure out while you're building the site. You might even have to start over from scratch; it's all part of the initial learning curve.
No matter what website you are trying to build, you will always experience the same problems that millions of other website owners have had. Every new website project seems to have development setbacks, changes in the scope of the project, difficulties analyzing customer needs, and SEO learning curve, and long term website management responsibilities.
Don't be afraid to chase your innovative website idea; just be prepared to learn a lot along the way and be prepared to spend a lot of money getting it to work before you start seeing a return on the investment.