When I launched my first website, I had no idea what I was doing. I only knew two things: I wanted a blog, and I wanted something unique that wasn’t WordPress. In terms of running a website, I was new, naïve, and hopeful, which also happens to be a great recipe for making some educational mistakes.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had tons of problems with every part of my site. It took a huge chunk of my time (and life, in hindsight) to fix them all, and it felt like every time I fixed one, I created two more.
When I was finally done, I celebrated by going to other websites that weren’t mine. But that just showed me how many problems my site still had.
They weren’t the same kinds of problems, though. My site had them, but so did some that had been around for years. I never noticed how many websites have the same set of issues, not to mention that a lot of site owners don’t take the steps to fix them.
But now that I have a few more years of experience, I’ve noticed the same six problems all over the Internet.
1. Mobile incompatibility
I’m listing this first because responsive design is a huge deal and it can be a pain to fix, especially if you realize that your site isn’t mobile-friendly after it launches.
The biggest reason that responsive design matters is because mobile search is a big (and growing) portion of the search market. It’s also one of Google’s ranking factors, so if you don’t have a responsive site, you’ll have a lot of trouble showing up in search results.
While my site launched before responsive design became a requirement for ranking, I still wanted my site to be responsive. I wound up taking the only real solution I had, which was to talk to a designer that I knew. I didn’t have the kind of money to contract someone, so I relied on a friend’s advice for pretty much everything.
After a couple of weeks of revisiting problems, it became clear that it’s way easier to design a site to be responsive from the get-go instead of combing back through it.
Lesson learned: Plan to make your website responsive before you’ve even started coding.
2. Unclear target audience
As I said earlier, I didn’t have a goal for my site — I just wanted a blog that I built myself. That lack of a target niche meant my site didn’t have a core focus. It just had content, and none of it related to each other, which made everything irrelevant. While you won’t find sites like this on the front page of Google, a lot of the lower-ranked sites show this kind of random, jumpy behavior, particularly when they’re not associated with a business.
It’s critical to have a core focus for your website so that you can create content geared toward the same group of people day after day. Creating personas for your audience helps immensely, and concentrating on the questions that they’d ask gives you a huge range of potential content topics.
Fortunately, your website should naturally have a demographic for content — the target audience of your business. That means to succeed, you just have to ask yourself what your customers want to know and research what keywords to use. When you do that, you’re speaking to your niche in the same language that they use to research your industry, and that makes it easier to communicate.
If your business operates exclusively online, then your market research should already show you who your niche should be. Focusing your site’s content on that niche group will show much better results than an eclectic, jack-of-all-trades approach.
Looking back on it, it’s completely clear that a website has to have a point — I mean, Seinfeld had a point, even if that point was nothing — in order to succeed. Google couldn’t contextualize my site, and since you can bet that no one would link to me, I didn’t have a prayer of showing up in SERPs. And even if I did, there wouldn’t be any indication that I offered quality, researched, or professional information since no two pages were alike.
Once I did narrow my focus, I found areas of my site that started to improve over time. Google Analytics and Search Console data showed improvement too. I even got a couple of visitors a day — which, back then, was a pretty big deal.
Lesson learned: Establish your audience before you make your site and focus your content on them.
3. Bad navigation
Because I didn’t have a background in web design, the thought of navigation never really occurred to me. So on the off-chance that some unfortunate person did stumble onto my site, they didn’t have many options to get around.
But there’s no reason I couldn’t make my site easy to navigate — in fact, navigation can be pretty easy. It’s baffling to me that so many websites still overlook such a major UX and SEO element. Today, it’s practically second nature to any good designer, but maybe there are a lot of newbies out there like me.
I quickly learned that breadcrumbs are a great place to start. Adding a trail of links from your current page all the way back to your homepage lets users click to what they want while making it easier for Google to crawl your site.
Adding an HTML sitemap is a huge plus too since it acts as a hub for your category pages. Users might not click to a sitemap every time they visit your site, but Google will. That makes it a necessity if you want to rank well.
On top of those, you can even create an on-site search feature that’s meant just for your website. So if people don’t want to read through the categories of your website or refer to your sitemap, they can just search for what they want. While this can be tricky to perfect, it’s a huge help when it’s done well.
But I didn’t use any of these ideas at first, which made my site about as easy to navigate as Boston city streets in the rain. I took a couple of steps back to figure out what the overall structure of my site should be, and then I outlined it (which then became my sitemap). My site made a lot more sense then, especially since I also got rid of pages that weren’t relevant to my audience at the same time.
Once I implemented breadcrumb navigation and made a sitemap, my site just made sense. I was going to use Google’s custom search engine too, but my site was so small that it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
Lesson learned: Outline your website’s overall structure to use as a sitemap, and then implement a breadcrumb navigation system that fits your site’s structure.
4. Broken links
Since I didn’t consider responsive design, navigation, or even my target audience for my site, you can bet that I didn’t think about broken links either. Coincidentally, once I started working toward the last three goals, I started creating a brand new problem — and it’s one that I see even on high-quality websites at least once per day.
Broken links (404s) are some of the most frustrating problems to encounter as a user. You can clearly see that there’s helpful information behind a link, but when you click it, you get an error page instead of the information you wanted. Fat lot of good that does, right?
Unfortunately, broken links can pile up in no time, which is exactly what happened to me. I deleted a lot of pages that had nothing to do with my audience, and when I did, all the links I had going to those pages became worthless. Then, I had the mind-bending task of locating and removing all the broken links.
If you’ve ever done that before, you know how much of a pain it can be.
Because I was inexperienced, I tried to find all of my broken links manually. And as any experienced webmaster can tell you, that’s completely ridiculous. It takes a ton of time, and you’ll always miss links that you should’ve removed. You have to constantly go back and forth, and you never know when you’re almost done.
Back then, I wish I would’ve just had the idea to Google “broken link checker” to find something that made my life easier. Dead Link Checker has become one of my favorites since it’s so straightforward, and it lets you check out your whole website at once or a page at a time. It’s a massive relief when you have to fix up your site.
Check your site every week or so for dead links. You can even create a custom system to report dead links straight to you, though that takes a lot of expertise and customization. Either way, you’ll help your website become more manageable.
Lesson learned: Find a tool to locate dead links and regularly delete or replace them.
5. Long load times
Long loading times are one of the most offensive qualities of poor-performance websites. I knew this when I started coding my site, but I figured it wouldn’t apply to me since I used mostly text and images for my content.
And that was a huge mistake.
I had no idea how sensitive page speed could be. Uncompressed images made every page on my site a digital tortoise that took forever to finish loading. And considering most people leave a site after just a few seconds of waiting, I knew that even if people got to my site, they weren’t on it for very long.
For me, fixing this was as easy as compressing the images I used into smaller resolutions that took up far less space. I used jpegs since that’s what gave me the smallest possible file size of each image. And once I replaced the source files on the server, every page on my site started to load much more quickly.
Load times are even more important today than they were a year ago with the increased use of smartphones and tablets. While they’re powerful devices, they don’t have the same computing strength as a desktop or laptop, and that means their threshold for loading times is much lower. To compensate, your site needs to load more quickly than ever before.
Fortunately, Google has a suite of tools that you can use to check the speed of your site. And once you pass their page speed test, you can be sure your loading times meet the demand of mobile and desktop users.
My website had way more problems than just these five — but these were my starting points to optimizing my site. And while it’s still not very popular, it’s leaps and bounds beyond where it started.
If you’re creating a website for the first time, especially if it’s the company’s website, learn from my mistakes. Do your research so you know what to expect when you get a site up and running. Use Google to find tools that can help you optimize your site, and avoid the common pitfalls that so many websites exhibit online.