Web 2.0 and the Corporate Website: Technology That Can Boost or Cripple Your Online Presence

Web 2.0 is a phenomenon whose predominate features are composed of a high level of user or community participation combined with leading-edge technical features, such as AJAX (asynchronous JavaScript and XML). Research indicates that more and more corporate sites are blindly rushing to jump on the bandwagon by implementing Web 2.0 technology, often leading to plummeting traffic and loss of visitors.

How to detect and avoid these traps? This paper will cover the challenges and propose solutions that could save or restore your online presence.

Web Content – Giving Up Control ?

One key factor enabling successful search engine optimization is fine-tuning website content according to your search terms. If the content is written by editorial staff or internal copywriters, this usually doesn’t pose a problem. But what if the site content is created by the actual visitors and users of the Web platform or community?

Within the framework of Web 2.0, this falls under the term user-generated content. The slogan “content is king” is sufficient for traditional site SEO, but “usergenerated content is king” doesn’t necessarily hold the same weight.

Even if a Web 2.0 component of a corporate website contains large amounts of content, it isn’t necessarily optimized for search terms. Thus, a technical support forum could consist of hundreds of thousands of technical posts, sorted by the poster’s name, geographical location, etc., but if nobody is searching for the specific name of a poster or location, these data don’t serve much purpose in helping visitors locate your site. Here, it would be much more effective to organize content according to a problem-solution model.

Detailed Content

It is especially important to motivate the online community to create content that is both meaningful and detailed. For example, say a golf equipment manufacturer’s site features a forum that allows motivated customers to create groups with similarly minded members, e.g., “golf enthusiasts San Jose.” If you simply encourage the creator and owner of this group to give it a reasonable description, it will probably end up fairly short and meaningless.

A more effective strategy is to offer a template of partial questions to frame the description more effectively. The answers to those questions will form the group description (see Figure 1).

From these partial answers, it is then easy to create a compelling group description. So instead of simply describing the group as “the local golf forum,” which isn’t targeting any strategic keywords, craft it according to the three buckets in the template above. For example, “The San Jose Golf Enthusiasts group is for absolutely everybody who enjoys…” is not only more informational but also covers the keywords “golf enthusiast” and “San Jose” much more effectively. You should, however, generate a preview for the author to review and approve before deeming it final.

All in all, it makes sense to be fairly specific about what you want your content to focus on – not only for the search engines, but to present your site visitors with comprehensive and cohesive information.

Optimizing the Content

Often it’s not possible to exert much influence during the content-creation stage. In that case, these pages must be optimized as a whole as much as possible. Elements over which you have direct control, such as page titles, headers and elements of navigation, will need to be tightened.

By the same token, it is extremely beneficial to filter out less relevant text and focus on content that addresses the search terms most effectively. Consider the example of a hotel site with a database that consists of more than 50 guest reviews of a certain hotel in Palo Alto, Calif. If the page featuring these reviews is to be optimized for “Palo Alto hotel,” it is critical that you post reviews containing the keywords first and then list the others. Your data needs to be organized according to your own value-ranking system to entice the search engine algorithms to take notice. And, of course, your visitors will also appreciate this organization.

Web 2.0 Technologies – Friend or Foe ?

Many of the technological hurdles that exist for standard websites also exist for Web 2.0 sites. Some examples are dynamic URLs or the use of frames or iFrames. In addition, some of the most touted Web 2.0 features can cause serious challenges from a search perspective. The following are important technological features that could turn into serious long-term bottlenecks.

AJAX

AJAX allows the dynamic reloading of certain areas of a Web page. This technology helps redraw pages more efficiently and ultimately leads to a better user experience. In general, the reloading of content via AJAX isn’t an issue, if the content in question isn’t relevant for SEO purposes. If AJAX is used to sort a list of results or to redraw a stock chart, for example, it has no potential impact on search engine results. But if it is used to display relevant content that hasn’t already appeared somewhere else on the website, the search engines generally won’t be able to spider and index it.

The simple advice here is to limit your implementation of AJAX to nonrelevant areas of the website. In the end, you will be forced to determine whether the improved user-friendliness of AJAX is more important than the risk of having search engines stumble when indexing the content of your site.

Forms

Forms aren’t necessarily a Web 2.0-specific issue, but as they’re often implemented as a data management feature, they can cause severe problems. One example is a large real estate agent platform organized via a central search box where you would input your local ZIP code or city name to get an appropriate data listing (see Figure 2). Search engines aren’t able to input data into search fields when traversing a site. They lack the ability to initiate intelligent searches to generate reasonable results.

Thus, all content of a site must be available as part of the actual site structure for search engines to spider it. If the real estate site platform in our example provides data for 100 different cities behind a form, there must be a directory in which these cities are listed and linked to their appropriate subpages. Otherwise, in the eyes of a search engine, that data doesn’t exist.

Links

Not every link can be detected by a search engine. In some cases, links are represented via JavaScript or, even worse, the HTML code that contains the links is generated via JavaScript. Similar to the AJAX challenge discussed previously, links must be clearly visible in the HTML code.

Structural Issues – Is There a Berlin Wall Around Your Content ?

Many Web 2.0 sites aren’t optimized well structurally when it comes to sharing relevant search terms with the search engines, which also impacts usability.

Search Engine Optimization

For standard corporate sites as well as those incorporating Web 2.0, it is fundamental that the relevant search terms actually exist within the site content. It is most effective to target each search term with a page or section embedded within a site structure that is built upon the top-down approach, meaning that more general content is at the top and gets progressively more specific as you move farther down.

This is often neglected for Web 2.0 areas. So it is vital for corporations implementing Web 2.0 to research relevant search terms and establish an effective site structure that targets those keywords.

Public vs. Private Content

Web 2.0 sites have a fundamental dichotomy to resolve. They want to attract as many new-member accounts to a forum or blog as possible, which can be encouraged by locking “sacred” or private content behind a login prompt. But the fact that you need to register to access the “golden nuggets” of a site without any means to preview them can be a turnoff to visitors.

But that’s not the only dilemma. When you’re dealing with search engines, it is even more important to make as much content as possible open or public. If a search engine can’t access your content, it won’t be indexed. As with online forms, search engines can’t submit a questionnaire in order to access your member database.

The best response to this problem is a hybrid solution that has been applied successfully by social networks – letting users define an opt-in public profile with certain data that is freely shared. This model ensures that enough content can be accessed by the search engines while still encouraging visitors to register as members to gain full access.

Corporate Blogs – Trends and Best Practices

Many assume that corporate blogs need to be part of the marketing mix since they are vital to search engine rankings. But is this claim exaggerated? More and more B-to-B and B-to-C buying decisions are based on online research, especially blogs, according to a September 2006 study by Hotwire/ Ipsos. The data also clearly indicates that private blogs are much more effective in influencing buying decisions than corporate blogs. So the more believable and genuine a blog is, the more effective it will be in motivating clients to take a serious look at solutions covered in the posts. But how can a corporate blog be made less corporate?

The Current Corporate Blog Landscape

To understand the current state of corporate blogs, Bloofusion published a study in November 2006 of 61 representative U.S. and European corporate blogs. The objectives were to determine the categories included in the hierarchy of a typical corporate blog and identify the areas of content focus. The results were rather unexpected (see Figure 3).

Product news dominated the blog space by far. The global percentage here was 33.9 percent, and U.S. blogs were at 48.9 percent. The next-biggest category of content was day-to-day posts (18.8 percent) and corporate news coverage (14.3 percent). Trailing at the lower end of importance was industry news at 8.1 percent. This is the area where you can establish your blog as a genuine thought leader in its field and offer added value to your visitors.

Building a Profitable Corporate Blog

Blog content needs to target important search terms, so keyword research is vital. This is not your primary corporate website, so don’t limit yourself to covering internal corporate matters. Look outside the box and demonstrate your grasp of the industry, incenting visitors to return.

Inbound links to your blog are one of the most important and time-consuming elements to establish. This process forces your marketing staff to build an online community by connecting with other bloggers who are writing on similar topics. An online peer review infrastructure will not go unnoticed by Google. Tools such as trackbacks, which are used primarily to facilitate communication between blogs, will notify you when someone links to your content.

Should a blog be completely separate, or integrated directly into the main corporate site? This question is fundamental to the overall success of your blog strategy. While it might at first make sense to host the blog on a completely separate domain, it is more beneficial to feature everything under one roof. There may be temptation to keep the corporate look and feel intact, including the logo, navigation bar, header, etc. This strategy is straightforward, but it will backfire. A blog – even a corporate blog – needs to look and behave like one. The inviting and sometimes quirky tone of voice shouldn’t be stifled by the corporate fist. And herein lies the challenge as well as the power of establishing a corporate blog that remains a blog.