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Staying Ahead of Web Marketing Trends in 2014

As Google’s search and indexing algorithms are improved, traditional SEO principles such as keywording, page descriptions, image tagging and linking are taking a back seat to rich content.

By Burkey Belser, President and Creative Director, Greenfield/Belser Ltd.

For the last three years, I’ve been a judge for the Web Awards and each year the judges get together in advance to compare notes. This is my report on the conversation.

Responsive Development

Not surprisingly, the topic du jour is responsive design, a topic we’ve written about often – see Is Responsive Design the Answer for the Future? The difference this year is that a few of the judges felt that websites should be marked down if they were not responsive or given extra points if they were. I guess that says how far we’ve come -- the discussion about whether your site should “respond” to our mobile environment is over.

However, the discussion about whether your site should be, technically, responsive or adaptive is just heating up. There is an ongoing debate about the wisdom of going adaptive or going responsive. In brief, the technical difference is this:

  • Adaptive development keeps your desktop site and mobile cousins at arm’s length.
  • Responsive development is a single, inline development strategy.

There are pros and cons to each. Personally, I don’t care for law firms, except to say that perhaps not all templates need to be developed responsively.

For a sobering review on responsive design, read A Sober Look at Why Responsive Rebuilds Fail for E-Commerce Websites and also 5 Things We’ve Learned about Responsive Design in eCommerce.

Optimization Trends

As Google’s search and indexing algorithms are improved, traditional SEO principles such as keywording, page descriptions, image tagging and linking are taking a back seat to rich content.

Staying relevant and ranking higher is forcing professional services firms to become micro publishers of sorts. Articles, infographics, interactive charts and graphs, video and photography are being used more frequently in order to tell compelling stories, present opportunities and, most importantly, to rank higher.

For now, standard key performance indicators (KPIs) such as the number of site sessions, stickiness, bounce and conversion rates still apply, but law firms must be more creative in how they improve a site’s overall performance. Improving the users’ experience by delivering device agnostic pages and efficiently funneling traffic to exclusive offers are just two ways marketers are boosting traffic and keeping visitors engaged.

Other notable trends include optimizing for location-based search, Google Authorship and leveraging social media in order to boost referral traffic.

The Drift to Sameness in Design

I urged the judges to move our discussion onto the challenge of creating fresh designs for the presentation of brand and messaging on the web. Technology is really important, but clients don’t view your code; they view your site. This is important to you and us because, if you believe us—and of course you should—a brand is a distinct identity.

[sws_pullquote_right] There’s this thing that starlings do called murmuration, when hundreds, even thousands of birds make one changing shape in the sky at 30 miles an hour within inches of each other. [/sws_pullquote_right]

But industry vocabularies are calcifying, even at the Internet’s young age. Hotel websites look like hotel websites and restaurant sites like restaurant sites. Not that this is bad but it makes clients less willing to experiment if it doesn't "feel" like what they see elsewhere in their industry. Thus, design vocabularies seem to be shrinking at the very moment they should be expanding. For the first time I can imagine a Mob victim feeling the concrete harden around his ankles.

There's this thing that starlings do called murmuration, when hundreds, even thousands of birds make one changing shape in the sky at 30 miles an hour within inches of each other. Web design is starting to feel like that to us. Everything is moving at high speed but all in the same direction—even as those directions change moment to moment. Fans of chaos theory will appreciate the subtle order imposed by group think on a dynamic process.

There are other factors, however, that impel a more conservative approach to site design. The high-speed visitor (like you) has little patience for designers who deliver narcissistic, radical experiments in navigation and page organization. Visitors leave quickly, scratching their heads. The obvious danger to speedy user behavior is that site design becomes forced into a straitjacket. Experimentation is chilled and differentiation ceases.

On the other hand, law firms are seeking a cure from sameness. As the law firm marketing profession evolves, forward-thinking firms are revisiting their basic business delivery model, seeking a competitive edge from innovative service delivery. This is very exciting -- a clear way out of the busy shapes starlings make. Why? Because new models of site design will appear with new models of service delivery.

Website Navigation

Changing technology changes design strategies. For example, mega-menus have been killed by responsive design just as Flash was killed by iPhones and iPads. We still have law firms that insist on mega-menus for good reasons. These law firms will choose an adaptive rather than technically responsive solution or choose not to have those particular templates adapt responsively.

Law firms are beginning to understand they should have significant control over navigation in order to move as the legal market moves. Increasing flexibility is the watchword, although unbridled flexibility without judgment usually leads to disaster. Giving law firms total control over the imagery in their sites has led to “cheap and lazy” design decisions that destroy brands. (See Your Website’s First Impression: was it good for you?)

Trends in Page Design

The whole concept of the “web page” itself is under attack. Images are getting larger, in some cases running more or less forever left or right because bandwidth and compression allows large images to load quickly.

Designers are experimenting with the infinitely scrolling page, too. While this idea works well on Pinterest and Google Image results, the technique is deliriously disorienting almost everywhere else. When NBC News re-launched its site with an infinite scroll, the reader response was fast and furious.

Clearly, responsive design further undermines the “page” model as the page itself becomes dynamic.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the home page is no longer the only page deserving serious attention. As visitors arrive at different pages, the fall-off in design interest from the home page to the services page is no longer acceptable (if it ever was).

There’s a big takeaway here: your home page is not the limit of your curb appeal any longer. Interior pages must be just as inviting. In fact, if you really dig into the idea of the destruction of the web page, you begin to see your website more as a dynamic center of gravity than as a page-turning book experience.

Animated Page Elements

Styles move in waves—horizontal scrolls are already giving way to vertical scrolls. Within the vertical scroll, parallax (where elements of the page scroll at different rates) is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame. Titles and text are being introduced in extremely sophisticated ways -- at different rates, in different sequences using different transition schemes. In effect, today’s home page is beginning to resemble more a movie trailer than the web’s original static image.

Going forward

One thing we’ve noticed and perhaps you have, too: because technology and design details are changing so rapidly, sites can feel old before they are launched. Remember, most sites take six to eight months start to finish. Therefore,

  • Stoke up your courage and design ahead of trends rather than behind them. The web is no place to be conservative in your approach to site design or development.
  • “Redesign” your site continually. Add contemporary elements to your pages. Push ahead full steam with video. You can delay a full scale makeover this way without lugging an embarrassing site behind you. Naturally, we want you to consult your brand design team because those small tweaks can make a big difference if done well…or badly.

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