One of the major issues we constantly struggle with in managing our Web at IBM has to do with "what we call stuff" and "how we help you find the stuff you're looking for" on our Web site. The fancy name for this discipline is "information architecture." What it really means is this: Are we putting ourselves in your shoes as we think about how we go about building and optimizing our Web site? The honest answer is, we most always try, but don't necessarily always succeed. Quite frankly, it's a complex and complicated task, and to a large extent, an ever-moving target, because the IT market is constantly evolving.
However, that doesn't stop us from continuing to try. In fact, we spend an enormous amount of time and energy in this area, one we constantly monitor through customer satisfaction studies. Why spend so much energy on it? Simply put, if we're not doing everything we can to help you find what you're looking for, we're wasting your valuable time and we are missing out on potential sales opportunities. In the 10+ years I have worked on the Web, I would submit to you it is one of the most critical areas to your on demand business efforts, and yet it's a vastly underappreciated (and hence, often under-resourced) science.
Let me put it into a real-life scenario that I often use with my colleagues. Let's suppose one day you walk into your local grocery store. At the end of the aisle, you look up at the signs that are supposed to help direct you to the areas of the store you need to shop in. But instead of "Fruits and Vegetables" or "Produce" you see a sign that says "Canned Peaches" and "Raw Coconuts." Nothing else. There's no mention of tomatoes, lettuce, or other fresh fruits and vegetables. Is this aisle where you get your iceberg, or is this just the canned vegetable aisle? Sure, you can walk the whole store, but if you had just one item in mind, that's a waste of your time.
Extrapolate that scenario to a big-ticket, multi-million dollar item -- a mainframe (which we sell), some huge piece of manufacturing equipment (which our customers sell), an automobile (which eBay and many automobile manufacturers sell) -- and you could have a real problem on your hands. And many companies do.
Most attempt to solve this problem through a balance between good navigation and information architecture (the two of which are closely related), and good search optimization. Some users are more inclined to use navigation (what is often referred to as the "site hierarchy") to find what they're looking for, and others the search engine. Small improvements in both can lead to a significant bounce in your bottom line results, for both on- and offline purchases.
If you're interested in learning more about this topic, check out Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morvilles' Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites (the concepts are just as useful for small-scale websites!). You'll know you've found the right book if there's a polar bar on the cover.
For search optimization, IBM's very own Bill Hunt and Mike Moran just published an extremely insightful book entitled Search Engine Marketing, Inc.: Driving Search Traffic to Your Company's Web Site. It takes you step-by-step through setting up and managing a search marketing program, and covers everything from keyword targeting to site indexing.
The moral of this story is this: Help your customers find what they're looking for on your Web site, or they'll help themselves to finding another company that will.
Your competition is only a click away.