Book Review: Website Optimization
Website Optimization. By Andrew B. King, O'Reilly Media, 2008, ISBN 978-0596515089, 396 pages.
Serendipity can be a wonderful thing. It was a Tuesday, over coffee, that the esteemed editor of this publication presented me with a copy of Website Optimization and asked if I would be interested in reviewing it. Two days later, at a regular team meeting for the Repositories Support Project  (RSP), we discussed (rather generally) how we might boost the search ranking and usage of the RSP Web site. Marvellous, an interesting book to review and a real life problem to which to apply to it.
In the Foreword Jim Sterne writes:
"Do not read this book. Spend a day scanning this book with a pad of yellow sticky notes at hand." 
Readers of my previous reviews will know that I take to heart what is said in the Foreword; so armed with the book, some page markers (which I prefer to yellow sticky notelets), a sharpened pencil and a couple of prints of the RSP Web site, I headed to the nearest café to scan, digest and mark up the pages. The process worked - in about an hour I had identified various parts of the text that I wanted to read and also chapters I could skim over, at least to start with. This analysis of the content closely matched the book's two parts:
Part 1: Search Engine Marketing Optimization
Part 2: Web Performance Optimization
Part 1: includes chapters on the dark arts of improving result ranking, pay-per-click advertising and conversion rate optimisation and clearly relevant for my RSP task. Part 2 turns to the even darker arts of increasing the performance of a Web site by manipulating HTML, HTTP requests, images, CSS, Ajax code and even tweaking the Web server. The final (long) chapter (10), described as bridging the parts, discusses Website Optimization Metrics. It is essential reading for anyone wishing to prove that their hard work optimising their Web site is worth it - to themselves or their paymasters - and to keep a handle on what is going on with their Web site - i.e. everyone.
Chapter 1 was the one that got the most page markers and covers 'Natural Search Engine Optimization'. As you might guess, this is about improving the positioning of a Web site within search engines and provides some useful tips in language most people familiar with the Web will understand. What works well is that the author takes a holistic approach to the topic. It is not just about having a well constructed site that avoids using image maps for navigation, not just about strategically placed key words or phrases, and not just about having a large number of links to the Web site from other sites. It is about all these things working together and is also about careful monitoring over time. The author makes it clear that:
"SEO strategy requires a long-term approach with frequent postings, targeted content, and regular online promotion designed to boost inbound links - in short, a combination of off-site and on-site SEO" 
This sounds off-putting - who has time for a 'long-term approach'? - but SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) campaigns, the book suggests, take anything from 4-12 months which is certainly a lesson to learn for a project that concludes next year. I was intrigued by and pleased to see mention of metadata, cool URIs  and (in a sidebar entitled "The Future of SEO: Metadata") even microformats  and RDF .
Chapter 2 is a case study of the techniques from Chapter 1 and provides a useful framework to plan an SEO project and includes some interesting statistics not found in Chapter 1.
Chapter 3 is concerned with Pay Per Click (PPC) Advertising  and the mysteries therein. I foolishly ignored the warning that the chapter assumed a 'general understanding of PPC advertising', thinking that of course I had that understanding. I knew it meant "see an advert on Google. Click the ad. Advertiser pays". I was, of course, being naïve. I managed the first couple of pages before getting lost in samples, metrics and keyword groups. That is not to say the chapter is complicated or of no use to the PPC novice, but it certainly makes a lot more sense in the light of some (albeit brief) experience of using a PPC advertising service. Before I read the chapter a second time, I signed up to Google AdWords  and familiarised myself with the tools. I did not really know what I was doing, though Google's help was good, (if you want to try it it'll cost you £5 one-time creation fee plus whatever you choose as your AdWords budget, which could be nothing if you have saved an AdWords voucher from a magazine). Having got some first-hand experience of AdWords I returned to the chapter and, using the book as a guide, I had a PPC advert appearing alongside a search for "Institutional Repositories" within the hour:
When the excitement wore off, I continued to read and the book brings the reader down to earth by discussing what it means to use PPC and how to get the most value for money from it. Anyone, it seems, with enough budget can get an advert alongside an appropriate result set, but does the cost of the click warrant it? How does the cost of that click relate to any profit gained, from a sale say, when they get to the adverts linked page? While much of this was distinctly alien - what does it mean to maximise the return on investment in the context of a JISC project that does not charge for its services? - it made interesting reading and highlighted how PPC, like SEO in chapter 1, requires a lot of effort and time. Further, investment in PPC for something like RSP (perhaps limited to .ac.uk domains as Google AdWords seems to allow) might prove a small cost for a significant benefit in usage.
Chapter 4 is a further case study, this time highlighting what application of PPC can do for a commercial site. It didn't warrant a page marker and I did not spend much time with it but I suspect the statistics given would make compelling reading for anyone trying to promote Website optimisation in their organisation.
Chapter 5 concludes Part 1 and deals with "Conversion Rate Optimization" which the book defines as:
"the art and science of persuading your site visitors to take actions that benefit you, by making a purchase, offering a donation, or committing to some positive future action" 
My initial reaction was to skip this chapter. It sounded far more relevant to sites that sell books than to JISC project Web sites. However, RSP does provide a service and any contact with us amounts to a benefit to the project, even if the user does not pay for the services. Reading the chapter it quickly became clear that working through the "Top Ten of Factors" was something every Web site manager interested in engaging their target audience should do, for profit or not.
That concluded my research for the RSP, but there was a whole second half of the book to explore and it would be remiss of me to have ignored it for this review and so in Part 2 I moved from the alien concepts of profit, marketing and promotion back to familiar turf - the things I had always considered to be Website optimisation - compressing images, writing good markup and reducing HTTP requests. I was gratified to see "Convert Table Layout to CSS Layout" as one of the tips as I had written that in some Web site creation guidelines some years ago! Chapters 6 (Web Page Optimization), 7 (CSS Optimization) and 8 (Ajax Optimization) take the by now familiar format: introducing the topic by outlining the main problems that might occur and following up with lists of top tips - essentially checklists to work through - detailing solutions to these problems. The advice includes very useful snippets of code and practical guides to using software - for example using Quick Time Pro to encode a video. Interestingly the book does not shy away from commercial software, giving instead advice on what is easy or best practice rather than what is open source. Also important, and true throughout the book, are the very useful references to research which back up the authors' claims about user perception of a Web site, for example, and give the book a certain authority.
Chapters 6,7 and 8 could be used in a couple of ways - either as checklists before starting to inform development, or (and I think more likely) as toolkits to audit and correct problems with existing sites. I did not try out any of the techniques, nor perform any testing on a real Web site, but from my own experience of Web site performance optimisation, the advice seems good if occasionally counter-intuitive. For example in the Ajax chapter there is advice to compact Ajax code by removing whitespace. This makes it hard for a human to read and debug - and sounds a terrible idea to me, a software developer - but is easier on the network as the size of the code is reduced - in the example given by about a third. Often the advice seems like common sense, but the thing with common sense is it only seems that way with hindsight!
Chapter 9 is entitled "Advanced Web Performance Optimization" and includes ways to tweak both Web server and client to enhance performance. Some interesting ideas are discussed, such as delta updates (only sending what has changed), server and client-side caching and content compression, all aimed at reducing bandwidth usage. Throughout, the reader is provided with useful samples of configuration files (mainly for the Apache httpd Web server, though popular Web servers are also mentioned). As mentioned previously, the book concludes in Chapter 10 discussing ways of measuring how successful applying the advice in the book has been.
There are times when Website Optimization can scare its readers - 'why didn't I think about this earlier?', 'why is PPC advertising so confusing?' - but those fears can only be useful as spurs to action. The book also scares its readers by using technical terms that may not be clear. When the advice given consists of just those phrases, for example "e.g., avoid linking to flagged sites" , its hard to tell what needs to be done. There is also copious use of acronyms (CPC, KEI, PPC, ROI,  etc.) and if the user is dipping into sections and may not have read previous chapters where definitions are given then it is easy to get lost. Having access to the Web clears up the meanings quickly enough, but better would be a glossary included as part of the book - especially if you are not currently online (because, say, you are in a café without free wireless). Sometimes I also felt that the book was assuming marketing knowledge that not all readers would possess, but when discussing advertising, it is hard not to.
To conclude, I agree that the starting point is to scan the book, but then most definitely read it. It quickly becomes apparent that there is much content that is going to require a lot of attention and time to absorb and then act on. The times I found the book most useful were when used as a guide book, a list of places to visit on my trip to a better Web site, with that Web site right in front of me on my PC. Of course, a certain amount of technical knowledge is required to use this book - I would not advise my sister to read it to help her get her head around AdWords for her business Web site - but if you think have a 'general understanding', are willing to be proved wrong and want to know more, you could do a lot worse than Website Optimization .
- The Repositories Support Project (RSP) http://www.rsp.ac.uk/
- Website Optimization, Andrew B. King, O'Reilly 2008, Foreword, pg. xii
- Website Optimization, Andrew B. King, O'Reilly 2008, pg. 5
- W3C: Cool URIs for the Semantic Web http://www.w3.org/TR/cooluris/
- Microformats http://microformats.org/
- W3C: Resource Description Framework (RDF) http://www.w3.org/RDF/
- Wikipedia: Pay per click (PPC) (accessed 9 November 2008) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pay_per_click
- Google AdWords https://adwords.google.com/
- Website Optimization, Andrew B. King, O'Reilly 2008, pg. 111
- Website Optimization, Andrew B. King, O'Reilly 2008, pg. 12
- Cost Per Click, Keyword Effectiveness Index, Pay Per Click and Return on Investment respectively
- For more information on website optimisation, visit the author's companion Web site at http://www.websiteoptimizationsecrets.com/