Drive-By Shooting Special: Melani Ward

James watched as Harry hitched a tattered leather bag to his bike and revved up the engine. For the last time, he headed off into the sunset. What a character. Man, they’d trashed and torched their share of sites, and done some hits they could be darned proud of.

Now James stood in the doorway, the mud spit up by the old bike’s back tire forming grey-brown clumps on his white t-shirt. He was uncharacteristically overwhelmed by the urge to call out to the departing figure. “Hey! That’s my bag!”

But Harry was gone.

A few hours later, James was puttering in the garage, bleaching a particularly nasty oil slick here, corralling wayward tools there, with Kid Rock blaring from the stereo in the background, when the phone on his hip buzzed. He dove for the volume to twist it down and yanked the phone from his pocket.

Where the phone number should be on his screen, there was only a 3. Intrigued, James answered the call.

“Yep, I can be there in 30 minutes.” Enough with the cleanup; time for some fun. He went out and chose an old beater car that wouldn’t be noticed at the hit, giving the sleek Solstice beside it a wistful glance before shoving the keys in and bashing the steering wheel to get the damned car started.

Today’s hit is for Melani Ward’s self-titled blog. Here’s what the site looked like when we drove by:

MelaniWard

In spite of the feeling that things were rocking right along, it was a quiet ride over to the site of this hit. Nothing a little radio couldn’t fix, though. Except drumming his fingers on the steering wheel almost made James miss the turn to the building.

First problem – we have no idea what this site is about just from its name. Maybe we’re out of touch with trends, but we don’t know a Melani Ward and we can’t tell what this site is about just from its name. We’ve discussed personally branded sites before (here, here and here), and as a rule we discourage them. Unless you’re very well known, having a site named after you isn’t going to bring in new readers or tell visitors what they can expect.

But, two points for making sure that the name of your site, Melani Ward’s Blog, matches the domain name, melaniward.com. Consistency is something we do applaud (even though we feel you need to get a business branded name and URL).

Another problem when we land is that we’re unclear what this site is about. In fact, we’re confused – entrepreneurship, lifestyle design, health, wellness, and spirituality… that’s quite the cocktail, and it’s never a good idea to mix your drinks. We suggest picking a focus for the site instead of trying to cover a vast number of topics and narrowing down your niche.

When James neared the building, he lowered the radio’s volume instinctively. This looked like a place he’d need to enter with even more than his usual silence. He grabbed the gun from under his seat and shoved it in the waist of his jeans as he stepped out of the car… the shirt. Damn. He’d forgotten to change.

With one eye on the building, he straightened out his clothes, flicking the dried mud off his shirt. Too ratty in a neighborhood like this one, and he’d be noticed for sure. But when he checked in the reflection of the car’s window, he decided his shirt looked like it had been designed that way – casual grunge. It’d do.

For a second James wasn’t sure this was the place. The address was right, but deep down something about this hit felt funky. He had a wary look around the building before deciding to enter.

With millions of sites on the Internet, and thousands (or more) claiming to compete directly with you, your site meta is a first chance to make a great impression — and before visitors even click through to your site.

The meta description for your site is the text that visitors see below your link when they do a search in Google and possible matches are returned. This is your first contact with potential visitors, and it helps you to earn that very first click through to your site. This mini-pitch has to be interesting, unique, and all about the reader.

Your meta description reads: “This Page is All About Stuff, People & Ideas I Think are Coolio Lifestyle Design Calculator – This is just totally cool and if I had any tech savvyness in”

Yep. Literally.

Now, we’re ‘net-savvy and we poked around to discover this is a snippet from the first lines on an interior page of the site—but almost no readers know that, and they won’t poke around to find out. They’ll read that description from the Google search returns and pass the site by.

You also have no meta keywords that could help people find your site. When people type what they’re looking for into Google or another search engine, keywords may help your site show up in the returns for their search term. Right now, you have no meta keywords at all. Every drop in the bucket counts when you’re looking to be found amongst millions, so get meta keywords in there and put all chances on your side.

Get targeted keywords, using phrases a searcher might look, and write a great description into your meta data. In the fewest words possible, address a potential site visitor’s needs, and that if they’ve found your link, they’re a click away from the place that can change their life.

Dramatic? Sure. You’ve got about a second and a half to get that click-through from search engine results. Get people excited about your blog! Make them say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for!”

The marble-fronted building had a bright blue door beckoning James to try it. He gave a bare nudge and the door opened wide, making him nearly fall right in —where the owner spotted him instantly and almost jumped on him in a gigantic hug.

Caught. Trapped. Dammit. Breaking and entering didn’t usually go this way… or leave him at such a loss for words. When the owner leaped, James forgot his excuse for being there, so he listened blankly as Melani welcomed him to her home.

“Hey! How are you? Are you new here? There aren’t a lot of guys around but you’re definitely welcome. Have a look around. Whatever you’re interested in, you can be sure it’s here. Nice to have you drop by…”

That welcoming impression was one of the first things we felt when we saw the site. It was nice. It was clean. The graphics were appealing. While one of your taglines states, “Lifestyle design for women,” the site is comfortable for men too. The modern look is very appealing, the colors are bold and harmonious, and wow, that banner grabs the eye and encourages hanging around and getting to know you.

It’s definitely for people who embrace life as your author photo shows you doing in the banner—this is not a frilly site at all. And that’s a great picture, by the way. We like.

(Melani—You sneaky woman, you made changes between our first notes on the site and when we finished our hit. Originally, the first tagline led us to think we’d be getting some mojo on.)

But whom are we getting to know? The site title gives us a name, all right. The browser tab suggests another idea, one of entrepreneurship, health, spirituality…the tagline to the right of your photo tells us this is about Lifestyle Design, and the fourth indicator tells us, “Simple, direct, & unapologetic advice on mastering the art of playing at work & life.”

By now, a site visitor is quickly full of guesses as to what kind of person you might be and what they’ll find on this site, but no clear understanding of what this whole thing is all about. Everything is kind of related… ish… but not all saying the same thing. As a result, the we start to get that unfocussed whatever-you-want-from-peanut-butter-to-sky-diving-is-probably-here feeling.

We’d like to see these first impressions distilled a lot more, repeating the same core idea in just a couple of ways, so the right visitor feels right at home. You can talk about two or three topics within a blog, yes, but there has to be some sort of core, and visitors have to feel as if they understand what this site is about and what it’ll give them.

James had wanted to get the hit set up before he ran into this ball of energy owner. Now he’d have to set things up far too publicly. Well, she said to look around, so I’ll start doing that, he thought.

The sign by the doorway was clean and easy to read, though he would have preferred a cleaner font in a sans serif and in white over the blue background. Beyond that, the décor was comfortable, with its leathery brown and marbled cream walls. No complaints.

That’s quite true. There aren’t many complaints in regards to the look and design of the site. It looks nice. The subscribe options are easy to find, the color scheme is nice, and the layout is clean, uncluttered and pleasing. You might want to add a little texture or something to that big blue square, as it looks flat, but overall, well done.

The exits were clearly marked—though there seemed to be far more than a building of this size needed. It would be very, very easy to leave this place. Some were confusing, and wandering around, James noticed doors mysteriously marked “Coolio”. Others seemed innocent enough, but he avoided opening them – he didn’t want to get distracted.

The design of the site is modern and warm. The elements are mainly well-integrated. Visually, you’ve encouraged us to stay. Yet in your sidebar, there are far too many ways for a reader to leave your site! Bookshelf, flickr, your twitter feed, recent comments (with links to click off site to commenters’ blogs), a blogroll with just one blog in it—for a new reader it’s almost more likely that they’ll accidentally leave than that they’ll stay if they wander the long hallway of your sidebar.

We’d strongly recommend that you pare back the sidebar elements which lead off your site to the only elements which somehow provide a necessary return in terms of readership or money. Like the index of a book, you want your sidebar to encourage further exploration of its contents.

To that end we’d also encourage you to put a link to your dated archives in the sidebar, rather than the archives link that’s buried in the footer of your page right now. Only the most dedicated reader would find the link where it’s currently located.

Down a long hallway, James spotted a bookshelf. Thinking maybe he could take a break and get his bearings, he walked a bit closer, pretending to peer at the titles. As he approached, one of the books flew off the shelf. “OW! Ow, sonofa…”

The Tipping Point. Figures. James mentally muttered down at the book, kicking it away. More like tripping point, if this Melani has the place set up with  trip wires. Books don’t normally jump out at me. I’m the one who sets things to jump out at other people. What is this?

What is this indeed. The Shelfari widget looked appealing and interesting, but if a reader innocently mouses over that bookshelf while reading a post on your homepage—wham! The book description and reviews pop out to cover huge portion of the post. It’s annoying. Believe it or not, for less web-savvy readers wandering in for the first time to your site from a Google search, it could be very frustrating.

Think about this bookshelf. If it meets the criterion above (providing a decent return that you can’t sacrifice) for external links that are worth keeping, then you need to find a way to make those pop-outs a lot less invasive—and maybe less trigger-happy, too. Some pop-outs can be set only to go off when a reader hovers for a second, to make sure they meant to hover and that they’re not just fiddling around with their mouse. See if this shelf-widget has that feature.

When there are far fewer external links in your sidebar, you’ll still be left with a lot of choices for the reader. Too many, in fact. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again—tag clouds are a pet peeve. They’re a major eyesore and if your categories are already simple and the choices are compelling, tag clouds become repetitious and distracting.

Recent Comments can be removed too, while you’re cleaning up. It’s in the way, it’s not adding anything to the site, and it creates visual clutter. The Twitter can go – do you really want brand new readers to see something confusing like, “Yes, or that too.” This doesn’t add value, so out it goes. Bring in Recent Posts instead, something that helps guide readers through your site to help them find what they want.

Your topics could use a cleanup, too. There are way too many choices, which has the effect of making sure people choose nothing. It’s overwhelming. 5  topics is best, 7 at the most. That’s about as many as a reader can comfortably process. This’ll be easy to clean up – many topics are similar.  For example, “Change” and “Transformation,” seem natural for combining into one category. So does “Business,” and “Entrepreneurship”.

Also, make sure that topic titles are meaningful and clear to a reader. Phrase them so people are more likely to dig through the site. Some of the topics can clearly be tossed, as they just don’t seem to fit with the overall focus of the site. (Which was what, again?)

One thing we have to mention is that having full posts – and so many of them – on your home page is a great way to keep people reading… and doing nothing else. You’re not drawing people into the site, encouraging them to comment or getting them deeper inside where you want them to be. The whole home page is one long, never-ending affair. We’d really like to see one post at most, or a partial post and maybe two excerpts below at most.

Also, you have nothing on the home page that tells people they can comment, save a small number. Most people won’t know this means the number of comments posted already. Put a link and a call to action, and encourage people to leave their thoughts from the home page. Don’t wait until they click the title to get to the post page, because as the home page is set up, they have no reason to make that click in the first place.

The hallway was not the place to be for James. He headed back to the main room, still feeling funky about this assignment. Who was this woman? He needed to get a better handle on this place, that was for sure Well, everyone has skeletons in their closet, so he decided he might as well have a go at Melani’s and see what was inside.

The ‘Coolio’ door. He was curious as hell, had no idea what would be in there, and halfway expected Artis Leon Ivey, Jr. to jump out at him. A calm hand went to the gun at his waist, ready to pull it out, and the other slowly opened the door.

“Hello.”

James whipped out the gun and aimed into the darkness. But instead of Artis’ skeleton, a pair of very real legs clad in purple suede boots crossed at the knee welcomed him.

“It’s not very polite to barge in on me and then not introduce yourself,” said the legs, which drew back a touch to move out of James’ way. Still he didn’t budge, staring at those suede boots that almost dangled off those long…

“Well, if you don’t have a name you can at least tell me what you’re doing here.” The legs seemed to be getting annoyed. The voice attached to them was honeyed, but sharp as a razor fresh from the pack. “I thought I was assigned to this job alone.”

“So did I,” answered James.

From under the items hanging in the closet, a face emerged, clearly the woman that went with the legs. Black leather jacket over a man’s dress shirt… grey wool skirt… purple boots… she didn’t fit in this place at all.

James moved slightly out of the doorway to let some light in; not so far that he couldn’t block the woman in a second if he needed to. She was just closing up a book as she stood. The Tipping Point.

It wasn’t the legs or the warm voice, that gave her away. It was the fact that even wihle working she couldn’t resist a good book. “Kelly?”

Kelly blinked. She placed the flashlight she’d been using to read by into a red leather purse that completed the disjointed picture of his friend and former partner in crime. “Jamie, is that you? I came to check out what was in the closets, saw a book skitter by on the floor and picked it up. Decided to give myself a break. I guess we’re both in this up to our pretty knees, eh?”

“Nobody calls my knees pretty on a hit,” Jamie answered. “Looks like the fates have spoken.” He couldn’t suppress a grin. “Seems we’ll be working hits together from now on. Could be good. But we never come at these things from the same angle – could be trouble.”

“Or the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Kelly patted Jamie’s arm fondly and smiled like a Cheshire cat. “Don’t worry so much. Alright, what have you found out?”

“The place feels great when you walk in. Nice décor. She’s clean – must have a maid. Got some knickknacks kicking around that have to go. And there’s a trip wire on the bookshelf, so watch out for that,” he added, rubbing the small bruise on his forehead. “Then I start to get confused. I couldn’t get what this woman’s about. Not sure what I came here for. You?”

“You know me. I want to get under her skin. I’m trying to figure out her vision. Her purpose. What she wants from people. Why they care about her, or why they should. Is she more than just a pretty…”

“Pretty energetic, if you ask me,” James interrupted.

“More than just a pretty face,” Kelly pursed her lips. “Pay attention. I think I’m getting a handle on her, but then—things change, right before my eyes. That’s where I was at when I started flipping through this book about what it takes to get people to catch on to you in a big way.”

“Never mind the book, Kelly. What kind of changes?”

When we first made notes on the site, Shiny Happy People, Retreats, and Shop were a few of the categories in the top navigation bar. Things have changed (sneaky…), so we won’t harp on about the confusion for a new reader in Shiny Happy People as a navigation choice.

Be careful with being fun and being clear. In your navigation and around the site, make sure that people know what they’ll get before they click through. Coolio needs a new name that’s easily understood (what will we get when I click this link? and does Melani really like gangsta rap as much as we do?) and lighter on the cleverness.

With the Retreats and Shop pages, we thought new readers might get a better sense of what you’re about than they currently can on your home page. Most people want to know what you’re in this for and how they can benefit from knowing you right away. Finding out what you want to sell them is a logical step in deciding if your site’s worth it to a new reader.

Though we confine drive-by shootings to the home page only, if we were inclined to click around those pages – Shop, Retreats – would have been where we’d start, as would most of your site visitors, in spite of the pointedly-named “Start Here.” A clearer name that’s less clever might encourage more clicks.

And if we click “Start Here”, we discover that you actually don’t want us to start there. You want us to start by downloading your free ebook – so if that’s your first goal for any site reader, why aren’t you making that clearly visible from your home page by revving up the eye candy to attract people to that widget area? Draw attention to it. Write better copy for it.

Now, with those choices of Shop and Retreats gone, your About page is likely to do a lot of heavy lifting. Make sure it’s a main course of About why the reader will love and benefit from your blog… with a little About you thrown in as sauce.

“There’s a shop here?” James glanced down at his shirt, ready to ditch it first chance he got. “Clothes?”

“Not even close,” Kelly replied, and purposefully headed away. “Come darling. Let’s stake out the main room.”

The content area of the site has a great look. The type isn’t quite black on white, but it’s high-contrast and fairly easy to read. Consider your target audience’s age and eyes, though. If they’re over 35 in general, you’d do well to make that content font size a couple of points larger to prevent squinting.

You vary paragraph length within each post and make use of bolds and lots of links within posts to move the eye along. The photographs you use are eye-catching and relevant, and they seem very much authentic to the Melani Ward vibe.

Now, see, that’s the thing. You have a vibe. And we sense it. From the minute we clicked through to the site, it’s that cohesive vibe that hooked us. You know what the Melani Ward feel is, and you’re excellent at sticking with your style. Kudos for that.

For you to maximize the blog’s potential, we want your content and organization to live up to that stylistic focus. As we read the five most recent posts on the site—combined with your title and taglines, topics (categories), and even your tag cloud—we agree that the main issue with your blog is this:

We don’t know what, exactly, you’re aiming for here. “Lifestyle” is a very broad word, and the topics you’ve tackled are very wide-ranging. Is this a personal blog? Do you have a business purpose? Why are you here writing, and if the reader does navigate around, why should that reader stay?

There are recent posts range from marathoning to numerology to fertility, without an overarching theme seeming to hold them together except that they all touch your life. And for new visitors, deciding whether to stick around, they want to feel that your writing can touch their life. Not yours – theirs.

We get the general concept of the site. But we don’t get whether you’re right for us as we imagine being a prospective reader—or buyer, if you’re still hoping to make sales from the site. There is quite a bit of information, but it’s not being showcased in a compelling manner, and it doesn’t hold together strongly enough. No matter how refreshing the look, you’ll always lose visitors who have to work to figure out the site. The content feels too generalized to grab and hold that perfect reader who needs to know what only you can tell him or her.

For this hit, they kept the guns tucked away. In the end, the answer was more elegant than bullets. Kelly pulled a few small explosive devices from her little red purse and set them beneath the smoke alarms. With a push of a button, they went off as James pulled the back door shut—just after making sure that all the sprinklers in the building would create a fine mess, especially of the bookcase that had punched him.

It was an indirect hit, but he liked it better than his original plan. He was feeling his cocky self, once again. And he had a new partner in crime – one that he could really get into trouble with.

“Boots and skirts and leather jackets and a red purse…” James grinned. “You’re gonna get caught one day, Kelly.”

“You’d be surprised,” she winked, purposely not getting into his car as he opened the passenger door expectantly. “I get things done—some say I’m pretty good—but my touch is rarely noticed until it’s too late.”

She walked off down the block, alone. Sashayed, James might have said, except that wasn’t the kind of word that he would ever say. And for some reason, the way she walked away made him feel good, made him feel like sticking his hands in his pocket and whistling while he cockily wandered his way down the street. Like Fred and Ginger, they were. It fit.

But whistling would have to wait. James slammed the passenger door and walked around to his own side, slumping to one side to bash the steering column and jiggle the keys to get the damned thing to start. Maybe he’d pull the car into the garage and have a look, now that he’d got things cleaned up. Just then, something white caught his eye.

There, on the seat next to him, was a copy of The Tipping Point.

From website audits to (whoa!) in-person shootups, Kelly Erickson from Maximum Customer Experience knows a thing or two about what works for site visitors and what doesn’t.

With a cool head and a smooth attitude, Kelly’s the perfect shotgun partner for eagle-sharp James Chartrand. Together, Kelly and James give you the good advice you need to get more results. Check out the Men with Pens Drive-By Critique and sign up for your hit today

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Melani, I liked your site. Good read, interesting. But… there’s a distinct problem with your coding. I went to read the comments on the post on Infertility, and it brings up the comments from your most recent posts. No matter which post I want to read comments on – clicking on the comments brings up only the comments from your most recent post. The only way to read comments on a previous post is to click on the post title.

    Also, you don’t have subscribe to comments available. If I leave you a comment then I’d love to know if you (or anyone else) replies without having to remember to check a few days later, and possibly have to remember where the site was.

    BTW, I’ve got a 14Km race planned for August and need to get my butt into gear or I won’t be doing it!
    .-= Melinda | SuperWAHM´s last blog ..The Top 10.2 Favourite Posts From 2009 =-.

  2. James,

    Thanks for having me in. It was a real kick checking out Melani’s site with you.

    Melani,

    I know from a week’s experience with your site that one thing’s for sure: you are all about change. :) Good luck tweaking after those sprinklers stop making a mess!

    Regards,

    Kelly
    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..What’ll You Gladly Pay For? =-.

  3. Wow…when you guys do a drive-by…you really do a DRIVE-BY. Great advice…some I could definitely apply over in my neck of the woods. Can’t deny that.
    .-= Roschelle´s last blog ..Ladies – Eat Now or Starve Later…. =-.

  4. Thanks for this. It was fun. I am in the middle of a re-focus and re-branding and knew this would help. It certainly has pointed out some things I never really thought of or paid attention to and confirmed that I was on the right track for some things that are in the works.

    From the moment I contacted you to the moment the post was published you were great to work with. In my other business I have many, many clients who would benefit from working with you and I look forward to sending a lot of business your way.

    Thanks again,

    Melani

  5. Melani, if you’re in the middle of refocusingand rebranding check out Kelly’s full website Audit and Experience Design. http://maximumcustomerexperience.com/mce-exclusive-website-audit/#FAQ She’s great. Kelly goes through your site, your business and picks up things that you’ll never see or even think about. We did a full Experience Design late last year and it was fantastic. Worth every cent.
    .-= Melinda | SuperWAHM´s last blog ..The Top 10.2 Favourite Posts From 2009 =-.

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