Drive-by-Shooting Special: Start Being Your Best

Harry pushed back the yellow construction helmet and tucked the clipboard under one arm. He squinted against the sun at the brand-new building. All around him, heavy machinery whirred.

Off in the distance, he could see James trying to wheedle his way into operating the crane that was lifting a large billboard into the sky. The cast-off banner that had just come down not long before – the banner lay on the rubble, with the lettering ‘JasonBarr.com’ already peeling off.

Today’s hit is for Start Being Your Best, the site of Jason D. Barr. Here’s what the site looked like when we drove by:

And here’s what it looked like after we hit it up:

The name change had been the first renovation the boys had suggested as they’d sat across from the complex owner, Jason D. Barr. Hired as building consultants, the two sharpshooters had been quick to point out that a personally-branded site rarely worked when the individual was still an unknown.

Worse, the Drive-By team had noted that while the URL had been personally branded, the site banner itself had been titled, “Start Being Your Best.” That lead to confusion for visitors who wondered if they had landed in the right place or not.

This is a common-enough problem around the internet today. We don’t particularly recommend personal branding unless you’re famous enough already. If you’re going to offer services or sell products, brand your business instead, and make sure the domain name is closely relevant.

Keep domain names short, memorable and catchy, too. Make sure they’re easy to say out loud and also easy to type. Three syllables or less is the best length of domain name, but if you do have something catchy that’s easy to remember and type, you’ll be fine.

Apparently, James’ requests to drive the crane had been unsuccessful, as he strode back to Harry – but he was sporting a new tool belt. “How’s it going?”

Harry glanced up. “Where’d you get that?”

“You like?” James spread his arms wide and turned in a show-off circle, obviously pleased with himself and the rugged belt that had enough pockets to make any construction worker jealous. “I bought it from the lead hand over there. Figured it might come in handy if we’re going to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

“Well, don’t give up your holster for a tool belt so soon,” Harry remarked, checking the clipboard. “He’s made some changes since our initial consult, but there’s still a lot of stuff not up to code yet.” He wrote a notation next to an item on the list.

James peered over Harry’s shoulder. “Like what?”

Harry shrugged. “Nothing too major. Just a few things here and there. Here,” He tore off a sheet from the clipboard and handed it to James. “Check out the site meta. I’m going to go over and make sure they’re getting the layout right.”

When they’d sat down in the office a few weeks earlier, the site meta had needed some help. Mr. Barr had understood there were a millions of sites on the internet today, which meant he’d have a lot of competition and get lost in a sea of sites if he didn’t use every resource available to help get noticed.

“Keywords,” James muttered as he checked the list, then he walked over to the bin on the side of the building and opened it up for a look inside. The keywords they’d found last visit had been generic. Words like “mind”, “development” and “leadership” were a dime a dozen these days.

The bin looked fuller this time. Mr. Barr had agreed with the suggestion for niche phrases versus loose keywords. “International Personal Development, Plan for Success, Optimization, Creative Leadership and Development…” James went down the list, nodding at some words and wrinkling his nose at others.

The meta description came next, and this was what James was truly concerned about. Had Mr. Barr listened? Had the text been improved?

Meta description was the text visitors would see when they did a search. It was Mr. Barr’s first contact with potential visitors, so it was important to make a good impression and get people interested to come visit the complex.

The old meta description had been boring and bland: LDCL is about creating the best life for you. We talk about ways to intentionally develop habits to achieve success, however you choose to …

James hoped for better this time around. And he was pleased with what he found:

“Learn creative personal development tips that let you achieve bigger dreams and goals – the ones YOU want to reach. Click here to learn more.”

“Bingo,” he grinned. Mr. Barr’s new description was definitely more reader-friendly and expressed better passion and excitement.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the building…

Harry walked the layout with even steps, checking out the design. The layout was fine – it always had been. Mr. Barr had used the Thesis theme with a basic two-column layout, and there was nothing at all wrong with that.

One thing that the Pen Men had noted during the consult was that Thesis is pretty white and minimalistic at its basic defaults, so it always risked coming off to visitors as plain, stark white and empty. That was the problem then, and Harry found it still true now.

He couldn’t complain much about the new banner. After all, he’d done the work on it, in keeping with Mr. Barr’s decisions to go for a black-and-white, simplistic design. The first thought that sprung to mind during the creative process was classic Ansel Adams: sharp monochromatic photography with interesting contrast.

Photography always made him think of the Simon and Garfunkle song, and he sang it softly to himself as he moved on with his inspection. “I got a Nikon camera, love to take a photograph, so mama don’t take my Kodachrome away… Check. Punch and appeal, a dash of color, subtle, classy image… Check.”

Navigation… Harry paused.

Because of the white and washed-out look of the site, the navigation becomes basically invisible. The light gray tabs fade into the background, they’re small, and if we weren’t familiar with Thesis to begin with, we would have passed right over the navigation.

That’s what’ll happen to the average visitor who lands – they’ll just skip right over the navigation and drop straight to the content.

That hasn’t been altered in the renovations to the site. While the navigation appears below the banner in a comfortable, familiar place, it still appears as small, washed out and … yes, invisible.

Another point we’d mentioned in our consult was that the Twitter widget dominated the page. That’s been corrected, but it’s actually gone towards the completely opposite direction. The Twitter icon is way, way too tiny and so are the other social media icons.

The feed subscription options are weak, too. Using the same icons for both the RSS Feed and email subscriptions makes it look like a duplication error, especially since all the text in the sidebars blends together. Having some originality for the RSS button and differentiation for text fields would help break that up.

Also consider adding some divider lines between each section of the sidebar. Right now, there’s no definition and the headlines aren’t enough to break up the monotony.

On closer look, Harry shook his head. The Twitter widget had been removed, but it had been replaced with a sign that read Networked Blogs. The panel of pictures might have brought some sort of value to the site, but Harry couldn’t see what.

While Harry shook his head over gadgets that didn’t add value, James was counting. “Four, five… perfect,” he remarked, checking off his list. Five links to recent posts was a perfect number, encouraging people to click around and stay on the site without overwhelming them with a long grocery list. He noticed a pared-down version of the category list as well, and checked that off the list too.

But James wasn’t happy about having any of those links so far down the sidebar beneath that Networked Blogs gadget Harry was tsking over, and he jotted down a note on his clipboard list to move those links up above the fold. He stuck his pen in his mouth, thought a minute, and added a note for Mr. Barr to add categories in the main navigation as well.

The pair walked together around the construction site, listening to men arguing over details and observing the crane while it hung the new banner. They supervised some dry walling and watched the electrician for a bit – or rather, Harry watched James to make sure he didn’t touch anything he shouldn’t and end up electrocuting himself.

The checklist of basic usability got ticked off quickly. The content area was standard Thesis fare; sans serif font, black and in a point size easily readable on screen. Paragraphs were well broken up, the screaming “Subscribe to my feed!” invitation was gone and the whole construction site was neat and clean.

It was nicely decorated, too. Mr. Barr had decided to add some color and splash to the place by posting images, ones that were large enough to fit nicely and make the complex a pleasing place to enjoy being around.

The two men noticed some social media icons that let everyone share and share alike, but James wrinkled his nose at the washed out versions of icons, preferring clearly visible buttons instead.

“Looks like we’re just about done here.” James handed Harry his checklist. “It’s nice and clean, there’s not much to pick on and while it’s way too white for my tastes, I can’t say it’s not a bad place to hang out. It’ll be good when the people fill up the rooms and this place starts hopping.”

“Yeah, there’s not too much to change,” Harry noted. “He’s missing a custom favicon, though,” he pointed to the small checked flag at the top of the main office.

Then Harry grinned. “See what Mr. Barr did?” He pointed to the top of the complex. There had been a bold warning sign at one time, but now the complex tower was distinctly friendly again.

Originally, the site had a “No Comment” policy in place.

Back then we thought, “No comments?” That’s a bold move, and not really one that increases people’s tendency to like the blog owner or want to encourage readership. There have been some experiments around the net about closed comments, and most we’ve notice end in people turning them back on.

Today’s net-user generation loves relationships – it’s all about the community and the relationships. Shutting people out makes them think, “Well that’s nasty. He doesn’t want to hear what I have to say? Huh. I’m not coming back here…”

We thought his reasons for shutting down comments were pretty interesting. Jason had written that he felt spreading the word and helping each other create an interweb was important, so if readers wanted to discuss the post, they should take it back to their blog and link around.

Smart plan. One, it got Jason a backlink if someone posted about his post, and two, it created conversation across the web, not just his site. Good, good. That kind of made up for the lack of comments.

But… we had our doubts how effective the strategy would be. It was similar to inviting people to a party at your house and then telling them, “No, don’t talk about anything here. Save it for later when you get home. Talk about it behind my back.” It felt kind of cold and impersonal.

The two consultants were pleased. Mr. Barr had taken that point into consideration, and now all were welcome at the party. Let the noise begin.

“And there was much rejoicing,” Harry uttered with a lopsided grin, making the final check mark on the page. “He still has a ways to go with this site, but he’s on the right track. Slow and steady wins the race. You think we’ll have to come back for another visit?”

James’ eyes glittered at the prospect of blowing up the brand new complex in a few months’ time. And all he said was, “We’ll see.”

Want to know where your site could improve? Get in on the Men with Pens Drive-by Site Consults and get all the answers you need. You’ll learn what’s working – and what isn’t – so that your site can bring you more readers, more customers and more of what you want.

and book your drive-by consult today.

Come on. You know you wanna.

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.