Thursday, April 9, 2009

Webcomic Links: Boredom Vs. Frenzy

Years ago, a relentless Northeast winter broke our spirits, and my business partner and I decided to take a week in Florida, including Disneyland.

We rode the roller coaster until we achieved that drunken sailor gait, and wandered off.

We found ourselves in an alley, surrounded by shops selling inedible candy, Mouse gear and other Disneyana. "Now you can buy in," my friend quipped.

Webcomic sites work in a similar way, except we keep our stores well hidden. You can read the comic till you make yourself sick, and usually you bypass the store as you head to a different kingdom.

Lately I've been reading some books about website analytics, and as usual they are written for people whose entire site is a store and the goal is to optimize the site to get people to buy stuff and leave behind useful information, like whether they had a cookie installed on a previous visit. The purpose in visiting is to find a product. If you want it you must pay, and they don't even tape a cartoon to the inside of your monitor to entertain you while your credit card is processed.

There was once a man who my grade school friends and I felt didn't have enough vexations, so we decided to visit his market one Saturday and each fill a shopping cart with perishable items, then leave. We were still laughing ten years after the place went out of business. You know, I'm very sorry about doing it, but I'm still laughing.

Visiting a web site is a similar free-for-all. Google's click pattern overlay tool on Google Analytics shows what was clicked on your web site and how often. (If you try it and it hangs up on your computer, delete the appropriate cookie to make it stop. The cookie has a pretty obvious name, which I forget right now. This is not common but it does happen.)

With the overlay, I've discovered that our visitors are click maniacs. I had a little bit of code showing on one page due to a programming error -- four tiny digits -- and people pounded it with clicks. I had a miniscule access point for bringing up a tool I was testing, and it got hammered.

For fun, I put a comma in one corner and that got its fair share as well. Some navigation links that I considered helpful to newcomers got virtually no clicks, so I chucked them, with no complaints or traffic crash.

One can conclude that we, the comic visiting segment of society, arrive with a sense of entitlement. Stopping at your friend's aunt's to drop off a casserole dish, you wouldn't throw open closets and rifle chests of drawers. But on a website you, or the guy in the next cubicle anyway, is liable to wear a hole in the monitor from cursor abrasion. It's the best visual representation I've seen for the concept of the short attention span.

This suggests that if a visitor doesn't find your comic repellent, they will look around. But apparently they have grown jaded to control panel standards like ABOUT and LINKS, much preferring punctuation marks and tiny green bricks that I scattered in one test.

We are getting perilously close to my point, which is: if a significant portion of visitors are bored with common site destinations and navigation, how do we get them to our store without dispatching thugs to their homes?

One possibility is to freeze their computers so they can't leave, but with multiple computer brands and various browsers, this is probably more trouble than it's worth.

Opening a Starbucks is another possibility, until somebody spills a drink on their keyboard and bills you.

A partial cure is to stop using WordPress. I don't know how many comics you look at per week and for many of you I bet it's a lot, so you must also be able to smell a WordPress comic before the screen loads. If people are bored with the standard half dozen internal page names, WordPress over-saturation may worsen the illness. Before WordPress enthusiasts get bent out of shape, listen to what I'm asking: Is it really a good idea for webcomics to be trending more identical?

There's a webcomic site guy named Phil Hofer, a.k.a. Frumph. Now that I am not the only webcomics person to experience his Jekyll and Hyde personality, I am more comfortable talking about his good side, which is the ability to make WordPress sites lookmore natural. At no charge Hofer has improved Clan of the Cats and Eben 07.*

A serious cure idea is a lift from a trend popular in commercial sites. It's to re-invent your dashboard so that it looks, reads and functions in more appealing ways. Instead of designer buttons, make your own (as some people do, charmingly). Instead of words, use icons appropriate to your design and story. Instead of push buttons, explore more exotic toggles, like easy scrollovers , dynamic effect buttons (e.g. you click the watermelon, and it squishes) or a minor animation in which one button opens a display case of others. And what about including some new ones? That's an idea we're trying on our Lil Nyet re-design, which is coming along nicely, thank you. So you'll definitely be invited to try a few of these out.

Clicking, like eating and certain other human behaviors, is apparently deeply ingrained and developed over dozens of seconds. It can't be fought, but it can be accommodated. People obviously want new things to click, and will click the inside of a litter box if they think it will transport them somewhere.

The procedure is to use overlay to see what's getting clicked and what's not, coupled with analytics info about what pages get visited. Then, get your clickable buttons more appealing-looking, and make the internal pages interesting. No 4500 word plot summaries, please. Page content, page design, effective communication of destination rewards and physical transformation of buttons from commonplace to interesting will do it.

When this same principle is extended from links about your site to links to your store, it starts putting money in your pocket. The impulse to click is enormous, but the impulse not to journey to a boring place is huge. It's time to remedy that.

*There are downsides to someone rehabbing your site code on a non-professional basis. One is that the archive of WordPress Help Pages may become significantly less useful. Even with best intentions, if the person moves on, you may find yourself resorting to the professional level help it would have been wise to get in the first place. You can jump in with Dreamweaver, which might help, might not, and might make things worse. While it comes more easily to some people than others, Dreamweaver is a professional level program, and like Illustrator, performs best when used a lot, just as learning certain coding systems only makes sense if you plan to do a lot of coding. (It's also expensive.) For many of us, scrimping on expenses for a month or doing some extra paying work is more efficient, as it allows us to hire a known quantity on an impersonal basis with less effort than it takes to perform a do-it-yourself intervention. If you care about your site, and its complexity is more than basic, it's wise to care exactly who is doing what to it and why. At minimum, demanding that explanatory documentation be included is essential, despite the fact that coders hate doing it and often try to get by with minimal effort.