Whiteboard Wisdom: Do Website Aikido

This past September marked my twentieth year making websites. Way back in ‘97 my amateur career started when I first learned HTML and built a site using Hot Dog by Sausage Software. I think it cost me $20 and it had sound effects of a little dog barking when you saved a file. That’s most of what I remember about it. (I would update their Wikipedia – but that really is most of what I remember about it.)

So for my platinum anniversary I thought about what topic would be good for a blog. At first I thought it might be fun to try to predict what’s next on the Web. After all, I am a veteran of 800×600, flaming logos, hit counters, Yahoo! being a powerhouse, Flash intros (although I always made a skip button), Java applets no one wanted, the failure of micropayments, DHTML, MySpace promotions, making sites for iPhones with different content depending on which way you held it, QR codes on all the things, early Facebook apps, and on and on.

But predictions are hard. I need to save that mojo for my next football pool.

So I figured I might just write about something that I have seen as a challenge for all of my 20 years, and that I foresee going on until Wix finally puts me out of work. (It’s been 11 years, Wix. Is that the best you’ve got?)

How do you get MORE of your website visitors to engage with what YOU want them to?

Of course I knew the answer to this problem. I just needed a way to explain it that would be clear yet memorable. And you know what that means. Yep. An analogy.

But I wasn’t sure what analogy. So without a clue, it was during my bi-weekly viewing of 1988’s Steven Seagal classic, Above the Law, that an epiphany came to me:

“Don’t just do website karate, try some website aikido.”

If you’re still with me (thanks), and asking “What the *@#% are you talking about?” (fair) – just hang in a little longer and I promise that I will bring it around.

If you are not an expert on the distinctions of the many various Japanese martial arts, I will give a quick breakdown of the two mentioned to illustrate my analogy. Karate is a ‘hard’ martial art. Meaning basically that it is about striking and exerting your force on your opponent to accomplish your goal. You may recognize karate by seeing people wearing headbands and chopping boards with the sides of their hands. Great for rustic carpentry. Not so good for website traffic direction.

For that, let’s look to aikido. It is considered a ‘soft’ martial art. Here’s the Merriam Webster definition of aikido in one sentence: “a Japanese art of self-defense employing locks and holds and utilizing the principle of nonresistance to cause an opponent’s own momentum to work against him.”

File that away. It’s gonna be relevant. I promise.

What was I talking about?

How do you get MORE of your website visitors to engage with what YOU want them to?


Let’s imagine that you are a website owner and there is a particular page on your site that you really want every single person who comes to your site to see and engage with. This may be a brand new product or an underperforming service line. At first blush, there are a few things you can go ahead and do to accomplish that:

  • Pour money into pay-per-click campaigns and push new visitors to the page.
  • Jam a slide for the new page into your homepage slider.
  • Blitz your social media with links to the page.

None of this is inherently wrong. As a matter of fact, I’d just say it’s ‘standard,’ practical, and something I’d recommend.

But you can see that it is definitely website karate. You are exerting your force (money, prime screen real estate, and social network currency) to get what you want: the view. The quality of the views is going to be how “success” will be decided. If your karate gets you high quality views then you are doing well. But you can squeeze out a few more percentage points in your existing traffic if you also use some website aikido.

Go look at your web traffic data and explore a couple key areas. Check “Landing Pages” where visitors are already entering your website and filter out your PPC. Then look at “All Pages” which additionally shows pages visitors go to whether as entry or on a journey. Let’s use their momentum against them!

Abstract Contextual Linking

Revisit the posts, pages, or products that are getting the most traffic and figure out how you can add links to the post, page, or product you want visitors to engage with. It is perfectly acceptable to go back to old blog posts and throw in an editor’s note that is relevant. Something maybe like: (Editor’s note: for further reading on how to improve your site’s stickiness, check out Whiteboard Wisdom: The Content Conundrum.)

You may be thinking that this seems like a lot of work when you are running a CMS that has “related products” and/or “related posts” widgets already set up. That’s great. But that shouldn’t be the end of how you move visitors through your site. Unless your taxonomy system is extremely granular the “related post” may not actually be very related on more than the basest levels. Also, the fact that it IS a little bit of work to do this gives it an extra contextual relevance that your users will recognize. (An editor decided that this is important–not an algorithm.)

Imagine this scenario: you are starting up a business and have a recipe section of your site that is meant to be value-added content and draw traffic in. You have about 100 recipes at launch. Pretty good but in the scale of the Internet 100 recipes doesn’t cover a lot. But your recipes are custom and tasty and the world needs them.

You add a recipe for scallops. It’s the only scallops recipe you have. Fine. You tag it as “seafood,” and “mollusk,” and maybe even “clams.” Done. You figure the magic of a Content Management Systems taxonomy programming will handle everything and be awesome. And for the most part it is.

Now a user has come to your site after buying a pound of giant scallops from a wholesome food store owned by an Internet bookstore. They find your recipe–but they aren’t really feeling it. They look and see that you don’t have any other scallops recipes, but you have other ‘seafood,’ ‘mollusk,’ and ‘clams’ recipes. Well, technically a scallop is all those things and belongs to those groupings. But it’s light flavor and delicate texture make it pretty unique in the fact that you aren’t going to just swap these expensive scallops into a super-garlicky clams pasta recipe. So, your pure ‘related content’ leaves the user with no other options. Right?

Well. This is where you step in as an editor. What goes perfectly with scallops? Maybe you have a brussels sprouts recipe that would play well as a side with these wonderful mollusks? You go ahead and right after the recipe make a link like “Looking for a side to pair with scallops? Try our Brussels with Mussels side dish.” Or maybe it’s a decadent chocolate cake dessert? Whatever. The point is: a human with knowledge is offering advice relevant to the content I am viewing.

This is where we use their “momentum.” They are looking for scallops recipes and even though we don’t have any more of those, we gently grab their wrist and direct them to a different kind of recipe entirely.

And we call it “abstract contextual linking” because simple contextual linking falls in line with “things that match.” The abstract comes in when you recommend “things that go with,” “things that go instead,” “things that go after,” etc. They make sense but aren’t a one-to-one.

On-site Banners

This one takes a little bit of graphic design know-how and time. But I have seen it work wonders. I first cut my web-marketing teeth working for a company that published both books and magazines. Selling books made more money, but the magazines gave us new content for the site every month. What I did was to make a banner for each book and then placed those in magazine articles about related topics. Common sense maybe. But the payoff was immediate and noticeable.

Modern content management systems would be able to handle that on a large scale if you planned it out correctly. But if you are just having a few things that you need people to see, adding these manually may not be a bad thing.


Modern website content management systems have a lot of potential in helping to organize and assist users in consuming materials. But to squeeze every possible view out of a visitor, don’t underestimate the power of good editorial guidance. That means a human being with knowledge of your content.

Don’t just do website karate, do some website aikido!