With over five hundred million active websites online, your shiny new web map is fighting for attention in a huge ocean of content. Never before has it been so important to work hard on improving the accessibility of your web application. As mapmakers, it’s all too easy to spend too much time focusing on cartography and tools and forget that both are useless if our target audience can’t find or access our map in the first place.
In this article I will be sharing the four most important tips that will increase the visibility and accessibility of your web map.
1. Make Your Maps Search Engine Friendly
Search engines are the maps of the internet, without them we are completely lost and unless we please the Google gods we will never be given a prominent position. On this metaphorical map we need to ensure our web map is a capital city, with a prominent symbol and large typeface. We definitely don’t want to be a small village with a tiny symbol and a label that can only be made out by those with the keenest of eyesight.
So how do we get noticed by search engines? Firstly they need to know we exist, secondly they need to know what we are about and lastly they need to be given reason to think that we are important.
To be included in search engine results our site needs to be indexed. Indexing is carried out in one of two ways, the first way is by programs known as “spiders”, these spiders crawl the web following links from one page to another. When they discover a web page that hasn’t previously been indexed, they send the content back to the search engine so that it can be listed. This means in order to get discovered in this way, another website or webpage that has already been indexed must have a link that directs to your web map.
The second way to get indexed is using something called a sitemap. A sitemap is submitted to Google and other search engines and basically says “here are a list of pages I would like you to go index”. Luckily for users of Mango we automatically submit a sitemap for your public maps to Google for you, so your maps will be included automatically.
Once Google knows that your web map exists it needs to figure out which search engine results page to place it (SERPs). It does this by analysing the text on the web page to try and figure out what the page is about. It places more importance on words and phrases (known as keywords in the search engine world) that are used in the URL, the page title and any text that is using HTML header tags (H1, H2, H3 etc) or is more prominent on the page.
If your map is about national parks in Texas, you want to make sure that the works “Texas”, “national” and “park” are featured prominently on your page so that the search engines know they are important. This means making sure they are included in the page URL, in the page title (contained in the <title> HTML tag in the page header) and that are used in the most prominent text on the page preferably using <h1> HTML tags.
It’s also helpful to have the words in other sections of the page, but try not to go overboard and use the keywords in an unnatural way. Google and other search engines are very smart and know when people are trying to game the system and will actually penalize your page if it thinks you are excessively loading the page with keywords.
Maps by their visual nature tend not to have a lot of plain text that can be read by search engines. Remember, search engines can’t see the text in images so can’t use the labels and other things displayed on your map. This means that as mapmakers we need make the most of the few areas of text that we do have. We need to pay careful attention to the names we give our maps, the names we give our layers in the legend and make the most out of any other places where we can place text, such as layer descriptions or map landing pages.
The best strategy is to pretend the search engine is a human visitor who knows nothing about you or your project and can’t see any of the images on the page. Ask yourself whether a new user to this page is given a clear and concise description of what the map is about and what it contains, if the answer is yes, it’s safe to assume that Google will index it correctly.
Once again users of Mango don’t need to overly concern themselves with this. We automatically use the map name in the URL, the pages <title> HTML tag and use the correct HTML tags to let the search engines know which text is important. We also give you plenty of places where you can add additional text such as the map description, layer description as well landing pages for the map.
So now Google knows that your site exists and hopefully it has a good idea what your site is about we can start thinking about pagerank. Pagerank is the position that your web page appears in the search engine results (SERPs) for a given search phrase e.g. “map of Texas national parks”. Obviously in order to increase discoverability we want to appear as close to the top of those results as possible.
Google places pages that it thinks are important for a given keyphrase at the top, so how does it decide what pages are important?
Firstly, it wants to see that the given search phrase is featured prominently on the page (as discussed in the previous section), but more importantly it wants outside sources to confirm that the content is important for a given search phrase. It does this by analysing the outside web pages that link to your page.
Websites that link to your page that rank well for your particular phrase and that have a high search rank themselves are the most valuable. For example if we want to rank well for “map of Texas national parks”, having the National Parks Service (www.nps.gov) link to our map would be very beneficial.
So you might be wondering what is the best way to get other sites to link to our map page? The answer is simple, build a fantastic map that people want to share! In search engine optimization, content is king. If you build a great web map people will naturally want to share it, either by linking to it from their site or blog or sharing it across social networks, all of which will help your web map climb up the search engine rankings.
2. Make it Easy for Users to Share Your Map
In the previous section we learned how important it is for your map to feature prominently on search engines if you want to ensure visibility and increase the number of people who can benefit from your map. We also learned that most important way to achieve that is by having people link to your map and share it across social networks.
This is why you should strive to make it as easy as possible for users to share your maps. You should enable users to share the map across social networks with a single click and provide snippets of code that can be used to easily embed the map in web pages, blogs or emails.
These sharing tools shouldn’t be hidden away, instead they should be very visible and their use strongly encouraged. In Mango we have a social sharing bar displayed by default on all maps which allows the map to be shared on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn with a single click. You can easily add social sharing buttons to your web map using free and simple tools such as AddThis or Shareaholic.
3. Don’t ever, EVER, use Flash, Java or Silverlight
If you value visibility and accessibility the use of Flash, Java or Silverlight is the worst technology choice possible. These technologies are browser plugins and have nowhere near complete adoption. If you choose to use a technology that’s based on a browser plugin, you will effectively be closing the door on more than 30% of your potential visitors.
I just checked the site analytics for Mango. The site receives tens of thousands of visitors per month and of those visitors 22% didn’t have Flash support, 25% didn’t have Java and a massive 68% didn’t have Silverlight.
Flash and Silverlight aren’t supported on mobile by either Android or iOS which brings us nicely onto our next tip.
4. Make Your Web Map Mobile Ready
With over 60% of global internet traffic now coming from mobile devices your web map needs to go mobile or go home. Never has mobile support been so important to the accessibility of your web mapping application and offering mobile support is no longer a novelty, it’s a necessity.
Business applications often ignore mobile at their peril, they believe that business is still done on the desktop and mobile can be put on the back burner. This is very shortsighted, Mango for example primarily caters to business users and I can confirm from our own logs that over 25% of the traffic to the maps published on our platform came from mobile alone, up from just 20% last quarter.
Not only do you need to “support” mobile, you need to make it a first class citizen and ensure that the experience for the user is equally as rich and engaging as it is on the browser. Users will no longer stand for a stripped down “lite” version of your web map application on mobile, they want the full sugar, full caffeine version in the palm of their hand, 24 hours a day, from anywhere in the world.