I (Anna) have managed our website ever since 2010, when I called time on a Java/Flash website which a friend had built for Martin a couple of years earlier. It looked okay, but didn’t function well at all – it was glitchy, the images were hellishly slow to load and, worst of all, we were reliant on the developer to do any updates. This is what the first Martin Swan Violins website looked like (time moves faster online, so it’s bit like looking at a fashion photo from the 1970s…).

MSV website circa 2007

I’m not a coder, but I first got involved in website development in the mid-1990s and I understand the underlying principles of web design. I worked closely with the developer who designed the second iteration of our website, and a big priority was to set it up so that I could do the routine updates such as listing new instruments for sale. This was early days for user-friendly content management systems and although it was a WordPress site some of my supposedly ‘routine’ updates involved code-based editing in a scary Adobe program called Dreamweaver.

We worked hard on SEO (Search Engine Optimisation); trying to integrate key words for the benefit of search engines without disrupting the flow of our descriptions of instruments and bows. I also brought additional traffic to the website by doing pay-per-click advertising – mainly with Google and Facebook. The paid advertising helped to boost the visibility of the website, but after a few years we found that we didn’t need it any more. By 2013 the website looked like this:

MSV website 2013

In 2014, we finally found a hosting company who were able to provide a fast, stable and secure hosting service. After years of trouble with three successive providers, this was a big advance. In 2015, we realised that a significant number of people were browsing our website on their phones, despite it not being designed for that, so we did a major upgrade behind the scenes to make the layout responsive. This was three years before Google implemented mobile-first indexing. We benefited when that change came and by 2019 the number of mobile visits to our website had overtaken desktop visits. Along the way, we refreshed the visual design of the site with new photography and Martin did a sketch of a swan which became our logo.

MSV website circa 2017

Despite the new photography, both the underlying structure and the visual layout of the website had started to feel dated. Also, we were vulnerable because we were relying on open-source software to run the galleries which displayed the instrument photographs, and the originator of this ‘Floatbox’ software had stopped providing support. We knew we needed to do a complete overhaul of the website but the developer I’d been working with had gone to Portugal to live in a yurt, and her home-made hydropower generator meant that her internet connection was unreliable. We needed to find someone else but wasted time going up a couple of seriously expensive blind alleys. One company even deemed that we had committed to a contract with them because we had given them a password to the back end of the website… We thought they’d asked for access so they could prepare a quote, but they threatened legal action if we didn’t pay a severance fee when we decided that we couldn’t work with them! Their offices were a dystopian nightmare of artificial lawns, beanbag workstations, and fantastically-themed meeting rooms. Our showdown with them took place in a Wild West cabin made out of film-set polystyrene, complete with saloon doors. Although they robbed us blind, we felt lucky that no-one drew a Colt 45.

The experience made us realise that we knew our customers far better than anyone else ever could, and one day in 2019 I just sat down and started planning the logical structure and the graphic design for the new website. We found a local developer who could implement my design. Jon works on his own from home – I imagine him working in genuine cabin overlooking a real lawn at the bottom of his garden. He has the technical skills we need, and also seems to be able to cope with my micro-management of all aspects of the website… He wrote a custom WordPress theme for us and completely overhauled the system for displaying the images of instruments and bows. In late 2019 we commissioned a photoshoot at Avenue House for the new website, roping in our daughter Maggie as a pointing model. Martin spent the first Covid lockdown re-photographing all of our stock, I manually re-did all of the WordPress ‘posts’ in the new format and we launched the current version of the website in May 2020.

MSV website responsive

Google Analytics has had a big update this year, and data is now being collected in a slightly different way, so I’ve been looking at some past statistics. The graph below is of our ‘organic’ traffic over the last ten years – ie visits from people who found the site by googling, rather than clicking on an advert, following a link on social media or using a saved tab on their computer. The base on the graph is zero, and the upwards trend is very gratifying – even Covid didn’t pull it back too much.

MSV organic website traffic

I’m still really focussed on UX (User Experience), and website security. Behind the scenes of the website that you see, I try to run a tight ship – Google ‘notices’ clean sites and that’s one way of climbing the rankings. I immediately fix any broken links, and the only time the website has gone down was in the heatwave of July 2022 when temperatures in London reached 40 degrees Celsius and the servers which host our website started melting.

Web sites are never ‘finished’, and in 2023 we introduced automatic machine learning translation for selected languages (we also provide pdf English translations of French certificates which are checked and approved by Martin). However, unlike many other websites, we never use AI to write text for us – Martin and I compose the English version of everything which appears on the site.

We welcome feedback! If you spot any problems with the website or have any suggestions of what we could do better, please email me: anna@martinswanviolins.com

Article by Anna Ashmole, December 2023