By William J. Lynott
Deciding to create a website for your business was the easy part. Virtually every business now has an online presence. The tough part is finding a way to make the site generate profits as it educates and informs potential customers.
The first commercial websites were designed by early computer experts. These hardy pioneers were quite comfortable in the arcane world of computers and software, but often lacking in professional communications and marketing skills. The result was a flood of “clever” websites that accomplished little except to make their sponsors look silly to actual customers, if any actual customers visited them. Other sites avoided these excesses but became basically an electronic version of a print catalog—undoubtedly useful to customers who already know what they want, but less helpful as a marketing tool.
That phase is mostly over. During the past few years, web design has evolved into a sophisticated combination of art and science. Today’s best sites are powerful marketing and communications tools.
Not all websites have evolved into useful (or profitable) endeavors just yet, however. Take a hard look at your website and make sure that you aren’t committing one or more of the most damaging errors of website design.
1. Failing to formulate a clear purpose
That may sound obvious, but failing to define and execute a clear purpose is one of the more common website errors—and one of the most costly.
Do you want a website solely to establish an Internet presence, with a single page providing basic information such as your address and phone number and a general description of your business? Or do you want a complete e-commerce site with multiple pages, photos of your plant and staff, a description of your specialized expertise, and other pages that highlight the benefits of your company and your products?
Why are you going to the expense of funding a website? What, specifically, do you want it to accomplish? If you can’t state your purpose clearly in a sentence or two, you’re probably not making the most of the money you’re spending on your website. Once you know your purpose, establish a set of concrete goals you wish to achieve online, and monitor your site’s performance.
2. Failing to provide interactivity
In a specialty fabrics business, providing a means for the viewer to interact with you—for example, by sending information such as window measurements and other information to receive a rough estimate on an awning— is a major help in closing a sale, if that’s one of the purposes of your site. Static sites that offer one-way communication miss out on one of the most powerful selling features available online.
3. Failing to understand that the most important element of any website is content
Web surfers are looking for information about your business, the nature of your expertise, and why they should look to you for their specialty fabric needs. Details such as design elements and colors should always be transparent to the viewer. Too much “design” in a website can be compared with wearing garish make-up or gaudy clothing when interviewing for a job. In most cases, if website design calls attention to itself, it has already defeated its purpose.
A site cluttered with annoying animations and graphics that do nothing to enhance your message will be a sure turn-off for most viewers. You’ve probably seen sites popping with dancing bears, cartoons, pulsating banners and other irrelevant devices. If you’re like most people, you have little patience with these entertainment schemes, unless you’re in the market for dancing bears. This kind of design is rarely appropriate or useful on a business website.
Graphics that are primarily decorative in purpose should be kept to a minimum. In website design, less is more. Showing that you have a sense of humor can work with visitors—but humor is so subjective that you’re walking a fine line, no matter how well you think you know your customer base.
4. Failing to provide a simple navigation system
Web surfers are notoriously impatient. Viewers who visit your site want to see at a glance the nature of your business, what products you offer and what they should do to find other key information. If your home page and your navigation system don’t provide quick answers, many viewers will simply move on, within seconds.
Every page on your site should provide an easy and intuitive way to reach any other page. Internet viewers will not invest the time and effort needed to plow their way through a confusing maze of menus.
The most popular navigation systems consist of bars laid out vertically on the left side or horizontally across the top of each page. Whatever system you choose, it must be consistent. Every page on your site should contain—at a minimum—a “return to home page” link. Your navigation system should give your visitors enough information to make easy and effective choices, fast.
5. Failing to provide direct contact information
If your site is a full e-commerce site, you’re probably covered. However, if you provide only basic information such as phone numbers and a description of your practice, it can be easy to overlook the need to provide a feedback link.
Prospective customers may have questions that you haven’t anticipated, or there may be problems with the site such as broken links. In either case, a simple email link will allow the person to reach you with the click of a mouse. Once you set up a feedback link, however, it’s essential to check your email several times every day, and to respond promptly to every message. Many people regard unanswered email messages as a personal affront. Lack of response can do real damage to your company image.
6. Failing to test loading time
on other computers
If your site takes more than a few seconds to appear on their screens, most people will move on quickly. Excessive use of large graphics, animations and other devices that increase the file size of the pages will increase the time it takes for the page to load. Many sites are elaborate creations with the potential to win design prizes from fellow professionals, but they accomplish little or nothing for the people who are paying the bills.
If you own a state-of-the-art computer with a lightning-fast processor and a ton of memory, don’t use you
r own system to test your site’s loading time. Find a friend with an average set-up. If your site takes more than four or five seconds to load, you and your designer should decide what needs to go.
7. Failing to implement Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Search engines on the Internet allow visitors to type in key words, a company name or any other relevant term; the search engine scans the web and lists websites that have meta tags identical to the search term. (Meta tags are words and phrases that describe the contents of your website and the nature of your business, making it easier for the search engines and interested viewers to find you.)
Meta tags aren’t a magic key to site effectivenes, but they can increase the chances that your site will be included in the list that pops up when someone types in one of those words or phrases. Talk to your web designer to make sure your site is using all appropriate tags.
For more information, log on to a search engine and type in the phrase “meta tags.” You’ll get a long list of websites that can provide all you ever wanted to know about the subject. Once you’ve checked out meta tags, type in a general description of your business. The result will be an education on the creative opportunities that await you in website design.
All of these common failings can affect how useful your site is to visitors—and to you. Before focusing on website design, however, go back to step one, and focus on website purpose. The idea isn’t to tell potential customers what you want them to know, but to find out what your customers want and then provide it. Focus on valuable content, and make sure to build in the flexibility to change it as customer demands evolve.