Thursday, February 29, 2024

Website Notes From A Consultant

It is all too easy to get bogged down in the details of creating a really good web site and lose sight of the business fundamentals. In this article, I intend to present points to think about. I don’t have all the answers; nobody does. However, I hope I have a few of the questions.

So What Are You Trying To Do With Your Web Site?

Simple, you are trying to improve your (or your clients’) business. All too often and certainly in the past, companies have created websites which don’t serve the needs of their businesses. True, it may have great graphics and super content, but does it do the job it is supposed to?

A website should be part of an overall marketing strategy and should reflect the organization’s overall image and culture. Additionally, it should not be created in isolation from the rest of the business.

Until recently, a website was a way of showing off. In fact, a certain degree of vanity was attached to a company having a website. However, the market is maturing. Currently and in the future, website design will be driven more by the rules of advertising and marketing than technology.

Think for a second – there are some very sophisticated TV, radio and newspaper adverts about, which attract you into their message and are very memorable. So why is it that so many websites are so primitive in comparison? Most of us watch TV. Take a dispassionate look at what is memorable about the adverts that stick in your mind: a clever message, humour, graphics, sex, or something free. Can you apply these to your site?

Decide What You Are Selling

Do you buy an electric drill because you want an electric drill or because you need to make holes? To put it another way, are you selling the sausage or the sizzle? (more to my taste!) Think about what it is your customers are actually buying and create the website to satisfy that need. For example, you sell high performance cars or engine tuning. Why not have some mpegs of the meatiest engine sounds that can give your customers goose bumps?

Your Home Page Is Like A Direct Mail Leaflet

Creating a website is like creating a direct mail leaflet. You have 7-10 seconds to grab your visitors’ attention and keep it; otherwise they will get bored and go away. We have all been on websites that load up so slowly that you start losing the will to live, and like a direct mail leaflet, there is no risk or cost to the recipient. If they don’t need to invest a lot of time in looking at your initial message in order to decide if they want to see more, then there is more chance of them staying. So spend some time on that initial message.

Like many web houses, we are moving towards info-mercials that autorun and the viewer needs to do nothing in order to get the message. His investment in time is even less than normal and there is the “What’s going to happen next?” feeling in his mind. The best way (I feel) for doing this is with Macromedia Flash.

Your index page should be clean and simple. Remember, sometimes less is more. Your index page should say who you are, what you do, and what you have to offer the visitor. Give them something that they can buy into immediately; that is, grab their attention. When you have got their attention, then you can direct them to the pages with all the interesting graphics toys and gimmicks. BUT don’t try to overload them with too much detail on the home page.

Does our website do this? Probably not as well as it could or will do in the future. You are not going to get it 100% right first time… keep updating it. Talk to your current customers. Find out what they think of your site and ask them what you could do to improve it. Don’t be shy or too proud to ask or listen, and perhaps give them an incentive for responding.

Who Is The Weakest Link?

How long does the site take to load? What speed connections do your target audience use? Are they all business users with ADSL/ISDN links to the Internet? If that’s the case, then lots of graphics are ok. But if you are trying to get to Mom and Pop (Silver surfers) using a 14.4K modem in their study somewhere in the boonies with bad telephone lines, then a different approach to design is needed. Always consider the target audience and their environment. Recreate that environment. We have a very fast link to the internet for development, but we always try it out at home or on a slower link over a phone line in the office.

Don’t forget: the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Even if your site is the fastest, if you are using a dismally slow ISP who has about 3% uptime, then they and you are letting down yourcustomers.

We used statistics from www.webperf.net, which is part of Zeus technology, to help us select an efficient ISP. We monitored ISP performance over quite a period to see who spends money on investingin new technology and who has the least downtime.

What Next?

So you have spent ages creating a web site that has all the right qualities, looks good, and is quick to load and entices people in. What next?

Don’t disappoint them. Don’t put all the effort into the home page & back that with pages and pages of rubbish: broken links, 404s, and, worst of them all, “Under Construction.” Boy, do I hate that. It’s such a disappointment and I can’t remember ever going back to see if they have gotten ’round to doing the work.

If you are compelled to put “something on the web” before you have finished developing the real site, put up something simple that tells a complete story in itself. How do you do this? Try taking a look at a good quality newspaper. Almost without exception, you can take a newspaper story and edit it upwards from the bottom, chopping off paragraph after paragraph without losing the thread of the story. Your holding site should do this. It shouldn’t take too long to do 3 or 4 simple pages that give the basic details of your business.

If your visitors want to find information, let them have it easily. If you have many things to offer (we do), perhaps consider building a search engine on your site to reduce the time taken to find what they are looking for. Make your navigation easy and intuitive. Try it out on your mom – if she can do it, you’re on to a winner.

Don’t Make Assumptions

Can you judge your own web site by how you view others? If you are a critical, cynical so-and-so, then maybe. Would you read page after page of closely typed text – like this? I doubt it. If you need to give that info, save it as a downloadable document in Acrobat format. Have a downloads area that people can bookmark as a resource. On the other hand, if your site is too superficial and has no benefit to the visitor, will they bother with it? Don’t make assumptions on what YOU think people will want to see, give them what they actually want.

Now you need to let people know about it and how do you do this? With the search engines, of course. Well, almost. Again, who are the target audience and how do you reach them now? Most businesses do not rely on the Internet as their sole source of revenue–apologies if you do.

Your customers will have many different types of interaction with your business, so your web address should appear on every vehicle you own. Display it on every piece of paper, every envelope, even on your shipping cartons, everywhere that someone may interact with your business in its widest sense.

Consider for a moment that you sell gift items, for example, China and glass. You sell something to a person and ship to them using UPS or Fed-Ex or whoever. How many people are going to look at that box? From the guy who picks it up from you to the guy who delivers it to the customer, it could be a dozen or more for every package.

They are all consumers, and if you print your web address and a strap line underneath where your Ship to Address is stuck on to the box, then everybody who looks at it will be exposed to your identity. You increase your chances of someone taking a look and maybe buying.

One company I talk to regularly doesn’t have hold music, for which I am very grateful. Instead, they have a recording of a very nice sounding lady suggesting that I may be able to get help from the support pages on their website, “www……..”. They have other context sensitive and regularly changing messages…another opportunity to generate and keep interest. Additionally, their support pages ARE genuinely useful.

Do Be Flash!

Since I discovered it, I absolutely love Macromedia Flash. It gives instant gratification to the visitor and is designed to be optimal over a 14.4k modem. Some of the animations that are available are just so satisfying to watch. Macromedia states on their website that in Q1 00 there was 99.4% take-up of Shockwave Flash players World wide either as bundled within the browser or downloaded from Macromedia.

I have to question: If this is the case, why do we spend so much time designing non-Flash sites, especially if everybody can view them? With Flash 4 and 5, make sure you follow the optimisation guidelines and use the bandwidth profiler in control/Test movie…View/Bandwidth Profiler. Try not to have too much going on in the same frame. How much is too much? You can include MPEGs, AVIs, animations and Flash. Too much of a good thing is not wonderful…it’s a pain. And if you have a business message to be taken seriously, the extra multimedia is distracting.

In 1896 the famous architect Louis Sullivan wrote, “Form follows function” (and, incidentally, invented the tall building type which later became the skyscraper). This principle should be applied to web design and some of the really irritating inappropriate sites will become a little more tolerable.

Search Engines

I’ve avoided it so far but I can’t anymore. Search engines. A recent newsletter gave some great tips on how best to get listed. There are some further things that I have come across that may help you.

In our experience a lot of search engines seem to have a major problem speeding Flash sites, so if this affects you I would manually amend the HTML output of your Flash page to insert the keywords and other meta tags that you would have in your traditional site. I checked in the Flash 5 authoring package help screens and there are no references to meta tags at all. Doing this should enable your site to be effectively spidered.

Keywords

Another tip worth noting is to have meta keywords on all of your pages. Don’t just load them into index.htm; you only have 1100 chars to play with anyway. Spread them out over the whole site. This allows you to be context sensitive in a way that just putting them on the index page will not allow. Furthermore, this will guard against a web ‘bot considering your keywords to be spam.

If, like my company, you have many irons in the fire, the 1100 char limit for keywords limits very greatly what you can do. Some web ‘bots will look through the whole of your site and list every page, even the ones such as “Contact Us” that are not directly relevant. Therefore, wherever robots index all your pages, you must write them in such a way that the experience of your site is not degraded by the fact that a viewer will parachute into the middle of your site from a link in a search engine listing. That is, of course, if you believe in the use of keywords and meta tags.

Robots.txt

Don’t forget the Robots.txt file. This will limit what spiders can look at, so if there is stuff you DON’T want indexed, such as your live development area, then use this. Bearing in mind the previous point, if you want to constrict visitors and web ‘bots to only point at the index page, put your other page addresses into robots.txt so that ONLY your index.html page gets listed. The downside of this is that you are restricting the potential number of listings you get. For more information on how robots, etc., work, check out
http://info.webcrawler.com/mak/projects/robots/robots.html

DIY?

With regard to getting listed there are a number of things you can do: you can manually submit your URL yourself, which is rather time consuming and if you have a life -or- children, then you’ve probably got better or more pressing things to do; you can wait to get auto spidered (this will happen anyway); or you could use a URL submission site that does the work for you.

The Easy Way

I have had a look at a few of these and some make some extraordinary promises that I feel may be difficult to back up. The best one I have found is www.selfpromotion.com, full of good advice based on real experience. You get navigated thru the process and it saved me no end of work. The guy who owns it, Robert Woodhead, is a real character and all ’round good egg. He doesn’t charge anything, but won’t refuse donations.

We did everything we should have with regard to search engines, made sure all the links worked, there weren’t too many keywords, etc., and it still took 6 months to start getting listed. Having said that, Altavista was very quick and Yahoo (when they were doing it themselves) didn’t put us in a category, just indexed the site. Just recently we are getting spidered by about 1 new engine a week, which is pleasing.

How do I know this? Our ISP, www.ision.co.uk allows us to have a log of hits, etc., and every day I browse this. My company won’t buy Webtrends, which in a way is ok because it gave me a small programming challenge to get the text file we are mailed and parse this using a small VB program I wrote which gives me the basic data for what pages get hit and so on.

A number of search engines are now charging for an accelerated listings program so that you can ensure that you get looked at promptly (but not necessarily included). I felt that this was rather bad form initially, but when I started thinking about Yellow pages and what they charge for a listing or display advert I didn’t feel too bad about it. I’m not going to spend my money though!

How many?

Consider that there are about 7.5 million new pages per day being put onto the internet, so your chances of getting listed quickly are rather slim and the time taken to get listed will become longer and longer. Should you bother with it at all? That’s up to you to decide. We did, and it is now starting to pay dividends. Depending on the average cost of your products, then creating a web site is a relativley low cost way of advertising.

I compared the cost of creating our website a few $000 and compared it to a 1/4 page display advert in our local newspaper. The newspaper would cost about $250,000 for an advert every weekday for the whole year, so your web site is very very good value for money.

Before putting a lot of effort into submitting to 100s of search engines, take a critical look at the business you are in and the frequency of new customer enquiries. If you only expect a new customer every week or so or less than that (for big ticket, long lead time items), then is it really worth all the effort? Only you can decide that one. If, for example, you are reliant on the web for a good deal of your revenue, then getting good listings is a core part of your marketing effort.

In conclusion, your website exists as part of the overall business and should be part of the whole marketing strategy, not just something extra. Your website is an advert for your company that works far harder for you than any other form of commercial advertising and the results are far more identifiable.

Andrew Clarke is an IT Consultant with MPCG, the UK consultancy division of Michelin Tyre. Check out how we can help you http://www.mpcg.co.uk/ Contact me direct on andrewclarke@mpcg.co.uk

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