Ten Tips for a Better Website

Whether you're designing a site from scratch of making changes to your one, the following tips can help you provide effective web content to prospective customers.

Know Your Customer

Before you start redesigning your website, it’s best to learn as much as you can about your customers and what capabilities they expect. The design of the most useful and effective sites typically starts with thorough analysis of customer needs, identifying the tasks that site users seek to accomplish. Not only will such an understanding improve your site’s effectiveness, it can also eliminate costly mistakes.

There are many design questions that customer research can help answer. Do your customers expect a site that looks professional, conservative, playful, or sophisticated? What should be the tone of your website copy? Do your products and services lend themselves to photography or custom graphics? Will you be changing content frequently, or not at all?

Avoid Troublesome Techniques

Avoid using frames, doorway pages, sound, custom mouse pointers, and technologies that require users to download uncommon plug-ins. More often than not, such techniques scare away potential visitors as they can be confusing, they may increase download times, and they can complicate navigation.

Design with Search Engines in Mind

Most web surfers start looking for products and services with search engines. Thus, not only should your site be listed, its design should facilitate inclusion of all of your content. Make sure that you have good internal linking with your site, and make sure that all of your important pages can be reached from the home page with no more than 3 mouse clicks.

There are many more important factors for search-engine-friendly design than will be addressed here. To list some briefly: research what keywords people use to find your product or service, use keywords and phrases in your web copy, create relevant page titles and descriptions.

Note: It is not necessary to submit your site multiple times or to submit individual pages. Once submitted, your entire site will be scanned periodically by the search engine, although it may take several months for the initial scan. Multiple submissions could hurt if they keep putting your site to the "back of the line" of sites to be reviewed.

Don’t Confound Usability with Branding

Many site owners pursue a unique look and feel that differentiates them from their competition as well as builds brand awareness of their company. While your website design should reinforce your brand, it should never compromise your site’s usability. Not only may usability problems send potential customers surfing elsewhere, they may also result in an association of your brand with poor user-friendliness.

The elements most at risk from “over-branding” your site are text legibility and site navigation. Readability may be compromised if you use fonts and color palettes consistent with your brand but that are hard to read. In general, avoid designs that rely upon highly customized text appearance. It may be tempting to change menu text and links to differentiate your company from others or to identify your specific products or capabilities; however these practices make site navigation difficult for anyone who is unfamiliar with your company. Most web users are familiar with the same top-level link structure found on thousands of sites, thus being consistent in your design will help them find the information they need. The most common top-level menu items include Home, Products, Services, Resources, News, About, and Contact. Similarly, lower-level menus should be descriptive enough for people unfamiliar with the material on your site to find what they need.

Sparkle Versus Simplicity

Flash and similar multimedia tools have their place, but not in site navigation. Use multimedia to tell a tightly scripted story, provide a feature-rich and realistic demonstration, or to entertain. Do not use multimedia if visitors to your site want quick and easy access to information.

Some sites use Flash for their menus, often in ways that are inconsistent with "standard" web navigation. Most users expect clicking on an item to cause a new page to quickly appear and clicking on "back" to take them to the last page viewed. Often Flash navigation introduces unconventional interaction requirements and time consuming animation. Flash and rich multimedia can also take a long time to download which may cause users to look elsewhere. Flash also prohibits some search engine spiders from being able to read and index embedded content and thus may hurt your ranking in search results.

Some websites have home pages that act like a splash page or company advertisement through which the user must go to get to the “real” home page. Such “doorway” pages are only useful in very specific cases (entertainment and strong consumer branding), otherwise they annoy repeat visitors to your site and they complicate route control if links to pages within your site are shared among users.

Speed Matters

Carefully consider how much graphical and dynamic content is necessary to convey your message, because there is a risk of alienating site users with long download times. Graphic file formats should be chosen for best representation and compactness. Flash files often add little to usability while significantly adding to download times. Keep in mind that the majority of home users still rely upon dial-up connections, and even high speed connections aren’t fast enough in the middle of a hectic work day.

Text as Text

Many sites embed text in graphical elements in order to maintain complete control over appearance. While this is appropriate for logos and other critical brand elements, it presents two significant problems. The first is that search engines cannot “read” the text, and therefore you are missing opportunities to be indexed and found by search engine users. The second problem is that graphics take longer to download which often causes frustration and may turn some users away to your competition.

Headings and Bullets

When looking at text, people’s eyes naturally fall first on headings and bulleted lists. Since many web users are not inclined to read large blocks of text, careful use of headings can help them quickly scan and navigate your site. Likewise, bullets are a great way to provide a lot of specific detail in eye-catching, quickly digestible chunks.

Headlines are also becoming more important for search engines. The spiders that “crawl” your site and index them for the search engines may determine the importance of words based partly upon location, thus those found in headings may be given more weight. For this reason, it is a good idea to place likely search terms in headings.

Get a Second Opinion

Nothing will tell you more about your website than looking at it through someone else’s eyes. If you are the site’s designer or owner, you are too close to the material to be objective. You know how the site is “supposed” to be used rather than how customers are likely to use it. Remember that the customer is always right: if they don't use the site the way you intended, there may be a problem with your design. Don’t stop at one outside opinion; get as many as you can, and try to make them representative of your expected user population.

You’re Never Done

You have already invested an immense amount of time and resources into developing a terrific site. It has been published on the Internet and is getting traffic. You’re done, right? Think again. A number of factors may necessitate revisiting content and design: your products and services may change, as could the marketplace, customer needs and expectations, the competitive environment, browser and search engine technology, your brand, etc. You may launch advertising campaigns, start or end critical partnerships, invest in new product lines, or drop old ones. Most of these changes do not require complete redesign, especially if you keep on top of changing circumstances and make appropriate adjustments. The point is that your customers are unlikely to tell you that your site needs updating (except by leaving), so it’s a good idea to have a plan in place for periodic review.

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