OK, websites are a technical beast, but they don’t have to be so scary. Like a book or report, a website is only a tool to get information to an audience. Keep your thinking at that level and don’t worry about the technical jargon – leave that to the “geeks.”
First thing you want to do is figure out what you want your website to accomplish. Without a set of goals and a vision, creating a website will be very difficult and the end result will probably not be very effective. Start by writing down the goals you want to accomplish. Many websites start with the goal of getting information to your customers or clients. Other goals are to save you time and money by automating processes and reducing your expenses or time. This could include publishing account information to reduce calls coming into your call center, etc. Therefore, two main goals should be increase revenue or reduce expenses. If the website is not paying for itself (under most commercial circumstances), then why have it?
After you have your goals written down, start thinking about your audience and what they will be looking for on your website. You will want to put information your audience will want to see on your site. Don’t over do the site with flowery graphics/animations without a purpose. Sure “eye candy” is nice, but it doesn’t keep people coming back. I have seen many very ugly sites that were really popular (Yahoo! comes to mind). Graphics and animations are good to entice new visitors to your site, but you need some meat out there to keep them coming back.
Once you are in your audience’s mindset, start thinking about how you want to section up your site. Most retail businesses will have Product and Service sections. Most websites overall have two distinct sections: information about the organization and information about the products, services, or whatever the organization does.
Lets look at the organization information first since it will be the most common overall. You can get as detailed or vague as you wish depending on who your audience is. If you are a small retailer, it might be wise to give less information to make your audience comfortable. I have ran into some small businesses that should have went under a long time ago, but they are still ticking. Too much information may scare your potential customer away! Too little information can also cause problems. If you are a large corporation and have investors, you may want to get more detailed information on your site to please the investors need for information. Too little info and the investor may look elsewhere.
Most websites have About Us and Contact Us pages. The About Us page (as it is labeled) gives information about the organization. A smaller business might only want to give a few paragraphs about the business, but a larger business may want to break that page into many pages or sections to cover all the topics necessary (such as organization information, news, investor information, job opportunities, etc.).
The Contact Us page can also be small or detailed. Smaller companies might only have their address, e-mail, and phone numbers listed. Larger companies might want to have that information and how to contact various departments and maybe an electronic form for users to submit questions directly from the website.
Other pages. Now we get into a more gray area of what other information/sections you want on your website. This will depend on what business you are in and what your website goals may be. Retailers might want to have Products and Services sections. You can even break them down into subsections if you have may products or services offered (such as an auto parts retailer would have sections for car detailing, oil, batteries, etc.).
Once you have thought through the goals, put yourself in your audience’s mind, and map out your information into sections, you are ready to start designing your site. Yep, you read it right, design does NOT start first. Most armature website companies will start the design process prematurely. This can also happen if the design company is waiting on the client to get information to them – hey, we all have bills to pay…
This is where you want to get professionals involved. Good web design is a very technical service. The line between a good website and a bad one is narrow. A seasoned designer will know where that line is and stay well away from it. How many organizations know the difference between client side script and server side script and when to use it? Not very many. The difference between the two may seem arbitrary, but both are used much more than one might think. If you are reading this article, you have experienced both client and server side scripting to do very routine and seemingly minor things to make the website work. You really do not want to skimp on the design. I don’t care how great your information is, if your users get frustrated getting to the information, they won’t be back.
You also need a place to park your website files – a web hosting service. The hosting service is key to the success of your website. If the hosting service is not working well, then your site is directly affected and will not work well. There are many technical factors into choosing a web hosting service. Ask your designers to recommend a good hosting service. They will most likely have a relationship with a service or do it themselves. The designers may also have a specific system they have to run on and need certain technical support for the website to work. Code copyright is also another issue. Some design companies are reluctant to put their code on another hosting company. Do your homework on hosting companies. Switching a web host is not a walk in the park. A good web design company can make it look easy, but it can be a very complicated process involving many parties. Get a good web hosting service at the beginning!
So, where do you go from here? Hire a good design company. How do you find a good design company? The fruit is in the work. Check out their work and get a reference list from them (similar companies on the list would be nice…). Get on the sites they have designed and look at it from your audience mindset. No technical skills are necessary. Just use the site and see if it works. Yep, that simple. If there are any annoying problems with their sites, move on to the next company. If the sites seem to work well for what they are supposed to do, then look at the graphic design. Good design will catch the attention of potential visitors and keep their attention long enough to find the buried treasure of information.
Graphic design is an art and is open to opinion. But, you should be able to tell if the site looks good or not. Everyone has a personal opinion. Have someone else look at the sites and see what they think (track down a person who has good taste – if they can decorate their house nice, then they qualify). Also, do your homework, look at some large corporation sites. They have very talented staff and a marketing department that can sell ice cream to Eskimos. They will most likely have a trendy design that is clean and functional. Yep, websites get out of style to, so plan on updating your design in the future. This creates another issue also, how to get your existing information onto the new design, but we won’t cover that topic just yet!
Now you have a your website up and running and everything is going well. You may have to stop the party sooner than you think when you need to change or update the content on your site. You will want to find out up-front the process of how to change the content on your site. Some design companies charge an hourly rate for changes that can add up quite quickly. Other design companies will build in a content management system so you can make the changes without calling the company and without the expense.
Now, you can continue the party! You have done your homework, selected a top notch design company and secured an excellent web hosting service. Good job.
Here is a recap of the steps to a successful website:
- I would start by finding a good design company. That way if you have any questions along the way, you can ask.
- Write down your goals. Be sure to communicate your goals to the design company and be sure to keep them on track.
- Get into the mindset of your audience. Take notes on what you discover your audience will want on your site. Be sure to tell your design company your discoveries.
- Ask about web hosting and how you can update your content. It is better to find this out before you need to move your website to another host and cannot easily update your content. You can fire the design company at this stage without a lot of wasted time and hassle. After this step, you will not want to make any drastic changes in your design strategy.
- Be sure your design company keeps you up-to-date on the progress of your site. No one is happy if the design has to be scrapped and redone. Also, keep the design company on track to accomplishing your goals. If they are disinterested in your goals, find a new company. This is key to a good website that will fit your needs.
- Test your site. Your design company should have a way for you to test the site along the way. You will want to discover and have them fix any bugs along the way.
- Don’t forget this very important step: promote your site. How are your customers or clients going to find your new site? Think search engines are the answer? WRONG! It takes the most popular search engine sites a few weeks to months to index your site. Then you might be at the bottom of the list of the search. A good design company should be able to help you promote your site and accomplish your website goals.
- Keep your content fresh. A good website is a living information fountain. Visitors will not come back if you do not have new information to attract them back. Have a plan and make time to update your site and keep it fresh!
I hope this article has taken some fear out of your website venture. Hire a good design company and let them figure out all the geeky stuff and do your homework. You can drive your car pretty well, but you wouldn’t overhaul the engine. You wouldn’t want your neighbor to do it either. You would take it to a professional. Same with websites. Get a professional, seasoned, design company.
Keep it simple and think of your site like a book. Organize your information and section it up (chapters). The designers will create a navigation structure (table of contents) and a pleasing, yet functional design (book cover and figures, pictures, or charts).
Once you are done, kick back and enjoy a job well done.