Six Steps To a Better Website

I gave a presentation to my BBC group last week, giving some tips and guidelines for how to make a website more effective. It’s aimed towards the non-technical person, though implementation of much of the advice would likely require a designer or developer’s help. However, I thought it might be a useful resource, especially if you’re in the process of creating a new website, or revamping an old one.

Do note that I’ve not been ferociously good at following all of these guidelines myself—but it’s certainly given me some better ideas about where I ought to be taking my website!

1. Provide valuable content.

You’ve heard it before: content is king. A gorgeous website will do you absolutely no good if your content is poorly written, irrelevant, or outdated. To this end:

  • be sure to spellcheck, or have someone proofread your writing
  • make sure to update your content regularly (a blog is good for this)
  • use humour judiciously; keep your tone casual
  • be sure to give some information about who you are in order to engender trust
  • remember to KISS (Keep it simple, stupid)

Be aware that writing for the web is a whole different ballgame. Users are impatient, and nobody wants to skim through a dense chunk of text in order to find what they’re looking for. A few guidelines for writing web-specific content:

  • pages should contain no more than two screenfuls of text
  • articles can be longer, but should contain no more than seven screenfuls of text
  • use short sentences
  • break content up into small paragraphs, or make use of point form

You should also consider writing short articles about your area of expertise. This is a great way to provide valuable, relevant content for your website. For example, if you’re a tax specialist, write an article about how to use the quick method of accounting to file your GST/HST. If you’re a mechanic, write an article about how to do your monthly maintenance check. While you may think that you’d lose customers by providing this “inside information”, what you’re actually doing is establishing yourself as an expert in your field. Visitors will begin to see your site as a resource, not just an advertisement. You can also publish your articles elsewhere on the internet to drum up further interest in your site.

2. Don’t turn your visitor off.

Web surfers are a fickle breed. If a visitor arrives at your site to find anything he finds irritating, chances are good that he’ll leave immediately. You don’t want this to happen, so ensure that you don’t use any of the following elements on your site (in approximate order of Perceived Evilness):

  • popup windows
  • auto-loading sound
  • frames or invasive Flash (because you want to be able to see the address of the actual page itself in your browser’s address bar)
  • illegible text (whether due to blinking, scrolling, lack of contrast, line length, leading, or inability to resize)
  • overuse of animation
  • obnoxious use of advertising
  • long load times

3. Make use of a statistics program.

A good statistics program is easy to install on your website, and will give you valuable information about your visitors. I’ve used dozen of different statistics programs over the years, and there’s a myriad of options. I use Google Analytics on all of my clients’ sites: it’s easy to install, and gives a wide range of statistics.

Things you’ll find especially useful:

  • bounce rate: Given as a percentage, this tells you the number of visitors who leave your site immediately after visiting the homepage. A high bounce rate most likely means that you’re either turning your visitors off, or not directing them to any content that’s of interest to them.
  • most accessed pages: This will tell you what content is most interesting to your visitors, so than you can create more content in a similar vein.
  • referring sites: This tells you what sites are linking to yours, and which ones bring in the most traffic.
  • keywords: This tells you the search engine phrases that people have entered to find your site. My top three phrases, for example, are “livejournal templates”, “graphic designer”, and “triggers and sparks”. This gives you a better idea of what people are looking for when they visit your site, so that you can provide them more relevant content. (As a bonus, you also get some really random-seeming phrases, like “clementine boxes”, “something that eats platypus”, “grunt labourer services”, and “why don’t humans hibernate”.)

4. Organize and follow conventions.

If your visitors can’t find what they’re looking for, they’ll leave and find it elsewhere. If you structure your content well and follow the basic conventions that web users are accustomed to, it’ll be easier for you visitors to find your content.

  • all content should be no more than two clicks away at any time
  • provide a search bar if you’re managing a content-rich site
  • menus should be in an easy-to-reach place (top or left is conventional), and should be consistent
  • text that is not a link (or, in some cases, a header) should not be underlined
  • links should be distinguished from text (using colour and, in some cases, an underline), and should change somehow (colour, background colour, underline) when you put your mouse over them
  • do not use all caps (exceptions can be made for short headings that are all set this way; for emphasis instead use a bold or italic setting, but don’t overuse this!)
  • make sure that it is easy for visitors to contact you at all times

5. Optimize for search engines, but don’t harass them.

This means: build your site so that search engines can index them properly, but don’t go overboard trying to use complicated Search Engine Optimization techniques. (Focus instead on building your valuable content!)

Tips:

  • ask other sites to link to you (especially if you have linked to them!). Only request this of people you know. Building valuable content will make people link to you naturally.
  • each page should have a different title, description and set of keywords (usually no more than 15 keywords are required; too many can cause you to be blacklisted)
  • keywords should be repeated within the page content (but don’t force it; this should happen naturally)
  • all images should have an ALT tag; avoid using images as headers or links
  • submit your site to online directories (Yahoo, Open Directory, any local or business-related directory that accepts links)
  • make sure your website has been semantically coded (separating content from presentation) and is standards-compliant

6. Make sure everyone knows about it.

If you’ve built a fantastic website, but nobody knows it’s there, it’s no good to you. Advertise your website address everywhere you go: use it as an email signature appended to all your emails, put it on your business card, use it as a signature if you post to online forums, paint it on your car, add it to your online profiles.

Make use of social networking sites and tactics:

And above all, remember: if you build it, they will come. Focus on making your website a source of valuable, well-written content that’s accessible and well-designed, and you’ll be in a better position to benefit from it.

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