Website building blocks
If you have a website or plan to build one soon, it's helpful to understand the basic building blocks of successful websites: browser compatibility, search engine visibility, good design, quality hosting, keyword-rich content and much more. This blog post provides an outline of the important points to consider when building (or re-building) your website and will give you a clear starting point for future articles.
Why have a website?
More and more people are using the web to research products, find prospective companies, and compare their buying options. As a result, every business (no matter how small) should have a website. Most importantly, the website is there to provide information to prospective customers and to reduce the burden on your sales and marketing efforts. Even if your primary sales interaction and lead conversion with customers is face-to-face, a website helps you get more customers that would have otherwise never found you.
There are other reasons for having a website besides providing company information and increasing lead conversion:
- Post-sales customer support
- Product news and updates
- Software and Document downloads
- Data collection through Forms, Surveys and Polls
How websites are made
The best websites always start with two important questions you should ask about your business and your customers:
- Who is your target audience
- What are they looking for
Understanding your target audience's skill level, what they do online, and knowing what information they look for before making a purchase is where every website project should start. Insight gained from these questions provides the starting point for website planning, content organization, and web development later on. Taking the time to learn these points is important because better websites lead to happier users, and that means more customers.
Make a list of the top questions customers ask before buying from you. Don't leave anything obvious out. Provide a complete answer to each question. Once you have that list, prioritize it from most common to least common. Use that list to design all aspects of your website including menus, landing pages, home pages, sidebars, etc.
Once you understand your audience and content requirements, you can begin to plan and implement your website:
- Design Pages and Menus
- Installing Forms, Images, and other Media (video and audio)
- Install web-based software to make site editing easier (called a CMS)
- Ensure your web site is optimized for search engine visibility
- Test for multiple browser compatibility so that all users can use your web site
- Install Web site data tracking and submit to search engines
The building blocks
Design pages and menus
What are your customers looking for when they come to your website? Answers to that question should drive the design of your website menu and the design of content on every page of your website. For example, if a customer arrives at your services page, what do they expect to see? Obviously, your list of services should be presented. What if the services page also has a sales form, customer testimonials, or live support? Try to "put your customer hat on" and think about their expectations and avoid designing from your own perspective.
Listed below are some additional tips worth following:
- Keep the text links in your navigation menu simple and easy to understand. For example, use services instead of what we do here. Menus should be easy to use, predictable, and leave no room for misinterpretation.
- Design all pages for a 1024x768 screen resolution. The recommended site width for that resolution is 960 pixels wide.
- Keep the sidebar (the narrow column of content on a website) in the same place on all pages.
- Design your page hierarchy from general to specific: child pages should have more specific data then the parent page.
- Design your home page last because it provides links to all other pages of your website.
- Use a 2-column page layout (one wide column for the primary content, and a 2nd narrow column for additional links and information) for most pages of your website. Experiment with 3-column and 4-column layouts only if you have a lot of content that needs to be shown.
- Place the most important content at the top of pages (called the first fold). Not everyone scrolls down web pages.
- Break up written content into short paragraphs and bullet points. People tend to scan web pages rather than read them.
When planning your website, start with the list of common questions mentioned in the previous section(How Websites are Made) and this information into sensible, functional categories. For example, all questions about product support and maintenance could go on a page called "Product Maintenance". Keep related information together or reference related pages with links.
Install forms, images and other media
Forms allow you to collect information from web visitors. Every website should have at least one form to collect user data (commonly seen on the contact us and home pages). Provide your email address and phone number alongside the form for users that prefer to use their own email program.
Photos, videos, and audio also make websites more engaging and informative for visitors. The quality of photos and video on your website directly reflects how users perceive your company, but be sure you're not sacrificing load time for too high of quality. Long load times can lead to early exits for your visitors. Once you strike this balance, consider taking professional photos of your business, your team, and your products and services for your website.
Videos should be hosted through video content distributors online to reduce the burden on your own web server. There are many video distribution options available online. They range from free (www.youtube.com, www.revver.com, www.dailymotion.com) to paid (www.vimeo.com, www.edgecast.com). If you intend to produce videos on a regular basis, consider using www.tubemogul.com to track viewer activity.
Ensure browser compatibility
Browser compatibility is an important consideration for success online since you want to make sure your website renders correctly for all visitors, regardless of their browser choice. While developing your website, test your website in different browsers throughout the development process.
The 3 most common browsers are:
- Internet Explorer
- Google Chrome
- Mozilla Firefox
Download and install each browser and test your web site in each browser for compatibility. Several companies offer full cross browser and cross platform testing.
Install a CMS
CMS stands for "Content Management System". A CMS allows you to separate the design of your website from the content. Most CMSs today are web-based and are as easy to use as a web-based email account. The primary benefit of having a web-based content manager is that you can edit your website with without any programming skill.
There are many free CMS's in the market. Popular and free CMS tools available include:
- Wordpress - www.wordpress.com
- Joomla - www.joomla.com
- Drupal - www.drupal.org
- Umbraco - www.umbraco.com
Ensure your website is search engine optimized
Search Engine Optimization is a crucial ingredient in online success because an optimized web site is more likely to be found on search engines, and search engines are where most users start online. Although the Art of SEO is constantly changing, here are some tips to get started:
- Check that keywords relevant to your business appear on all-important pages of your website.
- Write page titles (called the title tag) that are eye-catching. The page title is what appears on search engine results pages (the page users see after searching).
- Use H1, H2, and H3 tags (called heading tags) to separate content on pages. Heading tags helps users understand content hierarchy on pages, and helps search engines recognize which keywords to give more importance to.
- Populate the Keyword and Description meta-tags of every page of your website.
Install data tracking software and monitor usage
A lot of data is available on visitor activity to your website. Most web servers track this activity already but better reports are available through data analytics software like Google Analytics (www.google.com/analytics). After installing analytics software on your website, monitor the following key data points to understand how users are finding and using your website:
- Traffic Sources tell you how users are arriving at your website. Look for Direct Traffic (where users type in your web site address), Referring Sites (sites that have a link to you), and Search Engines (showing what keywords users type to find you).
- Pages/Visit tell you how many pages users view on your website before leaving. Higher pages/visit indicate better website activity.
- Top Content, Landing Pages, and Exit Pages tell you which pages of your website are viewed the most and where users end their activity on your website. Ensure your important web pages are being viewed more than other pages by looking at total page views.
Once you are ready to graduate to actionable metrics you might want to start tracking the following:
- Conversion rate
- Bounce Rate
- Clickthrough rate
A topic of a later blog.