Effective Websites - what I've learned
by Leslie Ehle

I've been designing websites for six years - which makes me something of an "old-timer" at it. When I started, there was no such thing as "WYSIWYG" (What You See Is What You Get) web design software - that was still some months away. And just about the only real web browser show in town was Netscape, which had the habit of crashing every 15 minutes... on a good day!

The web has exploded in the years since then, and, candidly, there is no way for any one person to keep up with all the "techie" bells & whistles of web design, let alone focus on content. That means websites often have to be collaborations rather than one-person productions.

At the same time, this increasing technical sophistication makes it easier than ever to get "taken" by website developers who want to sell you "bigger-better-more" .... without staying focused on what YOU actually need.

Where do you start?

First, before you start talking to designers or trying to put together a website, you need to answer some questions:

  • Who are your website visitors - your potential customers?
  • What do they need?
  • What are you offering that fills that need?
  • What are the benefits to your customers of using what you offer?
  • What do you want your website visitors to DO?
  • How do you make it easy for them to do that at your website?
Looking for something you can do on the web to make money? Here's a helpful article about what to market online.
Yes, these are the basic questions every business has to answer - an online business is no exception!

Let's assume you have an idea for a product or service. That's where most of us start - and that's why many small businesses - and many online businesses - fail!

The essential fact is: without customers, you have no business. And that applies if you're interested in selling pretzels or dog-sitting services - or if you want to start a non-profit organization to combat child abuse. (Yes, marketing applies to non-profit organizations just as much as to the pretzel-cart entrepeneur - except in the non-profit world, we talk about "public education" and "outreach." - Different words, same song.)

When you know who your potential customers are, you can really zoom in on what they need or want - and provide a product or service custom-tailored to fill that gap. And that's a whole lot easier than trying to find a gap that fits a product!

How does a website fit in?

Before we talk about some nuts and bolts of website design, let's look at a few "realities" of the web, and what it can - and can't - do:

Just putting up a website will not automatically result in traffic and business. You'll need to take many small but persistent steps to gain visibility, visitors and customers. More about what steps to take in a moment.

A website can be an effective support for a dirt-space business or organization - but you'll want to provide quality content that has a clear connection with your product or service.

That means information that goes beyond what you can provide in person - articles, how-to tips, background material, detailed product information - not just a collection of links.

What we can learn from the dot-bombs

You've no doubt heard about "dot-bombs" - the many failed dot-coms of recent months. Do these failures mean you shouldn't try to do business on the web? Not if you can learn from their mistakes.

From my observations, several factors conspired to produce many of these flops:

- they failed to identify who their customers were
- they tried to be or do too many things at once and did none of them well
- they didn't take steps to bring customers back for more
- their empire-building got ahead of their customer-building

Here's what we can learn:

- Stay focused on your customers! Know who they are, ask what they like, listen to what they need, and give them what they want.
- Limit your products or services to the ones you can supply superbly, quickly and consistently.
- Be alert to opportunities to improve, modify and expand your products or services in response to your customer's needs and wants.
- Link with others who can supply related products or services beyond your scope.

Website design basics - getting started

Begin by mapping your website. This helps you organize your material so that your visitors can easily find what they want and helps you see at a glance how it all fits together.

Start with a big sheet of blank paper and draw a "tree" of boxes, where each box represents a single page in your site. Start by arranging your site so that you have three "levels," with your main page being the first level, up to seven major topic pages for the second level, and a third level for more detailed, specific resources linked from the second level.

Briefly list some keywords in each box to describe what that page will contain. Give the page an informative heading. This is what will appear in the top margin of the browser window.

Every page should include a navigation bar or box listing your second-level page topics plus your home page.

What visitors want

1) Fast page downloads.

2) Easy-to-find information without having to dig through too many levels.

3) Consistent navigation features.

Some common website design mistakes - and how to avoid them

Browser and platform havoc

The single biggest hassle for web designers is the fact that webpages do not display the same on different browsers, different versions of the same browser, and on different platforms (i.e., PCs, Macs, WebTV).

Fonts display in a smaller size on Macs than PCs, while they are significantly bigger on WebTV. Photos and graphics tend to display darker on PCs, and colors look different, depending on which platform and monitor!

Add to that... 15" monitors have narrower browser windows than bigger computer monitors, so a page that is designed too wide will requre someone with a smaller monitor to scroll horizontally - a real turn-off for most visitors. WebTV users (who may be viewing the web on a gigantic home TV screen) paradoxically have even narrower browser windows, and WebTVs do not handle pop-up windows well.

Javascript works on all platforms.... provided someone is using a relatively current web browser. However, Java does *not* work for WebTV (as of this writing), and may cause unpredictable screen freezes and crashes for Mac and PC users (depending on numerous technical issues).

Trouble-shooting for all these discrepancies can be both frustrating and VERY time-consuming, and is one excellent reason for involving a professional web designer.

Run-on pages

Limit the amount of vertical scrolling a reader has to do, particularly on your opening page. Provide a lively, informative introduction, and then link to additional pages for specifics. Articles (like this one) can run longer - but may benefit from being broken into multiple pages, too.

Bloated graphics

The most common web page mistake I see is failing to optimize graphics for the web. The result? big files that take forever to download... and add little of real value to your site.

Graphics files that are more than 40k in size are too big, especially on your main pages. If you don't have the know-how and software to web-optimize graphics, enlist the services of a web-savvy designer to give you a hand (this is one of the services of Khandro Graphics, by the way). Your customers will appreciate it!

Crazy mixed-up fonts

Choose a single font face and stick with it throughout your site for all text.

Also, keep in mind that your font choice may not be what a viewer sees on their monitor... because of browser differences, because viewers can customize font selection to suit themselves, and because not everyone in the world has Zapf Chancery installed on their computer.

Useless bells and whistles

It's called "dancing baloney" -- those animated graphics you see on websites, and there's nothing worse than a page cluttered up with a bunch of them. Please...no more than two on a page unless you want your site visitors to get see-sick! 'Nuf said.

Links laundry lists

It's a good idea to include links to other relevant websites, but if you do, either organize them into meaningful categories, or include a brief note about each one so your visitors know where they're going if they click.

Earning money from your website - one thing to avoid

Banner ads.

While banner ads may generate some revenue for the mega-sites with millions of visitors, about the only thing they'll do for your website is make it look cluttered and cheezy.

Typical click-thru payments run 3 to 5 cents each, and typical click-thru rates are under 1% of your visitors. It doesn't take a rocket scientest to calculate how little you're likely to make if you have 100 visitors a day!

Do your site visitors a favor. Skip the banner exchange programs.

Earning money from your website - one easy way to get started

You've probably visited websites that are amazon.com affiliates - including mine. Amazon affiliates earn 5% to 15% whenever someone clicks thru and buys a book or another amazon.com item.

Amazon.com is one of thousands of businesses that now have affiliate programs you can participate in, and among those, you're likely to find numerous ones that relate directly to your website.

In my research, I discovered the Affiliate Masters course by Ken Evoy, an exceptional e-mail class for getting started with affiliate programs, AND jump-starting your website at the same time. What particularly impresses me about this course is that Ken's approach will keep you focused on your customers.

It's an intensive 5-day course packed with solid "how-to" information and step-by-step instructions. Best of all, it's free! Click here and send a blank e-mail to receive The Affiliate Masters course.

Getting the help you need without breaking the bank

Knowing what you want to accomplish with your website, and putting together a basic site "sketch map" as described above, are the foundations for spending wisely. If you're uncertain about what you want, or about what would be most effective for your business -- or if you're just short on time to do the necessary "leg-work" -- consider hiring a website advisor (such as myself) for a couple of hours of consulting.

Armed with this information, you're ready to...

• Talk to web designers and get some preliminary estimates, or...
• Use a "turn-key" solution, such as Site Build-it for content-rich sites -- one I recommend highly, or...
• pursue a "do-it-yourself" approach, using designer support for things like a logo and other web graphics needs, and web writers for assistance with content development

© 2001-2005 Leslie Ehle - all rights reserved.