What Makes an Exceptional Website?
Website advice for both beginners and veterans
A large number of trends in IT and Web development have come and gone as the Internet has grown exponentially over the years. Gone are the days of blinking text, annoying audio that you cannot disable and the assumption that everyone is surfing on a 56k dial-up modem at the lowest monitor resolution. Decreasing technology costs, combined with the expansion of broadband and fiber-optic connections, have led to an even greater revolution on the Web.
While these advances benefit users, they do not aid in creating a respectable and profitable Web presence. While technology is advancing constantly, that does not mean it is advisable to jump on a particular bandwagon or the latest fad. This article will focus on core elements that help to make a website successful and exceptional.
Web design is one of the biggest factors in creating an exceptional website. The look and feel of the site is the first thing that a visitor will notice. While design is a personal preference, it should be clean, with professional images, a unified font type and size across all pages and a navigation system that allows visitors to quickly and easily access information with as few clicks as possible. This may seem like a relatively simple task, but as a site grows, so does the quantity of data and number of pages that drive the site. This causes ongoing maintenance and reassessment of the site’s goals and target audience.
Apple’s website, www.apple.com, is a great example of “simplicity … with rich imagery sensitively applied,” according to webdesignfromscratch.com.
Functional yet stylish, Apple has incorporated its brand effectively into its website, adding cohesiveness and a sense of familiarity for its customers. The simple icons at the top of the page allow users to quickly access the sections of the site that they are interested in viewing, while the main page is constantly updated with relevant updates, industry news and product-specific marketing.
Another critical factor in creating a great website is determining the site’s audience, and how to effectively target that audience to the relevant and up-to-date information on the website. A site might have a broad range of target audiences, as is the case with the Water Quality Assn.’s (WQA) website, www.wqa.org.
The Member home page (see Figure 1) allows the member to access the Member, Commercial/Industrial, Consumer/Residential and Media sections. Banners on the right side of the page allow quick access to the most important and high-traffic sections of the website.
The membership login capabilities allow for customized views, detailed certification and site traffic referral reports, along with the updates and breaking news, all targeted and customized to the logged-in user. One of the most popular features used on larger websites is the search feature, which allows users to find content quickly and easily using selected keywords.
Breaking news stories and posts appear on the list below the navigation sections, keeping the site changing as new stories and blogs are added. This also assists in keeping website data updated and refreshed in the major search engines.
Another major aspect of a good site is interactivity. Users typically skim when they read a website, so highlighting and making information easily accessible is important. Involving the user keeps them interested in the website, making for longer visits and repeat visitors. This can include a virtual tour of a facility, the ability to view and design or order products online, page customization or the ability to add favorite items or pages to the user’s profile.
Typically, this type of interactive website requires a dynamic scripting language beyond HTML, as well as a Web-driven database to store and make the user experience more interactive.
Organization is another key component, not only for the website layout, design and content publishing, but also in maintaining its business side. This means responding to e-mails in a timely fashion as they come in via the website. Dealing with customer inquiries leads to more business, so checking the website and e-mail regularly leads to more credibility.
Having the website available and online is also an obvious requirement, so monitoring the site’s uptime, visitor statistics and Web reports will give the site owner a better idea of traffic trends, downtime and sections of the site that may need improvement in order to drive Web traffic. The Web hosting provider should be able to provide uptime statistics.
Search engine optimization (SEO) has been discussed in previous articles; however, it is another key element in building a successful, visible Web presence. Even the most incredible site, with a clean design and all of the content properly organized and arranged, if it cannot be found via a major search engine, will soon mean limited Web traffic and disappointing sales.
Make sure the site includes the latest META search engine tags, and also look at an SEO campaign with a reputable company. Start small with SEO, as there are many companies out there that offer the world, but also charge a fortune. Some have great success, but SEO is also a fledgling industry, so use caution when shopping for SEO and make sure you see results.
While it may seem overwhelming at first to get started on the Web, the benefits to business far outweigh any fears of the unknown that may be holding you back. I typically advise my clients to start small and build from there. This is beneficial not only financially, but it also ensures that the relationship with the Web developer is also a positive experience. Make sure that you have an understanding of the hardware and software that is used to drive your website, that everything related to your website is registered to your company name and that you have full access to all site files and databases. This will ensure that if you ever decide to change hosting providers or developers, you will have all the information you need.
Most of all, have fun creating and working on your website! It is a constantly changing medium that continues to grow, expand and challenge us in ways we never knew possible.