Creating a Simple but Useful Web Site

Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:13 PM EDT

In today's world, you only exist if you can be found on the Internet. A Web site is a way of informing your customers about your company and communicating with other important constituents such as employees, suppliers, or members of the media.

Having your own place on the Internet involves creating a basic Web site. The goal is simply to deliver essential information that is easy to read and well laid out. While technology options enable web designs of incredible complexity, in Web site design, simplicity is always best.

Because your Web site will co-exist with countless others, you'll also need a strategy to make people aware of its existence.

What You Need to KnowWhat are the key questions?

When approaching Web site design, ask yourself the following important questions:

  • Who am I trying to reach with my communication (who is your target market)?
  • How might I structure information on the site so it is easy to find and read?
  • What can I do to let people know that my Web site exists?
  • How am I going to keep my Web site updated with fresh content and how will I keep people informed of what's new?
What information should my Web site provide?

In creating your site, your purpose is to provide information that your visitors likely will read. There's no prize for the fattest Web site, so there's no need to fill your site with irrelevant or repetitive information. Excessive material just clutters your site and makes the important information harder to find.

How often do I need to update or change the content?

How often you change your content depends in part on the expectations you set with your site's visitors. Do you promise new material on a regular basis? When you're first starting to support your site, it's best not to make such promises. Here's a good, basic rule to follow. Update your site whenever you have something new and important to say, and change your site's content whenever it gets out of date. Frequent updating may help attract more visitors to your site.

How can I use printed material on the Web site?

Printed materials such as reports, flyers, brochures and the like can be used as a starting point for your Web copy, but the structure and length may be unsuitable. Because they're reading your web information on a screen, perhaps even on a phone, people tend to prefer short, punchy copy on the Web. That means adapting your print material so that the Web version has snappy headings, quick summaries, and links to longer versions of the information so that people can click through for further information if they need it. (Think of your favorite news site, with its headlines, summaries, and links to the full stories.) You may also make your print materials available in their entirety as a file that people can download and read or print themselves when they're not online.

What to DoIdentify Your Target

Before you do anything to create your site, decide who you want to reach. Prioritize the information you would assemble for your most important audiences. Ask yourself these questions to help clarify your goals for the site:

  • Do I want to reach my existing customers? Try to create new customers? In new markets?
  • What can I say on my Web site that will turn a potential customer into an actual one?
  • Do I want to offer support for existing customers?
  • Do I want to attract new employees to my company through the site?
Favor Simplicity

Web site design is about delivering information, not about graphic design or technical prowess. While a majority of Internet users now have access to broadband, many still do not. And regardless of capacity to download them, fancy multimedia effects usually aren't necessary to communicate your message. In fact, they may be distracting and frustrate visitors looking for information. Good Web site design serves visitors by helping them to find what they are looking for. That means rich content that is well organized presented in a simple, attractive layout. Many of the most successful Web sites in the world don't employ fancy gimmicks; neither should you. Keep it simple. Maximize the content and minimize the distraction.

Structure Information to be Found

When people come to your Web site, they are looking for something. Help them find it quickly. Visitors to your site have come for a purpose and they are probably impatient and skeptical. Make your Web site as inviting, as obvious, as accessible and as easy to navigate as possible. Don't make your visitors work, guess or think too much. A well-structured Web site employs links to other sections of the site that allow visitors to easily find exactly the information they seek, with links back to main sections of your site. Without these links, a page becomes a dead end, trapping your visitors and preventing them from seeing other parts of your site.

Your Web site should include at least some of the following sections, with links to them placed prominently on every page of your site.

Plan Your Home Page

Your Web site's main page is called the home page. It is usually the first page visitors see if they intend to visit your site and type your site's address into their browser. Note: When people find your site through a search engine or via a link from someone else's site, they may never see your home page—they enter the site and begin exploring it "in the middle." When you link to your main page from other pages on your site, the home page is referred to as "Home." It should always be the first link in your set of essential links so a visitor can "return home" quickly and easily.

The home page itself should be full of crisp, clear headings and summaries that quickly inform your site's visitors of who you are, what you have to sell, and any special offers you have. Visit some of your favorite Web sites and note how well they present this essential information.

Include Information about Products and Services

This is the core of your Web site, as it tells the world what you have to sell. Your product pages should contain a brief overview of your offers along with links to detailed information on specific products or services The product pages with the expanded information should include information such as:

  • a detailed description of each product or service;
  • examples of how customers use each of your products, especially showing how using your product can make and/or save a buyer money or deliver other benefits (i.e. showing a business case and demonstrating ROI, return on investment);
  • specifications, performance data, comparisons to competitive products (with links, if appropriate, to downloadable specification sheets, brochures, technical reports, white papers, etc.);
  • product reviews from media and web sources and testimonials from satisfied customers;
  • purchase and delivery options;
  • pricing (be sure to specify currency);
  • where your products are available and how customers can obtain them with links to your site's store or authorized distributors and resellers (also be sure to specify any countries or regions in which your products are not available);
  • frequently asked questions (FAQs).
Keep Readers Informed of What's New

This section contains information on important news, events, and press releases. Always keep this section updated, and make sure that you date each entry. You should plan to review this section at least once a week, adding new entries as appropriate and removing old items as they age.

Enable People to Buy From the Site

This is an essential link if you have the capacity for people to buy directly from your Web site. Ideally, you should prominently display a small graphic (e.g. shopping cart) as a link to your site's store page, particularly on your home page, to inform customers that they can purchase your products online.

Make the Most of Alliances and Satisfied Customers

People want to know who your organization does business with. Include a list of your key customers, quotes from enthusiastic, satisfied customers, and case studies of your products in action.

If your business thrives because of partners and joint ventures, have a section describing them. Explain how these business relationships allow you to deliver better service to your customers.

Include an "About Us" Area

This section tells your visitor the story behind about your business or organization and contains essential information about it. If this section contains a great deal of information it should be broken down into manageable subsections such as:

  • company history: provide a sketch of your firm's background;
  • mission: a short description of the organization's current priorities and what it seeks to achieve;
  • key strengths: provide a brief overview of what distinguishes your organization, particularly the elements that set it apart from similar, competing firms (such as key products, innovations, unique market position, exceptional skills, and so on);
  • management team: present short biographies of key members of your management team with their pictures;
  • financial information: if appropriate, present an overview of your organization's financial picture such as sales figures, annual revenues, numbers of employees and customers, and so on;
  • contact and location details: to make finding and using this information as easy as possible for your site's visitor, this should be a link to a dedicated Contact section on your Web site.
Include Contact Information

This section should be accessible as a link from every page on your site and contain all your essential contact information including your firm's:

  • customer service e-mail address;
  • physical address and map for all locations;
  • telephone and fax numbers for key departments with your general information number listed first.
Provide a Search Facility

If your Web site has more than a few pages, a search capability will enable your visitors to find precisely the information they seek. Your site design should place the search box in a consistent spot on every single page of your Web site, preferably near the top.

Consider Offering an E-mail Newsletter

If you have the capacity and commitment to communicate regularly with your constituencies, offer visitors an e-mail newsletter. By collecting visitors' e-mail addresses when they first visit your site, you can send them regular (weekly, monthly, or quarterly) e-mail newsletters to keep them apprised of what's new with your company. Naturally, this requires a capacity to collect, process, and protect the privacy of the e-mail addresses you request, as well as the resources to produce and publish that newsletter.

Include Metadata

Wherever appropriate, you should create "metadata" for your content. This is a method of invisibly describing the content of your Web pages so it can be seen by search engines. Your pages' metadata should include:

  • classification (e.g. type of information)
  • page title and headings
  • summary
  • date of publication
  • author name
  • a list of keywords that appear in the text

Search engines use this metadata to index your Web site properly, so that visitors can enter your site by landing directly on the page containing exactly what they are looking for.

Include a Well-Designed Footer

The bottom of every page, referred to as a footer, should include information such as:

  • essential links for the Web site (e.g. Home, About Us, Store, Contact page);
  • essential contact details: main address, telephone and fax, e-mail;
  • legalities: the copyright notice, trademarks, etc
  • a link to your privacy policy.
Employ Great Design

If you are a competent computer user with a flair for graphic design, you may well be able to do most of the Web site design work yourself using readily available software. But, like so much else, with increasing complexity in the online world, you may be far better off using the services of an experienced, Web-savvy graphic designer to help you with your site's design issues.

Promote Your Web Site

Strategies include:

  • registering with the major search engines (Alta Vista, Clusty, Google, Yahoo), as well as search engines specific to your industry or sector;
  • displaying your Web site and e-mail address prominently on all your promotional literature;
  • including your web address and promotional statement as part of your email signature.
What to AvoidYou Go for Clever Rather Than Helpful

Animation, blinking text, audio and video clips, and other tricks to attract visitor interest can actually distract their attention and obscure your important information. Many visitors are deterred immediately by a Web page that features frenetic effects. Many times, sites use high-tech devices simply because they can, without a shred of justification for enhancing the visitor experience. When you are tempted to deploy whiz-bang effects, ask yourself: What does this do to enhance the understanding of our information for the visitor? What, if anything, do we lose if we don't use this special effect? What might the risk of using this effect be?

You Don't Organize Your Web Site Properly

Good classification of your information, clear and accessible navigation, and the capacity to search all the available information are the hallmarks of a successful Web site. Customers expect easy access to the information they want. If they can't easily find what they want on your site, they will go somewhere else in a heartbeat. The structure of your site is critical because it determines how efficiently and effortlessly people will find their way around it.

You Don't Present Your Web Site Clearly

Many Web sites try to impress by using lots of colors, but the easiest text to read is simple black letters on a white background. Keep paragraphs, line lengths, and documents short. People can't read any longer than it pains them to do so. When your site is inviting, pleasing to view, and easy to navigate, people will spend their time—and quite possibly their money—there.

Where to Learn MoreWeb Sites:

Builder.com: www.builder.com

Webmonkey: http://webmonkey.com