5 Rules for Great Websites

by | Jul 5, 2006 | Marketing

In a world in which it’s unusual for a business not to have a website, an ambitious business owner must expect to do more than just throwing something online. Following these simple rules will help your website stand out in the crowd.

Rule #1: Challenge Assumptions

When planning for a new website, it’s common for a business owner to browse the competition and think, “I guess that’s what I need too.”

A wiser reaction would be, “What can I do differently?” While there’s certainly benefit to learning from what your competition is doing right, you should also keep in mind that you’ll never outperform your competitors simply by imitating them. You’ve got to differentiate yourself in the market, and the best way to do that is by taking a different approach.

Here are some examples of fresh thinking:

  • What would happen if you put a contact form right on the home page?
  • Skip the obviously-posed business headshots and try some creative (and candid) portrait photography.
  • Fight your temptation to cram links and text on the home page. Go minimal instead — and allow your potential customers to see what’s really important to you.
  • Instead of having a “brochure” site that contains the usual 5-10 pages, consider a single-page site, or site with much more content.
  • Write down your initial preferences for color, layout, etc. — and then throw them away. Be wary of ideas that seems obvious.
  • If your competitors are very sales-oriented, and don’t give away much on the website, try the opposite approach. List your pricing, your competitors, and any other information that might be useful to the customer in making their own decision. They may go with you simply because you’ve established yourself as someone they can trust.

Rule #2: Provide Rich Content

Most business websites are full of filler text that looks good but says very little. When web users hit this kind of content, their eyes simply glaze over. They don’t bother reading it.

If you really want to engage your customers, it’s important to provide genuinely useful content. Skip the corporate fluff and get right to your message.

In addition to making potential customers stop and read, it will have the additional benefit of providing some meat for the search engines. (People search for “plumbing in Toledo,” not “quality, synergy, and service.”)

Here are some tips to get you started with planning great content for your website:

  • You don’t read corporate mumbo-jumbo, so don’t expect your customers to do it either.
  • Write the way that you speak. Keep it friendly and conversational. (Make sure that it’s free of grammar and spelling errors, though.)
  • Be brief! The shorter your text, the better.
  • Avoid the Five Forbidden Words of Advertising: Quality, Service, Value, Integrity, and Caring. These terms have been so abused in marketing and advertising in recent decades that they’re essentially worthless.
  • Provide valuable content, rather than just a sales pitch. Help your customer through the process.

Rule #3: Make it “Sticky”

“Stickiness” is the degree to which a website encourages visitors to stick around (and come back again later).

Website owners often assume mistakenly that most users are actively clicking through their website and reading each page, when the unfortunate reality is that most visitors to your site will leave within 15 seconds if you don’t grab their interest.

Here are a few tips on “getting sticky”:

  • Provide useful, regularly updated content, articles, tips, how-tos, etc.
  • Know your audience.
  • Interact with your audience, rather than allowing the site to be a one-way form of communication.
  • Build a community.
  • Provide tools that your customers can use regularly, but that aren’t readily available elsewhere on the web.
  • Cross-link your pages to encourage users to explore the site.
  • Allow users to sign up for an e-mail newsletter.

Rule #4: Bring in a Pro

Every industry has an ample body of knowledge that can only be gained through years of experience, study, and industry participation, and the web design and development industry is no different. A true web development professional can give you an essential perspective on what really works—and what can hurt your website in the long run.

At every stage of the process, your site can benefit greatly from the advice of a seasoned professional. As with doctors, lawyers, mechanics, or plumbers, you should always get the best you can afford.

Some tips for getting started:

  • Ensure that your “designer” is an actual designer, rather than just a technical person who picked up a few design skills out of necessity. A knowledge of color theory, layout, typography, design trends, etc., will allow the designer to create a genuinely powerful design for your site.
  • Make sure that the site is coded using industry standards and best-practices (including valid XHTML and CSS). Insist on high-quality code.
  • Avoid “discount” web hosting. It can save you a few dollars, but can be a nightmare when something goes wrong.
  • If you can’t afford to hire a professional web design and development agency to build the entire site, you should at least consider hiring a professional in a consulting capacity, to help advise you and guide the project down the right path.

Rule #5: Love Your Website

If you don’t love your own website, why should its visitors?

Build something that you can be proud of, that represents your business in the best way possible, and that helps you to stand out from the competition.

This approach will not only inspire your potential customers, but will also drive you to keep improving and refining the site, which is critically important as the Web becomes an increasingly fundamental part of the economy.

Some easy ways to get started:

  • Once a month, go through your website and tweak any content that has room for improvement. Don’t ever assume that the text of the website is “done.”
  • Include the URL in all of your client communications: e-mails, business cards, brochures, etc.
  • Regularly monitor your website’s usage statistics to see what areas are popular, what areas are causing you to lose customers, etc.
  • Periodically modify the site to address any usability, navigation, or content issues that are brought to your attention. Don’t let it languish.
  • As you add features, text, etc., to the site, be careful that it doesn’t become cluttered and confusing. Don’t let minor changes get out of control.
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