Saturday, September 20, 2008

Does Your Website Measure Up? Part 4: Does Your Content Rule?

Does Your Website Measure Up?
This blog topic is being published as a serial. This is the last of four parts.

Part 4: Does Your Content Rule?

The visitor experience at your site is influenced by three primary factors:

1. Relevance and quality of the site content;
2. Ease of finding the desired product and/or information; and
3. Speed and reliability of content delivery.

Thus, content, UI and systems all influence the visitor experience. Said another way, the content relevance, ease of accessing content, and content delivery are the reasons your site will be judged as good or mediocre by visitors and determine whether they stay or come back to buy or understand and act upon your sales messages.

I discussed the speed and reliability issues in Part 3 of this series. Throughout the series, I have alluded to the importance of content and of accurately portraying your web site’s products, services, or purposes. This fourth and final part of the series will focus on content factors and best practices.

On the internet, information, or content, is king. It rules! Why? It is because the Internet surfer is looking for information with good reason. That is the only way the surfer can distinguish your offerings from that of others. The surfer needs reassurance your site and business or other action proposition is valid, credible, and otherwise trustworthy. Visitors need assurances that your products will fit, work for their application, etc. How do they determine this? The only way they can: by examining your site content. Pictures and descriptions are the selling tools on the Internet. Why do you think it is called the information highway?

Let’s explore how your content can “rule” and help you close business or convey your message convincingly on line.

Are You Relevant?

The most important message about a web site is that the content should be appropriate for the purposes of the site’s sales proposition and suit the needs of visitors. If your site is a footwear site, adding content that eschews the merits of a political candidate is pretty worthless --- unless the candidate is your customer and/or providing a testimonial about your business.

I recently searched on line for information on a particular digital camera. I was interested in learning about the quality of the photographs compared to other brands in the same price range and what lenses best suited my intended photographic targets. By reading the user ratings, I found out some basic information and was referred to other web sites for details and comparisons. I also searched for comparisons of specific models. After research, I found out I would be much better off spending $200 more for a slightly better model than I had originally intended to buy. However, it would have been great to find a camera sales web site that had all the relevant information. If that site existed, and had competitive prices, they probably would have received my business. That’s true content. Going beyond the manufacturer’s description and specs and getting to the use, handling, good and quirky features, and suitability for certain applications. Many sites had the user rating feature, and those were helpful.

Generally speaking, the more relevant content you provide, the better your site will rank in the search engines and the more visitors your site will appeal to.

Is Your Content Lost Or Found?

What? Remember the search engine discussion in Part 2? Content plays a huge part in determining how easy your content (and therefore your web site) is to find using search engines. Since 60-80% of traffic at the typical web site will come from search engines like Yahoo, MSN, Google and AOL; and content is an essential measure that search engines use to rank your site in their results; that content determines how easily your site is found by search engine users. Without relevance, your content will not place high on search engine results and will therefore be “lost” to searchers rather than found. Why will it be lost? It will be lost imply because the search results will show your site on page 20, 200, or 2000. It is a rare search engine results reader who bothers to go past page 3.

Remember the lessons from part 2 of this series:

Are Your Visitors Playing The Waiting Game?

You just spent $2500 for that cool 20 second Flash introduction on your site, but the number of people leaving the site before getting past the home page is up 30% and overall page views and visitors have declined. What is going on? You are making them wait to see your content! Most people don’t care about your Flash intro --- probably only Flash developers. The rest of us want to get to the content we came to see NOW, not waste 20 seconds waiting for your branding commercial to run its course. That is why you see most Flash intros have an option to skip them, although most are not prominent enough. In my view, you should have to click to continue the Flash intro, not to stop it.

The point is, anything that slows down access to your content is probably detrimental, even cool Flash stuff. Poor site design, slow servers, insufficient bandwidth, or high traffic can all contribute to the waiting game and make your visitors cut their loss of time by leaving for the next site on the search results list. If you make your visitors pay the waiting game, you lose every time. Test your site rigorously, monitor its performance with software services developed for the purpose, and always be sure the path to the “close” is as short as can be.

How to Get Read and Understood

Did you ever pick up a book and after trying to read it, just give up because it was too hard to understand what the author was trying to say? You were trying to read for entertainment or education; but felt like you needed a doctorate in literature just to understand the darnn book! Popular authors understand this and write their books to be readable without their readers having to struggle to understand what is going on. It’s the old KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. These authors understand their audiences want to be entertained or educated and do not want to struggle to understand the text.

Your visitors are the same. They want information in a readable, understandable way. So, you need to write readable text and spice it up with illustrations appropriate for understanding your product or proposition.

Here are some tips for web readability.

1. Load your conclusion into the front of the page. For a product, this could be a statement like “this shoe is great for walking on hard surfaces like roads and sidewalks.”
2. Only include one idea or subject in each paragraph. Like this list, focus each paragraph n a single message to the reader.
3. Use a lot of white space and use subheadings, lists, bold or colored text, and other techniques to provide emphasis to your essential message.
4. Use left justified text, easy to read fonts, etc.
5. Avoid text on dark backgrounds.
6. Include product photos, especially ones with the product in use if it is not a commonplace item. For ideas, conceptual diagrams can help get the idea across.

Remember that most of us have done most of our reading with black letters on a white background. Therefore, our brains find that most comfortable. Use color for text and text backgrounds carefully and always make sure there is a lot of contrast. Many of your visitors may not have good eyesight or large computer monitors, so be sure you don’t make readability decisions without considering those factors.

Your Content Can Rule

Content is the life blood of a web site. The more high quality, relevant content you have, the better your site will be and that overall quality should attract more visitors than sites with lesser content. Budgeting for development of quality content and making sure your site serves the content in a relaxed, easy to use fashion can make your site a king among knaves.

Concluding the Series

This article concludes the series “Does Your Website Measure Up?” It has been both a challenge and a lot of fun to write. It has forced me to organize my own thinking about web site development and deployment and, as a result, my clients are benefiting from a more streamlined approach to creating or renewing their web sites.

One thing that should be obvious, but that I have not specifically stated, is that web development is complex and involves more skills and talents than a single person typically has in his/her toolbox. Therefore, web development tends to be a collaborative process involving the owner and other persons with the requisite skills. A single web designer/developer usually does not have all the skills needed in a given situation and that can be problematic. While good results can come from “singleton” web designers, it usually takes more to get the best results. At a minimum, I would suggest you only consider designers who collaborate with developers and copywriters. Good designers can map out a nice looking, easily navigable site but few have the skills to integrate a data base, add PHP (or other) programming, or add AJAX routines to speed up content delivery. Similarly, I find few programmers who are good content writers; although some designers do this well, especially those who come from ad agency backgrounds. Make sure the team you assemble has the skills you need to get your job done.

Most of my web consulting is related to creating and translating business strategy into supportive web strategies and mapping out the general design concept --- typically in the form of heavily documented site map. I then work with the client to identify the skills required, find people who can contribute successfully, and manage the project through implementation.

Another point concerns process and project management. Web development (or major site updates) involves a series of steps that should be followed concluding with milestones that are the best measurements of progress. These general milestones are listed below. The process involved can be inferred from the milestone.

1. Site Map Completed (content outline, menus)
2. Home Page Design Completed (navigation for all pages)
3. Site CSS Finalized (fonts and colors)
4. Site Mockup Completed (build pages, no content)
5. Site Content Created (text and photos)
6. Hosting Venue Selected
7. Deployment of the Live Site
8. Maintenance Schedule and Assignments

Note that steps 2 and 3 are typically concurrent. At some point in the future, I will add blog articles on each of these process/milestone steps.

Please contact me it f you want guidance for your own efforts, clarification on my statements, or to take exception to my ideas. Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Does Your Website Measure Up? Part 3: Technology Under the Hood

Does Your Website Measure Up?
This blog topic is being published as a serial. This is the third of four parts.

Part 3: Technology Under the Hood

In referring to underlying technology, I do not generally mean the hardware and software choices. Microsoft, Sun, IBM, and Open Source solutions are all up to the task of delivering web content. Well, OK, we all have our opinions about which vendor’s technology works best in certain situations, but let’s leave that aside. The critical issues are in the installation, setup and the environment your systems live in. It must be done right to reliably perform the required tasks with speed and almost 100% uptime.

Is Your Pipe Big Enough?

Perhaps the biggest issue is bandwidth. Bandwidth in the networking sense refers to the data rate or channel capacity of the local area network (LAN) or Internet connection. In our discussion, we are more concerned with the Internet connection capacity or “pipe” size than LAN capacity. If you connect the best Internet server in the world to an insufficient pipe, the user experience will be degraded by the speed limit of the pipe. As an analogy, assume we have five gallons of fuel to dump into our race car in the pit. If we pour that fuel through a soda straw, it will take a while. Your Internet Service Provider establishes bandwidth for your Internet connection. However, there are other ways to expose your web site server(s) to the Internet.

Besides putting a web server for your public site on your own business network, you can utilize third party web server “hosting” in several ways. All third party web hosting solutions involve sharing physical resources and bandwidth in one of a couple of ways. The first, and least expensive, is called virtual hosting. In this setup, you share a server with other small accounts. You can also have one or more dedicated servers in a host’s data center. You can own your own servers (called co-locating) or use servers provided by the host. Third party hosting usually has the advantage of big bandwidth capacity, secure buildings, redundant cooling and electrical supplies, and redundant Internet backbone connections. The Internet backbone refers to the main “trunk” lines of the Internet owned and operated by the major communications companies and the government. If you host in your own shop and your router connecting to the Internet fails, your site is off line until that router is fixed. At a commercial data center, that router is one of several connections to various “trunks” and requests for your server would be automatically re-routed to a working connection. Nice!

A disadvantage of co-located servers is their relative inaccessibility for maintenance or changes that require physical proximity. However, most hosts will perform disk replacements or other minor hardware maintenance for a reasonable fee. The biggest inconveniences are during the initial installation and when any major upgrades are required.

The primary message concerning bandwidth is do not put a public server on your local office’s DSL or cable connection if you expect any significant traffic. The pipe is too small and it may even be a violation of your ISP’s terms of service or use.

Are You Being Served?

The next factor to consider is the equipment used for your web server(s). Surprisingly, a server that functions quite admirably does not have to have the speed and storage capacity of a desktop used for Microsoft Office applications. It does, however, need some failsafe provisions your favorite desktop can live without. Why? Because that server is working 24/7 and it does not have a human connecting with it daily to discover any problems. While monitoring helps (see below), redundancy is very important.

The first area of redundancy is in the power supply. The 115-120 volt wall socket AC power coming into a computer is transformed into 12 and 5 volt DC power to supply the computer’s internal components. The input source and the associated electronics and transformers are a hardware unit collectively called the “power supply”. Computers with two power supplies than can switch automatically to the other when one fails are preferred. These “switching power supplies” are inexpensive, so be sure you have them. Next, is to have disk drives that are redundant and can be replaced while the machine is still operating (“hot-swapped”). Some form of RAID (Redundant Arrays of Independent Disks) is appropriate. See the RAID article on Wikipedia for more information on RAID options.

Optimization of your server configuration is important for performance and ease of administration. Each server software system --- Apache, Solaris, Microsoft IIS, etc. --- has its own best practices and performance tradeoffs. Adding JAVA with Tomcat or other JAVA servers, ASP, PHP or .Net technologies can complicate optimizations substantially. Look for documents on the ‘Net that offer guidance for server setup and optimization.
For example, a white paper on Apache optimization can be found on Make sure you understand enough to ask your technology providers some questions to be sure they have considered performance optimization.

Monitoring of your server (or web site) just to be sure it is available and performing acceptably is important. You don’t want customers or your boss calling you to tell you the site it not operational! Use of monitoring services that alert you by cell or pager of any performance issue or outage can provide you with an early warning of any problem. Monitoring service costs start at free to $50 annually for one URL with simple services and reporting and range up to tens of thousands of dollars per year for complex monitoring and reporting for many URLs.

The message: take steps to keep your site available and performing at its best while monitoring 24/7 for any potential problems.

Is Your Load Too Heavy?

How do you know if a server (or group of servers) is handling its load OK or if it is overloaded? The most obvious answer is “response time”. What is response time? Simply stated, it is the time between the visitor’s request for a page and when that page is displayed in his/her browser. The industry standard goal is 1-3 seconds for a visitor with a broadband (cable or DSL) connection to the Internet, depending upon who you talk to. I say 2-3 seconds is very good, with peak traffic responses of up to 5-10 seconds, as long as that performance level is delivered consistently from hour-to-hour and day-to-day. Most monitoring services have some way to sample response time for a URL (specific page).

The infrastructure for multiple servers responding to requests for the URLs for one site can get complex. The individual servers can be connected to a single load balancer that directs requests to the least busy server, each server in turn, or to different server groups in different locations using some logic for the distribution of requests. While beyond the scope of this article, sites receiving hundreds of thousands of visitors per week need this kind of architecture. However, when ever your requirements for a single site exceed the capacity of a single server, some kind of “traffic cop” --- hardware or software --- is needed.

A final note on performance relates to images. Images are the most important selling tool on the Internet yet they are the most resource intensive components of any site. Images are typically very large compared to a text area of the same size. We have all had the experience of visiting a web page and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for some image to display. This is usually because the image has not been optimized for the web. It is stored on the server with the same resolution as the camera that took the original photo. These days, that can be a million bytes or more. Re-sizing a picture close to the size of the screen real estate it will use and saving it as a JPG or GIF file type will usually mitigate the issue by cutting the size to under 10,000 bytes. The quality will still be good for the web at the expected display size; but the photo will not scale to a larger image very well. This may create an issue when a prospective buyer wants to zoom in for a closer look. That’s why you see small images on most web pages that can be clicked to view a bigger version of the image. That bigger image is in fact a different image file on the computer that is larger in size and “byte count”. However, since it loads alone, the larger size is less bothersome than when you are trying to display a page with several pictures and text.

Again, a simple message: make sure you optimize photos and that you have enough server horsepower to keep page load times in the 2-3 second range for pages which are viewed most often.

Technical Excellence is in the Details

As this article shows, the server engine is dependent on many factors that determine the quality of service your visitor experiences. If I had to offer one single piece of advice to the novice it would be to use a third party resource for hosting. That will all but eliminate the bandwidth issue and help with many more of the technology issues that could take your site offline more than the .02% industry standard goal about 9 minutes per month.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Does Your Website Measure Up? Part 2: Do Search Engines Like You?

This blog topic is being published as a serial. This is the second of four parts.

Part 2: Do Search Engines Like You?

Most web site owners find a significant amount, if not a majority, of their traffic comes from the major search engines like Yahoo, Google, MSN, AOL, Lycos and a few others. In simple terms, a web site that is set up to standards that meet the expectations of search engines is likely to get more traffic than a web site that is not. This is because those search engine friendly sites will rank higher in the search results, meaning more people will see them in the results and link to them. There are some basic search engine optimization (SEO) techniques that you want to be sure your developers include routinely in the sites and added pages they build for you.

Most search engines respond well to static HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) pages with lots of text. If you have a site with dynamic URL calls (including search variables, for example), Flash, Frames or other technologies that are not HTML-based, you probably will need SEO specialists to make your site adequately visible to search engines.

Within the current structure of the search engine marketplace, you can improve search results in two basic ways: organically or by paying for placement. Organic SEO refers to using the elements of site and page design and structure that search engines find most acceptable and which produce higher placement in the results based upon those elements alone. This article focuses on organic SEO, but a brief introduction to paid placement is also provided.

Some parts of this topic may get a little technical in terminology. Please don’t let it put you off. Read for the gestalt first. When you finish, use to search for any definitions that you need for clarification. I have provided some hyperlinks for key concepts and definitions if you want a more in-depth view of this subject.

There are also numerous publications for SEO learning. Since the search engines are continually changing the rules, and the different engines have differing approaches, subscribing to a SEO periodical might be good, especially if you are trying to do it yourself or evaluate an SEO employee or vendor. Search Engine News is a good choice for a monthly paid subscription. Search Engine Watch and Pandia Post are good free resources. A review of the results in your favorite search engine for the term “search engine newsletter” or “search engine help” will provide many more paid and free resources to choose from. Just remember when evaluating paid services that this is a labor intensive service and you will typically get what you pay for. Low one-time fees for “search engine submission” are typically of limited value. SEO is an art and requires repeated attention. Be sure to check references and look at the historical site statistics for the reference sites.

Is Your Domain Relevant?

The first step in the SEO game is to pick a domain name that is reflective of the search terms you expect people to use when looking for your products. If you are selling premium ballet shoes, is probably a better choice than Domains that reflect the name of the business and business names that reflect the product or service will help in search engine rankings.

Can Search Engines Spider Your Site?

A critical step is to make sure the content on your site can be found by search engines. Search engines “crawl” or “spider” web sites to look for unique and relevant content associated with certain keywords which are then used to index and weight the sites’ pages. (There will be more on keywords later.) The beginning point is the home page for the site; e.g., index.html. Therefore, in order for a search engine to successfully spider a site, the links from the home page to the sub pages needs to be clear in the home page HTML. There are two very good ways to accomplish this.

Create a site map with all the pages and the links to the pages. Provide one or more links to the site map on the home page. Site maps are terrific and every site should have one. Be sure to keep it up to date as the site changes.
Add a list of all pages as hyperlinks. This is why many sites you visit have a section at the bottom of the page with links to all pages in the site. Again, keep it up to date.

Using one, or preferably both, of these techniques will assure your pages can be readily found by the spiders.

Another critical search engine requirement is the robots.txt file. Your root directory must have a robots.txt file or some search engines will not spider the site. The robots.txt file can be used to disallow access to content by spiders, too. This is frequently done while sites are under development to prevent getting a bad page rank for the domain due to incomplete content.

As a final word on spiders, you can set up software to capture search spider visits and provide valuable statistics by analyzing the spider and the results of the visit. By seeing which pages the spider visited and comparing it to page rankings, the analysis can help determine if a page needs additional optimization effort. This analysis software can also block unwanted spiders like those who visit only to copy email addresses for use in spam campaigns.

Do Your Tags, Links and Names Work Together?

Tags, and the keywords they contain, were primarily what search engines used to rank pages in the early days. Because it did not take site developers long to figure out how to use popular keywords like “sex” in their tags to improve page rankings, the search engines now place far less reliance on tags. However, the repetition of keywords in tags, directory and file names, link names to other pages within the site, and the actual copy or content on the site’s pages is very important. This relationship and frequency analysis by the search engines means that keywords should be carefully optimized in conjunction with their use in other elements of a site’s construction.

Here are the basic keyword elements. I am presenting them to show how they are interrelated, but while I’m at it, I’ve included some best practice “how to” suggestions.

Title tag: Use a few of your most strategic keywords to title your page.
Description tag: Include as many relevant keywords as practical in a description of the site.
Meta tags: List all your keywords here, again remembering to keep them relevant.
Heading tags: Can be added at the top of pages, using keywords.
Alt/Image tags: Use keywords to tag images with relevant identifiers.
Links (hypertext): Use relevant keywords in links to the site’s other pages or files.
Directory Names: Use keywords in directory names. Separate with hyphens.
Filenames: Use keywords in file names. Separate with hyphens.
Site Map: As indicated before, a site map helps the spiders find your pages. It is also another relevant way to include keywords.

If your keywords are relevant and included in tags, names, and content; most search engines will give “extra credit” in the rankings for the repetition. As you will see in a few minutes, the “relevance” is related to the copy, or content, of your site.

A Word About Stuffing

No, I haven’t changed the subject to holiday turkeys. In search engine terminology, “stuffing” refers to the addition of popular keywords that are not relevant to the site content. Search engines will ignore non-relevant keywords, or even penalize sites that use large numbers of “hot” keywords in tags when those keywords are not present in the copy on the site. Similarly, sites that use “invisible” text (text the same color as the page background, for example) to put keywords on pages so it appears to be in the copy are penalized. Some search engines exclude such sites completely from their results. Needless to say, it is not a good idea to use this technique.

Does Your Copy Complement Your Key Words?

Using copy that integrates the strategic words that search engines will use to index your site is essential to placement success. Using text with these strategic keywords at the top of each page, in page and paragraph headings, and at the beginning of paragraphs complements the keyword based tags and names used in the construction of your site. All these uses of the strategic words combine to create a synergistic effect in most search engine algorithms, and the attention to detail and relevant content is rewarded with higher placement in search results from searches using those keywords.

Paying For Search Engine Placement

After all this, budget permitting, you may choose to augment your organic rankings with some form of paid placement. Paid placement is a complex subject and I only intend to introduce it here. For a more detailed discussion, refer to the newsletters reference earlier and look at the descriptions for AdWords and AdSense products on Google’s ads page.

Paid Placement
Paid placement can take many forms. However, the most common is to pay the search engine for preferred placement for certain keywords. The cost can be a function of the number of times the results display the advertiser’s link, the number of searchers who actually click on the link to the site, or a flat periodic fee. Search engines refer to these as sponsored listings, pay per click, and other similar terminology. Most search engines wisely segregate paid results from “organic” results to avoid criticism from their user communities.

Paid Submission
Paid submission or paid inclusion refers to paying a fee for prompt search engine spidering of a web site. It is most frequently used for new sites to expedite appearing in key search engine rankings. Not all search engines provide paid submission. Paid submission does not affect ranking, just inclusion on that specific search engine. Sites will still be ranked by the search engine’s usual algorithms and good organic design is still important. However, if market research shows you that your competition has good success with a particular search engine, you might consider the paid submission approach for a new web site.

Budgeting for keyword “buys” and paid submissions can jumpstart the success of a new site. Ongoing buys of keywords can enhance the success of an established site. However, these techniques are expensive and a minimum budget of several thousand dollars per year will typically be required to have a significant effect, especially with popular keywords.

Traffic Analysis

Knowing how much traffic your site has and your “sales per visitor” can help you evaluate organic and paid search results. If you have 1000 visitors per day and sell $2000 in product per day to 100 visitors, you have a 10% “conversion rate” (visitors who buy) and sales of $200 per customer and $20 per visitor. In the simplest terms, you should be able to evaluate the effect of new initiatives by seeing the change (or lack of change) in these metrics. However, if a site has rapidly growing traffic, has a base of established customer who buy repeatedly, or is constantly changing its product offerings; evaluation of the results accruing from SEO changes becomes more difficult. This is because the other traffic and growth factors are commingled with the SEO factors.

To analyze these complex factors, it is important to know where your traffic comes from and which page they “land” on. Did they link from a search engine; another link source (business partner or advertising resource); or a personal IP address? Did they link to the home page, a product or service page, or a specific informational page like a how-to or success story? It can also be important to know which pages they linked to on your site and which page they were on when they abandoned, or left, the site.

Your web site host should provide some analytic software to get the broad statistics. You can also subscribe to paid analytics that monitor your site and accumulate data for analysis. Ongoing analysis of a site’s dynamics is important to its initial and ongoing success, especially in the realm of search engine results placement. Be sure to budget time and money for this important function.

SEO best practices cover a lot of ground. If you are in charge of a commercial web site that is focused on eCommerce, you must be sure the SEO bases are covered. Similarly, if finding your web site in the search engines has strategic importance to your organization’s operations or marketing success, SEO is a key element of the site design.

The old saying is that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. In the twenty-first century, you have to assure your door is easy to find on the web. The world is too big to rely on word of mouth alone to find your mousetrap.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Does Your Website Measure Up? Part 1: The User Interface

This blog topic is being published as a serial. This is the first of four parts.

Part 1: The User Interface Is Your GUI Sticky?
The Graphical User Interface (GUI) or, more commonly, the User Interface (UI) is what contributes most to the visitor experience. The objective is to make the experience as positive as possible so visitors will buy and/or come back to buy. Making your site simple to navigate, error free and comfortable is essential to keeping visitors on the site and getting them back to buy your product or take other action again.
The “stickiness" of a web site refers to the characteristics that make a visitor linger and/or return for subsequent visits.
The UI is one key to making a site sticky. The UI design stages the flow of the search and site “browsing” as well as the transactional flow of a sale or call to action. For the purposes of this series, I am going to assume the call to action is a sale, but it could also be to write a legislator or other action that serves the site owner’s purposes.
What are the basics of good user interface design? There are three main elements:
1. The look and feel of the site;
2. The utility of the content presentation; and,
3. Ease of achieving the user’s goal(s).
Look and Feel
Let’s start with the look and feel of the site. A gaudy site might look interesting, but all the bright colors, waving flags, and gyrating dancers are going to keep your visitor from seeing what you want them to see: your messages and how to find what they are looking for. Similarly, most of us spent 12 or more years learning to read black letters on white paper, so when we encounter red letters on a black background we find them very hard to read. That’s not to say your site should look like a newspaper, color goes a long way to making a site appealing. Just use colors that provide good contrast for easy reading or just intersperse the black on white text with relevant illustrations and photographs. Think back to the illustrated children’s books you have encountered. Another good trick is to look at magazine articles and advertisements. After all, the web page is a page, too, and those magazine layouts have good lessons for web designers. One big difference between a web site and a magazine is that users have come to expect the page header and navigation elements on each page to remain relatively constant. Since magazines have no interactive navigation elements like the web page hyperlink can provide, this commonality of navigation tools is important on a web site. The magazine publisher assumes the reader will refer back to the table of contents for navigation. So the “buttons” and other hyperlinks to other sections of your web site should be clear, easy to find, and consistent from page to page.
Also, stick with the proven typography proportional fonts: Times New Roman, Garamond, Sans Serif (Verdana), etc. If you use an offbeat font, not only is it hard to read, but if the user does not have the font on their PC, their browser may interpret the font such that it is practically illegible. Refer to the inset to see how my browser interprets Lucida Casual, a font not resident on my computer and some other more common fonts. I suggest you use these more common fonts to be sure your visitor does not see something that is very difficult or impossible to read.

Another look and feel element that is critical is everything you want the user to act on should be visible without scrolling the page down or to the right. Make your content fit and check to be sure it fits on various sizes of monitor at various popular screen resolutions. Some web designers refer to this placement as “above the fold”. The term relates to newspapers, which typically have a horizontal fold midway down the page. Keeping your primary message clear and prominently “above the fold” makes sure it is seen at first glance and increases the chance the visitor will take the time to see more of the site.

Content Presentation

Have you seen a web site where the product for sale has several pictures? You are excited to get such detail and you happily click on a picture’s thumbnail. Then you find the picture is HUGE, taking a long time to load, requiring you to scroll to see it. Then, adding more complexity, you have to close the window, and click the next one. Compare that experience to a site where the photos are properly sized and all you have to do to see the next one is click “next”. The former approach is poor content presentation and makes a visitor quickly want to look elsewhere. One of the biggest payoffs in site redesign is to consider the user in developing easy to access content and properly sized photographs.

When my team redesigned the real estate portal in 2006-7, enhancing the user experience was the primary goal. We even removed some elements that provided advertising revenue to the business because they were an irritant to the visitor. Visitors use to quickly and efficiently search for homes in a specific geographic area and to get as much information about each listing that attracts their interest. So, our mission was to present as many listings on the search page as practical considering page load times and aesthetics; present the listings with a primary photo of sufficient size to see the property clearly; and make it easy and fast to see more details about a listing, the listing agent, and the neighborhood. Once our design team focused on those goals, the changes we needed to make on individual pages became pretty obvious. Note that the changes were not in design alone; we had to use new programming techniques, revise the database structure and write new data base packages to speed things up.

This concept of content relevance to the user’s purpose is an essential element of good design. Too often, web developers worry about the site owners’ needs and do not adequately consider the use experience. This can result in causing visitors to leave before buying and the web site getting less traffic due to poor relevance and presentation.

Help Them Find What They Want (and buy it)

When was the last time you went to a commerce site and had trouble finding the search box? Isn’t that annoying? Did you stay or leave for another site? This illustrates a primary rule for web page presentation and navigation: MAKE IT EASY to do what the user came to do. For example, a pet peeve of mine is the drop down box for states. I can type VA or FL a lot faster than I can scroll and select “Florida” or “Virginia” from a drop down list. A user friendly way to accomplish the same purpose is to ask for the zip code and populate the city, state and country fields for the user from your own data base. This saves the user time and keystrokes and assures your application gets accurate information. Besides, what’s the point of spelling out the state? All shipping documents use the 2 letter state abbreviations anyway. (Yeah, I know the Internet is multinational; but if you have a .com site in English, get real. Your primary audience is the USA and maybe Canada. Just have a checkbox for international customers to invoke a different data entry form.)

Another annoyance with drop down lists is list positioning by the first letter only. “V” usually turns up Vermont and if I type “A” afterwards, I end up at the top of the list. If your developers insist on using drop down lists, ask them to use positioning based upon all user entries.

A similar rule of thumb is “three clicks to buy”. Your visitor should be able to find, select and start the checkout process in three clicks. This is especially true for sites with just one or a few products where searching is unnecessary. However, if a visitor types something in a search box, he should be able to buy from the results list and proceed to check out. A related annoyance is when you add an item to the “cart” and the system takes you to the cart for checkout. Why not offer them the option to continue shopping or check out now as many sites now do? If they want to continue shopping, return them to the page they were on, if not, display the page to start the check out process.


As you consider new web pages, remember the three “R”s: Readability; Relevance and Rationality. Your pages should be readable on a small laptop screen in unfavorable lighting. Your message should be prominent and “above the fold”. Be sure your content is relevant to the user's purposes for visiting and presented accordingly. Finally, make sure your site navigation is rational, and again, that it absolutely facilitates the visitor’s reasons for being there.