Although creating a website can be easy, there's more to it than first meets the eye. Your first task, before investing any time or money, should be to determine the primary reason you want to be on the internet and to identify the audience you want to reach. The content, as well as the scope and quality of design should be driven by the answers to these questions. Do your homework!
Your first task when planning a website should be to determine the primary reason you want to be online and to identify your audience
Your purpose may be as general as to let the world know you exist by posting the online equivalent of a brochure, display ad, or newsletter. Or it may be as specific as increasing sales by offering your products online. Obviously, the latter increases the scope of work as your site must have eCommerce software installed. Be sure that your development objectives are consistent with the resources you have available to create and maintain a site. If not, reassess your short-term and long-term goals, adjusting them accordingly.
The next step is to create a profile of your target audience, so you can design a site that's responsive to their needs and interests. Select content by thinking from the perspective of your visitors. How can you add value to their online experience? How can you make your website different than an electronic version of a printed page? In other words, how do you make your website interesting to visitors?
Adding Visitor Value
Adding information-based value is really the key to adding visitor value.
- This Portland landmark allows book lovers to get as lost in its website as it is its enormous four story, entire city block physical location. The website contains the entire store's catalog, of course — including online purchasing options. But it also includes an active blog that is contributed to by various staff members. In addition, it has an active calendar of events, staff recommendations, and a whole lot more.
- This international advertising agency uses its website to showcases its impressive portfolio. But it also conducts online focus groups and opinion surveys, and generally provides a lot of content to keep a visitor interested.
- Whatever you may think of the world of fast food, McDonald's provides its visitors with various sub-websites that make visiting more than just a matter of checking out the menu and forms for job applications. For example, their site Happy Meal provides children with games, videos, and eBooks.
Looking at websites like these might seem intimidating. But it isn't as hard as it looks, because there are a lot of tools for creating an engaging user experience:
- Blogs (or more broadly, content management systems — CMS) provide you with an easy way to create content. Rather than creating new webpages, you simply enter what you want to say in the blog's editor, and post it. The software does the rest. In general, blogs are presented as a kind of diary with the most recent things posted displayed first. But most blogs provide you with the ability to present this content any way you like. The most popular content management systems are WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla.
- Forums provide a great way for website users to create their own content. They can start their own conversations without a website gatekeeper. And these conversations can go on for years. But note: administering a forum can be a lot of work. There are many choices for forum platforms.
- Wikis allow a group of people to collaborate to create content. The most famous example of this is the online dictionary Wikipedia. But many sites use this technology for part or all of their content. Check out our article on the subject, The World of Wiki.
- There are a number of software programs that allow websites to set up their own social networks. These can be great for organizations that want control over their content in a way that other options like Facebook don't allow. There are a handful of social networking platforms that are in active development.
Most of these things are available for automatic installation via your web hosting provider. And the tools aren't limited to these. In addition, there are things like eCommerce platforms, calendars, surveys, educational tools, image galleries, and much more.
Content is King
Once you've determined what you and your audience want, it's time to prepare the content. This involves more than converting existing documents into HTML. Here are some general guidelines that we'll discuss in more detail in later articles:
- The home page should draw your audience in, not overwhelm them with information. Keep the layout simple and the text brief. Add graphics to communicate your brand.
- Reproducing existing brochures or other documents on the Web doesn't work well. People have short attention spans and don't particularly like to read copious amounts of text on a computer screen. Use only the most compelling information. Add headings and bold text, where appropriate, to make reading easier. Limit the length of a web page to just a few screens.
- If you must include lengthy articles, break them up into sections with headings. Create an index or table of contents at the top of the page, with links to each section. If you want to provide access to a lot of documents, add a search feature or provide them as PDF files that can be downloaded for printing and reading offline.
- Use graphics to enhance the site, but minimize graphics file sizes whenever possible. Include only those images that add value.
- A layout that looks good when viewed in your favorite web browser may look different to people accessing the site with a different browser or on a mobile device like a smartphone. Check your web pages by viewing them in a number of browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari.
- Consider adding links to related content on other websites or blogs to augment information.
- If you have the time to respond, encourage feedback via e-mail. You will get invaluable information from your audience.
- Measure traffic to your site. Determine the most popular pages and track viewers' paths through your web pages, so you can adjust your content accordingly.
Create a Useful and Enjoyable User Experience
Remember that there are roughly a billion websites on the internet. Give visitors a reason to come to your website and once there, a reason to stay. In order to create a successful website, you will need more than quality content. But having quality content is still the most important component in website success.