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Web Design Articles & Resources

The following articles, links and resources are provided for information purposes, whether you are a client of Internet Advisor or prefer to build your own "do it yourself" website.

Most Recent Article:

Web Design: Back to Basics

by Russ Jackman,
February, 2007
Originally written for the St. Thomas & District Chamber of Commerce

Back to Basics

Find great deals. Save time. Avoid crowds. Like may of you, my recent holiday shopping included purchases from various online retailers, and my experience reaffirmed the importance of some key principles for websites and online stores.

Principle One: Keep It Simple

"Simple" is a concept we can apply to several aspects of your web site, including design, purpose, and strategy.

When a visitor comes to your site, you often have only a few seconds to convince the visitor that your site offers the information they seek or the solution to their problem. The fact is, most visitors to your site are not "surfing", they are actively seeking out information and answers. This is why I have been a strong advocate for investing first in function and content, then in the form and aesthetics of your web site.

Avoid "splash" pages that require a visitor to click on a link to skip an animated welcome in order to view the information they seek. This doesn't mean multimedia and Flash presentations are not useful, but they should be available "on demand" instead of forced upon visitors who want to get past the fluff and get to the information your site offers.

Site navigation should also be kept clear and concise. A good rule of thumb is "7 +/- 2" when planning the primary navigation options on your home page. In other words, between 5 and 9 links for visitors to choose from will work best to draw visitors further into your site. Yahoo! and MSN continue to struggle against Google in the web search market, and if you compare their home pages you'll see why. While Yahoo! and MSN have created "portal" offerings with dozens of links and articles in an effort to present a little bit of something for everyone, Google has dominated the internet search market by keeping it simple and focused.

Does your website follow the "Keep It Simple" principle? Is the navigation clear and concise? Is the purpose of your site focused, and does your home page anticipate the questions that visitors might have (who,what, where, when, why, how) and answer those questions within 7 seconds?

Principle Two: Keep It Current, Keep It Accurate

There is no excuse for out of date information on a web site with today's "Web 2.0" technologies. Over 90% of our projects today are "content management system" (CMS) based websites, where the business owner can edit and add content to their site about as easily as writing an email.

My own online holiday shopping frustrations came from out of date stock information and a shopping cart that refused to honour a special promotion advertised by the retailer. Though these errors were from a major retailer with an extensive web support staff, current web technologies allow even a one-person firm to present a website that is always accurate and up-to-date.

Having an effective website today requires a steady, ongoing commitment. The cost to move beyond the "online brochure" that is commonplace into a valuable marketing tool that is responsive and relevant to your customers is not as big a leap as it was even two years ago. While the barriers related to cost and technical requirements have fallen, the biggest barrier is still making your website part of your marketing "habit". The most advanced content management system is less effective if it is maintained in an inconsistent manner, than the most basic system that is updated as part of a daily, weekly, or monthly routine for your business.

Principle Three: Keep It Profitable

Clients often hear me say, “Just because you can doesn't mean you should”. While reviewing a competitor site recently for a client, the competitor took what would have been a clean, professional, usable design and seemed to keep adding to it ... the scrolling text and multiple animated images made it hard to see an otherwise well designed navigation. To my eye, it looked like the basic template was designed by a professional, then an amateur got hold of performing the maintenance and got carried away with making it “cool”.

To keep your site profitable, you first need to keep it focused – well-design navigation and a few useful features are more effective than thrusting 80 competing options and flashing links at an unfortunate visitor who happens upon your website.

Part of that focus includes understanding how your website will make and/or save your business money. Making your site “sticky” and a convenient way to support and connect with current customers is more cost effective than attracting new business or reaching new markets, but limits your growth potential. The rules of marketing apply online just as in the offline world, with one difference: the old belief that “half of your marketing budget is being wasted but you just don't know which half”, does not apply to internet marketing. The online metrics that are available showing visitor activity, conversion rates, cost per view or cost per sale can be daunting and overwhelming at first. The bigger your commitment, either in time learning and managing your online campaigns or in money spent hiring professional help, can have a dramatic impact on profitability.

For example, let's take a widget that sells for $20 with a 40% margin. If your cost per sale to market and promote online is $4.00 each, you're left with a $4.00 profit per item. If you sell 100 items per month, you'd make $400 profit (based on 6,667 visitors from a $400 per month marketing budget, or $.06 per visitor and a 1.5% conversion ratio).

Through A-B testing of offers, improving check-out processes, and tweaking advertising methods, you can increase both traffic and conversion rate on your site. Going from a 1.5% to 2% conversion rate and increasing traffic by 25% would have the following effect: Traffic increases to 8,334 visitors per month, resulting in 167 sales – a 67% increase. However, profit more than doubles, (167 x $20 = $3,340 x 40% = $1,336 gross - $400 advertising) to $936. Increasing traffic by 25% and conversion rate by 0.5% increases profit by 134% in this realistic scenario. What's the difference between $400 profit and $936 profit? In this case, a little time invested learning, analyzing, testing, and monitoring your site.

Of course, the conversion rate and traffic going in the opposite direction can quickly wipe out your profits, and even cost you money. Your decision is whether you're satisfied with a “build it and they will come” mentality, or whether you're willing to make the commitment to online marketing and creating a profitable website.

Principle Four: Anticipate Customer Questions

Another discussion that I frequently have with clients, is just how many websites are designed backwards. Most of the time, a new client is eager to tell me what they want to tell their customer through their new website, however the most effective websites are designed from the customer's perspective.

The vast majority of visitors to your site are actively seeking information, and in most cases your site is one of dozens of resources they will look to for answers. The amount of time your website has to convince them that you offer what they are searching for is measured in seconds, and those seconds are measured in the single digits. In other words, you need to know what your potential customer is searching for and let them know you have it within 7 seconds.

Here's a test to see if your site is clear and focused: Invite a dozen or so people to view your site, but tell them to count to 7 then leave the site or close the browser. Then ask them a few questions about your business – was it obvious which geographic area you are located in? What products / services you offer? The level of confidence and professionalism you project in those 7 seconds? And most importantly, if they were in the market for your product / service, would they want to spend longer than those 7 seconds exploring your site?

Many website statistics programs can also provide insight into visitor habits, telling you how many visitors have ventured beyond the home page, or how many left as quickly as they arrived.

Principle Zero: Why?

While it's good to build a website that is simple to use, contains current and accurate information, does not feel the need to add every gadget, toy and flashing eye-candy ever created, and anticipates customer questions, your site won't be as effective for your business as it could be until you answer this question: Why?

Why do you think you need a website? Why will your existing customers use it, and why will it attract new customers over your competitors and increase your profits?

The difference between developing an online brochure, perhaps a very nice and flashy online brochure at that, and a truly effective website integrated into your business methods and contributing to the bottom line in a meaningful and measurable way, lay in the answer to “Why?”


Russ Jackman, Internet Advisor
Russ Jackman is the principal of Internet Advisor, a web design and internet marketing firm located in St. Thomas, Ontario.

The concept of the "Internet Advisor" is that the designer becomes a partner or trusted consultant, who can simply provide advice and direction, completely implement a solution from start to end, or any degree in between. This insures that the strengths of a client are utilized, to minimize the investment required and maximize the benefits to their organization.

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