For most of us, building a website is the single biggest and most significant thing we can do for our business, brand, product, or book. Yet I'm amazed at how often folks will jump into this work with little or no knowledge of what it takes to build a website that is mediocre at best. I'm not talking about design, although that is very important. I'm taking about the goals, the mission and understanding the principles that go into creating something that isn't about you, but about your user because in the end, that's the only thing that matters. Let's look at some components and must-haves to create that perfect site, starting with the single most important page on your entire website:
Homepage: While it's always good to start at the point of entry when we're talking about websites, that's not my reason for starting these tips by talking about the homepage. My reason is simple -- if you get this page wrong, you may as well forget your entire website. The homepage is the single most important page on your site and it must deliver on one promise, and just one. While your navigation will send visitors off to different areas of your site and it's likely that you will want your site to produce numerous results for you, your homepage should do only one thing: deliver on your promise. People came to your site for a specific reason, right? Let's say that you are a motivational author. You write books, give lectures, and have a newsletter and all of it is about motivation. Yet, when someone lands on your website all they see is you. Who you are, what you do, etc. and while that's important, it's not your promise. One of the biggest lessons of website design is that you are creating a site for your consumers' reasons, not yours. Remember that while this may sound harsh, you should run by the general rule that no one cares about you but your mom. If your homepage is packed with stuff other than your promise, visitors won't stay on your site. That's a promise I can guarantee 100 percent of the time.
What do you want the website to do and why? I'm always surprised at how many designers don't ask this question. Or perhaps they do but the questions are asked the wrong way. When designers ask, "What do you want your website to do?" most people will say "sell something" but the problem is before you get to the sell, the site must first do something else. Let's have a look at what that is. When we were building our site, my web person asked me this same question. Then, much to my dismay, she asked me to go deeper. "No," she said, "before you get to a sale it must do something else first." That made sense. We're not going to buy from someone we don't trust, right? So, I wanted the website to speak to credibility. That, then, is reflected on every page. You will likely have different reasons, maybe it's to educate, entertain, maybe you just want to capture information or give your visitor a fun experience online. Whatever that reason is, remember that no one starts with the end result in mind. There is always a piece before that. That's what your website should do. Once you determine that, make sure that each page on your site reflects what you want your website to do.
Who is your market? This is always a loaded question and often a tricky one to answer, but if you don't know this with all certainty, I don't recommend that you start building your website. And much like the prior bullet, it's more than just knowing the basics: female, ages 35 to 55. In order to create a site that will truly sell or do what you need it to, you must know more. Years ago I created something called the "Reader Profile," it was designed for authors to help them profile a reader for their book. The form asked questions like: Where does your reader live? What groups might they belong to? What other books are they reading? What do they do on their time off? Where do they hang out online? What's their age? Married? Do they watch TV? Listen to radio? Read magazines/newspapers? And if "yes" to any of these, which and how often? These questions will really help you to go deeper into your site and really create an experience that is keenly focused on your end user. Without this data, you're creating a website in a vacuum and I can almost guarantee that if you don't sift through this data now, you'll end up doing it eventually when you see your website is not producing the results you'd hoped it would.
Think Billboards: Years ago, I wrote that websites are like billboards, they must deliver on a single promise very quickly. It's even truer now than when I originally wrote about this. When you see billboards (the ones that are done right) they deliver quickly through words and images and you know exactly what they are offering. Think of your website as a billboard, with people racing past it at high speeds because that's what the online experience is like. You have less than a second to get someone's attention: be clear, crisp and concise. Think billboard.
Things no website should be without: While every website is different, there are elements that I feel are important to have on any website. Consider the following:
- Strong call to action: We'll cover this more in-depth in part two of this post, but for now know that you need a strong call to action. You must tell your visitors what you want them to do, otherwise they will leave without taking action and that won't serve you well at all.
Bad book covers: I work in publishing and as anyone in this industry knows, you can bury a good book in a lousy cover. The same can be said for your website. I'm always amazed at how people will bury a fantastic message in a terrible design. Consumers won't take the time to try and figure out bad navigation or lukewarm website copy, not to mention a poor design, they'll just leave and likely their next stop will be your competitor.
You get what you pay for: I love free. I mean, don't we all? But free has a price, especially when it comes to website design. Free websites are limited, won't let you do e-commerce and most will never get you any search engine ranking. Forget free -- in the long run it could cost you in lost revenue and business opportunities.
Know your promise: We all promise people something when they come to our websites. The thing you need to ask yourself is what are you promising? Whatever it is, this promise needs to be reflected on every page. Whether your site is about saving money or making people laugh, make sure your promise is consistent on each page.