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Arrived on this page from a search engine and wondering what it's all about?
The first two paragraphs of tips, hints and advice on web site development will explain all
- not least why the content might seem a tad out-of-date!

WEB SITE CHECKLIST


I'll start with my 'get-out clause'! The development of a good web site is more of an art than it is a science. This being the case, I cannot present a definitive text on what a web must be. What I can offer is my opinion of what constitutes good web site design. My opinion is based not only on my five years experience in e-commerce consultancy, but 20 years of retail and marketing experience. I am a marketer first, web consultant second. My advice comes from that stand-point.

Alan Charlesworth, February 2000

INTRODUCTION

The development of a web site is not as straightforward an undertaking as some might have you believe. It is certainly NOT the sole domain of the IT/ computer department!

Web site development is complex, involving a number of elements. Some of these are of a 'technical' nature, the programming for instance. Far out-weighing such technical elements, however, are the 'business' considerations. A businesses web site is part of the marketing of that business. As such it has considerations that are beyond the scope of technical development.

If you already have a web site you can use the following information as a 'checklist' to make an assessment of it.

If you currently considering an online presence, the following is a guide of the things you should think about before going 'live' online.

I have arranged the following article into a series of subjects for your 'checklist', each is then considered in some detail.

THE CHECKLIST

  • Does the web site meet the objectives of your web presence?
  • Can your web site be found by potential customer?
  • Are the design features appropriate?
  • Is the site easy on the eye?
  • Content - is it right?
  • Is the site easy to navigate?
  • Is your web site legal?
  • Does the web site address the target audience?
Before I cover these aspects in more detail you should note that some elements 'over-lap' into others and so it is sometimes difficult to treat them in isolation - but I'll try to make things as clear as I can!

THE OBJECTIVES OF YOUR WEB SITE?

Do you have defined objectives for your web presence? - I've got a web site because the competition has - is not an objective, it is a reason.

What is your web site actually meant to do for your business? Advertise your services? Promote new products? Generate sales leads? Guess what? - These aren't objectives either! - To generate ten new sales leads every month for the next six months - is an objective. Objectives should be precise and time specific.

If you have no specific objectives - and experience tells me that most SME owners do not - try setting at least one. Then take another look at your web site. Does it meet that objective?

Having objectives will also help you assess the return on investment (ROI) for your web site - although beware; the reverse is also true - lack of investment may result in failed objectives.

Defining your objectives will help you identify your target audience - in other words, who you expect to visit your web site? The following points will help you check your web site for a number of things, but without specific objectives the whole exercise is something of a waste of time.

As well as considering your objectives, for much of what follows you should also constantly bear in mind the fact that people form a perception of an organisation from its web presence. Wouldn't you want visitors to leave your web site with a good impression of your business?


CAN YOUR WEB SITE BE FOUND BY POTENTIAL CUSTOMER?

DOMAIN NAMES
Let's start with your web address, is it suitable?

You should have your own domain name, using anything else detracts from the status of your organisation.

If you have your own domain name - is it a .com or a .co.uk (for a UK business these are the only real options) - for international trading a .com is better. If you trade only in the UK then a .co.uk is preferable. If you trade at home and abroad, why not register both?

Does your domain name actually represent your organisation? Many common trading names have already been registered, so you may be down to your third or fourth choice. Think carefully. For John Smith the haulage contractor, Smith.co.uk might not be available, but SmithsTransport.co.uk, SmithsHaulage.co.uk or SmithsLogistics.co.uk might be.

Be wary of abbreviations. smitheleceng.com might be available, but would it really represent Smith's Electrical Engineers? (see also the next section on search engines)

For some businesses the product or service they provide might carry a stronger brand than the organisation itself. In this case it may be worth using the product name as the organisation's domain name (though it is worth registering the company name as well).

If you are providing a service in the finance sector, then a 'formal' domain name is appropriate. If you are selling a product aimed at fourteen year olds you might want to register a more informal name, perhaps using the vernacular of the target group. For example, using a '4' instead of 'for' or a 'z' in place of an 's' might appeal more to youngsters.

Don't forget that your domain name will also be used on your email address. This raises two issues: First, make your domain name easy to remember, not only as a web address but also as an email address. Second, Internet Service Provider (ISP) email addresses (i.e. 'yourbusinessname@freeserve.co.uk') and free 'Hotmail' type addresses are OK for students but are definitely not so for businesses. Remember - perceptions

HOSTING
Where is your web site hosted? Many small businesses have their sites hosted on 'free space' provided by their ISP - does this leave potential customers with the impression that yours is a professional organisation? Perceptions again. Better to pay for hosting on dedicated servers - your web site will also download much faster than on a 'free' server, and there will be no advertising.

SEARCH ENGINES
Getting a high placement on search engines is important if you want web surfers to find your web site.

There are whole books written on search engine placement (as it is called), and it is something of a black art in itself. The issue is not about submitting your web site to a search engine (the best are constantly looking for your web site anyway), it is how attractive your web site is to that search engine. The trick is for your site to feature the correct key words in the correct places on your web site. Oh that it was that easy!

The following is only a basic (and rough) guide. If you had your web site professionally developed then your designer should know all of this. If you are from the DIY fraternity there are numerous web sites offering further advice, try putting 'search engine positioning' in a search engine!

KEY WORDS
A key word, or phrase, is what a surfer might type into a search engine to find your site/product/service. Easy? Well, sometimes. Just imagine the information in this article were on a web site, what are the key words you would type into a search engine to find it? The title is 'Web Site Checklist' - be honest, is that the key phrase you would have used. I would guess at "web site advice" being a popular phrase, but without doing some research that's all it is, a guess. Oh, one other thing - the key word(s) must be an exact match. So if someone typed "website advice" into a search engine it would not find a match with "web site advice". Doh!

So where in the web site do these key words go so that the search engines will find them? Some are in the text on the screen, but many are included in the 'code' that the web site is written in, and so never seen by the public on your web pages.

If you 'right-click' your mouse whilst on a web site then select 'view source' you can see the actual html coding of the page


Different search engines have different values for where the key words are found but here are the prime locations you should check.

In the code (hidden from the surfer)


The title of your page (this will appear in the very top left hand corner of the browser when the page is on the screen).

The 'alt text' of the first image on your page. When you hold your cursor over the image you will see the alt text.

The 'description' and 'keyword' metatags. (see also comments below).

In the text of your web site (seen by the surfer)


The first 25 words of text on your page. This must be grammatically correct (people will be reading it) but you should try and slot in the key words.

Some search engines consider the proportion of the key words within the total word count on the page. So if the only word on a page is the key word it rates 100%. (not much of a web page though!).

Hypertext links to other pages on your web site (only if they are text, not 'button' images).

Your domain name - the 'new' yahoo search, amongst others, looks at domain names for the key words.

The file and directory names used for your web pages - ie in the URL bbc.co.uk/sport 'sport' is a key word.

To increase your chances of a good search engine placement use different key words for each page of your web site. This shouldn't be too difficult as each page should be on a different subject anyway - your different products, services and so on.

SOME SEARCH ENGINE MYTHS

  • Some think that metatags are the panacea of search engine placement. Those people are wrong. Some search engines actually ignore metatags!
  • Repeating the key words over and over in the metatags gets a high placement with the search engines. Wrong - search engines reject these as 'spamdex' (spamming their indexes) and may even 'black-list' your site.
  • Repeating the key words at the bottom of the page in a tiny font in the same colour as the background (i.e. white lettering on a white background). Wrong - more spamdex.

Many search engines and most directories allow you to submit a brief description to go with your link. Give this some serious thought. The phrase needs to be a mix of description and sales pitch. 'We make widgets that are the greatest on earth' is unlikely to get as good a response as 'Our widgets are custom made by experienced tradesmen to meet all our clients' expectations'.


DIRECTORIES
Directories differ from search engines in that they simply list web sites in appropriate formats, they do not 'search' for web sites. Think of them as online yellow pages, and if you do not submit your phone number (web site) you are not listed. It is up to you to find suitable directories and submit to them. Some are free, some have a fee. If payment is required you must make the decision as to whether or not it is worthwhile.

There are two main types of directories that you should consider.

1 Geographic
Here in the North East there are a number of 'regional' web sites. Local newspapers have them, as does the NE Chamber of Commerce. There is normally a 'business' section that lists firms by the product or service they provide.

2 Industry
Many industries generate their own web sites. These could be commercial operations or might be run by trade bodies who list their members.

Some search engines judge a web site by how many links go to it, so adding your site to business directories can be a double benefit


ARE THE DESIGN FEATURES APPROPRIATE?

Avoid garish colours, flashing or moving images, music or any other 'novelty' that does not help your site meet its objectives. My experience is that web designers like to show off their design skills and include such elements in a web site. They are meeting their own objectives, not yours. Cutting edge technology has a place - but is it on your web site?

With regard to colour, it is best to stick with your 'corporate' colours for your web site. Remember, your site is there to provide information, not entertain.

It is true that a picture can say a thousand words; sometimes. Be aware of using large images on a web site (and never on the front page) as they can take a long time to download. Research suggests that surfers give a web page a maximum of eight seconds to appear before moving on. If your product sells on what it looks like, then pictures are essential. Is this the case for your product or service?

The first page of a web site can be referred to as the 'home page' or 'front page'. Designers might call it the 'index' page.

Frames - don't bother! Contents lists can be easily added to every page, or make it easy to return to the index page [which contains the contents list]. Frames can affect how pages are printed. They also mess up search engine referencing. As the URL will remain as the index page's it is also difficult to identify specific pages.

Links - make sure that 'visited' links change colour, in a long list it is easy to forget where you have already been and where you have not. If you are going to have links to other web sites, consider having them open a new browser window, otherwise people might not find their way back to your site.

EASY ON THE EYE?
Your web site should be easy on the eye, both aesthetically and with regard to making things undemanding to read.

Newspapers are white with black text. There is a message there. Sunglasses should not be a requirement when looking at a business web site! Always maintain a corporate image with your off-line publications, livery and so on, and have each page of your site follow the same colour / layout / structure. Black on white might be a little 'basic' - but a dark text on a light background is a must. In some circumstances you may get away with white text on a dark background, but be aware - this will print as white on white, in otherwise a blank sheet!

Does your web site work on both Internet Explorer and Netscape? What about AppleMac or Web-TV? If you haven't tried them how do you know?

The width of your web page should fit into all browser windows - scrolling across a page is a definite turn-off. Web designers tend to do their designing on impressively big monitors - surfers tend to use small monitors. The optimum width of your pages should be 750 pixels (a pixel is the tiny dot used to measure computer screens). Purists will argue that a width of 750 'wastes' space on big screens, I say you can't please all of the people all of the time - but 750 will satisfy the greater number.

Some sites are so designed that the width of the page automatically adjusts to the width of the browser being used to view it. This works well with sites using the more advanced technology, but not necessarily with standard pages. Note: - advanced does not necessarily mean better!

If you feel that potential customers may wish to print off your web pages (this is a common practice) then 750 is a must. In standard format, printers will print a maximum width of 750 pixels.

Centuries of print have shown that best readability is achieved when lines of text are between 1.5 and 2.5 times the Latin alphabet. This equates to a maximum of around 65 characters; 65 characters equate to around 640 pixels (now you know why monitors were originally built with 640 pixel-wide screens). If you are now thinking why I advise a width of 750 when monitors are 640 - your screen and browser window use up space, so reducing the viewing area.

It is easier to hold the reader's attention if shorter lines are used - think newspapers again, where content is presented in columns. Text is best presented in short paragraphs with bold introductions or titles.

When looking at a new page, Westerners will normally start at the top left-hand corner. This makes that space prime real estate, don't waste it. My advice is that this is where your company name/logo should be, that way surfers know immediately whose web site they are on.


CONTENT IS KING!

COPY / TEXT
If I could choose any one element as being the most important aspect of web site development, then this is it.

The reason people will visit your web site is to gather information. That information should be presented in the correct fashion. Correct grammar and spelling should go without saying - but what about the copy.

The most easily read font on a web site is one from the Arial / Helvetica family. Avoid Times New Roman, the most commonly used font in the printed media

Not every one can write a book, or a newspaper article, or advertising copy - so why should they be able to write web site copy? Get a professional to at least edit text. Oh, and by the way, the web does have a 'style' of presentation of its text which differs from most other media, so simply 'lifting' text from corporate literature may not be the answer.

Which brings us to the next point; static content does not attract return visitors. Keep content fresh, accurate and appropriate - give 'value' to the target audience (why are they visiting your web site?). Update the content regularly - e.g. products, prices, news / press releases, use bulletin boards, Q & A and/or real-time content.

If you do not intend to update the content, try to make the content 'timeless'. To do this you must write in the present tense. Avoid referring to something that is currently happening (perhaps a new product being developed) - some time in the future it will be finished, but your web site will still say it is being developed. And don't mention future dates, there is nothing worse than reading about a 'future event' that actually took place some time ago!

Does your web site carry advertising for anyone other than your business? If so, get rid of them. Do you have adverts for credit cards in your company literature? Thought not. So why have them on your web site? (see my previous comments on hosting)

IS THE SITE EASY TO NAVIGATE?

Navigation refers to how visitors find their way around your web site. If you only have a couple of pages this shouldn't be an issue, but if the site has more than three pages this is vital.

Just because you know your way around your site, don't assume others will. Signpost things clearly. Have an unambiguous contents list. If every page has a 'return to home/index page link then the visitor is only ever one click away from base - where they can start again. If your web site is a monster - provide a 'search' facility.

Is there a logical way around your site? Think of it as being a bit like a sales negotiation. You tell the customer all the attributes of the product, how quickly you can deliver and the warrantee before you mention the price. If there is an obvious path, try to move visitors along this route.

Search engines can list any page on your site (particularly if you follow my advice on key words), so check that the visitor - sorry, potential customer - can easily navigate the site from any page.

LEGAL ASPECTS OF YOUR WEB SITE

I'm not going to dwell on this aspect, because I am not qualified in legal matters! I'll simply list a number of areas you need to consider - and perhaps take legal advice on.

  • Your domain name should not be the Trade Mark of another organisation.
  • You cannot use Trade Marks of other companies in the metatags of your web site.
  • If you sell goods online then it should be designed in such a way as to present an 'invitation to treat'. This means the supplier makes a request for a potential customer to make an offer to the supplier. This gives the supplier the freedom to reject the offer if they so wish (in the same way as a supermarket does).
  • Any site selling goods online must bring the buyer's attention to the Terms and Conditions of that sale. The best way to do this is have the site designed in such a way that the buyer must open the Terms and Conditions page in order to buy the goods.
  • As with any form of advertising, your web site must not say anything that is misleading or that may be misinterpreted.
  • Copyright - you cannot simply reproduce on your web site content from other sources that are not your own.
  • The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 lays down certain regulations in order to protect consumers. Key to this is that consumers purchasing at a distance - including online - can cancel an order within seven working days, without giving a reason.
  • Unless you have an agreement to the contrary, the web site designer will have copyright in that web site, in other words, they own it, not you. Check the contract, if you have one.
DOES THE WEB SITE ADDRESS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

As a marketer, I think this subject should probably be up at number one in my list. However, because it has some relevance in all of the previous sections, I have decided to use it as a kind of summary.

In marketing the particular sections of the community that may purchase your product are referred to as segments of the market. Consider the following points - is your web site presented in such a way that it appeals best to your target segment? OBJECTIVES - If you are selling something online - who is actually going to buy it? (as opposed to who might be 'window-shopping').

If you are using your web site as an 'online brochure' for your products and/or services, who might visit your site, and why?

DOMAIN NAMES - does it 'match' the web site?

SEARCH ENGINES / DIRECTORIES - Remember the brief description you submit - does it appeal to the target audience. For example, if you sell components to the electrical industry you can use electrical acronyms and abbreviations without problem because the target audience will know what they mean.

KEY WORDS - Once again, you might want to add acronyms and abbreviations that are common in your industry, though be aware of using trademarks without permission.

DESIGN FEATURES - You would expect the web site for a funeral director to be different to that of an amusement park. An extreme example perhaps, but what sort of web site might your target audience expect to find?

CONTENT - Perhaps the most important element in addressing the target audience. For what are the target audience visiting your site? If it is for information then make sure that information is there, and in the format they would expect.

In the actual text make the copy appropriate. If you sell goods to pensioners, for example, your target audience will expect a certain tone in the text, perhaps formal and reserved.

I hope that at least some of this information is a use to you. Obviously this is just a brief description of some of the elements that are important in a businesses web presence. There is much more, books full in fact. I'll part with the following advice: A good web development company will know all of this and will incorporate the relevant factors in your web site design, if they don't, maybe you should look elsewhere.

Alan Charlesworth, November 2000

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