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Pointers on how to create business websites that work

I wrote the first text for this part of the website in 1995. The internet was more like a pond than an ocean. (Netscape 0.9, remember? My first version, if you're interested in ancient web history.)

And here are some durable tips from all my editions down the years....  

By Jim Heath

Viacorp, Perth
© 1995-2012 Viacorp Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.

Things that help

Fast-loading pages

Slim the graphics on your site, and offer a text-only option. If you can't do anything else, at least warn people: Click here to see our range of soup tureens (575meg, but worth waiting for).

Think this no longer matters, because we all have broadband and 50-GHz computers? Wrong -- if you're using a PDA. "The site was simply overrun with trivial, bloated pages. By the time I parsed through them all on my portable device I probably could have walked to the video store rather than driven." From The Cranky User: my not-so-invisible enemy [page bloat].

Navigation

There's no standard for navigation yet. It took about a century to sort out the way printed books were organised: title, contents page -- even simple organisation like that. So allowing for the mad rate of internet development, we may need another ten years for standard web-navigation to evolve.

Meanwhile, why not follow the lead of a big site that works well for you?

Fixing a bad corporate image

One of your ships rams a bridge. Or some citizens are worked up because your company is cutting down a forest -- that you planted as a crop. Or there's a story that your proposed new mine might endanger a rare bat.

Why not put up an FAQ about it? The Gorbachev technique: "We know that a lot of people think such and such, but they're overlooking some important things...." Then the hard questions follow, each with a mollifying and coherent answer. If what you say makes sense (which assumes you have a sensible case), you'll get respect from stating it plainly and without raising your voice.

Example from the Perth Mint. Straightforward answers to questions like "Why should I trust the Mint or the Government?" and "How confidential are my Depository transactions?"

Interesting but seemingly useless facts

Here's the biggest missed opportunity: the business doesn't take you behind the scenes and tell you how their product is made or their service works.

And let's not accept excuses that there's nothing to say. There's always something interesting to say -- but the people running the companies or handling the PR are too close to see it.

How is the lettering put on the bottles? Where does the clay for the bricks come from? What glue is used to stick the aircraft wings together? Do they keep all the capacitors in stock, or buy them from suppliers in step with orders for the PCs? How do they guarantee the quality of the assembly work? What technical problems have they mastered, and how did they do it? And on and on.

Seemingly useless facts can say a lot about product quality, pride in the work, teamwork, corporate energy, ingenuity, the care taken to help customers, and a thousand other things.

Also, offering clearly-written descriptions that will help kids with their homework is wonderful PR with their parents. And who are their parents? Your customers, maybe?

Hard-working graphics

Photos of the product. Or graphs and charts that sum up data, before-and-after shots, and maybe staff photos (in service industries).

Keep it all straight-forward. It's a quietly convincing way of saying: this is real -- we don't have to puff anything up.

Regular changes

People probably won't come back to a website unless they know it's likely to change. That's often done by having a news section or blog.

Warning: it can be a long pain to produce a blog that will be valuable to people. At first, news ideas seem as endless as Spring buds. But soon enough, people wince or scurry away when they see the blog editor asking around for ideas. (Unless your blog section connects to an external power source -- like ever-changing tax laws).

If your executives give well-researched public speeches, then use those. 

But note: you don't need changes in a website that's designed as a single stop. A corporate-image website, for example: it may be classy or it may be down-to-earth, but it probably isn't meant to be a website to return to. The idea is to introduce the company, stamp in an image, and leave it there.

And also note: you don't need changes if the site has a perennially useful database and there's no way people could see it all the first time. Like Amazon Books, for example.


Things that probably don't help

Graphics that are too far-out, or only there to get attention

     Seekers after novelty hang dolphins in trees,
Float a boar in the sea.

- Horace

I've seen commercial websites with photos that made me stare. Bizarre. Easy to do, by the way -- anyone can photograph something or have an animation that will make you stare. But would you buy from them? No. Too easy to find other firms with more reassuring credentials.

Painting out the text

It can be hard enough to read text on a screen without deliberately making it harder. I've seen dark-blue text on a purple background. I've seen green text on a green background that's nearly the same shade. I've seen almost every colour text on almost every patterned background. (Except red text on red tartan, but it must be out there somewhere.)

It's conceivable this is done to attract people to the text. So they'll read the message, take it in, and act on it (if the text urges action). That would be the charitable explanation of this approach.

Lots of luck.

Ask yourself: would you set up your own screen so that it normally showed text over some patterned background? So you'd always read your word-processing and email and spreadsheet with that pattern behind it?

No? Then why do it on your website? Do you want the text to be read? If not, what's it there for?

Tests on the legibility of ordinary printed text are conclusive: black-on-white works best. Dark colours on white are next best. And so on, with rankings through every combination of text colour and background colour.

The research results matter. For example: simply print an ad in reverse (white on black), and the response rate usually drops sharply (by 50%, in one case reported by David Ogilvy).

I don't know if black-on-white is best for all computer screens. But some research I tracked from Scientific American suggests it's true.

High Art

There stands the commercial artist, wanting the layout to look glorious, arresting, sublime. The marketing guy blinks and asks: "Does it sell?"

In print advertising, the numbers that come out of strict tests support the marketing guy. High art doesn't usually help sell anything (except art galleries, maybe).

There's a telling story about a new art director who tried to apply what he'd learned in art school. "His first consideration in selecting an illustration was that it should be as similar as possible to the painting of the old masters. The result was that his advertisements brought Oooos! and Aaaas! of delight from other art directors." (John Caples, Tested Advertising Methods.)

But the art director had a practical lobe in his brain. He knew that his job was to sell things. So he showed his creations to taxi drivers, secretaries, clerks, mechanics, and shopkeepers. He also showed them samples deliberately made to look like mail-order ads. Guess what? Everyone preferred the mail-order stuff. "Sometimes the rules of fine art must be completely reversed in producing an effective advertisement."

Caples warns: "Many advertising artists are still in the mental stage that this art director was in before he started showing advertisements to average people."

Jokes

A few commercial websites are funny. Would you buy from them? No -- not the ones I've seen. It's an old truth in advertising that you have to be extremely skilful (and lucky) for a joke to make a sale. Is this likely to be different on the web?

Sex

It works to display supermodels on a lingerie website. But what about a website that's selling gas turbines? Does that model in the black bikini help to make a sale? I doubt it. (But can't prove it.) If I were designing the site, I'd probably just list the ten main features of the turbines and the benefits from each feature. Plus illustrations, where they helped. Old-fashioned stuff that works in print ads (where you can be guided by billions of dollars of tested advertising results).

Anyway, how do you GET them to the website?

Here are the chief ways people get to a commercial website:

1. The website-owner advertises the URL. It's on the company's letterhead and in their ordinary print ads. It's rare to see a print ad without a URL.

2. A prospect asks for your web address. It's a common business use of websites: electronic brochures you "hand out" by telling prospects where to look on the web.

3. They Google to your site. As you know, Google works in smart ways and gets rid of most junk hits. If people find your site at the top of a Google list, you must have done something impressive. Because Google high-ranks a site if it has lots of links to it from other sites -- and those sites are also well-linked, and so on, back and back. That and other Google algorithms means it's hard to artificially promote a website. Also dangerous: your website could be banned from the Google index. See Quality guidelines -- Google Information for Webmasters. 

4. They come from a Goggle-sponsored ad that you've paid for. This is a big topic. But Google gives superbly clear instructions on how to set up a Google advertising campaign and adjust it exactly to your budget, location and product. Google Adwords tutorials.

5. They arrive at your website from an ad that you've placed on some other website, for a fee. Some websites welcome these ads.

6. They read about the site somewhere else. A magazine article. Or a link from another website. Mouth-watering, because someone else has recommended the site. So the prospect already believes. PR can nudge these articles and links along, but that will only work if the website has value. (Otherwise, why would anyone say anything good about it?)

7. The website is mentioned in blogs. If it's mentioned in a positive way -- OK. Some blogs are bigger than many cities and a mention there means a lot of website hits. 

8. People recommend your site to their friends. If your site is any good, this happens automatically.

Protecting your copyrights

As soon as you write something original, or paint a picture, or compose a few lines of music, it's copyright by law. But you may need to be able to prove that you wrote it, and when you did -- in case someone steals it and claims they wrote it and you stole it!

One way to prove you had it at a certain time is to send a copy to yourself in a registered letter, then not open it when it arrives. Or leave a sealed copy with your lawyer. You can print out your whole website and do that.

It also helps if you save your drafts and notes. They can be used as evidence that you actually did the work.

If someone copies something from your website without your permission, then you may have a legal remedy against the person. Maybe. If the material they copied was in fact protected by copyright law, if the person wasn't using it under a "fair use" provision, and if you can identify the villain. These legal issues have been tugged in all directions by every wild force on the net. Whole copyrighted books have been defiantly posted to newsgroups (through anonymous remailers). Some hotly-contested documents have been available from sites in Beijing (no less).

For more on infringement and what's going on, the Copyright and Fair Use site at Stanford is busy and encyclopaedic. There's legal stuff, proposed legislation, and lots of the latest wrangles. And here's a voluminous Copyright FAQ .

Solutions to the wrangles may be found, but don't expect anything soon. Meanwhile, you have to consider whether it matters if people spread some of your material without your permission. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe you would even like that.

Most commercial websites include copyright notices. That puts people on notice, and gives the company a starting point if there are violations they're worried about. 

We do routine searches for some of the phrases we use on the Viacorp website. If we find someone who's lifted some of the paragraphs, we might get upset and start moving.

What next?

Just listen to this :

"The human understanding, once it has adopted opinions, either because they were already accepted and believed, or because it likes them, draws everything else to support and agree with them. And though it may meet a greater number and weight of contrary instances, it will, with great and harmful prejudice, ignore or condemn or exclude them by introducing some distinction, in order that the authority of those earlier assumptions may remain intact and unharmed. So it was a good answer made by that man who, on being shown a picture hanging in a temple of those who, having taken their vows, had escaped shipwreck, was asked whether he did not now recognise the power of the gods. He asked in turn: "But where are the pictures of those who perished after taking their vows?" The same reasoning can be seen in every superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, nemesis and the like, in which men find such vanities pleasing, and take note of events where they are fulfilled, but where they are not (even if this happens much more often), they disregard them and pass them by. But this evil lurks far more insidiously in philosophies and sciences, in which an opinion once adopted infects and brings under control all the rest, though the latter may be much firmer and better. Moreover, even without this pleasure and vanity I have spoken of, the human understanding still has this peculiar and perpetual fault of being more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives, whereas rightly and properly it ought to give equal weight to both; rather, in fact, in every truly constituted axiom, a negative instance has the greater weight."

-Francis Bacon, Novum Organum , 1620

... sort of: "Don't think I don't know what's not happening!"

Which means it's important to notice what's not happening with your website. Any 'improvement' you made to the website and it didn't work. Useful info.


 
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