Here's a copy of a 1995 edition of Pointers on how to create business web pages that work. We've copied it here for online reference, at the request of Nicholas Carroll, author of the Search Engine Optimization part of the book Understanding Information Retrieval Systems (edited by Marcia J. Bates, ISBN SBN 978143989196).

When the web page below was written, web browsers were a new thing. It all just barely worked. And there were so few web pages that a gallant little team at Yahoo were busy indexing the web by reading each page and deciding where to put it in their index. No Google, no Adobe Flash, and most people used tedious and shaky dial-up connections.

People still make the elementary website mistakes listed here.

Jim Heath, Viacorp, Perth, Australia.
25 Nov 2007



Pointers on how to create business web pages that work

We have clues. But no evidence -- it's either too early, or people are keeping things to themselves.

We have clues from our experience as copywriters of print material. The web looks like brochure material and we know what works for brochures. (But there are whopping differences on the web.)

We also have clues from studying a lot of web pages.

We made a small change to this site on Oct 13 1995. If you've been here before, look in the section: Gifs and jpegs that pull you down the page.

Contents:

Copyright 1995 by J&E Copywriting. All rights reserved.


Things that help

Hard-working graphics

For example, we're pretty sure you'll be using bytes wisely if you put in photos of the product. Or charts that sum up data, before-and-after shots, and maybe staff photos (in service industries).

Here's a page that would die without the product photos: Total Flower Exports. And here's another where the photos help: Hotel del Coronado

And here's a good use of charts.

And we've seen masthead illustrations that were so apt we felt filled with admiration -- like the one for Southwest Airlines, or the more abstract direct-hit by Hewlett Packard.

Gifs and jpegs that pull you down the page

If people have their graphics option turned on (a big IF), and the graphics on the page are spaced to make them want to scroll down and see more, it seems irresistible. Like The ArtVark Gallery and Subiaco Computer Warehouse.

Much more could be done with pull-them-through-graphics, but we haven't seen many web-builders doing it.

Free and useful information

Alamo Rent a Car is an exemplar of free info: they give travel tips from people who've "been there," puzzles you can download for the kids and print out before you go, turn-left-turn-right directions to popular destinations (like bowling alleys), weather reports anywhere, recommended restaurants, and more. And there's a section where you can describe your travel experience and read about other people's fun.

United Parcel Services will tell you where your package is: you just type your package number on their web form.

Property Listing Service will calculate the monthly mortgage on any of the houses on their list.

Infoseek gives you a one-month free sample of their Internet search service.

Sun Microsystems has a news section where you can read technical things before you'll see them anywhere else.

Here's an accountancy firm that keeps you up-to-date with tax changes: KPMG.

Federal Express lets you download free package-tracking software for your business use.

How to lobby politicians tells you exactly that, and with a discreet and good-humoured plug for the author -- a professional lobbyist who tells it like it is.

The law firm Faegre & Benson explains "Who owns your World Wide Web Home Page". They also have a news section about cyber-law cases in copyright, trademark law, and defamation. If you're creating a website, read this stuff before you open it to visitors.

All this is beautifully done. When you see it and read it, it looks easy. But we know how much work would have been spent on those websites.

Regular changes

People probably won't come back to a website unless they know it's likely to change. That's usually accomplished by having a news section. (Like KPMG, for example.)

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

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

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Things that probably don't help

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

We've seen commercial web pages with photos that made us stare. Bizarre. (Easy to do, by the way -- anyone can photograph something that will make you stare.) But would we buy from them? No. Too easy to find other firms with more reassuring credentials.

We aren't going to give you links to bad examples. (Guess why.)

Jokes

We've seen commercial web pages that are funny. Would we buy from them? No -- not the ones we saw. 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 change on the web? If so, why?

Sex

It's on-topic to have sexy models on a lingerie web page. But what about a website that's selling portable generators? Does that model in the black bikini help make a sale? We doubt it. (But we can't prove it, as we said at the beginning.) If we were designing the page, we'd probably just list the ten main features of the generators 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).

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Two toss-ups

Rainbow graphics

There are 3,547,888 web pages decorated with bright reds, blues and yellows. It seems like that. The
KPMG page again, for example -- an accountancy firm, no less -- glows with colour. Why, exactly? Is it an early web-graphics fad? It seems too simple-minded, and too easy.

But does it help? We're in two minds about it. We like the bright-coloured KPMG page, for example. But if almost every web page is colour-hyped, the colour currency is devalued and a plain page of Rembrandt browns begins to look -- well, classy and important.

We suspect that window-shoppers on the web will tire of lazy-bright colours. There'll be no substitute for hard work in creating graphics that suits the topic of the web page. (The Hewlett Packard page comes to mind, with its grey but unforgettable masthead.)

Besides, a lot of people rush through the web with their graphics off. They won't see the rainbow colours, or any other graphics, unless they decide there's some content worth looking at. Which means that unless a page is logically-constructed and pulls without graphics, it will be losing people.

Should the whole website be downloaded to the browser, or just parts?

Advantages of downloading it all : it saves people waiting to reconnect to the host to download the separate parts (and maybe going away, if their connection is slow). Downloading the whole thing also lets them quickly scroll through it and find things that interest them.

Disadvantages : if you have lots of material, it might annoy people to have the whole thing thrown in their face. Also, it can be confusing finding your way around a site like that: there's presumably an index of topics at the top, and clicking on an item there takes you down into the document -- maybe way down. To get back up to the top, you either have to scroll, or use a return-to-the-beginning link (if they're offered). It can be irritating: ALL the way back up to the top again, to check the index and see where you are.

Well?

It must depend on the size of the document and the amount of graphics. We set up the document you're reading to download in one go, because there are no graphics and we thought that people who'd be interested in the material might like to scroll through the whole text (for a quick survey).

If you set up a website to download in segments, it seems fair to tell people what size of thing they're about to download (if some parts include heavy graphics). For example, if you look at Total Flower Exports, and click on Fresh Flowers you have to wait awhile for the images, because there are lots of them (good as they are).

Prediction : the superstar sites will be ones that display great consideration for the hardships and interests of the users. Which means hard work for web designers.

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Anyway, how do you GET them to the page?

There's a tsunami of web pages. They're so easy to create that nine-year-old kids are making a
business out of doing it. A bit of browsing on the web is already daunting enough to make you want to turn off the machine and stare into space. How can you find anything worthwhile in an electronic souk like that?

Here are six ways people get to a commercial web page:

1. The website-owner tells them where to look. The http address is on the company's letterhead and in their ordinary print ads. You've probably seen a lot of this already. For example, on the desk right here there's a magazine ad promoting the publications of the World Bank. It says where to write or fax for more information, and ends by saying: "Visit the World Bank's publications catalog on the Internet. Address: http://www.worldbank.org/"

2. A prospect asks for your web address. We suspect this will turn out to be the main business use of web pages: as electronic brochures. The brochure idea is already familiar to everyone. And it puts customers in control (they can read a brochure in detail or just junk it). In the same way, they can decide how much of your website they want to look at.

3. They find the website using a search engine. The snag: the search engine probably won't find only that one website. It may find a staggering number of other sites offering similar things. So the prospects may be faced with more choices than they'd find in the pest-control section of the yellow pages. Which companies attract them -- or repel them -- then depends on luck and what the search engine has summarised about each one.

4. They Yahoo their way there. They start a top-down search, forking down through the broad categories in Yahoo (or some similar list), and lo -- there it is: the web page they want. This is possible. It is also good news for the website owner. That site was what the searchers were looking for, so they'll be happy they've found it (or anything useful at all, as you may know if you've tried this sort of search). So they'll probably study the site carefully. Downside: the stats on people findings things this way have to be discouraging, as the web spins out into millions of home pages. One wrong turn in the forking search and a prospect will never see your page.

5. They read about the site somewhere else. This has to be one of the mouth-watering ones, because someone else has recommended the page. The prospect already believes. PR can nudge that along, but that will only work if the website has value. (Otherwise, why would anyone print anything about it?)

6. The page is mentioned in Usenet. If it's mentioned in a positive way -- OK. Some Usenet groups are bigger than most cities and a plug there can mean a lot of website hits. You can openly notify Usenet groups about a website yourself, if you pick the groups skilfully, if you say something on-topic and if you have the right touch. But it's risky. Usenet is irritable and can snap into jihad-mode (and if they can slaughter Intel, they can slaughter you). Sly types -- usually at the cyber-peddlar level -- sometimes pose as several people and fake discussions on newsgroups to work in a plug for their website. People on Usenet delight in exposing that stuff. Resorting to Usenet is like taking a wolf by the ear.

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Getting paid, if you're selling something

Ecash and First Virtual aren't widely understood or used, and most browsers aren't set up for encrypted messages (so credit-card numbers can't be sent securely).

One solution: take orders from a web form, but take credit-card numbers by fax or from a 1800 number. (We've ordered things ourselves this way -- books and software.) It's only a little more risky than using your credit card to order by phone (because some packet-sniffing hacker could possibly lift your mailing address from the web form as it goes by).

Our experience with direct-marketing is that the more ways you give people to pay, the better the response. It's not hard to see why: every payment method you leave out, you eliminate a percentage of the audience who love and trust that method. Look at all the ways Live Markup give you to pay: cheque or money order, First Virtual Internet Payment System, credit card (two ways), and for international orders "We accept checks in your local currency." Practically everything but barter.

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Protecting your copyrights

If someone copies something from your web page without your permission -- say, into a newsgroup -- 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 are now being tugged in all directions by every wild force of 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).

Solutions 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. Like the one for the BBC. That puts people on notice, and gives the BBC a starting point if there are violations they're worried about.

If you want to be elegant, you can use a technique from cryptography. It shows that you had an electronic file in your possession at a certain date. Method: get what's called the "MD5 hash code" for the file, then publish the hash code in any newspaper (a suburban one will do).

MD5 is used in digital signatures and the hash codes it calculates can't be "inverted". That means you can't start with a given hash code and work backwards to find text that will give that hash code. All the computers in the world, 24 hours a day, couldn't do it, even if they worked at it until the sun burned out.

If you want to look into this, download a copy of MD5 (zipped, 38K). Read the documentation that goes with it, and there's more information here. It's freeware, and highly-respected freeware.

Example: the MD5 hash code for our electronic copy of MacBeth is:

2fd4f5b765833f060f99bbc3f0b953ce

If you change even one character in the whole text, the hash code changes drastically. For example, changing "Fire burn, and cauldron bubble" to "Fire burn, and cauldron babble" changes the hash code for the whole play to:

b419a7e6c963b4d304211d6293b274a7

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What do you think?

Take a minute and let us know. Anything -- large or small -- you'd care to point out.

Got a web success story? An instructive failure? We'd like to hear about websites that were running for awhile, then you changed something and the response got consistently much better -- or worse. We see no way to measure website success in an absolute way, but a differential measurement may mean something. It's easy to say: "We're getting 5000 hits a day. We're geniuses at designing websites!" But maybe more revealing: "We used to get 5000 hits a day, then added a news section and now we're consistently getting 9000 hits a day."


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