Many organizations and businesses would like to have a website but don’t know where to start. Before you hire a designer for your site, think about these issues:
Your Site’s Scope
Will your site be informational, similar to a brochure? An e-commerce site for selling products or services over the web through a secure connection? An interactive site where visitors can connect with each other or play games?
Knowing the scope of your site determines your need for server space, your budget for development, and whether you need a single designer or a development team consisting of designers, programmers, database specialists, and so on. In general, the simpler the site, the lower it will cost to produce and maintain. However, simpler sites also tend to generate less business.
The Imagery and Copy You’ll Use
This will give you an idea of what kind of work you need to do up-front and what you can contract for. Many businesses shoot their own photography with a digital camera, for instance, while others hire professional photographers. Some businesses can use copy from existing brochures, while others will need copy written especially for the site. Be sure to include your needs for additional services when you’re interviewing designers.
Your Domain Name
A domain name is the address visitors type in to their web browser to reach your site (also called a URL). It makes it easy for people to find you. Examples of domain names are Yahoo.com and WhiteHouse.gov. If you want to present yourself in a professional context, a domain name is essential. Costs are very reasonable (usually around $15/year). Choose a name that is memorable and easy to spell if possible.
Your Web Host
Your website will reside on a server hosted by an Internet Service Provider (ISP). A separate contract with the ISP is required to obtain web hosting. Bloomington ISPs include HoosierNet, BlueMarble, Kiva, and others. National ISPs include HostMySite, Catalog.com, and many more. Your web designer can research and recommend ISPs based on your needs.
Your ISP should have the type of server you need for your site (Microsoft, Apache, etc), offer a variety of hosting plans, and provide both online and phone support. Look for ISPs with established reputations, not just the ones with the lowest price.
Designing for the Web has a number of special technical considerations:
The web is a completely plastic medium. The same page will look significantly different depending on whether the viewer is using a PC or a Mac, depending on which browser the viewer is using (Internet Explorer, Netscape, AOL, etc), and even what version of the browser the viewer has.
Consequently, don’t expect your site to look exactly the same on different computers. A good web designer checks sites on a variety of machines in order to catch glaring errors, but current technology does not allow total control over the page through HTML.
The software program Flash creates sites which are completely self-contained, meaning they will display exactly the same on all browsers. However, Flash sites require a special plug-in to view, tend to take a long time to download, and are not search-engine friendly. For these reasons, unless you have special needs, Flash is probably not appropriate for your site.
Unlike print, there are only 216 web-safe colors. This means that any color outside the approved palette runs the risk of dithering (looking strangely like a bunch of “dots”) or otherwise displaying incorrectly. However, if your audience is likely to have higher-end or recent model computers, your site can probably use a web-smart palette. This palette offers more color options, though there are still far fewer than in print.
Regardless of which palette you use, color displays differently on every monitor. There is no way to get consistent color across the web. Even if we were able to have all monitors display the correct hues, people can still make individual adjustments of brightness and contrast which affect color. Color on the web is only approximate. Therefore, do not expect your website to be able to display reproduction-quality color.
When a person enters a URL in a browser to visit your site, the browser has to find the server which stores your site’s files and then download those files to the viewer’s machine. All that takes time. On average, viewers will wait eight seconds for a web page to display in their browser. Therefore you’ll want your site to load as quickly as possible.
The single biggest contributor to long download times is images. Download time is affected by the number of images, their size, and even the number of colors in them. Your web designer can help optimize imagery for your site, but it’s important to keep in mind that you may need to sacrifice some images or rearrange the site in order to speed up the download time.
Search Engine Ranking
The number one concern for most people with websites is “How do I get it to rank high in search engines?” The answer is not very simple, unfortunately. There are thousands of search engines and each uses different criteria for ranking pages. Some rely on robots (automated programs) to analyze and rank sites, while others use people to visit every site and categorize it. Some will only rank sites which pay for the privilege.
Most search engines rely on keywords for rankings. Keywords are simply the terms a searcher uses to find a site. For instance, to find a hotel in Indianapolis, a visitor might type “accommodations, Indianapolis” into a search engine. That engine would look through its database for sites where those words recur and return results based on that. Different search engines look in different areas of the Web page for keywords.
When devising copy for your site, start with the keywords. Think about what words a potential visitor would use to find a site like yours when using a search engine. Then include those words in your copy. (See our Web Smarts: Search Engine Strategies resource page for help on keywords.)
For instance, in the example above, you might have an opening sentence saying, “Offering elegant hotel accommodations in Indianapolis since 1873.” That uses hotel, accommodations, and Indianapolis in the very first sentence, which will help you rank higher in some engines.
The other main way search engines determine site rankings is through what Google calls PageRank. This is a measure of what sites are linked to yours. The more high-quality, relevant links you have pointing back to your site, the higher your site will rank in search engines. Therefore, any website promotion plan should include a linking strategy. It’s the most frequently overlooked part of a Web promotion campaign.
Depending on your market, it may be necessary to pay in order to achieve top rankings in search engines. This is through what are called pay-per-click (PPC) programs. In PPC programs, you bid on certain keywords. When a searcher enters those keywords into a search engine, your site is listed as a sponsored or featured link. When—and only when—the visitor clicks on the link to your site, you pay the PPC provider.
PPC is a highly effective way of driving targeted traffic to your site. See our Web Smarts: Driving Traffic to Your Site resource page for more information on PPC.
Making a “Sticky” Site
Websites are very different from traditional print advertising because of their interactivity and their ability to offer viewers multiple avenues of exploration. Viewers expect to have control over navigation and to be rewarded for visiting your site.
To create a site with loyal return visitors, make it sticky—a place viewers want to return to frequently. Design the site with the viewer’s interests as a top priority (don’t just talk about how great you are). Put the most compelling information (from the visitor’s point of view) on the home page. Offer free information or downloads which viewers can share with their colleagues or friends. Set up e-newsletters to keep in touch with your visitors and inform them of updates or specials on your site. Offer interactive games or quizzes. Offer chat rooms where visitors can talk with each other.
There are a whole variety of means by which you can build brand loyalty and increase your site’s stickiness. The best method, however, is to think about what your visitors need and how you can most effectively deliver it to them.