On the Web, Honesty Is the Only Policy

If this presidential election season is teaching us anything, it is that candidates can no longer get away with keeping secrets, telling lies, or changing their message to suit their audience.

Those campaign advertisements, touting accomplishments or accusing opponents of personal and political failings, are debunked the day they are released. As soon as a candidate speaks a half-truth on the stump, a video appears on YouTube showing the same politician making a contradictory statement just a few weeks or months earlier.

Politics is the most blatant example, but business owners and service providers need to be just as careful to safeguard their integrity and reputation. The prevalence of dishonesty has become so grossly apparent to Internet users that tolerance for anything that feels like dishonest marketing is immediately rejected, particularly by younger audiences.

Rather than believing advertising and marketing, consumers now visit online review sites that make it very easy for consumers to compare prices and quality of service. Internet users can leave reviews for electronics, cell phone service, doctors, restaurants, health products – you name it. In some cities, you can even compare local "Mom and Pop" shops. At the very least, if you've angered your customers, there may be an unflattering blog post that comes up on Google anytime someone searches on the name of your company. Unhappy customers are much more inclined to leaving a review or comment than are satisfied customers, making the cost of bad business that much higher.

The availability of video, audio, and articles on the web for anyone to find within minutes on Google, has turned millions of Internet users into the most effective fact-checking team in history. Because so many people are now online, a good video or blog post showing deception or hypocrisy can make the rounds through email in a matter of days. All this information remains online indefinitely and is sure to resurface any time an individual or company becomes a topic of conversation, even if several years have passed.

In the world of traditional marketing, duping the public is rewarded. On the Internet, the best strategy is to be honest and deliver value. Lying is expensive when you get caught. It destroys your brand and turns you into an un-trusted source. Once lost, gaining back trust is a long and costly process.

The Internet is providing more transparency, more honesty, and more accountability. If you are honest in your business practices, it will pay off in the long run.

A Web Presence On A Limited Budget

If you understand how critical it is to have a website for your business, but you don't yet have the money to hire a web design company, consider getting something simple up and running in the meantime, until you are ready to launch your ideal website. We strongly recommend reserving your domain name now and putting up, at a bare minimum, a professional-looking, single-page website that is optimized for search engines, with your contact information and a paragraph or two about the services you offer.

What's the rush? For starters, finding a good domain name that isn't taken is difficult, and more are being snapped up every day. If you find a domain name that will work, buy it right away. You can go to www.GoDaddy.com to see what is available.

A bigger reason to get a website up as soon as possible, is that it can take months for search engines to index your site. If you put up a nice page that is full of relevant key words and useful content, by the time you are ready to launch a full website, you've already got a huge jump on the process. In the meantime, you can start putting links to your website out there on other sites. This is important for increasing your search ranking.

Most importantly, a growing number of people look for all of their information online. If you aren't there in some form, you may as well not exist. Google is the new yellow pages. Make sure you're listed.

Think of this page as your business card on the web. Use it to make the best statement you can about you and your business. Make sure it reflects the same level of quality and professionalism that you offer to your customers. Don't put a "Coming Soon" message on your page if you don't know for sure your site is really coming all that soon. Saying your site is coming soon for 6 months to a year makes you look as though you don't take your business seriously or that you are incapable of follow-through.

An effective, professional website can cost thousands of dollars - an investment that will easily pay for itself, but not one that everyone is ready or able to make in this economic climate. On the other hand, a professionally-designed, single-page site might only cost a few hundred dollars - an amount that most people can afford. When you are ready to build the website you really want, you probably won't be able to leverage the work and expense that went into this simple version, but the extra few hundred dollars is well worth it if it helps you build up your web presence and brings in a few new clients in the meantime.

Need some advice on the best web strategy for your business and budget? Contact us! We're always happy to talk, free of charge, to help you understand your options.

A User's Journey To Your Website

In order to build a user-friendly website, you need to understand what a user has been through before he ever arrives at your site.

In the vast majority of cases, a user didn't go directly to your website. Hours or maybe even days were devoted to researching your field before he stumbled upon your website. Many Internet searches were performed. Many other sites were visited that didn't have the right information but perhaps had a link to another site that had a link to a 3rd site that eventually got him to your site. A lot of time and effort was invested in arriving at your URL.

This journey through the Internet wasn't just time consuming, it was also full of frustration and disappointment. Many of the websites the user found through search engines didn't turn out to be what he thought they would be. Some sites were no longer working. Many were so cluttered with poorly organized information that it was impossible to find anything of value. Quite a few were what they call "SEO pages" – web pages specifically designed to rank highly in the search engines but lack any valuable content whatsoever. The majority were perfectly good sites but for one reason or another didn't quite have what the user was looking for.

On the plus side, he has learned a great deal about the service or topic he is searching for. He can now recognize almost immediately if a website is trying to sell him something he doesn't need or if the price is too high for what he is getting. When he arrives at your website, he is already a very knowledgeable consumer.

Several hours into his web search, the user has grown much too impatient to waste any time on a site that doesn't immediately appear to address his needs. If the information doesn't jump out on the first page he hits, then the website navigation had better clearly indicate where he needs to click next. Otherwise, he is gone as quickly as he came.

There is an endless sea of websites for users to wade through before they find one that addresses their needs. Your best strategy is to create the best content you can, and make it as easy as possible for a user to find what he is looking for. Try to view your site from a typical user's point of view and respect the journey that got them there. If you do this, your site will be the destination, rather than just a brief stop along the way.

Should You Put Ads On Your Website?

A frequent question we hear from clients is whether or not they should put ads, such as Google AdSense, on their websites. The answer is: It depends, but most likely not.

If you are selling a service or product, having 3rd party ads on your site is a very bad idea. One reason is that it cheapens your brand. If you have to sell ad space on your business website, it signals to potential customers that your business doesn’t make enough money on its own.

The more important reason is that when a user clicks on an ad, they leave your site. You have lost a potential customer - a potential customer that is now on someone else's site already forgetting why they came to your site. Since online ads are relevant to the content on your pages, it is very likely that your direct competitors will be advertising on your site. To allow 3rd party advertising is making a choice to lose the potential revenue from a customer, in favor of making a few cents from an ad click. It is hard enough to get people to your site. Don't entice them to leave with ads.

In some cases, putting ads on your site does make sense. If you are giving away a service or information for free and you have decent traffic to your site then ads are something worth considering. Internet users understand that free service sites need to make money somehow. Even though ads are slightly annoying to users, they will happily tolerate them in exchange for valuable content.

Before going crazy putting ads all over your web pages, you should pay attention to how much traffic you have coming to your site. If you are only attracting 10-50 visitors per day, you can expect to make around $10/month. You might instead focus on improving your site and attracting customers until you have a few hundred visitors per day. That way, you know that your website has value and you will make at least enough from ad revenue each month to take in dinner and a show.

A Website Doesn't Have to Catch Anyone's Eye

A very common misconception, particularly among traditional marketing and business people, is that websites needs to be "eye catching" - meaning it should have some visual excitement so that people will visit your site and spend more time there. This idea makes sense for magazines or window displays, where potential customers are being bombarded with visual information and your advertising needs to break through all the noise.

This strategy does not apply to websites. If someone is at your website, you already have their attention. The challenge is in getting visitors to find your site in the first place. Once you have them, your first priority is to give them something of value. Make sure your content is compelling and easy to navigate.

Neither Google nor Yahoo has what could be considered an eye-catching design. Even Apple's website doesn't have a particularly exciting design. What these sites do have is useful content and a simple, clean design that helps users easily find what they want.

Your website does need to look competent and professional, so that customers get the impression that you are serious about your business or message. But a good website is about content. Solve this problem first and everything else will follow.

How To Recognize A Good Website

Many small business owners who do not spend a lot of time online have difficulty determining whether or not a website is good. Having some sense of what “good” looks like will help you to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of your own website.

Here are some things to look for:

  1. Branding is consistent. Displaying different logos, fonts, name spellings, or color schemes is the sign of an amateur. Choose a look for your site and carry it through on every page. Business cards, receipts, catalogues, and other print marketing should match this branding as well.
  2. Text style and formatting is consistent. All text within the same context should have the same size, spacing, and alignment from page to page. If a heading on one page is left justified, bolded, and in 14-point font, then all page headings should be.
  3. The site uses familiar metaphors and conventions. It has been said that users spend 99.99% of their time on websites other than yours. Following the existing conventions helps users navigate your site easily. Website designs that break these conventions indicate an immature or inexperienced designer. More importantly, they annoy and frustrate their users. Websites can be unique while still using the standard metaphors.
  4. The content is easy to get to. People come to get what they want from your site – not what you want them to get. Good sites respect their users and don’t force them to jump through hoops by making them watch videos or burying important information. Popular content should be called out. Users should never be forced to watch something that they didn’t specifically request.
  5. The content is well organized. Content should be easy to find based on the volume of information available. Sites with a lot of content should contain multiple pages or sections, rather than loading it all onto the front page. Pages should be organized into an intuitive hierarchy.
  6. Difficulties are anticipated and mitigated. The best sites anticipate the frustration points for users and offer assistance where needed. A site with a lot of pages might have a site map. A site with complex functionality could offer help pages or an FAQ. Help should be easy to find and the information should be clear and concise.
  7. The links and images all work. This may seem obvious, but many sites do not adequately test or maintain their content. It is important that all pages actually display and link to the expected content. Broken content tells a user that the website or business has been abandoned.

Great websites have an element of art in them and as such some of what makes them great cannot be put into a list. What is most important is that a site should make you feel good about being there. Such sites create a positive relationship with their users who will then recommend the site to their friends and family. Spend some time navigating the web and see if you can identify the above characteristics in sites you enjoy. Being an active web user is the best way to recognize what a great website looks like.

5 Design Mistakes to Avoid

Over the years I have found several design choices that, if avoided, would render a much better user experience. As with all design choices, there are no hard and fast rules but in general you can’t go wrong with following any of these guidelines. I have seen every one of these rules broken far too often on otherwise nice websites.

  1. White text on black background – or even worse gray text on black background. This is very difficult to read. Nothing tells me that you are putting fashion over content more than this combination. If you are trying to evoke a particularly dark persona or your site doesn’t have much written content requiring any level of concentration, you can get away with it. Otherwise, make it easy for people to read your words. Especially if that’s why they came.
  2. Small paragraph text. If you are concerned with reaching the over 40 crowd, don’t make them lean in to see your content. 13 pixels is a good base size for paragraph text. People can resize browser text but most people don’t know how to do this. Making your paragraphs a little bigger avoids frustrating users, and it makes a site feel more welcoming.
  3. Lack of paragraph breaks. Nothing says “move on” like a page full of unbroken text in one giant paragraph. Unless users have to read it, or it is an extremely useful or amusing article, they will move on much more quickly than if the content were broken up into smaller bits. Remember, people don’t read online the same way they read a book. They scan content looking for key phrases or interesting points. Breaking your content up helps them to do that. It also forces you to tighten up your writing – something that is always appreciated.
  4. Full screen text width. When a line of text is very long, it is hard to follow the line you are reading. Keep your text areas no wider than 600 pixels. There is a reason paperbacks are the size they are. The same principle works on the web.
  5. Automatically launching things that make noise. I don’t care how great your music is. Let me decide if I want to interrupt my play list to hear your song. Oftentimes, people are browsing at work and don’t want to broadcast that fact to their boss. Or they are listening to a live stream with their headphones on loud when your guitar intro or sales pitch hammers their eardrums. The established artists and brands can get away with this, but if you are not a household name (or even if you are) be a good citizen and don’t surprise your visitors.

Remember, users come to a site for content – not to see clever design choices. Make it easy for them to consume your content and they will thank you by returning and referring their friends.