Advice to Business and Organizational Site Web Masters, i.e. How to Sell Your Product to Me

I am not–as you may well be able to tell by this site–a professional Web site designer. I am, however, like all other consumers in the world, someone's potential customer–possibly yours. And yet it astounds me just how many "professional" Websites are out there that irritate me to no end, and the design of which alone make me decide to no longer try to patronize that company. Talking to my friends, I find I'm not alone in this, and so I would like to provide some advice (to those who might find my site) to would be business-site Web designers. And by the way, I may not be a professional Web designer, but I have been a professional layout editor and do know enough about Web and graphic design that I'm not completely talking out of my you-know-what, here.

  1. Make your site accessible to as many people as possible: I also like to call this the "no blinky crap" rule. Look, your fancy multimillion-dollar office may have broadband Internet access and the best graphics-capable computers around, but not everyone is surfing the Internet in your office, are they? Sure things need to be visually pleasing to your average customer, but an overly-graphic or animation-intensive site (especially one that relies on Macromedia Flash) can be a downright obstacle to navigation for many users. You must, if you want to avoid severely irritating a lot of people, remember these things:

    Making a site less graphic intensive does not mean no graphics at all–it means using your graphics and animations in a sensible manner. Put the graphics where they count and in the places where you need the most attention; minimize size and dpi as much as possible (I'm sure you know, but 72 dpi is standard for Web graphics), and always, ALWAYS use alt tags. DON'T make your site "Flash-only" (or any other plug-in) because not everyone has that plug-in, and some people, like the visually-impaired, have no use for it. If you insist on having the aesthetic advantages Flash gives you, create a "low-bandwidth" version of your site for universal accessibility and a "high-bandwidth" version, with all your plug-in niceties, for the people who have the ability, technology, and time to be able to appreciate it.

  2. Don't overwhelm your visitors with too much at once: Reach the main page of a business or organization's Web site, and sometimes you're confronted with a score of images of entirely different things and about fifty different links, and you're not sure which one you want to pay attention to first. If it's too much or too confusing, the surfer's urge may be to leave the site, rather than explore it.

    The World Wide Web is an extremely valuable source of information, and one of the major reasons someone is visiting a business or organization's Web site is because they want to learn more about it. The information needs to be presented, however, in such a way that they're not going to feel lost as soon as they've arrived. Some Web sites seem too "enthusiastic" about offering what they have to offer; the key is to give the visitor a "taste" of what he's looking for without cramming it down his throat. A nice logo and a easily readable menu of some simple categories is much preferable to a gigantic sea of tables and frames of too much at once. Maybe a picture and a brief mission or vision statement, if your organization has one, is appropriate, depending on room and content. The menu should be simple and clearly indicate what is available; generally a link leading to general information about the site as well as links leading to specific, individual site/company or organization projects. Importantly, for organizations and businesses should also clearly display or have an easily findable link to the should be clearly displayed. Businesses selling a product obviously should have a nice shiny link to their catalogue, but don't put half the catalogue on the main page either! Even if your purpose is selling something, some people want time and space to shop, just like in real life. I'd like to think my own main page is a good example of this; it may be too minimalist for pro purposes, but should give you the idea.

  3. On the flip side: DON'T give your visitors too little information, and make sure they can find what they're looking for: Sites that don't overwhelm the visitor with too much have gone so far to minimizing their main page so that the visitor can't glean a thing from the site: an example might be a main page that just features a picture and only one or two links with inadequate descriptions like "more". Or, the site may offer a lot of good information, but it's just not well-organized enough that people can easily find it.

    Sites should have at the very least easily visible links to a vision/mission statement (or something similar), background information or company history if appropriate, and to the site's services. Images that provide no information or serve no specific purpose should be omitted. Very extensive sites should feature a search section. It's hard to say exactly what a site needs, since professional sites serve very different purposes, but for some examples–a book sales company should have search features for books, a feature area for sales, and concise information on customer policies; a social justice non-profit needs to provide information on its mission, its specific projects, and information for volunteers and donors; a university Web site should have school history, a link to admissions, link to financial aid, link to major school administrators, and a faculty directory. These all seem very obvious but you'd be amazed how many sites I've been to that just don't have clearly designated access to even the most basic information. The MOST IMPORTANT, perhaps, easily-findable information you need to provide is CONTACT INFORMATION. Assuming you are any sort of professional company or organization, people are going to want to write to you, send you information, ask you questions, and they need to know where to send it. Some of them may be specifically at your site trying to find a phone number or mailing address, preferring to use that form of communication–and you need to provide that information for them easily. The best thing to do is create a "contact us" page; in most instances, this should feature a main office snail mail address, main office telephone and fax number, and at least two e-mail addresses: one for the visitor to request information about your site, and one to the Webmaster so visitors can report bugs and broken links or other site-related feedback. CGI forms are fine for providing feedback, but you still need to provide a mailing address and phone number for those who need it. DO NOT just put a "contact" link that just goes directly to a "mailto" link (for example: Contact); why? Because not everyone has configured their computer to make that direct-mail function work properly or want to e-mail someone from a different address than the one the computer is configured to send "mailto:" commands to; if someone is on a public computer (such as at a library) the mailto: function will not work. If the only contact information you are going to provide is an e-mail address, type it out fully, even if you still link it with a mailto link (example: that way everyone knows what the contact e-mail address and can copy and paste it if they cannot use the mailto function. Even so, I don't recommend having only e-mail as a means of contact information–especially if you are offering some sort of service or selling a product, you need to have a a phone number for people to ask questions and provide feedback they cannot or do not wish to discuss via e-mail (and I've often had the experience of e-mailing a business Web site and gotten no response, but had very productive conversations by phone). The purpose of providing a mail address is for the same reason; I've tried to find snail mail addresses of places online because my boss needs to send and important, signed letter somewhere (and an informal e-mail just won't do)–it's frustrating if I can't send it!

  4. If you can, use the whole page: Many Web designers use table and cascading stylesheet designs that may take up only so much space in a browswer window–for example, you'll see all the information and menus all on the right hand, first three quarters of the page, leaving the last quarter of the screen completely blank. If this item were in print media, it would be rejected–blank white space is a waste of paper and is aesthetically displeasing. To me, it doesn't look much better on a computer screen either–especially when a third of the screen is blank and the other two-thirds have a ridiculous amount of print and text crammed into it. If you are using a table or stylesheet that forces a fixed width that results in this blank space effect, at least find a background image that fills in that space to make it look nicer. [EXAMPLE]
  5. Pop-up ads are HELL!
  6. : Maybe you're a struggling business or just need a little extra help to pay for the server size and bandwidth you need to host your Web site; selling ad space is an easy and obvious way of getting the funds you need to keep your Web site running. As I'm sure you've experienced yourself, ads can be horribly intrusive, especially pop-up ads; ads can also have some sketchy coding and can contain their own spyware cookies, which can make the paranoid or unprotected want to avoid your site. Morever, so many people find pop-ups so obstructive, there are now many pop-up blocking programs that eliminate these–and thus their presence becomes pointless. If you must use ads, try embedded ads, which are a little less annoying than pop-ups, and can be worked into a layout more effectively (many newspaper Web sites insert ads the same way they are inserted on an actual newspaper page, which looks fine). GoogleAds might be a good way to go&150;these ads are not overly "blinky," come from a reliable source, and don't take up too much room. Whatever kind of ads you use, try not to be sponsored by too many scam artists, okay?

In summary–fewer graphics, remember everyone's accessibility issues, give people the information they need first, and not the information they don't. Bottom line is: learn to do what annoys the least amount of people. I'd respond to many more commercial Web sites if they followed these guidelines; maybe I'm in the minority, but perhaps if you get the right Web site going, you can see for yourself how it works for you. Good luck.