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Every business that wants to grow and expand its customer base is either planning a website or already has one. The World Wide Web is a powerful media that has zillions of people linking to it every day. The possibilities for your business are endless. Not only can you reach out to an unbelievably large segment of potential customers, you can do it at a huge profit. Launching a website helps you establish an online presence, spread brand awareness, and build customer relationships.
The extensive outreach of the internet works both for and against your business. If you can reach more prospects, they too have access to hundreds of businesses similar to yours - all competing for attention. You have to give customers a reason to choose you. This is where good website design comes in.
Web design is not just about a set of web pages. It's about creating a website that keeps your customers coming. Professional and experienced web design services can help you attain this challenging goal. In this guide, we try to explain what makes a website design good, selecting a web design service and some tips. Topics included in this guide are:
Elements of good website design.
Selecting a website design service.
Tips on optimizing web design efforts.
Elements of good website design
However much technology and technique may evolve, some basics never change. The most important principle in website design is "Honor your audience". Your website may include latest design elements but won't win you customers if it's complicated, unorganized, irrelevant or slow. Remember, the internet is teeming with competing websites. Customers can click on another website link in seconds.
Here is a rundown on what customers expect from a well-designed business website:
Relevant, original, and clear content
Content is king. Customers will stay on your website only if they find what they're searching for immediately. Whatever be the tone of content - entertaining or serious based on your business or preference - the goal is to inform the customer simply and convincingly that you have what they want. Many websites copy a catchy phrase or line that sounds impressive and use it on their website. Apart from being a possible copyright breach, your website also loses credibility. Keep the content relevant, straightforward, and believable.
Text and background colors should be chosen to enhance readability. Dark text and light background is best (for example, black text on white background). Text should also be well spaced.
Website content should be current. Outdated information tells customers that your website is not a reliable source of information. Websites should be updated regularly so that customers see something different every time they visit. Include a date somewhere in the page so customers know when the page was last updated.
The text on the website should be rechecked and edited for spelling and grammar. Mistakes in content indicate carelessness and that's not the impression you want your customers to have. Check outgoing links regularly and correct or remove broken links.
If you include a link to another website, tell customers why you think it's worth clicking on. Links should be relevant to the content the customer is already browsing.
Short pages. Short paragraphs. Short sentences.
Customers do not like too much scrolling down to read a page through. Keep it to a minimum. Long sentences too dilute the impact of a message. It's too much information in one go and difficult to follow. Page lengths should be set so that the more important information is conveyed within a screen size of 640x480 pixels. Use short and succinct sentences. Address multiple topics in separate pages.
Table of content/Site Map
Including a table of content gives customers a glimpse of what a webpage offers. They can click on what interests them to know more. A site map also helps customers navigate the website quickly.
Customers should find the information they are seeking quickly. This means content should be well-organized and easily navigable. Include pages in a hierarchy to minimize scrolling and display time. Maintain a balance. Reaching a page should not involve clicking through 10 links. Use text and graphics on buttons to help users. Keep a consistent look throughout the website.
Help your customers further by including a search box on the website. The time savings will be appreciated.
Images and multimedia are good but they should not slow down the website's performance. Customers could be accessing your website via a 56Kbps modem or a broadband connection. Keep images and multimedia small and use them sparingly. Use JPEG images wherever possible. Minimize the color palettes of GIF graphics. Use the ALT tag to provide text alternatives to low-bandwidth users, blind users, and for speed.
A large table takes time to display. Break content into smaller tables for faster rendering. Customers will not wait around for a website to load when they have so many other choices.
Uniform look across browsers
A customer could be using any browser. Your website design should look as your designer intended it to look on most of them. A comment such as "This website is best viewed in Internet Explorer 7" on your homepage really means "This website looks bad in most browsers except IE 7". Avoid this situation by sticking to standard HTML (currently HTML 5) and using CSS to format text. This makes the look uniform across the website, across most browsers, and speeds up display.
Security of websites is a critical concern. Even if a website does not engage in financial transactions, there are other basic security issues that are surprisingly not addressed by even larger commercial companies. Protect customer data by maintaining necessary security standards - SSL, encryption, server security, etc.
Websites should include snippets of relevant news - maybe a feature on latest website additions or a newsletter to keep customers in the loop. By involving customers, you make them feel valued.
Customization to user preferences
Websites that allow customers to filter content to suit their preferences give a more targeted experience. Content, advertisements, and look - all get tailored to the customer's needs. CNET is an excellent example of such a website. The website analyzes user demographics to deliver information and promos that are relevant to them.
The Web 2.0 generation expects interactivity in all websites. Blogs, forums - all help your business as you get fresh content every day and valuable feedback that helps you serve customers better. Include polls, trivia, lucky winners and other fun features to attract more customers and charge higher for ad space.
Selecting a website design service
The choice of a web design service involves the weighing of many factors - rates not being the most important. Your website will grow as your business expands. Your designer should be able to support your long-term and short-term business needs. Here are a few guidelines for selecting a web design service:
Know what you want
Before you start calling web designers, give some thought to what you would like your customers to see on your website. Check out the websites of local businesses and competition. Think from the customer's perspective. Does this feature add to the readability? Does this help customers navigate the website faster? Does the website look good on your screen? Make notes and discuss the points with your designer.
Analyze competition websites
Use the search terms you would expect customers to use on search engines for your products or services. Try this on Google, Yahoo! and Bing - the most popular search engines. Analyze the competition websites that come up. Study the design, content, level of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), interactivity, and other customer-friendly elements of the website. This will give you ideas on what you would like on your website.
Develop search engine optimized and effective content
Writing for the web is not the same as writing for a magazine. You should hire a web content writer to develop your website's content. You can do it yourself if you have the needed skills. Many website design services include writing skills in their package. Make sure they have an expert to do it - outsourced or in-house. Large web design companies usually have teams managing different tasks.
Skilled content writers create copy for web readers - who have a very short attention span. They apply their copywriting skills to create compelling content that attracts customers.
Work with the writer. Help her get a sense of your business and goals. Make sure she and you are on the same page on search terms and keywords that your customers use. SEO content is critical to the natural page ranking of your website.
The best way to get an honest review of a web designer's work is to talk to its clients. Most web design companies include portfolios on their website. Contact the website owners and ask about the quality of work, adherence to timelines, customer service, responsiveness, rates, and bad experiences if any.
The other way around is to get a web designer's contact details from a website you like. Usually, websites have a "Web design by XYZ" link at the bottom. Clicking on it will take you to the designer's website or display an email address to contact the company. Or you can call the numbers on the website and ask for the designer's contact details. This way, you also get to hear the website owner's opinion of the designer's services.
Include a blog for interactivity
Many business websites include a blog. You can publish articles related to your products or services. A content writer can develop articles for you on a regular basis. All articles should be thoroughly edited before publishing as sloppy mistakes throw a bad light on your business' professionalism.
Blogs work three ways - customers feel involved and care for your business more, sharing knowledge enhances your credibility and reliability as a business, and frequent updation makes your website more favorable to search engines.
Gauge the level of customer service
A website needs constant maintenance. Many web designers offer long-term services and work with you to keep your website in top form. Find out if the web design service will:
make changes as and when requested?
respond to requests quickly?
train your personnel if you want to maintain the website yourself?
charge you for website crashes that occur due to no fault of yours? If yes, how will you be charged?
Survey the market
Web design rates vary. Conduct a market survey to know what designers charge for various services. Have an average in mind before you discuss rates with your chosen web designer.
Study the contract
Read the contract thoroughly. Look at the charges for the actual web design and for associated services. Discuss the fees with the website designer and agree only if you are convinced. Read the fine print. Make sure there are no hidden charges or ambiguous statements. Have your business lawyer review the agreement before signing it.
Tips on optimizing web design efforts
Though web design services will do all that is needed to develop and optimize your website, you can help them by doing some groundwork.
Collect images for the website
Collect high quality JPEG images for the designer to use on the website. Click your own or search on the internet. If you give the job to the designer, she will search for stock photographs. This will take time and money (to purchase the rights to the stock images). By doing this homework yourself, you can save both.
Secure domain name and hosting account yourself
Majority of website companies will offer hosting and domain services. However, you are not obligated to take them on. If the rates, services and past records are good, go for it. Else, you can get a better deal by buying domain name and hosting services from a large third party company. You'll find web designers charge three to four times the rates charged by independent web hosting companies.
Analyze the website's performance yourself
Learn some tools to automate website maintenance and assess your website's performance. There is a lot of freeware and shareware on the internet that can get you started. Some functions that tools can help you with include:
assessing website popularity by measuring number of hits, stay durations, where users came from and where they went, what they browsed on your website, and more
checking old and broken links
sending auto responses