I'm on Linked In and am a member of several groups there. Sometimes I see people pushing their products and services there, particularly when someone wants a website built, and I am not averse to joining in the resulting feeding frenzy as the designers, wannabes and pundits push themselves forward as the answer. The question is, which of them is the right one to choose, and why?
There is an increasing number of options to choose when setting up a website. In a nutshell, you can use a sitebuilder provided by your webhost, use WordPress or another CMS, or learn a bit of HTML and use a template you got from the internet. All of these you can do yourself. I've been doing them since March 2007. The thing is, if you build it yourself you need to know some basic principles to make it work properly:
- Search engine optimised
- Easy to navigate
- Easy to use
- Attractive to potential clients
- Regularly updated
To be fair, there are some talented amateurs out there, and they do a great job because they subscribe to the design and SEO blogs and learn as much as they can to improve their skillsets. Until February this year, that was me. I've had to pack a lot into the last eleven months, learning ten years' worth of web design and user experience principles and code, but I have done it. This is what I have learned.
Content is king. Until recently I used to use a lot of text in my website and insisted on clients providing me with keywords I could turn into copy to inform visitors to their site about who they were and what they did. I have since learned that you can do exactly that using images and bullet points, and hiding much of the text in the description tags. This doesn't let you off the hook for providing information for your visitors, of course. Failure to provide me with information is the number one reason I click off sites and don't even bother to go to the next page. I want to know who you are and what you do, specifically. Either stick it on the front page or link to an About Us page.
The way Google works, you can't get away with keyword-stuffing per se. You have to sprinkle the words into your text like seasoning. Keywords in meta tags are depreciated for Google. Bing and other search engines use them, though. If you want to hide keywords in description tags, make them into a sentence or Google might drop you.
Use titles. Search engines look for them. H1, H2, and H3 at the very least.
The main ones are doctype, title, description and keywords. The rest are optional and you don't really need the robots one because they'll index your site anyway. Beware of the WordPress and other CMS themes that don't have all the meta tags you need. Either add them manually or get an SEO plugin.
- Add a blog to your site if you haven't got one already, and update it regularly.
- Update your home page content regularly — having a CMS like WordPress or Joomla makes it easier: no messing with code.
- Is your website W3C standards-compliant? Markup errors can hurt your search engine ranking.
- Leverage social media. Set up accounts for your business on Facebook, Linked In and Twitter. Use welcome tabs and other apps on Facebook.
- Have you submitted your site to the website submission services? Why not? It'll take longer to index your site if you don't.
- Get a sitemap for your website. It helps with indexing.
- Get your website analysed using Woorank or Creating Online. Use their services to check for errors and advice on improving your website.
- Get involved with peer or related forums and blogs, and comment on them from time to time to get your website's URL on there. Nofollow links or not, it'll still show up in the search results.
3. Easy to use
A Salford University lecturer told me that if you have to click four times or more to get to what you want, something's wrong. I've also seen people looking nonplussed at the photo album I use for my portfolio. I got around that by adding category links to the main menu and explaining how my portfolio works on the portfolio pages. It might be screamingly obvious to me that you click on the photos or links to get to the content, but people who aren't used to using online photo galleries won't know that.
People shouldn't have to think too hard or need tutorials for using your site. Input boxes and call-to-action buttons should be clearly labelled.
Whoever said, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" hasn't seen some of the car crash websites that litter the internet. From the ad farms that blink, flash, and fling out pop- ups that follow you like mournful puppies begging you to click on their dodgy links (the ones with the OS-wiping viruses, quick cash promises, or groaning porn freaks) to the table-based neanderthals (but they're SEO optimised! And some of them are about SEO!) with the tiny text and monochrome colour schemes to the poorly-laid-out design-free efforts of the must try harders, the internet is filled with pointless junk, all of which would not be missed if it were taken down tomorrow. A girl can dream.
My early work
Any of you who have been following my progress in the last year can say to me, "But Wendy, that was you!"
Yes it was, till someone told me better and I took the time out to learn from them and apply that knowledge. Now I can't move for recruiters calling me to ask if I'm available to work on a permanent basis. Yes, if it's not too far from home. The point is, I don't just go boo hoo when someone calls me out for bad design, I ask what I can do to make it better. Here's an early draft of Writers' Rendezvous, my college project. Barf-inducing colours, nested tables, and poor spacing of the elements compete with the flashy gif animation in the fireplace scene and the RSS feed reader widgets (four of. Count 'em!).
I thought it was the bees' knees because it had a CSS3 gradient background and a drop-down menu, not to mention the four animated RSS feed readers, the animated photo and... did I mention the sound file of the crackling fire? I had to do it for college. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Since it was about using the software and not actual design, they didn't fail me. And yes, the applications software attached to that monstrosity all had the same lamentable colour scheme because I customized the themes with the same background colours and banners, etc.
The principles of good design
I still can't believe that there are web designers with ten years' experience or more whose own websites are still using nested tables and tiny text, and haven't been updated since 1995. How do they get work? Anyone who gets paid to do a specialist job is a professional, but a true specialist will make the effort to keep themselves up-to-date with the latest developments in their field.
Content drives design. I'll write a more comprehensive post about this at a later date but the bare bones of it is that whatever your site is about and however much information you want on the front page determines how the page will be laid out. When a client ruined my nice clean menu by adding more links to the top level we had to have a serious talk about redesigning his website so that he could display those links prominently without making his site look like a dog's dinner. He likes Practical Digital's Besta theme, so we're going with that because it's the logical choice for what he wants to do. On Easy SME I don't need a slideshow. I do need to promote my premium client's services, then mention that other services are available in the three columns alloted me. On my own website, my home page is dominated by my slideshow, which shows people what I can do, and the services I offer, followed by some other information and my latest tweets. The most important information is displayed in the most prominent way, with the lesser information in the sidebars or at the bottom.
There are many different choices available both to the HTML designer/developer and the CMS specialist. In basic terms, you've got a full page, two or more columns, stacked columns, magazine layout or portfolio. I've been using the magazine layout in my WordPress builds and the stacked columns provided by the 960 grid system for my HTML builds. The trick is to leave plenty of space between areas of content so they're easy to read and nothing distracts or detracts from them.
As much as I love text shadows, if they make my fancy fonts unreadable, they have to go. Text needs to be big enough to read comfortably, hence my railing at the 10px text so beloved of the nested tables websites. It should be a minimum of 12px, and contrast well with the background so it stands out clearly. Links need to work and linked objects need to be labeled as such particularly if they are the only way of getting to the linked page. Don't forget to put titles in those links and alt attributes in those img tags.
- Strong colours should be used in moderation.
- White text on black backgrounds should be used in moderation.
- Choose a layout with your content spaced evenly and clearly delineated if you're using more than one column.
- Break up your content with columns, boxes, or long landscape images. The text block o' doom is a big no-no.
- Body text at 12px minimum; I don't want to have to squint or lean closer to my PC to read it.
- Body text at 16px maximum; I'm not Mrs. Magoo and I don't like being shouted at.
- Use a web-safe font, i.e. one that displays well on most browsers, for your body text. The default Microsoft ones are Helvetica, Arial and Verdana for Sans-serif and Times New Roman, Andale and Georgia for Serif. If you use a fancy font, choose a browser-safe one for backup.
- Avoid using huge anything, particularly image files. They slow down page loading time and can be distracting.
- Avoid having too many animated images. They're distracting and annoying. One is enough. Two at the most.
- Use images with true colours, sepia or black and white. Monochrome in moderation - don't let it dominate your site.
- Use high-quality images. Jagged edges or JPG halos let you and your site down.
- Be consistent with your logo and typography, particularly if your site is spread out across multiple hosts.
- Read my post on branding. You need a clear, well-designed logo that looks good at different sizes.
- Get someone else to check your site and give you honest feedback. Act upon it.
Be sure to update your content regularly. I use Twitter and have a Twitter widget on my home page. I also make changes to the home page from time to time, either changing the look or adding fresh content. Having a content management system helps because it means there's no messing with code, which I have to do when updating my website's other pages. If your website is built on WordPress, Joomla, or any other applications program, you can simply add a post. Having a widget that displays your latest posts helps, and you can easily change the home page content. This keeps readers coming back because they soon learn that there's something new there every time they come to visit.
If you're not doing any of these things, or don't know how to do them, you need a professional. There's no way around it. Bite the bullet, get your wallet out and talk to someone who knows what they're doing, even if it's not me! Use the points I've raised here as your guide if you decide to go with someone else so you can work out if they know their stuff or not. But don't satisfy yourself with a substandard website or your competitors will get the business you want for yourself.