Monday, March 12, 2007

10 Elements of a Successful Web Site

There are hundreds of articles and thousands of tips on how to make a website successful. True, websites vary greatly in content, style, focus and n-number of other aspects. Consequently, there can not be one great formula or key success factor. However, if we closely look into successful web-sites - a few features stand out, features that are common in almost all successful sites.

A successful web-site, evidently, is the one that is capable of attracting quality visitors and retain them. The core of this attractiveness is its content. However, only content is not enough - just as a good product needs good packaging a successful site needs elegant presentation and promotion.

In this article, we discuss 10 basic elements that can significantly contribute towards success of any website.

1. Content No matter if you have a business site or a personal page, you have to give people a reason to stay on your site - the first question the visitor is going to ask - "what's in it for me?"

That doesn't mean you have to give away freebies - programs, books, tickets, holidays etc. etc. - it does mean that you have to offer something. That "something" could be:

* Information
* Utility (bulletin board, search engine, directory etc.)
* Entertainment
* Advice
* Help with a problem
* Opportunities to network with like minded people
* Links to useful sites

Remember, a successful site is a useful site. It should contain:

* information that is perceived to be 'useful' by its visitors (community)
* the information is unique (i.e. either not available elsewhere or is hard to find)
* the information is fresh (i.e. updated regularly)

2. Overall Look Your home page is your billboard or store front-- it creates an immediate impression on visitors. Considering the importance of first impression, we all are aware of, it should look:

* Clean
* Uncluttered
* Professional
* Attractive

Do not be stingy with white space, spread them as much as required. Aim to "underwhelm" rather than overwhelm. Too many flashing lights, animations, colours, drop-down boxes, graphics etc. are distracting. It's a like those stores that play loud, frenetic music--your heart rate rises, your stress levels go up and you just want to get out - fast!

3. Speed In this age of impatience - an average visitor will spend no more than 20 seconds to decide the worth of your site. You can well imagine what happens if the visitor spends that precious 20 seconds looking at a blank screen slowly loading tons of images..

So you must ensure that your home page at least, loads as quickly as possible. That means no big, flashy graphics.

Keep reminding yourself that your first page is like a billboard. When driving your car, you don't have time to read detailed descriptions, or admire intricate pictures on billboards. The signs flash past you and have to make an immediate impression.

Your web visitors are 'flashing past' as well, so keep your front page simple and fast.

4. Graphics and Lay-out The graphics and lay-out of your home page contribute to that first impression--think about what image your site is trying to convey and make sure everything on your site contributes something towards that overall image.

If you have a serious business site, you don't want garish cartoons on your front page - but if you have a games site, then cartoons can be an integral part of the image.

Graphics are what eat up the loading time of your site. A rough rule of thumb to determine good loading time for a page is to keep the entire page around 50 Kb. Images should be between 6 and 8K. Each additional 5K may add one second to loading time.

If in doubt, right click the image and then click on "Properties" to get the size of the image.

Colour is also an important part of your site; colours have different effects on our emotions:

Red and orange excite the senses and increase heartbeat, blues and greens are more restful. Yellow reminds us of sunshine and is a happy colour

Consider the effect you want to create and choose a colour that is appropriate. When reading Western texts, the eye travels from the top left of the page, across and then down to the bottom right. Remember this when you're placing graphics on your page.

Any graphic image which has a directional aspect should be placed to point towards the most important section of the page. If you have a picture of a bird on the top left corner of your page, make sure it is facing inward and that its beak is leading the eye to the centre of the page, not away from it. The same applies to all graphics:

Faces should 'look' to the centre of the page. Cars should be 'parked' facing towards the centre of the page. Roads, neck ties etc should all be placed to lead the eye across from left to right, or down from top to bottom

This is also why you should place your navigation bars down the left side of your page - it keeps them constantly in the visitor's field of vision.

5. Text Readability This doesn't refer to the words you use (we'll look at them in detail later) --but to the way the words look on the page. Going back to the concept of the billboard, your words need to stand out on your page - you need to surround them with plenty of white space.

Dark backgrounds make you feel as if you're in a small space and also have a depressing effect on your mood. Certain coloured backgrounds make it very difficult to read text; purples, orange tonings and reds dazzle the eyes.

The colour of your text is just as important--bear in mind that different browsers read colours differently--what looks great on your browser could well be invisible on another !

Take a lesson from the newspapers and divide your text into columns for easier (and quicker) reading--even two columns are better than one slab of text that covers the entire width of the page.

Another element that contributes to text readability is the font you choose. Plain fonts (Arial, Times New Roman, Garamond and Courier) are the easiest to read. Fancy fonts are fine for headings, but not for full pages (imagine trying to read a whole page in Gothic, Script, Westminster, or Cloister). Your eyes would soon tire of the effort involved and you'd be reaching for the back button!

6. Structure Each page You have to make your page as easy for visitors to read as possible and this means breaking it up into little 'chunks'. We've already looked at the need for columns, (which divide the page vertically); you also need to divide your page horizontally, through the use of headings and sub-headings.

7. Fonts Select a font for all your headings and sub-headings (and stick to it). It's not necessary to have a different font for headings (just go up one size for headings, and then use bold on all headings and sub-headings).

This way it's easy to recognise which is a heading (large and bold) and which is a sub-heading (same size but bold).

The purpose is to make it easy for your visitors to glance at your page and make out what the key points are. If what they see interests them, they'll stay and keep reading.

To draw attention to other important points, you can also highlight them by putting a whole sentence in bold or a different colour (or both). However, take care with the colours you select: some are quite difficult to read--even against a white background.

8. Navigation Navigation is one of the most critical aspects of any web site - arguably the most important. No matter how good a site looks, and no matter how much useful information it offers, without sensible navigation scheme, it will only manage to confuse visitors and chase them away. A simple, logical, understandable navigation scheme can increase your number of page impressions, boost return visits, and improve your "conversion rate" (the number of visitors who are "converted" into customers). It's a critical aspect of site design that has a direct effect on the bottom line.

The core of any good navigational scheme is:

1. Tell people exactly what is available on your site
2. Help them get to the parts they want quickly
3. Make it easy to request additional information

Use a well-structured navigational bar. it should run down the left side of your page, for two reasons:

We're accustomed to reading from left to right and from top to bottom We're accustomed to finding navigation bars on the left of web pages -- why buck the system (especially when it works)?

On a long page it's also a good idea to have a brief nav bar along the bottom of the page (just home | top of page will suffice).

When you've found a system you're happy with, use it on every page so that your visitors know where to look for the information. Greater consistency leads to better readability and ease of use.

9. Privacy Statement and Testimonials Credibility is an essential part of any business site, especially in the anonymous world of Internet. You must ensure that your potential customers feel confident dealing with you. Transparency and openness are the cornerstones of lasting trust - so tell people exactly what you're doing to safeguard their interests. In particular, how you're protecting their privacy. It's worth having a separate page which sets out, in detail, your policy towards their email addresses; how you accept orders; how you gather information; who has access to this information; how you use information gathered from children and so on.

Visitors also like to know that real people have used your products or services, so it's worth asking your satisfied customers if you can quote any positive comments they've made about you. Don't be afraid to ask for testimonials--we all like to know that our opinions are valued.

Set up a separate page for testimonials and offer to include links to your customers' pages in return for using their comments. This is one of those "win-win" situations

10. Words Now we come to one of the most important elements. If this part is wrong, the rest of your efforts are largely wasted. How many times have you been impressed by a site's initial appearance, only to be disappointed by poor spelling, careless grammar and punctuation ?

It reflects badly on the site owner and indicates that whoever is responsible for this page is sloppy, careless, lazy, unprofessional or all of the above! Would you entrust any of your hard-earned money to someone who doesn't even care enough to check the expression of his/her own site?

* You can take steps to improve your own writing skills
* You can employ someone to proof read and edit your work
* You can employ someone to write your pages for you

CONCLUSION This column is too short for detail discussion. There are many places in the web that will assist you on all elements discussed above. Check them, even if you have employed a professional web-designer. Successful web-site is a pre-condition for successful e-commerce venture - so invest more of your time and resources on web-site. It will definitely pay rich dividend in future.

Amit worked in blue-chip Indian and MNCs for 15 years in various capacities like Research and Information Analysis, Market Development, MIS, R&D Information Systems etc. before starting his e-commerce venture in 1997. He writes regularly for The Great Indian Bazaar (