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... Know What You Want, First!
Written by Gerald Chait
Want to waste thousands on your website development? No? Then make sure you figure out exactly what you want before you approach a website development company.
It may seem like obvious advice, but in reality, many people approach website development companies without first formulating a clear web strategy, clarifying objectives and expectations. This hasty sort of approach to website development invariably costs the customer a lot of money – and they end up with a website that doesn't meet their needs.
So how do you get the website that meets your requirements within the budget you have? Plan, plan, plan!
Some of the questions you need to answer before embarking on your website development:
1) Why do you need a website?
2) What kind of website do you need?
3) Who is your target audience?
4) How do you plan to attract visitors to the site?
5) What are some of the graphical design considerations?
6) Will the site target both domestic and international visitors?
7) What is the visitor trying to achieve?
8) How will your website support or integrate with the rest of your business?
9) What structural implications should you consider?
10) How will you update the content?
11) Who should you talk to about website development?
12) Who do you talk to about hosting your website?
13) What is your website development budget?
Websites are generally designed to support one or more of the following objectives:
- provide information
- facilitate online transactions
- drive visitors to a physical location
- facilitate communication
Websites also support brand image and awareness. In today’s information-rich environment, customers are becoming far more savvy and conduct thorough research prior to making decisions. Having a good, informative and accurate website could mean the difference between winning the client and not.
Websites are also extremely important for contact details as a lot of readers refer to website as a quick reference.
What's more, a website provides 24x7 access, so your customers and potential customers have access to the site outside of normal business hours (ideal for supporting promotions, general e-commerce and improving customer service).
Websites may be simply informational in nature or more complex with transactional e-commerce shopping functionality. They may even be designed to support Web 2.0 functionality such as BLOGs and message boards, which can develop a community environment.
But always remember, your website needs to serve the needs of the customers you're trying to attract and retain. Before committing to the feature set of your website development, make sure you can link every feature back to a customer need.
Who is your typical reader? Think about your readers; are they young or old, wealthy or poor, male or female, computer techies or novices? Are your readers just researching or are they in buy-online mode? Are they local or international, or both? Will language be a barrier? Will font size be a consideration for those with poorer eyesight?
Once you have ascertained who your audience is, you need to design the website to suit that audience.
Marketing your site is critical. It can be marketed electronically using search engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN and/or offline using traditional advertising and promotions strategies. It's important that you think about the marketing strategy BEFORE website development, as it will impact the website development process and the technology of the final product. For example, do you plan to run Google AdWords or banner ads? If so, will those ads need to relate to specific landing pages containing enquiry forms, or would a single landing page suffice? Will search engine-driven traffic be important to you? If so, you'll need to ensure that your website is designed and developed in search engine-friendly way, and that your web copy is optimised for search engines.
Many sites feature a large number of animations and GIF images, which are distracting and poorly designed (in terms of colour and fonts), and which add an unnecessary overhead to the page (in terms of file size and speed of loading). A good website has a balance of imagery and text. Try to be aware of things like font size and how it might impact your readers. Colours, fonts and alignments should be consistent from one page to the next. The look and feel of a site needs to be simple and consistent.
Similarly, background music, popups and Flash can be gimmicky and annoying to visitors. Only include them if they are appropriate to the needs of your audience.
As previously mentioned, your website needs to be more than just a promotional tool; it should form part of your overall marketing strategy. What looks great in print may not look good online. Perhaps more importantly, it may not be user-friendly (functional). So make sure you have a web designer involved in the development.
Consider whether you have the infrastructure to support international readers and clients. For example, if the site is transactional and you are selling a product, do you have international banking or credit card facilities and the ability to deliver overseas?
If you're going to target international readers, it's important that you make your website global. Consider the format of the information you display and request (e.g. zip code versus postcode, address formats and even phone number formats) and the style, tone, word-choice and spelling of your copy. (See www.divinewrite.com for more information on website copywriting.)
Another important consideration which is often overlooked in website development is scheduled maintenance. Scheduling maintenance for midnight in your home country may cripple your website during peak business hours in another.
Make sure you investigate the needs of your international market(s) and adapt your website to suit those specific needs.
All website visitors want or need something. They may be researching prior to purchasing a product, looking up company details, or trying to pay an invoice. If you want to make your site easy for visitors to use and if you want those visitors to keep coming back, your website development MUST accommodate the tasks that those visitors are attempting to perform.
Websites can often offer services to support and integrate with your business. For example, you might offer online shopping to streamline the purchase, dispatch and accounts process (including payment gateways, stock/inventory detailing, member or client information, etc.). Alternatively your website can increase the effectiveness of your marketing and product support, by spotlighting your products with extensive information and product catalogues, emailing product information to opt-in recipients, allowing links back to the manufactures (if applicable), etc. You might also set up an FAQ section on your website and encourage your visitors to read this area before contacting your office. A feedback form might also reduce administration overhead by allowing your readers to contact you and request more information, etc.
With websites, less is more. The simpler the structure is, the more user-friendly it is. It all comes down to navigation; navigation is a website’s lifeblood. A poor navigation structure can destroy a user’s experience, and damage your online image.
Sections should be obviously grouped, both logically and visually. This makes navigation intuitive. Create a draft site plan before website development is commenced. Discuss it with your designers and developers, work with them to evolve it, then leave it with them to guide them through the website development process. This will ensure that the visual and functional elements of your website flow and make sense.
Structure and navigation are particularly important for larger sites and e-commerce sites. With so much competition around, your visitors will not be prepared to expend a great deal of energy to unravel the mysteries of a poorly planned site. Similarly, visitors are unlikely to become buyers if the purchase process is confusing.
It is imperative that you update the content on your site on a regular basis. Outdated information is useless and impacts on your credibility and professionalism. Conversely, regularly updated content tells your readers that you're a proactive organisation (and it also contributes to your ranking in the search engines).
To reduce ongoing costs and retain control of your website, consider the benefits of building it using a Content Management System (CMS). A good CMS lets you easily manage all content yourself, instead of paying your web developers to do it. (This includes adding and editing copy and images, adding and deleting pages, and adding and deleting functionality.)
This depends what you want from your website development and how far your budget can stretch. Is the site intended for the short or long term? Will content need to be updated? Do you need e-commerce, email management / e-newsletters, etc.? There are many people who build websites and numerous approaches to take.
Important considerations when selecting a website development company include:
- Do they have proven website development experience?
- Are they familiar with the latest developments?
- Do they have support networks or personnel should they run into problems?
- Are they qualified?
- Can they provide ongoing website development support?
- Do they have access to graphic designers?
It's best to find an established website development company with a solid infrastructure and qualified staff, who can speak with you plain English, listen to all your requirements and develop a plan that suits your needs. Also remember to select a website development company that you feel comfortable dealing with.
Your website development company should be able to suggest a hosting company, but if not, there are a multitude of companies listed on the Internet and in the Yellow Pages.
When considering website hosting companies, obviously you need to ensure that they are appropriate for your budget. You need to know that they have adequate security both via the web (antispam, antivirus, etc.) and in their actual physical environment (locks, alarms, etc.). You need to know that they use hardware and software that is modern and appropriate for the job.
Do they have a proactive backup / business continuity / disaster recovery strategy, and the necessary software and hardware to support it? And do they engage in scheduled maintenance? You need to know that they are operating an environment that is designed to minimise the likelihood of fire, flood, theft, hardware failure, overheating, etc. But, if the server hosting your site does, in fact fail (or is stolen or destroyed), will your website be unavailable? Some hosting providers offer uptime guarantees, which is great, but don't assume this means that nothing will ever go wrong and your website will never go down.
Also, consider bandwidth (how fast can they display your website files). Few things are more frustrating to visitors than slow-to-load pages, and your host can play a big part in this.
Many businesses try to cut costs by engaging a student, unqualified staff employee or friend to build their website. Think carefully before pursuing this option, because you get what you pay for. You'd most likely be trading-off visual aesthetics, reliability, stability, speed, ease of use, search engine-friendliness, and ongoing technical support. When it comes to website development, short-term cost-cutting does not always equate to long-term savings or return on investment.
Having said that, you should always be realistic. Consider what sort of return on investment you require (and how quickly), and set your budget accordingly. Then stick to your budget. If you need to cut costs, start with the 'bells and whistles' that may not be necessary. Flash, for instance, adds significant cost to your website development, yet is considered annoying by many visitors and may reduce your search engine-friendliness.