What's Your Goal?
Building a website, as with anything in digital marketing, requires the reconciliation of three imperatives; engineering human behaviour, mastering computer science and most importantly planning your goal. It’s impossible to come up with the best content and the best design unless you are clear about what you want it to do.
On the other hand you might not be a plumber, you might have a different goal, and your site need not need to show a telephone number at all. Building a great website is not just a matter of contents, you can choose to do different things with them. So it’s worth deciding the purpose of your website in the first place.
For a business website it’s probably best to start by thinking along the lines of a “sales funnel”. Start off by thinking of the “general public” and their mental journey from not knowing that you exist to the moment they happily give you some money in exchange for something which you’ve provided.
The plumber attracting people with emergencies is an extreme example, he needs to be highly findable, easily contactable and lightning quick in his response. What if the plumber wanted to attract customers who wanted a complete new central heating system? He still needs to be findable, but the customer’s emotion is completely different. Imagine giving a complete stranger a huge amount of money to come into your house to bash, drill and disturb every room, every cupboard, every private corner.
The website would now need to reassure potential customers who might have a range of concerns. So for this situation accreditations, testimonials and frequently asked questions might get some attention before any thought of contact details.
Also it might be worth making sure your customers have a route to leave feedback once they’re satisfied. Prospective customers pay great attention to the social proof from previous satisfied customers.
The start of your plan should answer the question; How do people find my website? As the digital world evolves this question becomes increasingly complex.
Most obviously there are the “natural” search results from Google. The problem here is that some searches are highly competitive making it difficult to get Google to show your website as the top result consistently whilst most searchers only pay attention to the top five results.
Optimising your website for search engine’s is a huge topic. You're better off taking advice from someone who constantly studies the subject than you are going down a never ending rabbit hole in learning about it.
You could pay for Google Ads to give you a prime spot on a pay per click basis. This can be highly effective for some businesses but it works on a competitive bid system so the cost of the advertising can be prohibitive for competitive search terms.
Before going down this road it’s worth thinking carefully about limiting your ad spend and maximising the return on your investment. Also bear in mind that some people deliberately scroll past ads to the natural listings assuming that companies which advertise will need to charge more for their services.
Google "My Business"
At the top of Google’s search results are their “Local Business” or “My Business” listings. It costs nothing to ask Google to list you so this is a no brainer. These results are a relatively new innovation and are still evolving, so it’s fiendishly difficult to figure out the best approach for them.
Originally there was Google Plus, which held the ambition of becoming a social media platform like Facebook. This didn’t take off so Google mostly ended it but retained the Business listings, so Google Business listings still have a social media aspect. Also these listings are linked with Google Maps and are highly location dependent.
At one time these listings seemed to be focused on finding the nearest coffee shop on foot. More recently they accommodate “service area” businesses which provide a service to customers at their home and don’t have a customer reception as a shop would. There’s plenty written about “GMB” listings and their optimisation but be aware that as they evolve some advice goes out of date quickly.
Social media is a great way to get traffic to your website. It’s different to a search engine because people have a different frame of mind when they're looking at it. Customers have a very clear intent when they search for a business on a search engine. They’re thinking more casually on social media.
A great way this works is when customers network. When someone asks “can anyone recommend a …..” and a friend of theirs mentions your business. That’s just gold! Also it’s possible to advertise on social media very cheaply and to a very specific target audience.
There’s a marketing maxim which was established in the 1930’s, “a customer needs to touch your brand 7 times before making a purchase”. Clearly this varies dramatically depending on the product. Also it’s believed that things are different in the digital age and more “touches” are required now. In any case social media is a great way to get your brand in front of targeted customers.
At the planning stage you, with your website designer, should have already decided what your customer might be thinking whilst searching for you. Also what different sections you want to include with an idea about headings and word counts.
Someone with a burst pipe might go to a search engine and type in “plumber [myTown]” or “plumber near me”. Someone who needed a new central heating system might type in “heating engineer” or “central heating quotes”. It’s possible to research the most popular search terms and it’s worth doing this because some of the results might surprise you.
So your text becomes easier to write if you have some words to include from popular search terms. You could ask a professional to write your text after you’ve told them all about your business, or you could save money and do it yourself. Make sure the grammar & spelling are correct.
Website visitors vary. Some will pour over every word, think about every aspect and notice every tiny grammatical error. Others will glance over the general feel of your site and decide whether to take action or move on. Google will take great value from your text. It can tell much more about your site from words than it can from pictures.
Make it Readable
Old fashioned thinking (in web design terms) suggests that you should stuff your text full of words which suit search engines. Google has some of the cleverest people in the world working out how to give the best experience for the user. Make your text as readable as you can so that people will read it. Modern search engines will tell the difference between great text and keyword stuffed text.
Lots of people are too lazy to read huge blocks of text so it’s a good idea to limit paragraph length. Also some sub-headings so people can navigate to areas which interest them most. The psychologists say that ultimately people are interested in looking after themselves. So it’s worth writing about what they can get rather than how wonderful and shiny you are!
Most commonly websites use “stock” pictures which are available from many sources. These have the advantage of being aesthetically pleasing and are often staged to illustrate a concept or idea. They can be inexpensive but the best ones tend to be repeated time and time again around the internet.
Personally I love websites with top quality photographs which are unique to the business owner. These websites stand out because the pictures can be expensive (in terms of time and money) to get so plenty don’t bother. This is just a huge opportunity to show the public what you’re about, what you do & what you produce.
Either you pay a professional photographer or you’re lucky enough to have someone who’s skilled and talented in house. A good photographer not only knows how to “compose” a picture but also the best moment to click the shutter. Great photographs not only tell a thousand words about your business but also keep your website looking unique.
If you do have great photographs there’s another step, they have to be optimized for websites, mainly it’s vital that the file size is correct. LOADING SPEED MATTERS, you can’t see the difference between a megapixel image and an optimised image on a website so pay attention to this. If you’re not technically minded your web designer could do it for you. Alternatively it’s not terribly difficult to learn so you could save yourself money, especially if you have a website with lots of pictures.
Sketches & Illustrations
There’s an increasing trend towards sketches or “cartoon” like images. There’s no shortage of tools to create these and they allow you to quickly get your ideas across visually. A huge opportunity to inject character and personality into your website. Also it’s quite possible to make animations work without compromising file size too much.
As with all forms of content the challenge is to create something which is distinctive and memorable. The danger is that your graphic looks a bit like everyone else’s. If too many people use these design tools without imagination the results will end up looking look like another trend gone wrong.
Depending on your business and what idea you’re trying to get across infographics are a great idea. A colourful visualisation of information or data can provide great value to your website visitors. Boring or complex things can be made eye catching, engaging and easy to understand with infographics.
People take in visual information quickly so they like to be informed or educated this way. You might want to answer a commonly asked question, solve a problem or display options. This can definitely take some design time but can produce great looking results without compromising loading speed.
4. User Experience
So a potential customer decides to go to your website, at this stage the last thing you want him to do is BOUNCE! According to research done by Google in 2018, 53% of people who have to wait longer than 3 seconds for a website to load will click away. This is a huge deal, if you only take one thing from this whole article it is “LOADING SPEED MATTERS”.
Loading Speed Having a fast loading website is more important than having a snazzy one with all sorts of clever features. Also half of all web traffic these days is to a mobile device so plenty of people are loading your website via a slow connection.
It’s amazing how many “website designers” have their own website which loads slowly! The obsession with code heavy special features is one reason for this. Another reason must be failure to deal with boring back end technical issues. The customer can’t see them obviously and also all together they represent some work and effort to get right.
People still click away from websites which load quickly. Not only that but Google measures this and will reduce the search ranking positions of sites which have a high bounce rate. People click away from websites when they fail to get what they’re looking for.
It’s worth paying attention to the mobile responsive aspect to your website. What do you do when you see some tiny tiny text and a mass of buttons too close to choose between after you’ve clicked on your phone? You just click back and go to a different site.
It does take some design time to get mobile responsive websites right. However there’s no reason to omit this these days. Modern best practices have emerged for responsive sites and smartphones have retina (high resolution) screens making responsive web design technically achievable.
Fast loading and mobile responsiveness are just the foundations of user experience. In 2020 this is one of Google’s biggest areas of interest. It's an amazing confluence of psychology, graphic design and computer science. The result are websites which work reliably, look great and get you results without having to think too hard.
One of the most common differences between “amateur” websites and their professionally built counterpart’s is their design. Sometimes a site looks both 2 dimensional and also awkward but it’s not easy to see why - unless you have a trained eye.
It turns out that graphic designers are well paid for a reason! Skilfully placed shadows, studious attention to spacing, uniform font sizes and border radii are just the beginning. Choosing a complete colour palette is also vital and a topic all on it’s own. Different colours exude different moods and convey different messages to your subconscious.
The psychologists say that our mental focus is finite. So our website shouldn’t be crowded with unnecessary stimuli. Less is more when it comes to buttons & options on the page. They say that it’s very important to establish a visual hierarchy of elements so the user isn’t confused about what to look at first.
By this time you should have thought very carefully about what you want to achieve. Who do you want to attract, how to garner their interest and arouse their desire. What action do you want them to take?
You should have an idea of your best method of getting people to your website in the first place. Once there they should see something useful to them. They shouldn’t see something which makes them click away.
Bearing in mind your objectives you should have researched the psychology behind providing the best user experience. Also you should have put together all the text and imagery which you require.
There are various different methods and a galaxy of tools available to help you implement your design. These days almost no one builds a website by writing code alone. People who write code will be in a team who have different members handling strategy, search engine optimisation, user experience, content and analytics.
Drag and drop site builder tools were the first to emerge as important forces in web design and they’re great for simple business “brochure” type sites . Adobe Dreamweaver dates back to 1997 and represents one of the most important examples of this type of tool.
For journalistic types who wanted to publish their “Web Log” a content management system (CMS) was required. This allows the “user” to publish content on a pre-designed page or “theme”. Today there are loads of CMS’s available, notably WordPress is used for 60 Million websites and it’s the most popular CMS by far.
Publishing your website on a CMS using a carefully chosen theme is a great option even if you don’t need to continually add blog content. Many “website designers” will do this for you and provide quick results at a low cost. The disadvantage is that your design is limited to the theme without many variations.
Site builder tools which work inside a CMS solve this. The different design possibilities of a drag and drop site builder inside a content management system is a powerful combination. The various examples of this have been very successful especially since most people got high speed broadband.
Then we all got smartphones. Making websites mobile responsive adds another layer of complexity to web design, also many people click on websites from slow connections. It turns out that some site builder tools produce loads of inefficient code as a compromise in making websites which are easy to build but also have snazzy features.
So websites created with loads of unnecessary code take ages to load on mobile phones and people click away. Also Google has implemented “mobile first” indexing, if it decides that your site gives a poor user experience to mobile you’ll have trouble ranking in the search results.
It doesn’t matter if you build your own website or if you employ a “website designer” the tools which are used matter. Do some research before investing a whole load of effort on any particular one.
A website is a group of files on a computer which is connected to the internet and called a server. More or less no one has their website on their own server in their basement. A hosting company will have secure internet connections, uninterruptible power supplies and automatic file backup systems.
Not all hosting is equal, there’s extreme price competition in this business. Some hosting comes with excellent technical support, some leaves you to the technicalities yourself. Servers can be configured in different ways, to oversimplify this you have a tradeoff between cost and loading speed.
Local or Intenational Visitors?
Also there’s location. Do the visitors of your website mainly come from one country or are they international. If your visitors are mainly local it’s worth making sure that your server is at least on the same continent. If you have high traffic and your visitors are from all over the world you need to consider a content delivery network service which will host your site on multiple servers.
One of my biggest mistakes has been to try and build a big, multi page website and try to get it all perfect before publishing. A better strategy is to build a few pages and have an ongoing campaign of adding pages. This way you’ve got results quickly with less invested. Also if it turns out that something just doesn’t work aesthetically it’s easier to change.
Building takes mental effort and it’s easier if you’ve got all of your ingredients ready first. If you’ve skipped planning, strategy for traffic, user experience, content or tools you’ll stumble over them as you build. Then several aspects will suffer at once. Just the same as cooking, get the ingredients ready before you start.
Testing & Analytics
Some testing is best done as you build. Different devices and different browsers will render your website differently. It’s worth checking this as you go. Also it’s important to make sure that everything works:- links, contact forms, checkouts.
Check loading speed. Depending on your hosting and the tools which you’ve used there will be some work to do here. Speed can be improved by improving “cache settings” and by minifying or combining files. Needless to say this “back end” stuff can be technical, tedious and boring.
Don’t forget Google search console. This is a free tool which will give you great insights into the traffic which your site receives. Also there’s Google tag manager, which can be used to give you a much more precise analysis of your online presence and how traffic moves around it.