The first step in optimizing your online presence is making sure you have a website worth optimizing. That means creating a site that your target visitors will be glad they found once they arrive, and will spend some time with because the site provides the information they need in an easy-to-find manner.
It’s like planning a large event or party in your home. If you had a noisy furnace, an unfinished bathroom, or paint peeling on your eaves, you’d want to take care of those issues before you send out invitations. Your website similarly has to be in great shape before you “invite” visitors to it through optimization.
Four key elements of designing an effective business website are:
- • Technology (Platform)
- • Graphic Design
- • Information Architecture
- • Content
The first decision is the technology, or platform, the site will be built on. The options are almost endless, from custom code, to a development environment such as Adobe DreamWeaver, to hosted content management systems (CMS) options, to free platforms like WordPress. Among the key considerations to keep in mind when selecting a platform are:
Capabilities—will the platform support the sophistication of your design? Do you need extra features, like a built-in CRM system, the ability to easily integrate with external systems, create secure areas of the site, or manage ecommerce transactions?
Usability—does the platform make it easy for non-technical users to add or update content? Is it easy to add new pages and even entire new sections to the site?
Search engine friendliness—does the platform or tool produce clean, W3C-vaild underlying code? Is it easy to add meta tags and customize page URLs? Most modern CMS systems are relatively search-friendly, but this is a critical component for optimization, so do some investigation to make sure the platform you select is strong in this area. One way to check is to run the URLs of some other sites built on the tool through a tool like Website Grader to see how well they score (though keep in mind that factors other than just code quality can affect these scores).
Scalability—will the platform chosen support the planned size and complexity of your website, as well as providing room for growth?
Mobility—though website visits from smart phones and tablets currently accounts for only seven percent of online traffic worldwide, that figure is expected to grow rapidly. Make sure your chosen platform can serve up an optimized experience on both desktop and mobile devices (and automatically detect the visitor’s device) without a separate mobile development effort.
Make this decision carefully as you will be essentially “stuck” with your chosen platform until you reach a point where you need to redesign your site—depending on your industry and growth rate, generally two to five years. Avoid obscure platforms that force you to rely on a single consultant or agency for support.
Though design considerations are often subjective, two key questions to ask when developing the overall look and feel of your website (fonts, colors, images and other design elements) are:
- • Does the design reflect the “personality” of our brand (e.g. bold, conservative, leading-edge, safe, sophisticated, intelligent, friendly)?
- • Will the design appeal to our target audience?
Special effects such as texture, transparency, typography and motion can enhance a design and provide a distinctive look—but these should be used carefully to enhance the user experience, not simply to “dress up” the site in ways that don’t help the user, or worse, that make the site seem complex and confusing.
Possibly the most critical element of website design, this is the “map” of your site: what information will be included, where, and how different areas of information be connected. And the single most important consideration in developing your information architecture is your audiences: your website shouldn’t be about what information you want to provide, but rather about what information your key audiences want and need in order to engage with you.
The primary audience for most business websites is sales prospects. To determine their needs, first identify them as precisely as possible by title, role, industry and other attributes. Then put yourself in their shoes: why are they looking for information? What are their burning issues? What information do they need when they come to your site—at different stages in their buying process? How can you help move them through that process, and convert them into identifiable leads?
Secondary audiences may include existing customers, prospective employment candidates, investors, analysts (industry or financial), partners, and the media. Most of these groups are likely to have some information needs in common with your sales prospects, as well as some unique needs. Make sure your site meets the information needs of these audiences without detracting from the prospective buyer experience.
The output of this stage of the design process is an information architecture map, which may look something like this:
This information architecture map also serves as a guide for scoping out the work required to create the new site; establishing priorities; collecting any required images or website assets; and assigning content to writers.
Content should be developed using two primary guides: the information architecture map (what to write), and keyword research (how to write it). Keyword research helps to identify the specific phrases your prospects most commonly use when searching for your types of products and/or services, as well to determine which terms have the best potential for optimization.
Knowing the keywords and topics, writers should be able to develop content that answers the five key questions every business website needs to address:
- • Who are you?
- • What do you sell?
- • Who do you sell to?
- • Why are you the best?
- • How do I buy from you?
Once you’ve designed and developed a site that uses a search-friendly platform, is designed and written with your key audiences in mind, and answers the questions and potential concerns of your sales prospects , you have a site truly worth optimizing as the core of your web presence.