Improve your company's web site


An open letter to all companies who want better results from their web site. Originally written as an email to one of my clients as a critique of their web site, I republish it here for your benefit.

The home page

The home page of your site is not working hard enough. I know this without even looking at it, because your home page can never work hard enough. It needs to draw people in to the rest of the site. The overwhelming majority of users only ever look at the home pages of web sites before losing interest and going elsewhere. You need to grab their interest quickly and get them to look at some more of your site.

Have a look at 37signals, the site of a web design company in Chicago. Notice how the first big box on the page provides answers to the questions new clients are likely to be asking, and provides descriptive, interesting links to some of their services. Your home page needs to do this too.

Think of the home page as the equivalent of the first phone call that a potential new client makes to you, or the first time they visit your shop or office. How do you sell yourselves in that situation? What are the things they most often want to know? The answers to those questions need to be prominent on your home page.

The home page should also give prominence to information about the company and your credentials. Beware of descending into marketing speak. Users detest that promotional writing style so beloved of your PR department, so your credibility will suffer as a result. Let people get straight to the facts.

Link to the areas of the site which are most likely to help you form a dialogue with potential new clients. If this was their first phone call to you, what information would you attempt to get from them? Apply the same principle here. You have a tiny window of opportunity to arouse interest and make a sale. Don't waste it.

Every page is the home page

You can't control the order in which people read your web site. Another site may link to any of your pages, in which case that page assumes the role of the home page because it's the first page a visitor sees. They should be able to figure out where they are from the contextual information on every page.

For an example of this, see the November 2004 index for my weblog. The right hand column provides context (“These entries form part of Stephen Wettone's weblog…”) and contains plenty of links to various other parts of the site. Having your logo on every page is a good start for helping people figure out where they are, but you can go much further.

Start a weblog

This is the part of the site where you go beyond being “just another company” and become a vastly superior source of opinion and knowledge to your competitors.

37signals, whose site you looked at earlier on in this letter, have a weblog called Signal Vs Noise. The content may not be of much interest to you, but its form certainly should be. It's a great example of how your weblog could (and should) end up. Allow me to point out a few of the really good things about it.

Every post has the author's name next to it. This gives it a personal touch and makes the reader feel a better connection to the author. They don't provide email links, which would be bad if it weren't possible to leave comments on each article, so that it's still possible to start some kind of dialogue.

They write well for the web. This means they use short paragraphs, punchy sentences and provide plenty of links. People rarely read web pages word by word; instead, they scan and jump around, looking for keywords. Clever use of links means those words are more likely to be read than others. Read Elusive Humidity II, but try reading just the linked text: you can get the gist of the article just from that. It's an extreme example, but it clearly demonstrates the power of emphasis.

Consider providing author's names with your articles. Who are the public faces of the company? Put your names to articles and your readers will form closer bonds with you. You may want to restrict it to only senior staff, but you know this better than me. Ask around inside the company to find out who would be good at writing articles.

When you write, use the inverted pyramid style. Provide a one-sentence summary of your point first and go into more depth the further along you go. Use short paragraphs with one idea in each, and keep your sentences short.

The credibility of your weblog, and that of your company, can be increased by good writing, and good use of links. Links show that you have done your homework and aren't afraid to let readers visit other sites.

Another good example is Alan Hansen's column on the BBC Sport web site. He knows his audience and makes his points succinctly, using short sentences and short paragraphs to increase the effect. There are no external links, but there is plenty of content on the BBC site itself so this doesn't matter so much.

Start a mailing list

You want readers to keep coming back. If you don't publish articles to your weblog often enough, so it won't ever become a daily habit. Which sites do you read most often? The ones that change most often.

A great way to keep people reading your site is to set up a mailing list. Every time you write a new weblog article, you can send out a synopsis of it to your mailing list and get people to come back and read the rest.

You need to take care of data protection, making it easy for people to opt out and ensuring that you don't use their email addresses for anything other than the mailing list, but used correctly it's a useful tool. It's another way of helping to build that relationship with them.

The sky's the limit

These are just a few ideas. There are many more, but they can be summed up easily. Stop using your web site as a brochure, and start using it to have conversations with your clients.

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About this page

This is an entry in Stephen Wettone's weblog, published on 19 November 2004.

Summary of this entry

An open letter to all companies who want better results from their web site. Originally written as an email to one of my clients as a critique of their web site, I republish it here for your benefit.

Other weblog entries

The most recent entry is Reducing SlimStat's database size, published on 20 April 2006.

The next entry after this is How not to pull a car out of the water, and the previous entry was Sotheby's auctioning world's largest bottle of wine.

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