So, what makes a great website?

When you boil it all down, the best websites are USABLE. To provide great site usability, you need to nail four things:

  • Original, informative, current content
  • Intelligent and intuitive structure
  • Flawless, easy to use functionality
  • Attractive yet simple design

A well organised site is the best way to ensure that its visitors end up with the information they need, or the goods they want to purchase (or both!). Decide what you want people to do on your site – identify the primary actions and focus on developing a structure that enables people to perform those actions easily.

Your site’s home page is key. Through clear and simple structure and navigation, it needs to show:

  • the purpose of your site
  • your site’s contents
  • how to get to those contents
  • (and if it’s an e-commerce site) how to make a purchase

Unless it’s relevant to your organisation, don’t gunk up your home page with a useless Flash intro that takes ages to load. And if you really feel you must, make it easy to skip! Look to the most popular sites on the internet and learn from them. Emulate their best features to avoid your audience having to think too much and adapt their usual web browsing behaviour.

Balance the amount of copy or page length with the number of levels in the site’s hierarchy. As a rule, the deeper a page is in the hierarchy, the longer the copy or content on that page can be, because users are hooked into your site. On a deep site that’s content heavy, leaving ‘breadcrumbs’ will ensure users always understand their location within a site.

People navigate a site in different ways. Some click on big buttons, others like to use the navigation. Yet others like links in the text. Providing multiple ways of easy navigation ensures that people find what they’re looking for. Whatever you end up doing, make sure it’s consistent across your site. Most people don’t read websites – they scan them. There are billions of pages out there and life is too short to read them all. Spend some time grouping the different types of content on your site so that the groups equate logically with the needs of the audience. Make that system of grouping relevant to the way your typical site visitor thinks. Try to develop a site structure that’s geared more to what the user is looking for, rather than to what it is you do.

Sophisticated design is a wonderful thing, but largely the web is about finding information and transacting. Your site’s design should complement those things, not overshadow them. Some of the web’s most successful sites (for example Craig’s List) have a face that only a mother could love! But people still use them because they work.

By all means, design something that appeals to the sensibilities of your target audience. But while you’re doing so, try to focus on developing a simple, clean design that complements your core content, highlights your site’s navigation, and doesn’t overwhelm your user. And make it readable! Sites that use a really small font, or white copy reversed out of dark backgrounds or even worse, dark copy on a dark background are just making it all too hard.

Design isn’t all about how the site looks, either. Something important to realise is that search engines don’t read pictures; they read words. This means that in order to improve your site’s ranking in search results, you can’t bury key search terms within pretty images – they need to be HTML text.

Lastly, understand that great web design isn’t just the domain of cashed up companies. There are literally tens of thousands of templates available on the web that can be adapted to your needs.

Of course you want a sexy looking site, but it’s your content that’s going to win the hearts and minds of people and get your site its repeat visitors. And how is great content best created? By placing your focus on your audience’s needs, rather than the thing you’re selling, and by allowing your audience to contribute.

Some examples of how you can create good content are:

  • Offering analysis and/or commentary on your subject area or business that’s objective
  • Inviting respected industry experts to contribute articles for your site
  • Providing a news feed on your industry or subject
  • Subscribing to a feed of syndicated content that’s relevant
  • Enabling your site’s users to contribute content through such things as discussion boards, blogs, wikis, photos and videos, audio and reviews.

Now, picture the furthest reaches of outer space and fill it with words and pictures. That’s around about how much information and products there are on the internet (please don’t ask for the stats to back that up). If they don’t know exactly which website to go to, the way that people get to that information or product is to search for it.

To achieve a decent ranking in search results, you need quality content. This is because the search engines have complex algorithms that determine a site’s relevance based on their interpretation of its content. All the pages in your site should be written so that they appeal both to your readers and the search engines. You need to include your keywords and phrases so that the engines’ robots detect the high relevance of your site to the keywords you’ve identified as important in your market. Be sure to check out our section on search engine marketing to find out more about this.

To keep the punters flocking to your site you need to refresh your site at regular intervals or as new topics arise. People need a reason to return to your site time and time again. You can get ideas for new content from trade publications, local media, or the Internet, but DON’T plagiarise. Search engines are smart enough to work that out!

Special offers make great new content too and give you a reason to contact people who have opted in to receive further contact from you. Be sure to check out our section on electronic direct mail to find out more about this.

Functionality comes from the Latin word functio meaning ‘to perform’. In information technology, it refers to what a given product, such as a website, software application or computing device, can actually do for a user.

To determine the most important requirements of a website’s functionality, simply ask yourself “What is the overriding purpose of this site?” The purpose describes the function the site must fulfil, and the quality of functionality is determined by how well it performs that function.
After consideration of the site’s purpose the functional aspects of the site must then answer two equally important considerations:

  1. What are the tools that will benefit your customers when using the site?
  2. What are the tools that will benefit you when managing your site and fulfilling the business that you do on that site?

Take for example a site that sells women’s fashion. From the customer perspective, the ease of selecting and buying a product can reduce the number of failed sales, and the recognition of returning customers can help to speed up repeat purchases. Features such as ‘customers who bought this product also bought….’ can increase sales volume or likelihood. Slick search and navigation will give people a greater chance of finding what they’re looking for. The ability to monitor the progress of your purchase and to easily sort out any problems or questions is also important.

As a site owner in the retail fashion example, tools which help you get the order right and get it packed and sent rapidly to the right address are key. A logical and accurate interface to your inventory system and a content management system that allows the site to be easily updated with new products and new information are also critical to the site’s success.

On the technical side, the real secret to interactive functionality is simplicity. Awkward log in processes, unintuitive purchase processes, technical complexities and unnecessary repetition should be avoided. Remember to make your customer’s needs the focal point of your site and you won’t go far wrong. When considering the addition of a new function to your website, ask yourself if it really adds to the site’s ability to fulfil its purpose. If the answer is not a loud and emphatic YES! Then you are probably better off without it.