Saturday, 12 May 2012

What Makes a Good Website?

There's a lot of advice 'out there' about how to write good copy for a website. Top gurus offer us the benefit of their experience, telling us, for example:
  • Copy has to grab your attention in the first few words and hold that attention through to the point where you want to get your credit card out and order.  (Andrew Reynolds)
  • If your sales page headline is not understood by a 12 year old, your headline sucks. (Jo Han Mok)
  • People love secrets . . . share insider knowledge and translate it into a benefit for the reader. (Matt Bacak)
  • The primary purpose of your sales copy has to be to understand, to empathize, and to emotionally connect. (Shaune Clarke)
  • Before you can begin to know the real keywords that will bring you visitors who will convert to prospects, you must find out what they want. (Derek Gehl)
and so on.  There's loads of stuff telling you how to write copy and how to write headlines but there seems to be very little about the look of the website itself.  And, in my opionion, if your website is ugly then people won't stay to read your copy, no matter how good it is.

If you look at some of the top websites - such as Amazon, eBay, Google, Wikidpedia, Tumblr - it's easy to see what they have in common.  They're simple and they're readable.  They don't have flashing ads or garish colours or twenty different fonts.  I was told, some long time ago, that the only fonts that are reliable online (in other words those that you can be sure will show up as you want them to) are Arial, Times New Roman, Verdana and Tahoma.  Now, I don't know if that's still true, but I tend to stick to those fonts for my websites.  Because four is plenty.  In fact, four is too many.  You can get enough variety using just one or two fonts, with occasional use of bold or italic if necessary. 

One of the reasons why the sites I mentioned above are easily readable is because of the colours used - black type on a white background.  Now, it may be because the human race, since the advent of the printed word, has become used to reading black script on white, but there is no doubt that this is the colour scheme that most of us find easiest to read.  I went to a seminar some years ago and the only thing I remember about it is an experiment that we did on reading different colours.  The tutor had brought a large number of printed sheets, each of which was covered with a coloured transparent sheet of celluloid.  And the participants were asked to say which sheet they found it easiest to read.  Some people chose those covered by different shades of pink or red celluloid, others chose green, or blue or yellow or mauve or brown.  I don't think any two people chose the same colour.  So, if we give our website a light blue background and use dark blue type, yes there may be some people who find that easier to read than black on white - but the chances are that there will be others who find it more difficult.

Then, of course, there are those websites that decide to use yellow type on blue, or orange type on turquoise or other bright combinations that I defy anyone to read easily.  Have you ever found that the only way to read the text on a particular website is to select it and thus change its colour?  I have - on several occasions.

And it's not just the 'amateur' websites that get it wrong.  There are some out there that have clearly been professionally designed and you wonder how they got away with it.  Some months ago I bought a new computer and one of the sites I looked at was a nightmare to use.  (I'm not saying which site it was because I've looked at it again this week and they've changed it.)  Firstly, everything was on a black background.  Since the computers themselves were black, even the photos added to the gloom.  The text was white, and the whole site had a dead feeling to it.  What made it even worse was the navigation.  The visitor was advised to click on a picture to get more information about each computer.  The first few times I did this, I thought it wasn't working.  Then I realised that the information was coming up at the bottom of the page and I needed to scroll down to find it.  I made a note of a couple of models that I was interested in but, coming back the next day, couldn't find them using the search box.  I eventually tracked them down by going into the 'desktop' section and drilling down . . . but what a palaver!

The company asked for feedback after I bought my computer.  I told them that, yes, I would buy that make again . . . but I'd do so through Amazon or another outlet, rather than return to their website.  Interesting that the website has now been changed for the better - I wonder how many other people made the same comments that I did.

So, for me, a good website must be clear and easy to read, and easy to navigate through.  And it must provide the information that people want.  I remember some years ago Phil Gosling talking about a particular website he'd gone to.  This website was selling what he was looking for, but he needed to ask a question before ordering.  However, he couldn't see a way to contact the suppliers.  So in the end he gave up and bought on another website whose helpdesk link was clearly displayed. 

Sometimes the problem is not that there isn't enough information but that there's too much.  I belong to a certain professional organisation which has a website that is almost impossible to navigate.  I've found that, quite often, the only way to find what I want is to go to the site map and work from there.  Links to different areas aren't clearly delineated on the site and some of the headings are ambiguous.  I've always been able to find the information I want - eventually - but I do wish it was better signposted.

Nowadays, we're constantly being told to 'monetize' our sites.  Adsense has become ubiquitous.  Blogs and information sites are plastered with advertisements.  But do they work or are they counterproductive.  Perhaps the most important thing, if you're going to have clickable ads on your website, is to ensure that the site they're linked to opens in a new tab.  Otherwise, every time someone clicks on an ad, they'll be taken away from your site and they may well not come back.  Another thing to think about is how many ads you want.  I don't know about you, but I find it distracting to see loads of ads surrounding a piece of text.  I start wondering about the motives of the website owners - are they really trying to offer good information or are they more interested in selling me stuff?

Interestingly, Armand Morin will tell you that there are some shapes and sizes of banners that don't work because we're just so used to seeing them that our minds shut them out.  He always advises against using a long horizontal banner across the top of the page.  I don't know whether it's the same for adsense - whether adsense 'boxes' further down the page will sell better than the strip of three ads across the top of the page - but it's possible.

So there's a lot to think about and a lot to do when setting up a website.  And sometimes - if it's a fairly simple site - I think it's better to design it yourself rather than pay a fortune to a web designer.  Nowadays it's easy enough, using Wordpress or some website design software such as SiteSpinner.  But, whatever you do and however you do it, it's important to remember something that was said by one of my favourite gurus, Armand Morin: "You don’t have to get it right first time.  Just put something up and then improve it."  Keep an eye on your visitor stats and your sales and you'll soon know what's working and what's not.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, your right it better to design it yourself, and I designed my website with sitespinner. What else would you recommend building your website with? Sitespinner is easy to use, but there are a couple things I don't like about it. For instance when you upload a picture, you have to resize it in the editor, or it wont show up for some reason. Another thing is the pictures get renamed to names like, "obj94geo92pg4p5" that's not good for seo in search engines, although im not really sure how that works, or even if it affects your picture searches.