Company Websites that Make the Grade
By Julie King | January 1, 2011
Design. Mobile compatibility. User experience. Search optimization. Social media. Measurement. Standards. Whew!
As the web matures, the corporate website has gotten a lot more complicated. If you want to be in the game, it is no longer enough to have a collection of nicely designed pages of "brochure-ware". Here are some key considerations the modern marketer needs to keep in mind.
Design and usability
As the web evolves, design and usability have become more important. Busy users now compare your website to the hundreds of others they visit and, if your website doesn't measure up, you can be assured that the impression your company projects will suffer.
This is increasingly important now that Google has introduced Instant Preview, which lets users get a glimpse of your page before clicking through to your site. Design counts and this includes not only the overall look of the site, but also how clear and well organized the site is when the user arrives.
So you've designed a great site, tested it twice, but wait! Your decision to build it to the full structure of your site using Flash means that iPhone users will only see a small blue square when they try to visit your website. Oops!
As mobile technologies like smartphones and tablets are adopted at a breakneck pace, it is no longer enough to build your website for the desktop PC environment. Going mobile adds complexity, but since that is how many of your prospective customers will access the web, having a mobile site will shift from being a "nice to have" to a necessity in the coming years.
Some development tools, like Adobe's Dreamweaver, are trying to make this easier by allowing content developers to manage the way a page looks on different screens from a single interface. Regardless of the tools you use, as you re-evaluate your web strategy you can' afford to overlook mobile devices.
Nope, that's not a typo. While usability was the buzzword of the earlier days of the web, going forward usability is now an expected minimum requirement while the user experience (UX) takes centre stage as a key differentiator.
UX is the entire experience, from start to finish, that someone has when interacting with your company and usually refers to the digital environment. It's all the tiny things that add up, from how the site looks, how clear instructions are, automated responses provided when someone interacts with the company in a digital environment and the tools that are provided to support users as they go through an interaction with your company. A recent experience I had purchasing a Sony laptop online illustrates a bad example of UX.
At first everything seemed fine with my laptop purchase, but when the delivery date came and went with no communication I decided to contact customer service. What a nightmare! I called the toll-free number, as instructed, only to be passed to a number in the U.S. After selecting the appropriate options, I was then told that I should call the Canadian number that I had dialled in the first place ... and was hung up on!
Things only got worse from there. Three additional delivery date promises were broken and I eventually had to pay $120 more to upgrade to a newer model (with Sony absorbing $400 of the upgrade cost) to avoid waiting another month. When I finally got my laptop - two days short of two months later - my impression of the user experience at Sony was extremely negative.
Search optimization continues to be important, but some of the factors that influence where your site ranks are changing. In addition to factors like the words on your page and the number of quality, inbound links your website has, Google is now taking other factors, like your page load time, into account. Another wrinkle to consider is that YouTube is now the second most popular search engine! If your company has no presence in the world of video search, you may be losing out on important traffic.
Twitter, Facebook, Linked In and other social media websites are creating great excitement amongst innovators and early adopters - people who tend to embrace technological change - but for those in the mainstream who prefer a "wait-and-see" approach, the rapid emergence of social media is a conundrum.
With over 500 million active users on Facebook alone, you simply cannot afford to ignore social media. At the same time, it is important to take a strategic approach and develop a plan of action, as social media marketing can consume a lot of time with little return.
There are two facets to social media. The first is the way you and your staff interact using sites like Twitter and Facebook. The second is the way you allow interaction on your company pages, from having "Tweet This," "Like" and "Feedback" buttons on your corporate website to building a company page on Facebook and possibly linking those interactions onto your company site.
One confusing aspect of social media is the number of "instant experts" ready to guide you. With a bit of research, you should be able to get a decent understanding of the ins and outs of social media.
The real challenge lies in deciding if and how you will dedicate resources to this new medium. As social media is very time consuming, some companies are now hiring dedicated staff, often called "Community Managers", to handle all aspects of online communication including email newsletters, notices and social media messaging. Regardless of how deeply you decide to go, social media is something you won't want to ignore.
As the corporate web presence has become more sophisticated, so have the tools to measure the results. Analyzing and adapting your tactics is a key part to managing a successful corporate website.
Design Performance Measurement
Another emerging aspect of measurement is Design Performance Measurement (DPM). Often referred to as "A/B testing", it allows you to measure which versions of a design and/or individual design elements do a better job of creating the result you want.
The idea behind DPM is that by testing your designs you will be able to optimize them to increase conversions and make more money. For example, you might be unsure about whether to use "Free Trial" or "Sign-up Now!" on a button that promotes a free trial. With design performance testing, you would create both options (the method will vary depending on the software you use) and then test the performance of each instance of the button to see which version generates more clicks.
There are a number of tools you can use to do design performance testing.
Google Website Optimizer is a free tool that lets you test and compare two versions of the same webpage. Optimize and Visual Website Optimizer have more features, but charge a monthly fee. There are a number of open source options as well, such as Gentrify, which requires programming.
An ongoing debate in web development has long been how close you can get to the cutting edge without getting hurt.
Standards are constantly evolving, with new technologies like HTML5 and CSS3 creating exciting new possibilities. Unfortunately, many users are slow to catch up with the web technologies needed for these new options to work.
Using emerging standards like CSS3 can greatly enhance the look of a website while minimizing the load time of a page and also can be structured so that a webpage looks great on both a desktop and mobile device. However, be careful about using less commonly used coding techniques, regardless of the "buzz" they might be receiving.
Working as much as possible using accepted web standards will help ensure that your website continues to display properly as the web evolves. And if one thing is certain, it is that the web will see many further changes in the years to come.