This article has been excerpted from Open an Online Business in 10 Days, available from Entrepreneur Press.
What makes a good website? Before getting enmeshed in design details, get the big picture by writing a site outline. A well-thought-out site outline includes: content, structure, design, navigation and credibility.
An outline helps you get the most out of your e-commerce budget. You'll know whether you or someone in your company can do each piece or if you need outside help. That way, when you hire someone, it will be for only the parts of the job that you'll need to have outsourced. Lillian Vernon, who founded the well-known catalog company Lillian Vernon Corp. in 1951, designed her original website for a fraction of what her competitors spent. How? "It's a total misconception that you have to throw [big] dollars at an e-commerce solution," she says. "You have to be a very careful shopper among vendors."
A detailed outline to prospective web designers makes the process more efficient.
Content: The key to a successful site is content. Give site visitors a lot of interesting information, incentives to visit and buy, and ways to contact you. Once your site is up and running, continually update and add fresh content to keep people coming back for more.
Structure: Next, structure your site. Decide how many pages to have and how they'll be linked to each other. Choose graphics and icons that enhance the content. Pictures of adorable children of different ages, for example, might work well if you're selling children's clothes, with pictures of toys and books that site visitors can click on to jump to other pages within your site where they can buy these items. At this point, organize the content into a script.
Your script is the numbered pages that outline the site's content and how pages flow from one to the next. Page 1 is your home page, the very first page that site visitors will see when they type in your website address, or URL. Arrange all the icons depicting major content areas in the order you want them. Pages 2 through whatever correspond to each icon on your home page. Following our example of selling children's clothes, perhaps you'd start with the icon labeled "birth through one year" as page 2. Pages 3 through 12 might be all products and services pertaining to that age range. Page 13, then, would start with the icon from your home page labeled "one to three years."
Writing a script ensures your website is chock-full of great content that is well organized. Write well, give site visitors something worthwhile for their time spent with you, and include a lot of valuable information and regular opportunities to get more content. Whether you offer a free newsletter, a calendar of events, columns from experts or book reviews, content and its structure becomes the backbone of your website.
Design: With the content and structure in place, site design comes next. Whether you're using an outside designer or doing it yourself, concentrate on simplicity, readability and consistency. Before you start using HTML tags right and left, remember what you want to accomplish.
For example, if you have a pet products website, you recognize that many pet owners have both dogs and cats. You want them to be able to shop and order in the way that's most comfortable for them. Perhaps they want to get their pet food order out of the way first, then shop for toys and fashion accessories. Maybe they prefer to shop for their cats, then focus on shopping for their doggie goodies.
Cue them with graphics, colors and fonts that make sense to you. Should all cat-related text and icons contain blue, while dog items are red? Should all food text and graphics be green, toys red and accessories yellow? These subtle cues make all the difference in how visitors respond to your website. Keep surfing the internet to research what combinations of fonts, colors and graphics appeal to you, and incorporate pleasant and effective design elements into your site.
Navigation: Make it easy and enjoyable for visitors to browse the site. Use no more than two or three links to major areas, never leave visitors at a dead end, and don't make them back up three or four links to get from one content area to another. For example, if you have a website for convention planners, make it easy for visitors to link to city sites where they can find information about theaters, river cruises, museums and the like so convention attendees can check out recreational activities on their own.
Credibility: This is an issue that shouldn't be lost in the bells and whistles of establishing a website. Your site should reach out to every visitor, telling her why she should buy your product or your service. It should look very professional and give potential customers the same feeling of confidence that a phone call or face-to-face visit with you would. Remind the visitors that you don't exist only in cyberspace. Your company's full contact information--contact name, company name, street address, city, state, zip code, telephone, fax and e-mail address--should appear on your home page.
Melissa Campanelli is a leading expert in small business e-commerce. She is author of Open an Online Business in 10 Days and writes the monthly "Net Profits" column for Entrepreneur magazine, offering valuable advice to online small businesses.