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Thou Shalt Not. . .

You may not always obey the Ten Commandments, but you'd better follow these 3 cardinal laws of Web site design.

In business today, image is everything. It not only sets your company apart from others, but also creates trust and establishes your brand. A Web site is no exception. Creating a poorly designed one is like using an inkjet printer to print out your company brochure. So if your site's traffic has recently slowed to a crawl, perhaps the problem is as basic as forgetting why you have a Web site in the first place.

"[Different goals] can result in very different Web site designs," says Chuck Norris, manager of network development at INTERVU Inc., a streaming video/audio company in San Diego. For every great Web site, there are thousands more that bomb at the starting gate. "Righting" the wave is easy and can make the difference between profit or loss. If you fear your Web site might be missing the mark, maybe it's because you're breaking one of the three commandments of Web site design.

Commandment Number 1: Thou shalt not bury or eliminate telephone numbers and a snail-mail address.

Results: Users get frustrated and click elsewhere, much to the joy of your competitors. Despite the recent Net rumor that posting conventional contact information is "out," making it difficult for prospects to contact you is self-defeating. No one would ever take out a full-page ad in the newspaper and then bury contact numbers somewhere on the bottom of the page in tiny type or, worse yet, deliberately exclude contact numbers altogether.

Solution: Bill Cullifer, founder and president of the World Organization of Webmasters (WOW), a nonprofit trade association, suggests, "Whether you want people to contact you via [a toll-free] number, voice mail only, a P.O. Box or a street address, make it easy for them. Be consistent and put [the contact information] on every Web page." One way is to post contact numbers at the bottom of every page along with your copyright notice; another is to use a clickable button, such as "contact us."

Commandment Number 2: Thou shalt not add too much Java, graphic elements or content that's meaningless to users.

Results: Overdosing on Java can cause slow downloads, making users lose interest and go elsewhere. If users do wait out the download only to find text that doesn't provide what they need, they'll leave anyway. Paul Chamberlain, manager of online marketing at INTERVU, points out, "Too much of anything on a Web site weighs down the user's experience. It's content that sets sites apart."

Cullifer agrees: "Simple is better. If you understand your audience, you should understand their hardware. So if you're marketing to high-tech companies, you can bet they have high-end hardware and fast Internet connections. It all depends on your market. If users can't download a billboard in a nanosecond, you need to rethink your site."

Solution: It shouldn't be hard to find a 486 computer with a 28.8 Kbps modem or slower. Use it to test your site for download speed. Be objective. If just waiting for your home page to load makes you G-r-r-r-r, it's time to get professional assistance for your site. Think about using animation to lighten the load, though not to the exclusion of Java.

Also, have a few trusted associates critique the site's text. Find professionals who have an interest in your success. Ask your banker, accountant, a few suppliers and customers; better yet, a reputable editor. Print the main sections and ask them to highlight what they think is superfluous.

The results can be surprising, mostly because nearly everyone has a tendency to "oversell" or provide too much information. We think the more a potential customer knows, the more likely he or she will buy our products. In reality, though, information overload has the opposite effect: Instead of leading to a sale, it leads to an exit. Look at it this way: Who wants to get eyestrain reading the fine print about a product?

Commandment Number 3: Thou shalt not create in-your-face ego sites that scream "Me, me, me!"

Results: Users can't find any real benefits and leave the site. Remember, exit signs equal flat sales. Your company's media releases should take a back seat on the site. Lengthy screens full of company information and bios won't sell products.

Solution: Ask yourself what attracts you to a site or a retail store. Human nature doesn't change just because the experience is virtual. Customers are attracted to a product because they like it and it fills a need. The stronger these emotions become, the more a customer moves toward buying the product. It's at this point they might need or want more detailed information--might being the key word. The choice should be up to the consumer. Offering too much data before this point can easily kill the sale.

Write short paragraphs that focus on customer benefits. For example, the fact that "Big Deal" company is your customer isn't as important as the fact that you increased Big Deal's sales by 30 percent in six months . . . and maybe could do the same for this user.

When developing site content, Norris advises focusing on the message and taking advantage of the Web's immediacy. "Unlike more traditional advertising media [like TV and print ads], where customers are passively exposed to your product, everyone visiting your Web site wants to be there. They came looking for you," he says. "Make sure they have everything at their fingertips necessary for completing the sale. Keep the message tight and think like an advertising copywriter. Squeeze it and distill it down to the essence of the message."


Lynn Manning Ross (http://www.lmanning-ross.com) is an executive coach and new-media consultant with a 20-year background in strategic planning. She is the author of Businessplan.com: How To Write A Web-Woven Strategic Business Plan (The Oasis Press, $19.95, 800-228-2275).

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This article was originally published in the September 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Thou Shalt Not. . ..

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