From the September 1999 issue of Startups

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).

Sites To See

As you're designing and editing your way from sinning to winning, stop by these effective sites:

  • Onradio (http://www.onradio.com): Onradio was one of the first companies to integrate radio with the Internet. Java notwithstanding, Onradio's home page is very effective. The graphics and message are clean and to the point, and visitors can click around the site quickly. Although press releases are an option for those who want additional information, none of the media headlines are posted on the home page. Bios and background information are kept to a minimum.
  • Roland International (http://www.rolandintl.com), a company that provides professional speakers for events, demonstrates how rapidly a home page with photographs and a minor amount of animation can download. This site, too, lets users go where they want and find what they need. Overall, this home page projects a credible image while covering basic points in a small amount of space. Photographs on a home page, though, should be used only if they enhance your particular business, as they do here.
  • Spyzone (http://www.spyzone.com) sells surveillance cameras and other security products. This is an exciting, yet simple, design concept. For instance, a brief message appears in the middle circle as the cursor passes over the small squares surrounding it. Everything about this site is user-friendly. In addition to offering seven languages, it lets customers quickly order products, find what they need or be added to a mailing list.

Seek Guidance

These resources can help you create a better Web site:

  • INTERVU Inc. (http://www.intervu.net) provides a low-cost means of bringing recorded video and audio to your Web site. All major audio and video formats are available.
  • Onradio (http://www.onradio.com): Onradio is home to a variety of content providers that have developed assorted games, sweepstakes and contests that translate well from radio to the Web.
  • WebWrite (http://libweb.uncc.edu/ref-bus/vibehome.htm): WebWrite can help you design and manage Web sites. Free resources include CGI, Java and JavaScript tutorials.

Answered Prayers

By G. David Doran

Don't despair--these days, you don't have to be a Webhead to build and maintain an e-commerce site. A number of affordable, easy-to-use software packages let you build attractive online storefronts from the ground up or add e-commerce capability to existing Web sites.

All you need to bring your site online is an ISP that offers secure, real-time credit-card processing to host your site; a merchant account to hold the money you'll make; and a marketing strategy to bring in customers. Then look out, Amazon.com!

Capable of importing any graphic-file format, ecBuilder Pro will build a storefront featuring your company colors and logos. The software also automatically submits your site to as many as eight Internet search engines.

ecBuilder Pro / Multiactive Software Inc.

(800) 804-6299

http://www.ecbuilder.com

List price: $499

Equipped with a built-in search engine to help customers find products more quickly, Commerce Court Lite can showcase up to 500 products and automatically notify you of new orders via e-mail.

Commerce Court Lite / INEX

(888) 487-INEX

http://www.inex.com

List Price: $595

Shopping Cart Professional lets customers easily access the current status of their orders and supports multiple foreign languages.

Shopping Cart Professional

WebGenie Software LLC

+61 8 8226 7382

http://www.webgenie.com

List price: $495

HoTMetaL Application Server is a scalable e-commerce solution for advanced Web developers. Perfect for online software vendors, HoTMetaL supports HTTP file uploading so visitors can view files through their Web browsers.

HoTMetaL Application Server / SoftQuad Software

(800) 237-2777

http://www.softquad.com

List price: $495

JustAddCommerce adds a shopping cart system to sites built with Microsoft's FrontPage 98 and supports multiple currencies.

JustAddCommerce / Rich Media Technologies

(303) 221-3023

http://www.richmediatech.com

List price: $295

G. David Doran is a freelance writer. For reviews of other site-building programs, see "E-Ware".

Contact Source

INTERVU Inc.,pr@intervu.net, http://www.intervu.net

World Organization of Webmasters,wbc@worldwebmasters.org