From the July 2001 issue of Entrepreneur

Meta tags and alt tags and interfaces, oh my! There are a million things to think about when you set out to build your business's Web site. Below, we examine three critical elements you may be overlooking when it comes to what and who you're designing for: search engines, graphics-free surfers and usability. Relax: It's not hard to meet the standards surfers expect in those areas, and our tips will help keep your start-up site on the fast track.

Gotta Have It

  • Search engines: No, your Web site won't just magically appear in all the major search engines the day you launch. We spoke to Danny Sullivan, editor of the newsletter SearchEngineWatch.com, to get a few tips on how to optimize your Web site for getting ranked. His first piece of advice? Do some research. Understanding how search engines work is the first step toward getting in good with the rankings.

For those of you who want to get hip to search-engine-attracting tips and tricks, Sullivan says, "It's generally good to have pages with lots of HTML content on the different topics that you want to be found. Each page should have a unique HTML title that reflects the content of that page." Some of the Web's search engines pay particular attention to your meta tags, so always be sure to stock them with relevant terms.

"Many search engines make use of human-powered information, such as Yahoo!, LookSmart and the 'Open Directory Project'. How they list and rank you will often depend on the careful choice of the 25 or so words you use to describe your Web site," Sullivan continues. "Choose these carefully, and make use of 'express' submission programs whenever possible. While these cost money, they greatly speed up the process." You can find even more tips, tutorials and resources at www.searchenginewatch.com.

  • Stripped-down surfers: The proliferation of colorful graphics, banner ads and interactivity on the Net is generally seen as a positive technological advancement. But the more doodads that breed on sites, the slower the Web gets for the average surfer using a dial-up modem connection. Many surfers have turned to Guidescope, Internet Junkbuster, LeanWeb and Sitescooper-software applications designed to remove unwanted clutter from the Web. Customers using these programs may be dropping by your site with the visual aids and ads turned off. You can get a look at your Web site though the most user-friendly of the bunch, Guidescope, by downloading a trial version at its site.

There is, however, an even more basic method for speed surfing that doesn't require extra software. In both Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, a simple click in preferences can turn off the loading of graphics. While turning off graphics and cookies is a relatively rare trend right now, it does have consequences for how you will ultimately design your site.

The main way to ensure your site is still usable for the stripped-down surfer is to fill in the "alt" tag for all your images. Keep it concise and accurate, and your visitors will still be able to read a description of what's there. Turn off all the graphics in your own browser and visit your site. If you can get around and make sense of it, then you're in good shape.

  • Usability: There are no hard and fast rules for Web usability. No single approach will work for all sites. Before you can incorporate a usability philosophy, it helps to identify your site's purpose. We asked Keith Instone, operator of usability resource site Usable Web, to help us figure it out. "Do not make people think about how to use your site," he says. "Your Web site has to be really, really, really obvious to them. A usable site lets users navigate without making their brains hurt."

Thinking in terms of usability when it comes to Web site design really pays off in increased customer satisfaction. "Businesses can learn a lot from usability, especially when it comes to understanding how people view technology and how it can improve the way you serve customers' needs in the online world," Instone says. "There are a wide range of usability techniques that can help you figure out what features to add (or, more often, not add) to your site, how to organize your content so users don't have to think to find what they are looking for, and how to evaluate your site to see if users are having problems."

One way to find out whether you're on the right track is to conduct usability testing. At its most basic, usability testing involves a person using a Web site while another observes and takes notes. The observer is watching for how easily and how long it takes testers to accomplish tasks, as well as which areas confuse them and their reactions to using the site. This kind of testing helps you locate and patch any problem areas before your site goes live.

Just as you would design a store to make your products easily accessible, the same goes for your Web site. "Small businesses are already all about knowing your customers, often on a personal basis, and serving them well," says Instone. "If you put customers first, you will find yourself 'doing usability,' even though you might consider it just 'doing good business.'"