4 Common Website Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
4-common-website-mistakes-and-how-to-avoid-them.jpgAsk your target demographic what it thinks about your website's usability, programming and design, and you're bound to receive a variety of responses. These can range from "looks good to me," to "I didn't find what I was looking for," or "I think it sucks." Everyone has an opinion.

A more likely scenario is that you've never taken the time to ask your customers what they think about your website. And that's a shame. If you're like most start-ups or SMBs, you probably figure you know what's best -- or you hire someone who convinces you that they know what's best for your business. Sadly, you allow that faulty thinking process to guide the programming and design of your company's No. 1 or No. 2 marketing tool.

Over the years, I've asked thousands of people what they think about the websites, blogs, social networks and landing pages they visit, and one thing has been made abundantly clear. It's you -- the business owner or brand manager in charge of the company website -- that's, more often than not, out of touch with the reasons people visit your website. And, more often than not, you don't have a clue as to what they hope to accomplish as a result of having visited your website.

With those simple -- and I admit, highly opinionated -- thoughts in mind, here's a short list of common mistakes to avoid in website programming and design:

1. Self-Service: It's one thing to pump my own gas. But having to search through an endless database-driven online knowledge management system to find the answer to a common question is another. Whether it's to save money on live customer service or shield the company from a flurry of inbound phone calls, more businesses have chosen to make customer service self-service. From uber-FAQs to threaded online message boards and support forums, self-service is quite the trend. 

But if you ask your customers which they prefer -- speaking with a live person or finding answers online -- most will prefer having both options. Here's a possible solution: If the cost of live customer service and tech support is eating away at your bottom line, offer "premium service" for a set monthly fee. Just like extended warranties, lots of people buy them but hardly anyone ever takes full advantage of them!

2. Flash design: I know, I know, this has been beaten to death. Believe me when I say that I've been called a moron for taking such a hard stance against Flash-based website programming and design. But here's the deal: As I point out in Seven Reasons to Avoid Using Flash on Your Website, Flash programming and design not only costs more than traditional HTML or JavaScript, but not everyone has the bandwidth to handle the intended user experience. If a Flash-like feature is a required element of your website, consider using something like SlideDeck instead. SlideDeck is a relatively new product that gives website owners the ability to tell a powerful story in a clear and engaging way. It does that by breaking content up into customized bite-sized slides that provide strong calls to action and a clear path to learn more about whatever it is you choose to get across.

3. URL Structure: Search engines pay attention to content in different areas of your website, including the URL. Different search engines give different weight to keywords in URLs, with Bing being the one that currently appears to give it the most weight. So if your website pages have addresses like http://www.YourDomain.com/displaypage.aspx?intPageID=7629, change them! You want something that's more intuitive. For instance, if the purpose of a page is to share customer testimonials, use the word "testimonials" in the URL. That makes much more sense than characters that mean absolutely nothing to the search engines and the end user.

4. Wireframes: If what I'm about to describe hasn't happened to you, consider yourself lucky. For weeks -- maybe even months -- you've been focused on a new or redesigned website for your company. Finally, after making room on the design and engineering team's roadmap (or finding the funds to hire an independent website programming and design firm), you receive the first round of comps of the new website. Turns out it's nothing like what you imagined. But because of timing and budgetary pressures, you acquiesce and plow forward with a less than ideal concept or design. 

Do yourself, and your company, a big favor -- wireframe the site before presenting it to the design team. Buyer's remorse is common in website design. Developing a prototype of your site's look and feel before a single line of code is written just makes sense. (To learn more about wireframing and wireframing tools, read "Frame it Out" in the November 2010 issue of Entrepreneur magazine.)

Clearly, the list of common mistakes in website programming and design is deeper than the four items mentioned here. In fact, if you google top website design mistakes you'll find hundreds of lists. And don't forget to poll your target demographic about your website, take note of their honest opinions, and then ditch the ego and start making good on their more constructive comments.

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