The Company Website Crash Course

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For a small to medium sized business, initiating a Website can be one of the toughest jobs you’ll face.

This collection of how-tos is designed to provide basic knowledge in site structure, content organization, the selection of keywords, and writing page descriptions. Used as a basis for further learning, it’ll help you establish a strong foundation for your company’s Website.

How To Structure Your Website

Unsure of how to structure your information and visualize what their Websites should contain? For most small to medium-sized businesses, there are two types of content sections you’ll need to think about.

  • Common sections: those elements you see on most commercial Websites.
  • Company-specific sections: those sections that are unique to your business. They may be sub-sections of the above.

Common Sections

These will contain general information about your company. It will be up to you to decide which sub-elements should be included, of course, but consider:

About us
You’ll see this on almost every commercial Website, both large and small. People like to know who they’re doing business with, and this is your opportunity to tell them. Your information might fit on a single page, or stretch to several. Elements you might include are:

  • Who we are
  • Company history
  • Company profile
  • Mission statement
  • Contact us

Contact Us
It may seem obvious, but many sites either don’t provide adequate contact information, or they forget it entirely! You should include as many different ways for customers to contact you as possible. Common elements for a ‘Contact Us’ page are:

  • telephone and fax numbers
  • email addresses
  • email forms
  • physical address
  • a ‘We Are Here’ map
  • emergency contact details

Products and Services
Most companies will want to include information about their products or services on the index page (the front or home page), but it’s important to also dedicate a separate section of your site to your products. This will help your customers find your products and services easily, and allow them to research and assess your offering quickly.

Company-Specific Sections

The best way to go about creating company specific sections for your site is to follow the same general structure as above, creating logical subsections for each section.

The first page of a subsection should contain general information on the subject, as well as links to more detailed information if your visitor requires it. For example, a second hand car site may have an accident and repair section that contains the following sub-sections:

  • Paintwork repairs
  • Body repairs
  • Insurance assessments
  • Accident and Repair FAQs

Take a logical approach to the organization of your site, group related material, and always offer general information first, followed by optional, more detailed information for your users.

How To Design Intuitive Navigation

Bad navigational systems kill Websites. This information will help you avoid some of the more common navigational mistakes made by many small to medium sized businesses.

What causes bad navigation?

Many small business Websites actually do more harm than good. When a user comes away from your Website feeling frustrated, it reflects directly on your business. Bad navigational style is the number one cause of such online aggravation, and it typically has two key effects upon your site’s visitors:

  • They leave before having explored all the information you offer that’s relevant to them
  • They get frustrated while trying to explore the site, and simply leave

The first problem has a whole variety of common causes including Flash intros, Splash pages and misleading information. This is most definitely a topic worthy of discussion, but if I start down that path, I may never come back!

The second problem is an all-too-common occurrence on small to medium-sized company Websites, particularly those of the ‘home grown’ variety. There’s usually not a single cause, but rather a combination of common mistakes and pitfalls, to which user frustration can be attributed. The result, inevitably, is a well-intentioned Website that unfortunately turns out to be a miserable experience for all concerned.

Bad navigation can be caused by:

  • Overly complicated or gimmicky menu systems
  • Inconsistent or unusual placement or style of links
  • The user not being able to find the links at all
  • Inconsistent page design or layout
  • Unclear or misleading link text
  • Graphics-only links

Notice that inconsistency is a common theme here.

So what makes good navigation?

Ever heard the phrase "dare to be different"? Well, as far as designing Website navigation is concerned: forget it. Daring to be different with your navigation can cause the death of your Website just as quickly as can sub-standard content or 5 minute Flash introductions.

The key to intuitive navigation is consistency. Take a look at any large commercial Website and you’ll find very similar elements in very similar places. Why? Because that’s what users expect. Here are a few guidelines to bear in mind when considering your site’s navigation:

1. Place major section/category links horizontally, near the top of every page.
Most sites will place these links beneath the logo in the top left corner. If this doesn’t immediately make sense, think about how you read a page of text: from top left to bottom right. Right? Also, limit your major catagories to a maximum of about eight. Give them too many choices, and your users won’t make a choice at all.

2. Put section-specific links in a clearly marked column along the left-hand edge.
Again, this is where users will expect to find such links. Remember, the easier your site is to use, the better the user experience, and the better the impression they’ll have of your site. This doesn’t mean you should throw style out the window of course, but, like many things in life, it’s a matter of balance and priority.

An example of section-specific links for the obligatory About Us section might look like this:

  • About Us
  • Who We Are
  • Company Profile
  • Mission Statement

3. Use contextual links in your body text.
Wherever appropriate, use contextual links to lead your users to related information. And don’t be afraid to link to outside content: contextual links to outside sources add value to your own information, and well chosen links lend validity to your authority on a given subject.

If your information is of interest to your visitor he’ll come back, and if he doesn’t, then you never had him anyway.

4. Provide a search box for your visitors.
All users are different, and some will undoubtably prefer to find the information they seek via a search box rather than your neatly placed, intuitive text links.

A search box is an essential feature of any Website, and it’s extremely easy to set up. You can find an excellent third party solution here.

5. Use text links wherever possible.
Not all the visitors to your site will be human (cue ominous music). Many will be search engine robots. Search engines and graphical links don’t mix well, so if you can’t avoid using graphical links, then provide text alternatives at the bottom of the page.

6. Provide a site map.
Sounds kind of obvious, huh? However, most small to medium sized sites don’t offer a site map, and this is a crying shame. They’re very easy to make, don’t have to be particularly pretty to be functional, and will aid both your human and non-human visitors. A good place to put a link to your site map is in the page ‘footer’ near the copyright notice.

A small disclaimer

If you’ve questioned any of the above statements, then good: if we don’t constantly question what we do and why we do it, we’ll never change anything.

The fact is that this article is not aimed at those developing artistic, non-commercial Websites. It’s aimed at small to medium sized businesses designing sites that need to be accessible to a wide variety of users — and this is most certainly not an in-depth discussion of this topic. Common sense dictates that we should base our navigation on what users expect, making it as simple for your dear old granny, or your key customers, as it is for you or I.

If your artistic flair has been a little blunted by my rather strictly worded guidelines, then don’t be to disheartened, style is most definitely not dead! With a little thought and planning you can have both a great looking, and superbly functional Website. Web design has always been about compromise, and those that learn to blend artistic considerations with practical restrictions will find that the restrictions themselves will breed creativity.

How To Write Page Titles

Good page titles can increase traffic and qualify your visitors. A Web page’s title has two main functions:

  1. To explain what the page contains, and
  2. To promote keywords or phrases and thus increase and qualify traffic.

A page’s title is the most important part of what makes a user click a link in a list of search results. To demonstrate, imagine you’re in search of a second hand car. Which of these links are you more likely to click?

  • J.A. Hendersen & Sons A/S
  • Affordable second hand cars
  • Untitled document
  • SALE!!! CARS!! DEALS ON WHEELS AT LAUGHING LARRY’S SHOWROOM!!!

It’s clear that your first choice would be number two, but let’s take a look at why.

Number 1 says absolutely nothing of any value to anyone, and for that reason alone it’s less likely that you’ll even come across this link in your search for a second hand car, let alone click on it. If you’re searching through a directory like Yahoo! or Jubii then it will probably be there, but it’ll be much easier to miss, as it’s unmemorable and uninspiring.

Number 3 might as well say ‘Don’t buy anything from us, we’re a bunch of clowns!’. This poor effort just spells incompetence and I personally think that it should be a punishable crime to publish such monstrosities. Similar crimes include ‘page 1′, ‘Min nye hjemmeside’ and ‘Welcome to some shabby html editor!’.

Number 4 is clearly the work of someone who should be kept away from the rest of society.

So what’s so good about number two?

Ideally page titles should either contain, or better still, be the phrase that your visitors search for. Many search engines award higher rankings to short, concise titles that contain the searcher’s keywords.

Ideally you should keep your page titles less than 40-50 characters long and be as honestly descriptive of the page’s contents as possible. You might get more hits by titling your pages ‘Steamy sex, free porn!’ but if you sell second hand cars, wouldn’t you rather have visitors that, er… want to buy second hand cars?

Remember that not everyone that visits your site will enter via the front door. It’s no good having the same title for every page, as all you’ll end up doing is limiting the number of visitors you attract. If one of the pages in your ‘second hand car’ site deals with accident and repairs a good title might be ‘Accident and Repair Service in Aarhus’. The reason I included the reference to Aahus (a large town in Denmark) is that people will travel to buy a car, but usually won’t go too far to get repair work done. Thus this title further qualifies the visitors the link will generate.

In conclusion

Keep your titles short, honestly descriptive, and above all, relevant to your page’s contents. Try to use the terms or phrases you expect your visitors to search for, and avoid the multiple exclamation mark and capital letter madness: overly promotional titles are a turn-off to most users.

How To Choose Keywords

Targeting keywords increases traffic and qualifies visitors. Keywords and search terms are those words or phrases that your customers may enter on a search engine in order to find a Website that offers products or services like yours. Choosing keywords is not difficult if you follow a few guidelines.

Basic rules for choosing keywords

1. Think Like Your User
Try to think like your customers, and choose words or phrases that you could imagine them entering into a search engine. How would you find a site like yours? If you can find your competitors via a search engine, what search terms did you use to locate them?

2. Be Specific
Be specific. If you sell cars, for example, it will be almost useless to choose ‘cars’ as a keyword, as you compete with too many other sites. ‘Affordable second hand cars’ would be a much better choice.

3. Use Words From the Page
Use words that appear in your page’s content. Let’s say your site sells second hand cars and you have different sections for Fords and Toyotas. An effective choice of keywords might work like this:

  • Front page: ‘second hand cars’, ‘used cars’, ‘affordable cars’
  • Ford page: ‘second hand fords’ ‘used fords’ ‘previously owned fords’
  • Toyota page: ‘second hand toyotas’ ‘used toyotas’ etc etc.

And make sure you use these keywords in your page titles.

How to Write Page Descriptions

Good page descriptions can make a big difference to your site’s traffic. Some search engines such as msn use a page’s description as the text that appears beneath the title in a list of search results. This provides Websites with an excellent opportunity to create the right impression pre-click.

Combined with a good page title, you can use your description to further qualify your visitors. Here are a few rules of thumb:

  • Page descriptions should be a maximum of two sentences long and be as concise as possible.
  • Be as honest as you can. It’s far better to attract visitors that really are looking for a company like yours than to mislead people.
  • If possible, write descriptions that also contain the keywords or phrases you’re targeting.
  • Do not use overly promotional language — people don’t like it and some search directories may refuse to include pages that do this.
  • Don’t use all capital letters or multiple exclamation marks. People will think you’re insane.

A practicle example: Let’s say you sell second hand cars and that you’ve already chosen a title. Here are some examples of what to do and what not to do:

Bad example:

CARS CARS CARS!!!!! LOWEST PRICES GUARANTEED!!!!!!!! CHEAP CARS AT LAUGHING LARRY’S BARGAIN BONANZA!!!!!! CARS CARS CARS!!!!

Good example:

We sell affordable second hand cars and will deliver anywhere in Denmark for free. Check out our online showroom here.

I won’t bother explaining why the first example is so dreadful — if you can’t see why yourself, then there’s probably no hope for you!

What makes the second example so good is this:

The first sentence tells the reader exactly what you do, while at the same time making sure that the site doesn’t lose potential customers due to the business’s location: they can deliver for free.

The second sentence tells the reader what kind of site to expect when they click the link. The whole description is accurate, informative and appealing, without being overly promotional.

Conclusion

When you’re writing page descriptions, try to think like a user that’s looking through a list of search results. What would make you choose one link rather than another? Try to keep your descriptions short, to the point and honest: a user who’s tricked into visiting your site will not buy from you.

Further Information

For more information on the topics outlined in this article, try:

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