Van’s Website Philosophy

For many businesses, extending brand and other marketing efforts into the internet can be a confusing challenge. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be. Yes, it does cost money, but so does every marketing tool.

No, it doesn’t replace the yellow pages or newspaper advertising, although it can easily cut the costs of both. You might not want to include your hours in a yellow pages ad that will live for a full year or more, but a link to the website allows you to keep the hours online and current. Direct lines to multiple departments or personnel would add a lot of cost to print ads, they are trivial on your website. A complete list of companies represented would be out of place in a print ad for an insurance agent, right at home on the web.

Properly organized, there is almost no limit to how much data should be on a website. Visitors skim when they read, and the most important three points in your mind, or in mine, may well differ from the concerns of a visitor. If you have a lot of information, key pages should be summaries, and “the rest of the story” should be on subsequent pages. They won’t be read often, but having them goes a long way towards establishing the expertise and credibility of a site.

I've been involved in projects from as little as $200 to over $8,000, with various levels of success and permanence. The biggest single difference between success and failure comes down to persistence. (Of course, this is true of most things in life.) We put up the information that the business operator thinks is important, and before long we learn what the customers think is important and redirect or refine the website as we learn what will and won’t work. It’s like creating a brand new brochure, while retaining the ability to change the copy and the pictures without reprinting. If the proprietor doesn’t commit enough time and resources to respond to clients, well, it dies. If the site does respond to the needs of the clientele, it thrives.

Although there have been some graphics projects in my past that I am proud of for how they look, my primary focus as a web developer is on delivering information to visitors or readers. The crucial test of any website is the speed with which a visitor can find specific information, either in time or number of clicks. If they are rewarded with the information they need, they will regard the site more positively in the future. Other sites will be more likely to link to your site if they feel that their readers will find what they want. It doesn’t hurt for it to look good, but that is definitely secondary.

Every page must provide a way to get to the rest of the website. No matter what we do, other than paid search placement, we can’t control which pages will end up in the search engine. A visitor that is looking for soup must be able to easily find it if, for whatever reason, he happens to land at your deli's salad page. It’s also imperative that you never delete the salad page, even if you stop selling salads. If it’s indexed, you want to preserve that traffic, so the salad page should still come up but it should say that you've stopped selling salads — but please view our expanded line of veggie trays.

Many websites have links on them that no longer work, the trade term for this is “link rot”. It should be someone's responsibility to make sure that all links, both internal and external, continue to work over time. I have tools to automate this, so the time and expense involved is minimal. Well, it’s minimal in terms of getting the dead links off, if you really need the links it can take a fair amount of time to find replacements when an external link dies.

Not only is the organization crucial, but the speed with which each page comes up is equally important. A surprising number of site visitors still depend on modems, and those with fast connections wish they were faster, so even though you may be used to seeing your site with DSL or cable, plus the benefit of much of your own site loading from your cache, the new visitor needs to see the page within a few seconds or the Back button is going to get hit. What graphics are on the site should be important to delivering the message, "eye candy" is not going to help. This is most important on “entry pages”, which a visitor sees before he knows what you offer. Once a visitor accepts your site as a source of information, he will be much more forgiving. But we should still try to not make pages that need to be forgiven!

One element that has become increasingly important in recent years is adhering to current web standards. At the turn of the millennium, browser support for Cascading Style Sheets was spotty, and most of us relied on complex tables to arrange the elements on the page. This not only is inefficient in terms of page size, it interferes with the visitors' ability to control their experience. To get things to look like we wanted them to meant using tricks to serve different web browsers, and most of those tricks were problematic for visitors with small screens and wasteful for those with large ones. Visitors with vision issues, which includes a lot of older users, need to increase text sizes, something that is easy if we serve pages using CSS but probably impossible if we use the fixed sizes of the early web. As the market share of Internet Explorer continues to slide, other browsers account for at least 40% of all page views; standard-compliant code means your pages look the same in all browsers. All current development efforts are 100% validated against applicable CSS and HTML standards, and older pages are being brought up to standard whenever feasible.

Is your firm often in the news? It is often a good idea to have a page for the media with supporting information. For example, a portrait of your principals and key employees in fairly high resolution in case a newspaper or magazine wants it to illustrate an item. Your bio. Perhaps portraits of contest winners. Large shots of winning entries. History of your business. Having these things, in addition to any press releases, makes it easier for a journalist to accurately present your firm when it is in the news. If there are three people quoted in a story, and one of them makes a suitable portrait instantly available to the writer, guess whose photo runs with the story?

The most important part of keeping site operating costs low is being organized. If I have to retype and arrange items from faxes you send, drive to your store to get photos, and call multiple times to get all the details, the time adds up. It really doesn’t save much for you to actually do the HTML, I have better tools and more practice. What saves cost is having it all together: If you want information on the site about an event, we talk about what you want up and what we need, you corral all the information in one place, and then I can get it online quickly.

One of the most powerful things that can be done with a website is to collect e-mail addresses for future mailings. There should be a place to sign up for announcements, and a regular (monthly?) newsletter should be sent. I have a range of mailing tools, both for list management and actual mailings. I’m able to take care of the entire process (list management, newsletter editing and formatting, mailing, see E-Mail Services) but also happy to just setup the sign-up form and help you select the tools to manage all the pieces in-house.

I don’t have any packaged prices for anything. I work strictly by the hour for work done, although my skills and tools are good enough that I don’t consider myself expensive. (Hosting is by the month, of course.) Most of my current customers have taken over parts of their sites, if my bag of tricks isn’t more efficient it doesn’t make sense to pay my hourly rate.

My goal, at all times, is to make websites that work. (Okay, the first goal is to earn money to buy groceries, websites that work for my clients is how I do that.) Do you need a site that works? Do you have a site that needs to be organized and cleaned up? Let me know and let’s get on it!

For more information: vanhorn@whidbey.com