“We need a website and don’t know where to start”… “I have a friend who builds websites – I’ve asked him to build our website but it’s taking forever”… “I wanted a simple website – I’ve paid a company $30 000 and I still have nothing to show for it” – these are all quotes from people I’ve spoken to in the past week.
I’d love to help all the people that ask me for web advice, but there are only so many hours in a day and my plate is full as it is. So I’ve decided to find a web-savvy compromise. Before you is my website development cheat-sheet. It’s a few thoughts I’ve had on getting the most from a website. It’s written with novices and people starting from scratch in mind, but even if you consider yourself a seasoned pro at this game, here’s an opportunity to look at web development from a new perspective.
– PLANNING –
1. Have a communication plan for your organisation.
Ok, so communication plans are a natural starting point for me as I’ve spent a fair portion of my life giving communication advice! But really, they can be quick to develop and a good one will make it clear:
- Who your stakeholders are;
- How your stakeholders form opinions; and,
- Which media will be most appropriate in communicating effectively with your stakeholders (ie. Will a website be a good use of your resources?);
Knowing all this will help guide your decisions about whether you have a website at all, and if you do, how information should be presented; the tone/voice used on the site, and the scale/size of the site.
When it comes to developing a Communication Plan, of course getting an outsider in is a great starting point, but if your budget doesn’t allow for outside assistance, simply answering the above questions is better than nothing!
2. Visit websites to see what works.
It is always useful to look at like-minded organisations and see how they’re communicating with their stakeholders. Does it seem effective to you? Is the information presented clearly and concisely? What do you like and what don’t you like? Knowing what you think works and what doesn’t is a great starting point – conversations with friends and colleagues about sites they feel are well organised/presented is even better.
A great starting point for conversations about web usability is the US government’s usability website. The site includes research-based guidelines that amounts to a clear, persuasive research report that you don’t have to pay thousands of dollars to read.
3. Map your website with your stakeholders in mind.
Who will be coming to your website? What will they be looking for? What will they want from you? What do you want them to think/feel/do as a result of visiting your website? Much of this will be answered in your communication plan, so now it’s time to start sketching a map of how information will be organised. Will the site be a single page or multiple pages? Will the site be organised into categories? Will it start small and grow? Will some of your visitors expect to purchase things directly from the site? Having a strong vision of what is required will be useful in communicating your goals with the developer you choose for your project.
Mind maps are a great way to organise your website on paper. Wikipedia’s entry on mind maps is a great starting point if you’re unfamiliar with this planning technique.
4. Choose a web address (domain name) that reflects your organisation and is as short and simple as possible.
Understanding how to register domain names and working out what addresses are available can be a daunting task. Web companies still often charge their clients hundreds/thousands of dollars to assist with the purchase of a domain name. The truth is you can do it all yourself for about $10.
Domain name registration companies are plentiful and mostly compete on price. They often make almost no money on the sale of a domain name, instead hoping to earn money on additional services such as web-hosting. You are not obliged to purchase web hosting from the same company that sold you your domain name!
To find a domain name registrar, try Googling domain names. Equally, to find a web host, you can search for web hosts. By far the most useful site I’ve come across when looking for available domain names is domaintools.com – they tell you instantly who owns a domain name, how long they’ve owned it, and can often tell you if the domain is for sale and who to contact. Check out domaintools.com/timlonghurst.com for an example of the service.
– Development –
5. If you’re keeping it really simple, you may be able to do it all yourself online.
If your website is going to be really simple, you can use an online website development tool like Google Pages – my friend Ashton Bishop built his simple home page with Google pages and he assures me it took him no time at all. If you’re going to want things to be a little more complex you’ll probably want to consider a Content Management System…
6. Content Management Systems are almost always the way to go.
You will need to have your CMS-based website hosted on a server and it will require customisation by a developer/development team. Fees for developers vary widely – some charge by the project and others by the hour. Set milestones on your project with your developer and agree to expectations and budgets before you begin.
There are two main types of CMS – proprietary and Open Source. There are no-doubt many excellent proprietary CMSs (that is, CMSs owned and managed by individual businesses) out there, but my advice would be to choose Open Source every time! I detail why below, but for now I’ll just say that Open Source CMSs mean that your website can be improved/tweaked/customised by any one of thousands of developers – you’re not locked in to a single company.
Joomla; Plone and Drupal are names of high-profile Open Source CMS projects. OpenSourceCMS.com allows you to compare the features of many of them. There are plenty of developers who will customise an off-the-shelf CMS to meet the needs of your organisation. You may be interested to know that at the time of writing, this website is running using an Open Source CMS called WordPress.
7. Open Source means thousands of developers will work on your website for free – really!
‘Open Source’ software is built by a number of collaborating web developers and users working together almost always for no fee. They do it for all sorts of reasons – prestige; status within a community; employability; to learn new skills; to benefit society; for the thrill of working in a team; for the fun of competing with for-profit software development teams and other Open Source projects. Whatever the motivation, the outcome for us users is often very sophisticated software at no cost.
If you benefit from the work of an Open Source project, it’s always a good idea to promote the project’s work through a credit on your website or by recommending the software to friends. You can also donate money to support the project’s ongoing development, but this is all entirely voluntary.
8. Accessible means everyone can visit – and search engines will love you!
Accessibility is the area of web development devoted to making sure that anyone – even people with limited/no vision – can visit your site. It’s good practice to make all visitors feel welcome when they visit your organisation on the web, and accessibility is about being welcoming to as many visitors as possible.
Another reason to follow these guidelines is that the ‘spiders’ that search engines like Google use to document and rank websites are actually vision impaired themselves – they don’t have eyes at all. Being respected by search engines is important to most of the people I deal with, so it’s probably important for you, too. It makes sense to make life for search engine spiders as easy as possible.
The Web Accessibility Initiative has 10 Quick Tips on how to make your website friendly to vision-impaired visitors.
9. Small/light means your pages will load fast – even for people on slow connections in distant lands!
Not all internet connections are created equal. In fact, for many users around the world, download times are incredibly slow and that means waiting for websites to load can be a common frustration. For that reason, it’s good practice to make your website as lean as possible. Using a few small, optimised images is far better than lots of large, bulky images. There are websites that are dedicated to helping you make sure your website is running mean and lean – it’s worth spending a bit of time and seeing how you can lift your game.
Pingdom.com offer a free website speed test. You can check it out here, where I test the speed of this website.
10. Once your website is built, do something remark-able
The word ‘remarkable’ means literaly for something to be so outstanding as to be worthy of a remark. Now, my advice to you would be to consider what research, advice or piece of entertainment you could put on your site that would make it worthy of being remarked upon.
Search engines place great stock in the number of websites that link to yours – this is one measure of how credible a source you are and whether your website is trusted by others. By doing remarkable things on your website, you are creating opportunities for others to link to your website (this list of website tips is a good example).
The more ‘incoming’ links you attract from websites around the world, the better the chances that search engines will like your website and trust it. This is just the tip of the iceberg known today as Search Engine Optimisation.
Wikipedia’s Search Engine Opimisation page offers a great starting point to exploring this growing industry. That page is also Google’s top-ranked page for the expression “Search Engine Optimisation”.
– Final remarks –
I’d love feedback on what information above you find useful or what you think I’ve missed. All comments posted will be gratefully received. Good luck with your projects!