As an SEO specialist I am frequently contacted by new customers who are unhappy with their websites because they are “not working”.
There are so many reasons why a website might “not work” and most of these are little to do with the website designer and developer but are more fundamental business issues. In some ways I guess they are the website designers fault, as it was their lack of understanding or direction for the project that resulted in how it ended up, but business owners need to take responsibility for this too.
The most important decision any client needs to make when creating (or updating) a website is to ask just one simple question – WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF MY WEBSITE?
How this question is answered is interesting. Most commonly the answer is “because my competitors have all got websites” or “every business needs a website”. It is surprising how many clients do not actually have a proper answer ready!
Cure the illness not the symptoms
Bad design, poor content, awful usability and terribly written code are symptoms of bigger problems with a website. Before we can address issues of aesthetics, content, usability and code, we need to tackle business objectives, calls to action and user tasks. Without dealing with these fundamental principles our clients websites will almost always fail.
The business objectives
Without a clear idea of its business objectives, a website owner has no way to know whether it is succeeding or cannot benchmark its performance. This makes any future improvements or updates to the website hard to justify and begins a spiralling decline to the websites ultimate failure.
Before the topics of design, content, usability and development are mentioned we first need to establish and agree a concrete set of business objectives. This then provides the framework for decision making during the rest of the websites lifecycle.
Clear calls to action
Once business objectives have been defined this opens up the possibility to establish clear calls to action.
Every website should have clear calls to action. These are the reasons that they exist so shouldn’t be difficult to work out. I am regularly amazed by how few website owners can name their calls to action, but even more amazed by how few other web designers ask these questions when building websites.
A call to action is not just limited to an ecommerce website where adding a big “Buy Now” button to the page constitutes a success. Whether you are asking people to sign-up for a newsletter, complete a contact form or simply read some content, every site should have a desired set of objectives for its users.
Taking this concept a little further, every page of every website should have its own “micro” calls to action – channelling their visitors in the right direction towards the goal for the website and not leading them to a dead end.
Think like your customer
Website owners can normally tell you who their target audience is quite quickly and easily. What is difficult is trying to determine what this audience will want to achieve by visiting their website.
These “user tasks” are vital for any successful website. Although it is important for a website owner to understand what THEIR objectives are and what they WANT their users to do, it is even more important to think about and understand the objectives that their users have.
Once you are thinking like your users, writing content for your website becomes simpler too as you simply go about fulfilling the user objectives. Without clearly defined user tasks websites can often become self-serving and miss their main business objectives.
The shocking truth
Whether we like it or not, there is significant evidence that you can create a successful website with bad design, terrible code and without ever running a usability test session.
On the other hand, I do not believe it is possible to build a successful website without business objectives, calls to action and a clear idea of user tasks.
Don’t get me wrong – I do believe that design, usability and code matter. They are very important but I believe that they only matter if the fundamentals are already in place. These things improve a solid foundation but are no use on their own.
As a website designer and SEO specialist it is my responsibility to ensure fundamental questions are being asked before I start to explore any other issues. If websites aren’t built in this way they will look beautiful, be well coded and have gone through many tests, however they will never be truly successful.