Website mistakes – twelve classics
Commissioning a new site is kind of like raising a child: there are so many ways for it to go wrong that the value of the whole enterprise can rapidly become questionable. Make enough blunders, and you’ll quite possibly give it issues for years to come.
In many respects, the commissioning process is actually worse: just sending your kids off for a half decade of psychotherapy is a quick fix relative to the time and resources you’ll invest in sorting out website mistakes borne from a project that’s been ill-conceived, poorly implemented, and badly handled from the word “go”.
Prevention, as ever, is the best cure. To know how to avoid these classic website mistakes, you’ll need to know what they are – and we’re more than happy to get you up to speed. We have a vested interest in this, you see, because no comms campaign can reach its potential if it’s supported by a less-than-amazing website.
1. Not knowing your audience.
Websites, like politicians, fail hardest when they try to be all things to all people. Answer this before you do anything else: what is this website for? Now, obviously the overwhelming majority will be designed for literate human adults. This is a good starting point, but you’ll want to get more specific. You need to know the needs, behaviours and tastes of the people you're creating the website for, which means you have to determine their buyer personas.
If the site exists to supply race-day information for marathon attendees, you’ve already got a captive audience. As long as you provide the promised details in the right language, you can pretty much do what you want with it. You don’t want it to be awkward to use if you can help it, but you can probably get away with using a cost-effective template.
If you’re providing financial advice to entrepreneurs and want to keep them on your site for as long as possible, you’ll need to do more than make it simply functional. It should have a clean and intuitive interface and a sleek aesthetic tailored to appeal to the sober, all-business tastes of executives. Making this kind of site requires a more substantial investment.
2. Failing to set clear goals.
A typical website mistake is to have no clearly defined goal besides “promote the company”. You need to work out what you want to do. Don’t submit a brief to the design agency that says “just make it cool” and then complain about the results. If you say “surprise me” to the waiter at a gourmet restaurant, don’t act all scandalised when they serve you ortolans.
Need to attract leads through the web? Create a brief that clearly and unambiguously focuses on search engine optimisation (SEO) and conversions: you’ll want to be able to get them on your site and keep them there long enough to take action. Want to emphasise the e-commerce aspects of your site? Insist that products and services are placed front and centre.
3. Writing a thin (or incomplete) brief.
There are a number of questions to keep in mind when drafting a brief, and it’s wise to answer all of them to the best of your ability. If you don’t provide enough information, you’re unlikely to get what you want.
What kind of aesthetic are you after? What other websites come closest to what you had in mind – and why do you like them? Which ones don’t you like? What information needs to be highlighted? How secure does it need to be, and what are your functional requirements? How important is mobile to your customer base? The more detail you can provide, the happier you’ll be with the result. Spend time on the brief. Think of all the different scenarios that might come up. Develop your sitemap and specify which pages need to look like what so that the agency can create templates.
4. Outlining vague milestones – or none at all.
Within the brief, you’ll also want to set development objectives for the agency you hire. Suggest a realistic date for when you want the website to go live, and for milestones like wireframes and testing.
If they express hesitance, look elsewhere: an agency that’s reluctant to work to deliverables is usually also reluctant to deliver.
5. Skimping on copywriting
Like photography or competitive eating, writing is a discipline that everyone has some kind of competency in – but you can always tell an enthusiastic amateur from a committed professional.
If you’re thinking about doing all the web copy yourself or handing it over to your marketing team (or worse, your dev team), don’t. With all the other demands on their attention, they likely won’t get it done in time, and if you’re a CEO, you definitely won’t get it done in time. One of the biggest website mistakes you can make is skimping on a task that requires actual expertise. Copywriting is one such task, so you should hire a specialist.
But it’s never going to be a case of grabbing the first freelancer you can find and washing your hands of it. You’ll need to agree with all relevant stakeholders on your tone of voice and messaging (these are essential steps in developing your marketing strategy and therefore shouldn't be done just for your website), and what your objectives are for each page – and you’ll want to think about a proper structure for these pages as well.
I’ve found that the following model, outlined in an excellent book called Neuromarketing, to be quite effective:
· Step 1: Diagnose the pain. “Humans spend more time and energy avoiding pain and looking to destroy pain than we devote to gaining higher levels of comfort.” Work out what’s keeping your prospective customers up at night and getting in the way of their goals. Start any piece of copy with a summary of their pain.
· Step 2: Differentiate your claims. Highlight what makes your offering unique and valuable. What are you going to do that’ll solve their problem? And why will you do it best?
· Step 3: Demonstrate the gain. You’ve illustrated why your company has the goods – now it’s time to offer concrete evidence. If you’ve got testimonials, case studies, statistics, whatever – now’s the time to show these things off.
· Step 4: Deliver to the “old brain”. Hit the reptilian, highly emotive, decision making part of your prospects’ minds: convey your value quickly and directly, because while most people instinctively remember beginnings and endings, they overlook the bits in the middle. Use visuals wherever possible, and contrasts such as “Before/After” or “Then/Now”.
6. (Lack of) speed kills.
A site can be gorgeous, well-designed, intuitive, and appealing in just about every respect, but if it loads slowly, none of that stuff is going to matter: your prospects will go elsewhere.
Your website needs to load quickly for those with sub-optimal internet connections and those with superfast broadband alike. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken: nobody ever went broke underestimating the patience or attention span of the general public. Respect their time, and they’ll respect you. And just to be safe – include this in the website brief.
7. Buying cheap
Unless you’re some oil-rich gulf state prince, budget is likely to be a concern for your business.
But while you want to be as cautious with your money as possible, you don’t want to be miserly: your web presence is your chance to make a good first impression, and in an age of constant distractions and limited attention spans, first impressions count for a lot. If you hire someone to build a site that ends up falling short of your business requirements, you’ll just end up hiring someone else to fix it. What seems cost-effective in the short-term is liable to haunt you in the long run.
8. Treating your website build as a project.
Another of the more common website mistakes is to treat the whole endeavour as a project – a one-off deal that you never really think about once it’s done.
However, when you’ve launched, what you’ve really done is lay the groundwork. Now, having robust groundwork is great, but you’ve still got to do the actual building. When it has finally gone live and started attracting visitors, many of your preconceived notions about what your website is and what it should be will change.
When we first built the TopLine site, for example, the dev team’s idea was that contact forms should be at the end of the page. Thinking visitors would be more likely to convert if it was more visible, it was moved to the right hand side. Nothing really happened.
After that, however, the contact form was moved to the top, and conversion rate doubled. We took the opportunity to iterate on some other elements of it. If you’re reading comms-related content and click the “Contact Us” button, you’ll see a form with my picture; if you’re reading video-related content, the form will feature Jamie Field, our head of production.
We don’t do this ‘cause it’s cool (although it is): we do it because we tested it, and it worked well.
9. Not making it responsive.
On the subject of responsive design: don’t settle for anything else.
It means less scrolling, less manual browser adjustment, and – overall – less work and a much better experience for site visitors. It is great for SEO (because you don’t need a separate m.domain to serve your mobile visitors) and means all the content your brand creates will be served to all your visitors regardless of the device they’re browsing on.
10. Hiring an SEO agency…after you’ve built the site.
Web developers have a habit of massively overstating their competency. This is not to say that they’re incompetent: simply that they have a very specific skillset, and it rarely – if ever – extends to SEO. They’re entirely different areas, and require entirely different kinds of expertise.
I have yet to encounter a dev agency that really knows anything about SEO, but I’ve heard many CEOs and marketing directors say “the developers have it covered” when we ask about SEO. If this is true, they should have provided a list of keywords that they think your site can rank for, and they should be reporting back monthly on how you are performing in the search rankings.
These rankings should be trending up, as should your traffic. If you’re wondering how developers can report back monthly once the site has been delivered and the contract is over – they can’t. If they aren’t on a retainer, they definitely don't know anything about SEO: it’s never a stand alone project. Secondly, your website isn’t a one off project – and your developers should be on retainer – see point above.
Because of this, you’ll want to hire an SEO agency before the site goes live to make sure your developers are implementing a Google-friendly structure. Pages should be organised intuitively and collected into a sensible folder structure; breadcrumbs need to be used in the correct places; an appropriate naming convention should be devised; URLs need to include your target keywords, copy needs to be optimised.
An SEO agency can also advise you on which content you can save from older versions of your site - and how you can save it. Your average internet user isn’t going to be greatly enamoured of 404 errors; the right consultancy can help you set up 301 redirects to make sure high-performing pages stay that way after the transition.
11. Getting the agency to recommend a platform
Letting developers pick your content management system (CMS) is one of the more fatal website mistakes.
When recommending these platforms, developers have two bad tendencies; one worse than the other. The first is to suggest a third-party CMS that is essentially incomprehensible to laymen; if they’re in love with it, it’s generally because of its technical capabilities rather than ease of use. The second is to aggressively shill their own, self-developed platform.
If you went to university, you’ll remember that certain lecturers had an annoying habit of making their own books required reading. Web developers with their own platform take this to a new level. If the site functions poorly and breaks, they can charge exorbitant rates to fix it; they’re the only ones with the requisite knowledge, after all. They’re effectively being rewarded for peddling a substandard product.
In the end, you’re tied to them until your next redesign, or until they sell up or go out of business – in which case you’re now using a platform no other developer knows how to maintain and need a redesign.
12. Going for perfection
Your website is special to you. Understandably so! It’s yours. You raised it, you nurtured it, you brought it into being. But it’s not special to anyone else, and the things you tend to agonise over won’t always be as important as you think.
It’s not really worth expending vast amounts of time and energy picking the right shade of lilac for your menu bar, or having team photos in profile or frontal view. Get the site live as soon as possible, wait until you’ve got a decent number visitors, and let them tell you what it does well and poorly. Then adapt it (see point 6) and keep adapting it – this method will only make it better and better and even better over time, which means more leads, conversions, job applications and good stuff for your company.
You’re not the ultimate authority on whether drop down or panel forms are better: your visitors are, and you can only find out what they think when you have something for them to visit.
When you’ve avoided these website mistakes and got that slick new website up and running, do get in touch – we can help you build on that good work with offsite SEO, content marketing, and other relevant services.