Things to avoid in a commercial website
During my career I worked in different companies that are dedicated to the design and development of websites. On many occasions I was asked to add different features to commercial websites that even though I knew that they would be counterproductive, I had to add them anyway, as that was my job. Once I started freelancing, the truth is that things didn't change, only now the requests were being made directly to me by my clients, and even though I pointed out some of my concerns to clients whom I had a good relationship with, more often than not I had to add the same detrimental features, after all it is the clients decision.
However, if you are reading this article, it's because you already have an interest to learn about common errors made in commercial websites. If you intend to turn your website into a good marketing tool, then here are some things that you should be aware of while having your website designed.
It is your website, but it is not for you.
Simply put, a website should be designed and made for the person who is visiting it, not for the person making it nor for the person paying for it. A common mistake that a company makes when is defining the specifications of a website, is to design it having in mind only their own preferences, and even worst, their own system features, their own system settings and their preferred browser.
Overly fancy websites are very nice to look at, and many people would like to own a website full of animated effects, things that move around the screen, many elements that react to the movement of the mouse cursor, and a great background music. And I'm sure it won't be hard to find someone who can do a website like this, it is perfectly inside my own capabilities, but, what is the point of having such an impressive website if:
- people can't find it in search engines with ease
- people leave before all the fancy stuff finish loading
- people using a different browser to view websites can not see that website correctly, if at all
- people using Linux, Apple, mobile devices, tablets, old computers (many of which does not count with flash support at all) can not see the website.
Of course, there are work-arounds to most of the problems such as browser compatibility, loading times, search engine optimization, but not many website design companies would invest the required time to address all of this problems if you are not paying a high price for it. When you ask someone to make your website, you should take into consideration the following points, if you want to have a visitor-friendly website:
Is it accessible?
This is the most important thing to have into consideration when having a website made, can the visitors access the content of your website? If a visitor can not access your website because it requires special add-ons which may not be available in other browsers such as Google Chrome, Safary or Firefox, or if the website can not be seen in other systems, such as Apple or Linux or a smartphone or a tablet, you are automatically rejecting those visitors from seeing your content.
Some users may have the same browser and a system that is very similar in features to yours, but they may have different security and/or privacy settings that won't allow them to view the content either. While it may not be a great percentage of visitors, you can be sure than they will not return, they will not recommend you, and they will not buy from you or utilize your services. With the popularity of browsers such as Firefox and Google Chrome, and the widespread use of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, this percentage can not simply be ignored anymore.
Is it user friendly?
You need to think, why would a user visit my website? If he gets there, it's because your visitor is looking for something. You need to anticipate what a visitor may be looking for, and offer it to him as quickly as possible.
If you offer your products in your website, but you can not sell them online, provide the persons visiting your website with prices, specifications, your address(es) if it applies, a simple way of contact you (a simple contact form containing name, email and a comment will do the job), pictures if they are needed.
If your visitor finds what he is looking for, he may stop searching and wouldn't get to the websites of your competitors, but even if he does continue searching, he/she will go out with a good impression of your website and chances are that he may add your website to favorites and return to it later. Or even recommend you.
Does it load fast?
Even thought the Internet connection speeds keep improving, in most places anyway, there are many users worldwide without access to (decent) broadband services, and the loading times for websites rich in multimedia elements may be too long for some users.
Also, some people may count with limited connectivity or bandwidth because they are using a mobile plan to access your website, which may or may not have a monthly data cap. Not only this but, users with old computers or recent computers without enough memory (windows vista is a memory eating monster) may not be able to navigate smoothly thought this websites. This may cause the visitor a bad experience in your website, and if they can find what they want in another site that loads and works faster, they probably won't return to your site.
Get rid of the animated intros.
Lets face it, you are searching for a certain information, you go to a website that appears to have it, and upon open it you are greeted with an animated presentation. First you see a loader (0%,1%,2%...), some pictures of the product (although often this are just pictures of the company that manufactures the product), lines being form, and finally you have to click to just be able to see if what you are looking for is there. You may also be able to skip the animation by clicking in a small almost hidden link, but in some cases this link is non-existent.
There are people who won't bother with a website like this and who moves on to search somewhere else. I the past I did quite a good number of animated flash intros for websites myself, and I was paid decently to make them, however, I have to say that an animated flash intro in a commercial website is one of the worst ideas. As I was saying in the user friendly point, if a person visits your website, he/she is looking for something specific, and having them watch a flash intro is not give them what they want. In fact, have them clicking unnecessarily in order to access your content is in itself a bad idea. Everything should be given to them in the shorter number of clicks, and, having an intro waste both a click and time.
Don't ask unnecessary information in your contact forms.
If you want your visitors to get in contact with you, you should give them an easy way to do it, and only ask for the necessary information to contact them if you need to answer. I have seen some persons wanting to have forms that have 15~20 fields. That would give them all the necessary information about a potential customer, if it weren't for the fact than in this days people are not going to fill such a form just to get some information from you.
Ask only what you really need, a form asking for the name (to address the person), e-mail (to contact them back) and comments (to know what are they looking for) it's more than enough for most websites. In some cases asking for a phone number is also necessary, but if you start inquiring about the geographical location, birthday, interests, civil status, income (yes, there are some persons who want to ask the income in a contact form, I have never done it, but I have been asked to add that field), people will simply see your form and get out of there in no time.
Of course I am only talking about a simple contact form that visitors interested in obtain more information could use to contact you, a more specialized form or a small application inside your website could have as many fields as you want. I still recommend to not use more than the necessary fields in your forms.
Don't forget the robots visiting your websites.
Your website should be first and foremost appealing to the people visiting it, in terms of accessibility and content, however, take into consideration that content made in dynamic websites and inside other elements, such as flash and images, are not recognized by the search engine robots that occasionally visit your website. And if a robot can not see your content, it is unlikely that your website will be appropriately indexed by that search engine. As a result of this, your website may not show up when people searches things that you are offering.
But I reiterate, take care of your visitors first, this suggestion is not about adapting your website for the search engines, this suggestion is about not putting unnecessary roadblocks for them by hiding your valuable information from them.
When I originally wrote this article, Google could not index content inside flash elements or PDF files, it is my understanding that it does this now, however, it is still highly recommended to not put your content inside of this elements, because they do not support the semantic elements that a language such as HTML 5 have.