Saturday 01 Dec 2007
Greetings from inside the SEOigloo,
One of my favorite tasks is website redesign. A potential client phones or writes with a URL and the moment comes when I open up their homepage. In the first 2-3 seconds of this action, what goes into my eyes on that homepage makes an impression on my mind. After experiencing this process hundreds of times, my ability to spot common, immediately visible problems has become pretty automatic. Some of these issues overlap with Search Engine Optimization and Usability issues, but as these two factors are so basic to good website design, it’s all part of how I see.
How this relates to you, the website owner, is that, sometimes, you can become a bit blind to a site you see every day. It’s like moving house. When you first pick out your home, every detail of it is so clear because it’s new. After living in a place for a couple of years, you tend to stop noticing the walls, the windows, the carpet. This same comfort level can set in with a website you own, and if some of the elements of the site are problematic, you may simply have lost your ability to see them. So, let’s spend a few minutes here looking at some random websites to sharpen up your eyesight again. Let me share with you how I see website homepages. My goal is that, the next time you pull up your own site, things that are less-than-great or totally uh-oh will stand out clearly to you as you look with the scrutiny of a web designer.
1. No Real Logo
Take a look at this site. No doubt, this little company has some nice things to offer, but the lack of a real logo leaves me feeling dubious about their professionalism. The business name is written in a generic Photoshop font, and despite the fact that it’s taking up a large space on the site, no effort has been made to create a style or icon associated with the business which brands it apart from competitors. A memorable logo expresses legitimacy and helps customers recognize you. As the Internet continues to grow, one needs to stand out or stand aside. This company would do well to invest a small sum in a professionally designed logo that they can display with pride.
2. No Style
This site has several areas where improvements could be made, but my first impression is that it lacks a set style. Far from encouraging fancy, over-the-top design, I tend to like simple sites the best, but this one is so unformed, it makes me feel unguided. Because the background and main body are all one color, I don’t feel pulled toward a menu, toward a featured product, or any other element of the site. A basic division of main components of a homepage helps break things down into smaller, usable chunks for the visitor. Simple use of color helps with this, as in the case of a tinted menu. It helps me know where to look to find the things I need to do on the page. This company would benefit from getting a stylesheet going that subtly separates the various components of their homepage, and the rest of the pages of their website.
3. The Flash Intro
This flash entry page is a perfect example of how website owners often misunderstand what website visitors want. When Flash graphics first appeared on the web design scene, the newness of them created a weird myth that high-tech animations lend a high-tech atmosphere to a website. The sad truth is, the honest reaction of a designer like me to a Flash entry page like this is, “oh gosh, who ripped these folks off?” More importantly, the honest reaction of the average visitor to a Flash entry page is, “Ugh, this is taking forever to load! How do I get into this darned site?” If you actually sit through the whole animation, you will see that it has done nothing to teach you about what the architecture firm in question can do for you, the potential customer. Precious time has been lost while you look at moving shapes. That time should have been spent getting you to hire this firm by stunning you with their actual offerings, from the get-go. This company would benefit from ditching their flashy splash page and putting their best, most compelling text content up front.
4. Where’s The Text?
As with the Flash splash page above, this website’s homepage is along the lines of a splash page, without the Flash. We’re presented with a logo and three images. There is not a jot of actual text on the page. Clearly, this is going to leave Google with nothing to ‘see’, but it also leaves the visitor feeling pretty flat about the company in question. Where’s the sales copy? Where’s the contact information? Where’s anything that tells me anything about what this company is or does? I’m a quilter, so I’m a qualified, potentially interested customer in the case of this website, and I’d love to see them making the very most of their homepage to introduce me to what’s great about them, rather than expecting me to go hunting through their site to figure that out.
5. Lack of Color Contrast
UPDATE: SEE COMMENTS BELOW AS THIS SITE HAS ALTERED
This website’s issue is a bit more subtle, but important nonetheless. Blue links are great; nothing says this is a link like blue. But when you set them on a blue background, the importance of those links fades away. They literally seem to disappear because of the lack of contrast between the text and color in this website’s menu. Either the text or the menu color needs to be darkened or lightened significantly to punch up the visibility of those vital links.
6. The Dark Side of Web Design
Does this website make you reach for the light switch? Doubtless, many of this company’s visitors feel that way. The 1990′s saw a proliferation of dark websites, and with a few exceptions I can think of, black/navy blue websites strike me as dated, at first glance. Of serious concern is the fact that many Internet users attest that they have a terrible time reading light text on a dark background, so a website like the example here might lose customers, simply because the copy provided is illegible to them. I have seen this come up in forums again and again, yet website owners continue to go with light text on a dark background instead of the other way around. If you are set on having a dark overall feeling to your website, at least make the main body white, like this popular blog does. The only other dark site I can think of that I actually like is this Atari 2600 site which makes me laugh. After all, it’s also got wood paneling on it! But, for the most part, sites do well to keep things bright, clear and abundantly readable.
7. The Doormat Website
I’m all for cordial interactions, and think it’s nice when people put those welcome mats in front of their doors, but I smack my forehead every time a see a website wasting the homepage header tag on a welcome message. The honor of ranking #1 in Google for ‘Welcome To Our Website’ goes to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Engineering. I can’t help asking myself how much it’s benefiting them to outrank their vast competition for this overused phrase, and whether their H tag might not have been better used for…I don’t know…’Engineering College, Madison Wisconsin’, or something specific along those lines. Mama told you not to be a doormat for other people; don’t let your website be one either. Make that header sing the praises of the goods and services your business offers to *ME*, the customer, rather than welcoming me with a generic message. Google will like it better, too.
8. Generic Photos And Amateur Clip Art
Have you seen the customer service rep on this website someplace else? I know I have. So, either she works for Bosch Appliances and Joe’s Oil Stop (what a busy lady!) or someone is taking shortcuts rather than creating a truly unique identity on the web. I have repeatedly had the experience of reviewing websites that are all pulling from the same istock photo pool for their customer-service-type images and, to me, this signifies a lack of polish and personality. In the case of a small business, I’m more forgiving about this. Perhaps they don’t own a good camera, or their employees would prefer to keep a low profile, but in the case of a big company like Bosch Appliances, I think the repetitive use of istock-genre imagery misses opportunities to stand out from the crowd. Surely, someone at Bosch has got a good enough camera to take a photo of one of their actual customer service reps and I’d like to see them go this extra mile.
On a similar note, the use of poor quality clip art is rife on small business websites and this results in a presentation that is more reminiscent of a children’s board game than a soulful little company. The bottom line is, free clip art looks cheap. If icons are needed, small business owners need to save up to hire a good, affordable graphic designer for a couple of hours to create some custom imagery. It makes a huge difference in that first impression.
9. A Whole Lot Going On Here
Sometimes, we get sent a URL (often with an apologetic warning from the business owner) that takes us to a site like this. The business owner is frequently at the end of their rope, sending out S.O.S. calls, hoping that someone can help them fix all of the weird things going on with their site. The example above contains the following problematic elements:
- Errors in the copy being caused by the code
- Alignment problems in both the copy and the design
- Illegible text in the menu
- Scarlet text on an aqua background causing eye muscle strain
- Blue text on a blue background creating lack of contrast
- Improper use of the title tag
There are other peculiarities in the way this site was designed, and in cases like this, where we’re seeing more minuses than pluses in the existing site, our advice is to burn down the house and start from scratch. As is true with all of the sites linked to in this post, the business may be offering some truly great things, but the presentation is absolutely harming the company’s chance of succeeding on the web. A complete website redesign is going to need to happen to get to square one. That means money and time, and skipping either of those two factors isn’t an option when things are in this state of disarray. I hope this business finds its way.
And, I hope this post has been educational. Are your eyes feeling sharper now?