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The 10 Commandments of Excellent Web Design

I remember when I built my first website. I had not a clue in the world, which made it fun, but not necessarily effective. The internet seemed so much more carefree back in those days, when eBay was king and Yahoo the crown prince.

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One thing I’ve realized over the years is that the internet is growing up right before our very eyes.  It must be nearing puberty because the good ol’ days are gone and all we’re left with is angst.  Google rules the drawbridge doors with an iron fist and there are so many other townspeople now, it’s harder and harder to get a good space at the market to sell our wares.

Luckily, instead of spending my virtual teenage years out of place and unsure of myself like I did in real life, I spent time reflecting on all the changes around me and even took notes.  That way, when the next Holden Caulfield comes looking for a better world wide web, I’ll be prepared to catch him and offer a guiding light.

Don’t fret small business owner, your first (and even second) attempt to bring your company online will go far better than mine did, and despite failing (miserably), I eventually made it up that mountain and stand before you today offering “The 10 Commandments of Excellent Web Design”, the product of years of trial and error (not to mention frustration) before finally getting it right.

The 10 Commandments of Excellent Web Design

1st Commandment – Thou shalt RESEARCH – Like most marketing tasks, it’s wise to do your due diligence first and conduct thorough research on things like programming languages, web hosting, uptime, future costs, the amount of time you’ll need to invest to get the results you expect, what your competition is doing (and perhaps more importantly, what they are not doing) and what other popular sites are doing.

If you’re going to build the site on your own, this research could very well be the longest part of the process.  If you’re having someone else build your site, you’ll also need to do some research on their past projects, what kind of feedback they’ve received, whether or not they follow up with their clients once the project is completed and any number of small print detail.  Either way, you’ll thank yourself for being so thorough once the project is complete and you are presumably happy.  If you’re not, maybe you should have done a little more research.

Instead of getting frustrated later, get busy now.

2nd Commandment – Thou shalt PLAN – What exactly do you want your new company website to do for your business?  Is it just going to be a brochure?  Will it allow visitors to interact with your company?  Will it be selling products or services directly online?  Is it just to generate leads for further down the pipe?  You need to have a clear answer for all of these questions and then find the best solutions to support those answers.

I royally screwed up my first few sites simply because I did not have a clear picture of what I actually wanted my sites to do other than help me make more money.  Your entire sales process needs to be fleshed out and adapted for the web.  You also need to find tools you didn’t even know existed and put them in place to automate some of the new tasks having a website will ultimately create for you.

After many mistakes, I learned to use mind-mapping software to lay out the general plan of each website I build.  You can find a very good, free mind-mapping software here to help you get started.

3rd Commandment – Thou shalt focus on DESIGN – The word “design” has become somewhat of a catchphrase these days, but for good reason.  Good design plain and simply allows users to get the very best experience with a product, whether it’s saving time or letting people create a community around it that lets them build on what those before them have established.

Think about how an iPod makes listening to preferred music so much easier than it used to be or how WordPress has grown from a humble blogging software into a versatile web-wonder capable of doing just about anything you can think of thanks to its legion of passionate users who help improve it a little bit every single day.

Your website needs to be nearly as well-thought out as these pioneers, perhaps even more depending on what you’re selling and how long your sales funnel is.  Get some paper and sketch out the design of your site and see if it makes sense.  If it doesn’t, tweak it.  If it does, get someone else’s feedback and then tweak it again.

4th Commandment – Thou shalt create valuable CONTENT – Perhaps the best rule I’ve learned over the years is that content is indeed king.  Without valuable content, your site’s not that useful no matter how you try to cut it.  Cool features and the latest bells and whistles all become commonplace quickly in the ever-changing world wide web.  The stuff that stands the test of time is content that speaks directly to your customers’ needs.  Whatever it is they are looking for, you better be sure to give to them or they’ll surely find it elsewhere.

This is where some of your research really starts to pay off.  By now, you should know what kind of information is lacking on your industry and have maybe even developed a unique voice you’d like to write with.  You should also know what type of keywords you are going to focus on which gives you a pretty good idea as to what your content should be about.

Use the mind-mapping software linked in the 2nd Commandment to establish a blog schedule or some other editorial calendar for publishing your content.  You can also use sites like Rusty Budget to organize your topics and Technorati to see what other people in your industry are talking about.

5th Commandment – Thou shalt provide INTERACTION – Even with the best content in the world, many people are going to get bored of learning and want to socialize a bit.  Let them socialize on your site and build relationships with them in the process.  Today’s web is vastly different than the one we watched take its first steps and collapse in the last millennium.

In fact, it’s changing so fast, it literally took about 10-20 years to go from Web 1.0 to what is fondly known as Web 2.0, the web that brought us all together to socialize at places like MySpace and Facebook.  But then it only took another 1-2 years to move on to Web 3.0, the name given to the web that’s quickly coming into view, that makes informed decisions and connects basically every site to every other site and completely leverages the power of numbers in ways that until now were totally unheard of.

Publish your content but also allow those reading it to comment and take that content with them as they travel around the web from Twitter to Facebook to their own blog and back again.  Incorporate tools that help other online communities share your content and connect with other like-minded individuals.  Not quite sure how to do this?  Take a look at StumbleUpon and see how they turned sharing content into one of the web’s biggest brands.

6th Commandment – Thou shalt PACKAGE the previous commandments – By building your site with the first 5 Commandments in mind and packaging them together as a cohesive website deserving of promoting your company name, you’re well on your way to far greater success than you probably originally thought possible.   Why?  Because the majority of people building websites have spent very little time if any on each of these important steps and YOU have.

That means you’ve got a leg up straight out of the gate.  But that doesn’t mean you are guaranteed success.  It just means the first live draft of your website has entered the virtual world with all its fingers and toes per se.  In the old days, that would be enough for applause, but in today’s internet, tomorrow is almost yesterday.  If you launch your site and leave it at that, I assure you failure is in your future.

To overcome this constant change, you’ll need to create another package of the remaining commandments, a package you’ll need to commit to for perhaps the rest of your business’s life.

7th Commandment – Thou shalt SUBMIT to social networks – Especially to our older peers in the business community, social networking and media doesn’t make a lot of sense.  But to the rest of the world, it makes all the sense in the, er, world.  Only through social networking and media do you as a small business owner have the opportunity to reach millions and millions of potential prospects in literally the click of a button.

Take Twitter for example.  Once you publish some great, new content on your website, it would be wise to promote the link to that content through Twitter because it not only reaches every single one of your followers instantly, it has the potential to reach all of their followers, too!  That’s what viral means, to be able to spread a message to the entire world (or better yet your target market) as quickly as you spread butter over toast.

Now becoming viral is not a task for the weak at heart.  It does take time to build a community around each of your social networks and things will most likely seem very slow at first.  Keep your eye on the end goal.  Think of these tasks as performing mandatory networking duties you’d probably be doing in the real world, only you get to do it from the comfort of your own home or office.  Then think of the value it will create later down the line, as those who are enthusiastic about your products or services have the ability to tell hundreds and even thousands of people at a time.

I bet you wish you could get referrals like that, but you will if you put in the time and effort to systematically and strategically submit your content to whatever social networks you deem necessary.  One vitally important tid-bit: submit your site to Google as soon as humanly possible.  If someone knocks and Google doesn’t hear, they may as well have knocked elsewhere.

8th Commandment – Thou shalt FOLLOW UP with your visitors – Just like the real world, following up and answering questions and comments from your prospects should be seen as a privilege, not a duty.  Chances are, no one can sell your wares better than you can and by being accessible to your market, you are doing your company a great service.

While your website won’t completely remove the need to contact your business by phone, fax or email, it can get pretty close depending on how well you do at the new ways of following up: answering Tweets, updating your statuses, adding friends and followers and spending time answering comments about your content.  One of the great things about following up online, is that your answers remain for all to see and have a much longer-lasting effect than a simple one-on-one phone conversation could.

Remember that for every new task you find yourself being a part of, there are at least two benefits to outweigh any discomfort you may have.  First, your answers become a part of the web as a whole and will continue answering other peoples’ questions for months and even years to come.  And second, the more your market becomes comfortable with you being accessible, the more likely they will be to contact you through one of these new avenues instead of through interrupting you with a phone call or sending an email that may very well get lost in translation.

9th Commandment – Thou shalt PROMOTE your website at every opportunity – Your website is sort of like the best employee you’ve ever or will ever have.  It doesn’t sleep.  It takes orders without rolling its eyes.  You can yell at it all you want and it will still perform the same for you each and every day.  Eventually, you’ll learn to get used to that dedication and allow your website to work harder so you can work smarter.

Just because your company is now online, doesn’t mean you should go and neglect all the tools and strategies that helped get you this far.  One of the first things you’ll need to do is add your website to your business cards, letterhead and other marketing materials.  The next thing you’ll want to do is build a presence on as many social networks as you have time for, keeping in mind that consistency and branding still matter online.

Especially when your site is new, you’ll probably be excited to share the news with others that your company has finally arrived in the 21st Century.  Take every opportunity to invite others to check it out and provide you with their honest feedback.  Remember, even though it’s your baby, it’s got a life of its own out in internet land and things change quicker than you can likely keep up with. As I’ve always said, the best feedback is constant feedback.  Asking for suggestions is also a great way to promote your site and make people feel like their input matters.

10th Commandment – Thou shalt MAINTAIN your website constantly – Unlike the rest of your marketing materials, your website is a living, breathing entity that requires constant attention and care.  Now, that doesn’t mean you have to do it necessarily, but you will need to find a capable person that understands your vision who can spend a few minutes a day and several hours a week updating your site.  Of course there is a line, but generally, the more care and attention you give, the better off (and more efficient) it will become.

For me, our website IS our company.  It’s the heart and soul, the customer service department, our best salesperson, our very own media, the receptionist, the union leader, the night watchman and the accountant all rolled into one.  The reason for this is simple: because we’ve taken the time over a period of years to cultivate the site into those things and built in every tool to streamline the business and cut waste out of our company culture.  We spend countless hours researching new and improved tools we can add and writing and publishing valuable content that keeps Google satisfied enough to continue sending us a steady stream of traffic.  And it pays off.

Follow these 10 Commandments vigilantly and you too, can see your baby grow up and assume as much responsibility as you are comfortable giving it.  If you put in the time each step of the process, you will virtually assure your new website’s success.  And just in case it seems too overwhelming now, I’ll add one bonus commandment to help you focus.

11th Commandment – Thou shalt ENJOY growing with your website – What seems like a chore at first you’ll soon learn to cherish.  Much like your child is born and is grown and off on their own faster than you ever could have imagined, your website will also begin to carry on a life of its’ own.  Honestly, if you do everything right, you’ll be so busy growing your business that you won’t have time to spend with your website anymore, a task you’ll undoubtedly throw to a lower-level employee or even someone unaffiliated with your company at all.

I can’t ever imagine having to do that myself because I’ve enjoyed growing the site from just a single page a few years ago to hundreds and hundreds of pages today.  Even when business was down, we were always there for each other, letting each other know that if we continued to work hard and improve ourselves, we’d have a long and prosperous future together.

By following these commandments, that prosperity will surely come your way, as well, but before you become too successful, I highly encourage you to spend some quality time to get to know the best employee you’ll ever have.

Enjoy!

What is your relationship with your company website like?  Let us know and hopefully we can offer some more personal advice or point you to a tool or two.