What shape for your Web site?
At some stage in the design process, you will need to consider how you wish to model your Web site. The particular Real World model or combination of models that you take as your starting point will have effects on a great many factors: the initial development time, maintenance overheads, and project complexity to name but a few.
The Corporate Brochure
The simplest form of Web site by far is the Corporate Brochure – an electronic version of a standard printed corporate profile that essentially outlines who your company is, and what products and services you provide.
The benefits of this type of site are that it is generally smaller and cheaper, and has fewer maintenance overheads than some of the other site models. The information in a Corporate Brochure site is usually more static than in other forms of site, and need only be changed to reflect changes in the business itself, whether it be personnel, business objectives or location, for instance.
The down side to having a smaller site is that there is less information available to prospective customers, and to search engines.
Extending the Corporate Brochure by adding a library of documents related to the company, the business or the applications of the company products brings in many more visitors – and usually repeat visitors, if the site is regularly expanded.
One major benefit of adding an authoritative, accurate information resource to a corporate Web site is that the more text content there is in the site that is relevant to the subject, the more
meat there is for the search engine index process to dig into.
A simplified view of the issues is to consider that if you have a single page on your site relating to steel and iron work, a search engine will find that your site has some connection to steel and iron work, and will list your site when people search for steel and iron.
If, on the other hand, imagine that you have a page about steel and iron work, three pages about the applications of steel and iron work in architectural features, four about applications in gardens, one about ornamental features, two on the history of iron foundries, seven on famous iron welding pioneers, and three on tools and techniques. In this case, a search engine will naturally find that your site is absolutely, definitely, completely about iron and steel, and list your site close to the top of the lists when people search for steel and iron.
Add to this the fact that your documents will naturally contain a large number of terms and references that are associated with iron and steel, which means that your site will also be listed when people search for information about galvanising, welding, steel foundries, and so on. Not only do these visitors have the potential to become customers, but many search engines keep track of the number of visitors who follow links to your site. Popular sites are listed higher in the directories than unpopular ones. Even accidental visitors count.
The more valid, worthwhile content you have, the more chance there is of other Web sites linking to your content – or of people noticing and recommending your content to others. Consider how many local, regional and national newspapers and magazines regularly include Web site addresses in articles. Having worthwhile content gives your site more chance of receiving such advertising.
The major benefits here are largely that more content has the potential to draw in more visitors. A content-rich site is likely to be treated more favourably by search engines than an more sparse site. Providing accurate, comprehensive information can enhance the perceived credibility as far as your visitors are concerned – a useful, authoritative information resource suggests that your company knows what it is doing.
A downside to the information resource model is the time required to draw together the information and present it appropriately, as well as the fact that it is made most useful if the information store is added to on a semi regular basis. A static collection of information – especially if it is labeled with creation dates or has date references – can suggest that something bad may have happened to the company, and that the company may not be the best choice.
The Online Sales Catalogue
Online catalogues are one of the simplest – and most common Web sites, but any Web site will still need some maintenance from time to time.
A more dynamic form of comprehensive site model is that of the Sales Catalogue. Products and services are presented for customers to look through, and perhaps search, to determine what your company offers, and what products or services would best match their needs.
One major consideration with a sales catalogue format is that it must be kept up to date, and seen to be up to date.
If the catalogue ever even appears to fall out of date, it becomes useless. Customers need to know that if they are visiting your Web site to find out what you can offer them today: the Web site must be seen to genuinely reflect what you can offer here and now, and not what you could offer a month or three months ago. Think of the image projected to customers if a shop window has a banner reading
Ask about our Christmas Specials in March…
Outdated information on a Web site – particularly where product or service ranges are concerned – quickly damage the credibility in the eyes of potential customers. It is not unheard of for Web sites to outlive companies particularly where the site is paid for in advance. If your Web site lists details that are self-evidently two or three months old, some consumers will wonder whether they will get through to anyone other than the official receivers when they call your company.
Newsletters can contain content edited from other news sources, as long as it is reworked and localised to use an angle your visitors will be interested in.
The Company Newsletter model for a Web site requires a regularly updated newsletter or bulletin that you can use to inform your customer base of your current arrangements, activities and offers.
By including fill-in forms on your Web site for visitors to opt-in to an email newsletter, you will be able to compile a list of partially qualified prospective customers, with the potential to convert them to paying customers. You should always make sure, however, that the newsletter subscription list is used for useful newsletters as well as just prospective customers – people are signing up for a newsletter, with the side benefit for you that they may be customers, not the other way round. Newsletters should always include instructions on how to unsubscribe from the list, but this can be balanced by including information on passing the newsletter on to friends and colleagues so that they can subscribe – in this way it is possible to include the
how to unsubscribe instructions in a section about the newsletter process, rather than actively encouraging the readers to unsubscribe.
Newsletters should always be sent in such a way as to hide the email addresses of subscribers from each other
A newsletter, by definition, needs to be updated frequently and reliably. It needs to be remembered that time needs to be set aside regularly to provide updates to the newsletter. The newsletter must be updated when the site says it should – again, once the newsletter slips, it becomes less reliable, and the customer perception of the newsletter plummets.
By including an archived copy of previous newsletters on your Web site, you can give visitors an opportunity of seeing what they are going to sign up for, should they opt into the list, as well as providing more content for search engines to index and analyse.
If you are requesting email addresses and possibly other details to create a subscription list for a newsletter, you should also include a page for a privacy statement – reassuring your visitors that you will not be misusing any information they give you. Privacy statements, once issued, should – like any promises to your customers – be followed and adhered to in all instances.
Establishing a Community
Any online community through use of a noticeboard will require time dedicated to ‘policing’ the content – as the owner of the Web site you have overall responsibility for libel, defamation and downright abusiveness.
Depending on the nature of your business – and your customers, the community model may be appropriate. The simplest form is a notice board in which your customers can discuss their requirements with you, and with other customers, building up a community of your long-term customers. This relies on a greater deal of complexity from the Web site, but is easily achievable by many different means, depending on the features required, and the sophistication you are looking for.
It gives a higher level of interactivity than either a catalogue or a newsletter, but becomes a gimmick for the sake of gimmickry if there is no real purpose to having a discussion forum or notice board.
Again, if you are looking to register users – as for a newsletter – and collect information from them, you will need to include a privacy statement.
When this is coupled with the loyalty created by membership of a site community, the studies also show that the value of sales generated by community members accounts for nearly two thirds of the total sales volume, even though the number of registered site visitors may be only a third of the total unique visitors to a site based on a community model.
Studies have shown that the more often a visitor returns to a Web site, the greater the likelihood of them purchasing through the Web site, or directly from the company behind the Web site.
Focus on Your Needs
The best approach in a given situation will depend on your particular business needs. If your business operates primarily on one-off customers, it makes less sense to try to build some kind of
community spirit than if you rely on a core of repeat clients with a long working relationship, built up over time.
Always think in terms of meeting goals rather than finding uses for the technological toys.
The most important consideration of all is that of
Why. While it is important to look at what the web presence does, and later to look at how it is to be achieved, the over-riding question needs to always be why.
Unless it is part of your business or it can convince them to spend money with you, it is unlikely that your customers and prospective customers will be coming to your Web site to watch animations, play games, or join in with a message forum, for instance.
They will come to your Web site to find out about you, your business, and what you can do for them.