If you don't speak the language, it's tricky to find a web site expert who doesn't leave you feeling stunned and a tad obtuse. Professionals dedicated to non-technical vocations (who otherwise have very well-used brains) get downright vexed when it's time to talk about Web site development. For practical guidance, I posed a few questions to Joe Charlton, president and founder of Mystyc Strategic Creative Solutions. Charlton started the Internet development company in 1996, and Mystyc makes its home in downtown Portland, Maine.
Kimberly McCall: A small-business owner created her site years ago, but now she's ready to spruce it up and work with a Web development company. What steps should she take?
Take a look at what your competitors are doing. How could you surpass them in service? Determine what you like and don't like about their message.
Consider internal assets such as photography, art elements, logos, and print materials, all of which will go a long way toward establishing a theme. Retaining a basic brand consistency is key to translating online exposure to offline behavior.
Evaluate existing systems (customer relationship management systems, human resource systems, existing databases) in your organization that might benefit from online integration. Leveraging these systems can pay off long term, though it will increase your initial investment substantially.
Know your time frame. If you need quick turnaround, but still want the power of a comprehensive solution, the process of "parallel phases" might be the right approach. Look for a provider that is flexible and not frozen by rigid methodology.
Establish a budget for your project, and communicate that budget to providers to save both parties from wasted time and effort.
Understand the infrastructure in place to maintain the product once it's launched. How technically savvy are the resources assigned to that task? Will you be outsourcing maintenance?
Plan to gauge the success of the project. How long before you can expect a return on your investment? What will that return look like? Is it quantifiable?
KM: What elements go in to a site that is both nice to look at as well as functional?
JC: A positive user experience is dependent on a balance of good design, usability, functionality, information and speed. To achieve this, you must invest an appropriate amount of time, energy and resources into strategy and planning. Applying proven business and marketing plans and processes to online investments allow for optimal performance and a greater return from your Web site.
KM: What's the trick to getting high placement in search engine listings?
JC: There's no trick here. This requires an intimate understanding of the principles and standards established by each search engine, and developing your site by utilizing proven techniques.
According to Beyond Ink, a search engine optimization (SEO) company in Portland, each of the major search engines has a different method, or algorithm, for ranking sites in its database by the Internet searcher's keywords. To keep users coming back, search engines want searchers to be able to find quality information and therefore rank Web sites by relevancy. In this sense, your Web site must have content relevant to what is searched for, and be considered popular by the quality of links into and out of your site.
Establishing quality links not only improves your rankings, but drives targeted traffic from similar, non-competing sites.
Search sites account for just under 7% of global referrals. Direct navigation (typing in the URL) and bookmarks together accounted for the largest percentage of referrals with 47%.
KM: Mystyc has created sites for quite an array of industries including law and retail. How do you determine the tone, look and feel of each site?
JC: Our ultimate goal is to present clients as leaders in their industry through comprehensive and cohesive design principles. Basic considerations essential for a successful Web presence include:
web site navigation
An interface isn't just a pretty picture - it's our client's store or office, a virtual projection of their organization. Visitors expect a pleasant experience, and quick and easy access to information. We work closely with clients to determine business objectives. We make recommendations along the way, present design compositions and/or documents for approval, and then go about building it.
KM: Finally, please tell me there's something you can do about spam.
JC: Spam originates from companies and individuals who obtain e-mail addresses flying across the Internet every second. Databases and ListServes (automated e-mail mailing systems) are leveraged to collect, organize and distribute e-mail for any number of purposes-mostly marketing!
As a provider of web hosting and e-mail service, we filter as much identifiable unsolicited mail as we can and prevent it from routing to our clients. It's extremely difficult because filters with too many restrictions may prevent intended mail from making it to its intended recipient.
You can fight some of the influx of unsolicited mail by installing software specifically designed to filter spam. Look in your existing e-mail program to determine if you have these tools already. Or download filtering software from utility software sites like tucows.com or cnet.com. Only opt-in or subscribe to those sites that really interest you. The more you leave your e-mail address out there, the more lists you'll end up on and the more likely you'll become a target.