Techniques: Web Wise

Designing a fabulous home page is incredibly simple. So how come hardly anyone does?

Every week someone sends me another one of those E-mails. It's a heartfelt plea from the owner of a small business, and it usually starts out "I saw [they never say 'read'] your book and I need some help. My wife and I sell an all-natural hamster food, and we want to put up a Web site."

That's fine. I'm all for small business. I am one. And if you sell something a little bit left of center, more profits to you. The Web typically works best for businesses that are very big or for those whose offerings are very narrow. Niches rule.

The slaying part comes at the end: "What should we do on our Web site to make it successful?" I'm reminded of my seventh-grade science teacher who gave a one-question final exam: "Describe the universe and give three examples."

The fact is, a small company can do dozens of things on its site, but only a handful really matter. And--wonder of wonders--the ones that matter also tend to be the least expensive. Ignore what the vendors tell you: you will not automatically increase sales by implementing a database that remembers that customer 4501298/sg748 buys all-natural hamster food only on Thursdays. Installing a customer-relationship-management system that knows to the penny how much it costs to get a lead and turn it into a sale will not necessarily help your bottom line. These tools aren't cheap, and the return on your investment will not pull you out of the red unless you are A Large Web Site that enjoys visits from Millions Of Visitors.

What you must give users is, at minimum, what they have come to expect from other Web sites. To do that, you need to know what sites your customers frequent. Media Metrix (which provides demographic data about World Wide Web usage) reports that Internet users tend to hang out at places like www.aol.com, www.yahoo.com, and www.netscape.com. These sites are known as portals because they act as doorways to the rest of the Internet, but they also perform enormous amounts of work in their own right. They declare intent. They tell visitors what's in it for them. And they offer quick access to actionable information.

If you think of your own home page as a kind of miniportal--that is, as a guiding light to the real information that resides inside--and make your miniportal as easy to pass through as possible, then you will have gone a long way toward creating a successful site.

YOU HAVE NOTHING TO HIDE
First things first: your home page must contain your company's name, address, and phone number. So obvious it's laughable, right? You'd think so, but IBM, an $82-billion company, makes site visitors click five times to find its address in Armonk, N.Y. Try it and you'll feel as if you're living through the opening credits of the old sitcom Get Smart, passing through one door only to find another--and then another.

In addition to showing the world you're smarter than IBM, your home page must explain exactly what it is you do. And slapping on the company name isn't usually enough. Power Lift Corp. displays its name and slogan, "Everything from the ground up," in letters large enough to be read across the room. Still, visitors might think they were on the site of an elevator manufacturer if the home page didn't also immediately list all the company's product lines: "Lift Trucks; Parts, Tires & Service; Warehousing Systems; People Movers; and Power Clean Systems." Still not perfectly clear? Power Lift has thoughtfully posted a small, simple picture next to each phrase so that visitors who aren't entirely sure what a People Mover is can just shift their eyes to the right and see, oh yeah, it's one of those carts that putter around golf courses and airports.

Given the complexity of its offerings, QSS Group needs more than a few words to describe itself, and its products don't exactly lend themselves to pictures. But the company wastes no time letting visitors know its business: "Our technology capabilities encompass network management, software engineering, ADP security engineering, client/server applications development, hardware maintenance and EDI support, and physical modeling and algorithm development, as well as software configuration management and IV&V." That's a mouthful--and probably a meaningless mouthful to someone just stumbling across the site. But QSS Group isn't interested in accidental tourists; it wants potential customers to know immediately that they've come to the right place. That description does the trick.

OK, your visitors know what you do; now they need to know how to get around. When it comes to home-page navigation, cleanliness truly is next to godliness. That lesson has not been learned by Krystal Kleen Karpet Kare, whose home page is nowhere near as pristine as its customers' wall-to-walls. Sin number one: the page gives visitors nothing to click on upon arrival, forcing them to scroll. Sin number two: the home page is crammed with all sorts of Web gimcrackery including a scrolling marquee at the bottom of the window, a blinking Java clock, color-shifting text, a LinkExchange banner ad for some other Web site, and--sin number three--the dreaded Under Construction sign. There's also a slew of pointless animations, a page-view counter, and a plug for Krystal Kleen's Web-development company. Finally, the home page informs visitors that it was last updated on November 23, 1996 (except the site has the comma in the wrong place), a time so long past that you can practically feel the dust wafting up your nose.