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Youthful Web design indiscretions

January 1, 2007
Jim Huber

I confess. Once upon a time, back when I was starting my career as a Web designer, I made an embarrassing claim. I used to quip that the Web was created for me by the forces above so that I would have a job I liked when I got out of school. As an artist with a Computer Science degree, designing Web sites was a perfect job for me.

That's what the Web was to me - a combination of graphics and programming. But that was over ten years ago. I was young. I needed the money. It was also way before I started up my Web development firm, Huberspace, and those were the things that I was hired to do. So I think it's forgivable.

If you have a site and you're thinking "What's to confess? What needs forgiving? What kind of sites were you doing?", then this white paper is for you.

An effective Web site is a lot more than cool graphics, HTML, and nifty programs. Yes, aesthetics are important. Just like at a job interview, it is important to look professional. No matter how qualified you are, if you show up wearing a stained T-shirt and ripped jeans, you're going home without a job. But a nice suit is not going to get you the job either.

It's also important for people to be able to find your Web site. So your site needs to be optimized for search engines. If your site has good content, then you should be in fairly good shape. Google, and others, just want to give users quality results. While there are techniques, shady and legitimate, to enhance rankings, it's important to at least know how to make your site search engine friendly. For instance, search engines can't read words found in graphic images. I've had people show me their site because they were concerned that they weren't getting any traffic. The sites looked very attractive, but they were nothing but graphics. The Web designer had no idea that search engines can't read text off of graphics.

But what good is a lot of traffic if no one does anything when they get to your site. Your commercial site is not a museum. It's more like the gift shop. You paid good money for your Web site because you want it to pay you back. Not necessarily with e-commerce or selling services to people who surf on through. With the proper marketing research, you'll know how your site should be designed to generate business from your site. Without a Web site marketing plan, you won't know what search engine optimization strategy to use, and you won't know what look and feel your site needs. Almost everything about your site will be derived from this research and analysis.

That's right. Almost everything. There are some other things, such as solid programming, Web standard compliant pages, etc. But beyond the technical junk, there's something more critical: usability. Essentially, how user-friendly your site is. All that other stuff is useless if people can't find their way around the site or find what they are looking for. I can talk a lot about all these different elements to effective Web sites, but this one I can go on and on and on. Back in the day, I never really thought about how user-friendly a site was, other than keeping load time to a minimum. Now, I've developed a good eye for that. It amazes me how many Web designers (especially graphic artists who do Web sites) and even site owners are hostile to usability concerns.

The learning process never ends. But after years of Web design, I've learned that graphics and programming alone do not make a great site. If your prospective Web designer says they do, tell him to come back in another ten years.