What Makes a Great Website?

05/11/2009 | Michael Martinelli Jr.

Of course we all want our website to look great. But what actually makes a "GREAT" website? Hint Hint: It's more than just graphics and a fancy logo - Read on to find out...

Not only do we want people to browse and buy, we want them to return to browse and buy more! We also want them to tell their friends and family. (Can you say word of mouth?)

We want the whole experience on our site enjoyable. So, in addition to looking good the site has to be functional. It's got to be easy to navigate and user friendly. This means having a well laid out structure with 100% working links, readable text and crisp clear graphics. If we are selling physical products, our photography has to be excellent - after all, no one likes small blurry pixilated photos. (for more on taking excellent pictures check out "A picture is worth 1000 words")

All these things might sound obvious but I visit sites each day that break many of these "rules". Let's break things down a bit:

Graphics:

  • We'll want crisp clear graphics but we'll also want them to be small in file size so they load quickly! This can easily be achieved with the proper compression techniques using the latest photo editing programs. You graphics designer should be familiar with how to do this. Slicing them up is also important and when done correctly will also reduce page load times. One final though on graphics is to use alternative text wherever possible. If users have browser images turned off alt text will help them navigate more easily.
  • In addition to file size, we have file format. Jpg, gif, png, bmp etc etc. These are all formats we've seen before but what do they all mean? The most common is the jpg format. 95% of your site "should" consist of jpg's. Forget bmp's for the web, they take too long to load. Gif's should be used for specific instances where transparency or animation is necessary. However, a gif is limited to only 256 colors, so high tech fades and gradients won't look too great saved as a gif. Png's might seem like the best option as they are palette based RGB images lending to wonderful crisp transparent images. HOWEVER, not all browsers render png's correctly; so my recommendation is to stay away from them for now and go with jpg's and gifs. Again, we'll want to watch file size, especially with an animated gif.
  • Standard graphic links look good but aren't always search engine friendly. Search engines LOVE text. Always try to have mostly text links or try incorporating CSS image links. These look nice to users AND search engines - the best of both worlds. As mentioned above if users have browser images turned off they won't be able to see your links - alt text will solve this problem as will CSS links.

Site Layout:

  • Site layout is important because it's the groundwork for the entire user experience. If someone is having a difficult time navigating, they'll just leave and not come back. Each page should follow the same layout and all links should be easily accessible. A lot of sites use a top and side menu. This is a fine idea. Another common practice is to repeat all links at the footer of each page - another great idea. We always want users to be able to click on something so it's important to always have links visible; however don't overload the site with links. Too many links will confuse visitors. We don't want confusion.
  • Text is probably the most important part of what makes a site great. With this in mind we'll want to make sure our text is readable & grammatically correct. We'll want to make sure it's large enough and contrasting enough to see but also easy on the eyes. Light text on a dark background is a no-no. Not just on the web either. It's very hard on the eyes and concentration rates go down dramatically. So, even if someone does read the content on your site they are less likely to remember it. I'll personally leave a site if the text is white on black - it just hurts my eyes. Light on dark is fine for bursts, snipes or call to action copy, but for articles, or main content avoid it. Obviously black or dark gray on white is pleasing on the eyes and the way to go. As far as font size, think about your audience - more and more older people are on the internet these days so bumping up the font size might be in the cards for your site. Finally, always try to keep as much text as actual text, not images. Site layout is important because it's the groundwork for the entire user experience. If someone is having a difficult time navigating, they'll just leave and not come back. Each page should follow the same layout and all links should be easily accessible. A lot of sites use a top and side menu. This is a fine idea. Another common practice is to repeat all links at the footer of each page - another great idea. We always want users to be able to click on something so it's important to always have links visible; however don't overload the site with links. Too many links will confuse visitors. We don't want confusion.
  • Site width should also be monitored. We don't want visitors having to scroll horizontally. Large or improperly sized or positioned images can result in forcing users to scroll horizontally. We should size our site to work with screen resolutions of 1024x768 or larger or code the site to always fit 100% of the screen size - no matter what that is. This is sometimes a difficult task but an experienced programmer can handle the job.
  • Frames - Forget them...they are navigation nightmares and search engines hate them.
  • Flash - In my opinion flash is nice for intros, videos or banners. However, an entire site built using flash is hard to navigate plus search engines can't make sense of them. Some people like to right-click to open a new window or tab and this is not possible with a flash based site. Again navigation is difficult and clicking "back" or "forward" usually doesn't do what we want.

Site content:

  • We can't forget content can we? Of course not! Obviously content has to be relevant. Content includes information about your company and products and things like frequently asked questions, directions to your physical store & testimonials. Always make sure product descriptions are thorough, accurate and updated. If your site is news or article based, in addition to being thorough and accurate you'll want to make sure content is added and updated OFTEN. This will keep users coming back and page rank high. Also consider an rss feed. This will allow users to subscribe to your content for instant updates. CMS's are great for content and article based sites. They are search engine friendly, easy to use and allow for multiple users. In addition to relevancy, your content needs to be grammatically correct. Bad grammar is a turn off and sends a bad message about your business. If you're not the best writer or speller, hire a professional proofreader or copy editor. They are well worth the price. Finally, ALL CAPS, a lot of red or colored type, slang & fancy hard-to-read fonts are all no no's when it comes to main content.
  • Internal links throughout your site are also a good idea. If you can make navigating your site easier, users are certainly going to stay longer thus making their whole experience more enjoyable. Internal links are links within the site other than the links on your main navigation areas. These links might be the same links, but they are within the copy wherever relevant. Contact us for more information on internal links (That's an internal link). If you look up to the end of the 3rd paragraph of this article, I link to another article on product photography - that too is an internal link. Again it just makes the whole user experience a positive one. (it also keeps them on your site longer)
  • Site maps are great easy ways for aiding navigation at a glance. They are also great for the search engines. Make sure your site map is linked to from your home page and also make sure it's always updated.
  • Under construction pages are typically a turn off. If a page isn't done, don't link to it. If you absolutely must show a page that isn't complete simply apologize, give them a date the page will be available (if possible) and make sure to provide additional links for help such as a contact page, an FAQ page or site map. If listing a date when available make sure to hit this date or it will just annoy the visitor even more.
  • Now that your graphics look good, load quick and you have people easily navigating your site you'll need some call to action. You'll want display all discounts, deals, special prices or new products so everyone can see them. Make sure the message is clean and concise so adding to the cart is an easy decision for your visitors. You'll also want a clean visible "add to cart" button associated with every product. A "View Shopping Cart" link should be available everywhere so once shopping is done visitors can be 1 easy click away from their cart and checkout. The whole checkout process should be quick and easy. We don't want abandon rates through the roof because the checkout process is a pain! Test, test and test the checkout process again so it's perfect.
  • Free web hosting is something you want to stay away from. Most of the time the site will be riddled with ads or be forced into a frame. These limitations are ugly, unprofessional and horrible for search engines. Web hosting is so cheap these days with greater discounts available for pre-paying for a year (or more). Don't worry about space or bandwidth either as this isn't a problem now-a-days.
  • Submitting your website often isn't necessary and not even recommended. This is bad practice and search engines might ignore your site if you frequently submit it.

Behind the scenes:

  • The title of your site is very important. It's what shows up when your site appears in search results letting the viewer know if it's relevant or not. Of course you'll want to make sure you have 2 keywords in your title as they will help with page rank.
  • Meta tags are another great way to help page rank. You'll want to make sure the description describes what your website is all about - again weaving in some keywords. Meta keywords are often overlooked. You'll want to make sure to have a bunch. Consider using some misspelled keywords too. Many people misspell their search terms so why not capitalize on this. Keyword phrases are great too.
  • As mentioned above, in some instances, using alt text are is a great way to help navigation in addition to helping increase page rank. Alt text is also referred to as a "tool tip".

In conclusion, there are A LOT of things we need to do consider in order to create a GREAT website. It's a ton of work but well worth it on the end. Our users will appreciate the effort and reward us with returned visits, multiple purchases and probably best of all - word of mouth!