Tuesday, September 22, 2009

(Not So) Secrets of a Great Website

After years of having what is known as a “billboard in the middle of the Sahara desert”—a website nobody ever saw—I finally did something right. I created a website that does what it’s supposed to do: inform, educate, help, and attract people. I certainly would never claim to have done this alone. I had a great deal of help on the technical and marketing side from an expert who brought me from dark ages into the 21st century.

Change takes place on the Internet faster than the speed of DSL, sound, or light. I am not technologically gifted, to say the least. Nothing about computers, the WWW, RSS, SEO, web design, blogging, podcasting, tweeting, getting around Amazon, or even writing on someone’s wall in FaceBook comes naturally to me. It is not intuitive; it is learned. Then, as soon as I learn something, it becomes obsolete; and I have to learn something newer, more sophisticated, and usually more complicated. It’s a daily battle, but a necessary one if I am to remain competitive in my field.

My website could certainly use improvement, I know. Yet, bells and whistles don’t seem to be the criteria Web surfers demand. The question is what is it that garners good ratings in the search engines; encourages casual visitors to click on links and read articles; e-mail with questions about book coaching, ghost writing, and editing; sign up for a newsletter; or add a book to their shopping carts.

Here are some of the lessons I have learned along the way. An effective website should do the following:

1. Have a clear, consistent theme.
Does your site have a single identifiable message? Will readers get it immediately or feel confused by too much variety? Web surfers have short attentions spans. If they are overwhelmed, they will move on.

2. Be easy to find.

Search engines find your site in many ways, but the most important is keywords. If you want Google or Yahoo to know you can help write or publish books, your site should be liberally sprinkled with keywords, or clues, that lead them right to you.

3. Be easy to get around once someone finds it.
Nothing is as frustrating as being lost in a sea of words and pictures and having no idea how to find the information you want. Your website should not be a scavenger hunt; it should be a transparent map that takes you directly to what you’re looking for.

4. Make sure your links work.
Almost as frustrating as being confused about content is, knowing exactly where you are and where you want to go, clicking on an obvious link, and finding there is no such page, or you ended up on the wrong one. Check your links often.

5. Convey your professionalism, trustworthiness, and credibility.
What does your website say about you? Of course, you would like it to shout out that you are good at what you do, you have experience and expertise, you are the expert the reader has been looking for. How do you do that without actually saying all those things? There is a rule in creative writing classes: show; don’t tell. Make that your mantra.

6. Establish a relationship with the reader.
Web 2.0 is all about relationships. It is no longer a one-way monologue; it is now a dialogue between you and your visitor. Your website is a way to say, “Hi, I’m __________. Let’s get to know each other. What interests you? How can I help? Let’s interact.”

7. Answer the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) question.
This should not be news to you: Your website is not about you; it is about your readers. What do they need and will they find it here? What is the benefit in terms of information, entertainment, enlightenment, or take-aways? Why should they hang around a while?

8. Add new features or update information frequently.
Think about yesterday’s newspaper. It may still have uses, but keeping you up to date on the latest news isn’t one of them. Things are happening in the world and in cyberspace. “Inquiring minds want to know.” So does Google, which thrives on new material.

9. Be packed with useful information.
The Web is the world’s biggest library, the encyclopedia of everything you could possibly want to know. When you stop to think about it, that’s pretty amazing. So, where do you and your little website fit into that enormous picture? You are a source of information someone is looking for. It’s up to you to provide as much as you can.

10. Give stuff away FREE.
Don’t hide your light under a bushel. Let it shine. Then, offer it to your reader. You will make a friend or at least a grateful Web surfer who will return. You cannot give away too much. You know more than you think you know. What good is it if you don’t share it?

11. Avoid being an obvious commercial for products or service.
Few things are more annoying than searching for information and finding, instead, one long ad for something to buy—a training program, a series of videos, books, tricks on how to increase traffic to your blog … you get the idea. These sites have lost sight of rules and 9. Be packed with useful information and 10. Give stuff away FREE.

I didn't learn these common sense rules early or easily. I read them; I heard them; I observed them on other people's websites; and, often, people gave them away for FREE. What a concept.