Most websites fall into one (or more) of these categories - consider which could be most suitable for you:
A small business | A catalogue | Online sales | Product information | Instruction manual | Trouble-shooting guide | List of links | Staff details | Location details | Dialogue-building | Fun and games | Freebies | Portal | Newsletter | Guided tour | Corporate statement | Thumbnail gallery | Background information | Private sites | More
A typical website for a small business has around 5 to 20 pages. These include a group of standard pages, and some special pages, unique to that site. The standard pages include:
If you sell a wide range of products, an online catalogue is a very useful asset. Customers can browse through it, maybe search for an item they're after, and even see pictures of it. With an e-commerce site, they can even order it there and then, paying for it with a credit card.
Depending on the number of products you offer, and the amount of detail provided for each product, you can either have (a) all the products listed on one large web page, or (b) a master list on a contents page, and a separate page for each product. Between those extremes is (c) a number of pages, with several related products on each. The choice depends on the number of products, and the amount of information to be displayed about each one. Large photos are slow to load, so the more photos to go in the catalog, the more pages it should be spread across. With options (a) and (c) you can have a quick index at the top of each page (as on this page) - a list of items at the top, so that the user can either click on an item and go straight to it, or else scroll down and read the lot.
It's a good idea to include as much product information as possible. Surveys of web users (e.g. this one by the Danish E-Commerce Assocation have found that the most common information sought by people buying products on the Web is detailed information about the product itself. This is particularly true when the person has not bought that product before, and the product is expensive and long-lasting.
A lot of mechanical and electronic devices come with a user manual - and after a year or two, the users often lose the manuals. Instead of keeping printed stocks of manuals for outdated products, why not put all your manuals on your web site? That way, customers (and resellers) can print off the manuals as needed. And a lot of manuals aren't very clearly written, or leave out steps that are obvious to the manufacturers, but not so obvious to customers. Often you only discover these problems after the manual is printed. If the manual is online, you can make minor changes and corrections without throwing out thousands of printed copies.
If you have a complex product, and have to spend a lot of time explaining its instructions to your customers, it can save a lot of time if you work out which questions are asked most often, and put the answers to all those questions on your web site. This is called FAQs - "frequently asked questions."
A lot of commercial sites don't have links to other sites - perhaps because they see them as competitors for the time of "their" visitors. But that's not the way the web works. The more outgoing links you have, the more incoming links you will get (other things being equal) and the more likely you are to figure prominently on search engine results. A good way to work out what sites to link to is to list your stakeholders: the organizations that you deal with most. For example, if you're selling products from manufacturers which have their own web sites (e.g. their own catalogues, manuals, and troubleshooting FAQs) it can be useful for your customers to provide internet links back to those web sites.
Links can be handled in two ways. The original way was to have a separate page containing only links. Audience Dialogue is moving away from that, on the ground that it's more useful to mention links when they occur in some context - so now you'll find links on this site mentioned where they are most relevant. Whichever linking format you use, it's important to keep them up to date. Nothing gives away the fact that a site is outdated as much as a lot of links that no longer work.
Web sites can be fairly impersonal, and surprisingly few businesses include details of their staff on their sites. A photo of the staff will help humanize a site. For some types of business (e.g. consultancies) it's appropriate to include staff résumés, so that potential customers can reassure themselves that they'll be dealing with experts.
A lot of businesses aren't good at telling customers where they are. We see a lot of junk mail from store chains which don't give details of their local addresses. Sometimes they say "Ring for store locations." (Why should we bother?) If your business is a type that has mostly new customers, and it's not easy for a potential customer to spot when going past, it can be an excellent idea to put a simple map on your web site - and a photo of the building, as seen from the road.
If a business is to build any kind of relationship with its customers, it needs to enter into a dialogue with them. Some kinds of businesses - such as retailers - are constantly seeing their customers. If yours is one of these, you may not think an Internet-based dialogue could be useful. But in practice you get different responses on the Net - because it can be easier to give honest criticism by email than face to face.
Businesses that never see most of their customers (e.g. radio stations) need dialogue even more. At the very least, customer dialogue involves putting your email address on your web site, and encouraging people to contact you with queries. (Of course, you need to answer their queries too - and as computers are supposed to be fast, they expect their queries to be answered within a day or so).
Another way of encouraging dialogue is with a guestbook. This is an electronic equivalent of the leather-bound books you sometimes see in tourist spots, where visitors write in their comments. The difference between email and a guestbook is that everybody can see the guestbook. If your customers are mostly happy, this can create a good image for the business.
However, spam is becoming a big problem with guestbooks. So instead of having a guestbook can no longer be self-managing - you need to set up a system that doesn't let just anybody make a comment. One way is to require all message-posters to register first; another way is to send all messages to an editor for approval before they are posted on the guestbook.
Sometimes a strait-laced corporate site will introduce a fun and games section, usually in an attempt to woo younger customers, and to get people to keep returning to the site. The fun and games can include jokes, riddles, contests, and so on - anything is possible. However such things soon wear out their welcome. It can be a lot of work, constantly updating your fun and games - unless you let your users do it for you. Many of these sites seem to be unsuccessful in bringing people back repeatedly, but word of mouth is often effective in creating a large turnover of viewers.
The secret lies in matching the fun and games to your type of product and your customers - e.g. a sports equipment shop could have a collection of sports trivia online, maybe in the form of a quiz.
The culture of the Web is that users expect something for free. To attract people to your site, you need to offer them something. (This site, for example, is giving you information right now that you might otherwise have to buy a book to get.) One of the best ways to attract people to your web site (and keep them coming back) is to offer a set of links to a group of other web sites in a particular subject area. For example, if you have a retail business, you could include links back to the sites of your major suppliers. Be warned, though: it takes constant work to keep lists of links up to date.
A portal is a gateway to the Internet: a site consisting mainly of lots of links. Companies which set up their sites as portals usually provide a lot of useful links to a wide range of popular sites, in the hope that people will set their browsers to visit the portal every time they access the internet. If enough visitors come to your site, you can put ads up there, and charge advertisers for the audience you have attracted. However, to build a good portal can cost a huge amount of money - and why would anybody visit a portal that's not comprehensive, and not constantly updated? Yahoo is a good example of a portal.
This is an excellent way of keeping your users in touch with what you've been doing. It's ideal for schools, community groups, etc, but if yours is the sort of business that runs steadily and seldom changes, you may not have much news to report. With a newsletter, you can build a mailing list of your customers, and send it to them by email. This is a much more effective reminder of your presence than putting the newsletter on your web site - as long as it goes out to people who want it. A more cunning way of doing this is to email a cut-down version of the newsletter, and invite them to read the full version on your web site.
Sometimes a web site tells a story, or needs to be read in a particular sequence. For example, a building company may have a set of web pages which show the steps involved in commissioning and building a new home.
In this case, a link is provided from each page to the next page, and another link back to the previous page.
But for this to work, the users need to be highly motivated to keep reading - otherwise, the risk is that they'll get bored and leave your site before reaching the most important pages.
This type of web site includes information about the business, such as annual reports, mission statements, objectives, and so on. This information can be pretty boring for customers, but useful for shareholders and investors. One way to avoid confusion is to have one website for customers and a separate one for shareholders, as some big companies do. For example, the shoe manufacturer Nike has: www.nike.com for customers and www.nikebiz.com for others. [Feb. 2006: only one site now]
If you have a lot of pictures to show your customers - such as paintings for sale, if you run an art gallery - there's the problem that pictures take a long time to download through a modem. A common solution is to show a screen full of tiny pictures ("thumbnails," they're called), and set up the web page so that when a user clicks on a thumbnail, a larger version of it is then displayed.
Finally we reach the category that this website belongs to: providing background information about some topic, usually the area of expertise of the organization that runs the website. These websites often don't have a domain name of type .com, more often .org or .net. They usually have a lot of words, but not many pictures, unless the topic is a pictorial one.
A large proportion of the Web is not available to the general public. If you have information you want to make available to restricted groups of people, you can do this in several ways - a password-protected login, or simply by not having links from the home page. You can't keep a site's whole existence secret: search engines will eventually find it, but they won't be able to guess the names of pages on the site. This enables you to set up a private area for your staff, your suppliers, your members, or other privileged people. All you have to do is tell them the URLs (web addresses) of the pages, and/or give them a username and password.
Private areas can also benefit your own staff - these are called "intranets" but they can also be secret or password-protected areas on a public site. For example, if you are travelling a lot and want to be able to access documents from anywhere without actually carrying them, you can upload them to the web site, and visit them from any computer with Web access.
Very briefly (these may later be expanded) ...
- Pages for shareholders and members - annual reports, financial statements,etc.
- Media releases - often labelled "newsroom".
- A list of clients, with links to clients' sites.
- Recommendations, tributes, awards won, and so on.
- Reviews of products and services, by customers and visitors to the site.
- Information for student projects.
- Relevant events - forthcoming and past.
- For exporters: information for target markets (in languages most used there), links to currency calculators, etc.
- For manufacturers (of anything): "How our products are made".