Everything You Know About Website Design Is Right

No it’s not. Everything you know about website design is wrong.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 9/1/2004; Law Practice magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; publisher: American Bar Association

I recently relaunched my redesigned website. During the redesign process, I decided to forget everything I had ever read (or written) about website design and Start From Scratch. What if everything you knew (or thought you knew) about website design was wrong? How would you design your website? Here’s what I did.

Content Is King

Content is not king. If you need to crown a concept, let’s say that commerce is king. Many have said that “content is king” based on the Field-of-Dreams-inspired notion that if you write it, they will come. True, having compelling, clear, and concise content is helpful. Search engines may index your website’s content, people may search for that content, may find your firm, may contact you, and may hire you. In a perfect world, maybe. In the real world, no. For many reasons.

First, as Thomas L. Bohan Winston Churchill said, it doesn’t take all types, but there are all types. People may be using search engines to search for stuff, and it may be your stuff, but more likely than not, it’s random stuff. Here are the top ten search strings for my website last month:

  1. biggest subwoofer
  2. www.spongebobsquarepants.com
  3. world’s biggest subwoofer
  4. old versions of software
  5. open source quickbooks
  6. www.spongebob squarepants.com
  7. eating coffee beans
  8. spongebob squarepants.com
  9. parody law
  10. sloganator

Nuff said.

Second, search engine content is not king. You can count on some traffic coming to your site from search engines, but you should not count on all of it. Last month, my website received about 73,000 page views, which is more than RedStreet (Rick’s an my former consulting company) ever received. So far, so good. But look more closely. Fully 80% of the hits were “direct hits,” that is, hits that did not come from another website or search engine. Of the top 10 identifiable referring websites, five were search engines or RSS aggregators (Google, Yahoo, MSN (2), Radio) but the other five were “referrer spam” hits (i.e. bogus hits from sites designed to get traffic to their websites from my site), and 4 of those 5 referrer spam sites were porn sites. Nice.

Third, if you want website traffic, you should not count on the search engines spidering your site. In the 1990s, search engines would spider your website for free because they wanted a larger database so that more people would use their service. You could pay someone to “optimize” your site (titles, meta tags, file names, etc. – the “search engine optimization” or SEO market), but you’d be throwing your money away, because Google and company are smarter than the SEO consultants and will always make placement a moving target. Today, search engines don’t generally spider websites for free because they don’t need your content. (Content is not even king for them anymore. Branding is. But that’s another story.) Plus they are more than willing to take your money to get included in their databases, either by charging to get spidered (the “paid inclusion” market) or charging for particular search terms ( the “pay for placement” or P4P market).

Fourth, good content is hard to write. I recall a cross-country road trip in the roaring 1990s(with Rick and company) where we spoke about website design to dozens of audiences of lawyers. We assumed that each law firm could produce two compelling pieces of content per attorney. A 100-person firm, 200 good articles. A 17-person firm, 34 good articles. Firms rarely met this target. Those that met the two-articles-per-lawyer average were the smaller firms. But will 20 articles create enough traffic for a 10-person firm? Probably not.

Blogs Rule And You Should Get A Blog

Weblogs, while certainly the most important development on the Internet since the web itself, do not rule and you should not get a blog. At least not for the sake of getting a blog. Did I mention that good content is hard to write? Blogs are great for those lawyers who enjoy writing and write well. (For the record, I consider myself an above average writer with exceptionally lucky timing. Kind of like Bill Gates with software. Except that I graduated from college. And he has a net worth on par with the GNP of New Zealand.) But blogs are not the be-all and the end-all of marketing.

Just as a the web should be part of an overall Internet marketing plan, an Internet marketing plan should be part of an overall marketing plan. I spend money on Internet marketing, including blogging and redesigning my website, but I also spend money on direct mail, event marketing, and print advertising.

One month, I tried to blog every day of the month. I succeeded. I also billed fewer hours than any month that year. Blog if you enjoy it, but if you do so, measure the cost of your time spent blogging and include that when you calculate the ROI. Oh yeah, calculate the ROI and cost-per-sale (CPS) for all of your marketing activities.

Design For Job Seekers, Current Clients, And Prospective Clients

Do not design for multiple audiences. Design for one audience: prospective clients. At least at first. Imagine this scenario. You’ve hired an ad agency to run a print ad campaign in a prominent publication and you’ve budgeted $20,000 for the campaign. The agency has created a message, a theme, and a call-to-action. Now they tell you, “OK, we’re going to target this ad at people who are thinking about working for you, clients who have already hired you, and (oh yeah) some folks who might want to hire you. Sign here.” I think I would fire that ad agency. So why do we think we can do the same with websites?

A smattering of law firms need a website that targets three audiences, and these firms can afford (and should probably have) three separate websites. The rest of us are interested primarily in finding new clients. Or having new clients find us, as the case may be. Do one thing, do it well, design a site to market — and sell — your service.

Include Navigation Elements

Do not include navigation elements. If you have gone to the trouble of attracting visitors to your website (either by writing great articles, paying for inclusion in search engines, or launching 99 red balloons with your website URL on them), don’t let them wander willy-nilly all over your website.

Treat your website like a print advertisement. Have a message. Have a theme. Have a call to action. Figure out what service your prospective clients want to buy, demonstrate that you are an excellent choice for that service, and walk them through the reasons why.

In fact, try to have a scroll-bar-free website. Have all content fit in one screen. If you can’t fit your content in one screen, it’s probably not worth saying. At least not on a website designed to market — and sell — your service.

For those of you who like to measure website stats and think I’m loopy, check your pages-per-visitor stats. In other words, of the tens of thousands of visitors who come to your site each month, how many visit just one page? Just two? Is your average over three? If so, that’s great. Now consider that you probably have one — maybe two — pages to tell your story. FWIW, while my website traffic has been increasing dramatically (it’s twice what it was last year), my pages-per-visitor stats remain steady at just over two. I’m hoping to double this stat over the next year.

Include Email Addresses And Phone Numbers

Do not include email addresses at all. Unless you like spam. Do not include fax numbers. Unless you like spam faxes. Do not include phone numbers. Unless you like telemarketers. You don’t want everybody who visits your website to have your email address. I currently receive over 400 email messages per day, 95% of which is spam.

You may not even want everybody to visit your website. It is possible to block access to your website by IP address or domain name. Certain countries generate more spam than others, and it is certainly possible to block most traffic from the offending countries. Believe me, it is going to come to this. Within five years, there will be a unified standard for blacklisting IP addresses and domain names to block unwanted email, website spam traffic (referrer spam), blog spam comments, IM spam (SPIM), and the like.

Include a call-to-action on your website. Just like your print ads. Make the call-to-action a form, and program the email address into the CGI script so that it is not discoverable (even when viewing the HTML source for the page) your sites human an non-human visitors. And make it a selling form, not a feedback form. If you have successfully marketed your service by walking your prospective clients through a story and to your form, then sell them with the form.

Update Your Website Constantly

Do not update your website. Write good content or hire someone to write it. Create traffic (by blogging, launching balloons, or paying for it). Tell your story. Market your service. Then sell your service. But let the website work. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. At least give it a few years until you realize that everything you though you know about your new website is wrong (again).

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