Web Design – More Than Just a Pretty Face

It seems like these days any Tom, Dick or Harriet can design a website, however all websites are not created equal.

Just because it looks lovely it doesn’t mean it’s going to help you meet your business goals. Your website has to be found, used and enjoyed, if it’s going to generate the leads and sales you’re hoping for.

Let’s say you want to create a new website, or update your current website. You have a logo and a color scheme. You have a pretty good idea of the content you want on the site. You’ve found a web designer who you’re confident will create a lovely looking website for you; you’ve seen their portfolio and they have lots of lovely websites in it.

But before you go ahead with the project, before you sign off on anything, in fact, before you even settle on your web designer, you should find out how they take account of the following:

  • Web Standards
  • SEO
  • Usability
  • Metrics

To get an idea of their awareness of these elements of web design and development, here are some useful questions to ask:

  1. What programming languages will you be using to build my website, and how will this effect search engine crawlability and indexing, user experience, and download time?
  2. How will my website be optimized for the search engines?
  3. (If a redesign) How will you make sure that the search engines and users can find my new website pages when the page names change?
  4. How will my website be optimized for users? Can I be confident that visitors will have a clear understanding of what my website is about, be able to navigate my site easily, and take the actions I want them to take?
  5. How will we measure results after the site is launched?

A good, knowledgeable web designer should be able to not only answer these questions, but also explain them in a way that makes sense to you.

Although elements like SEO, Usability and Metrics are huge subjects on their own, your designer should have a solid understanding of how they relate to web design. They should also have a professional support network to help fill any gaps in knowledge he or she might have, and to whom they can refer you for more specialized services if necessary.

With these concerns addressed, moving forward you can be confident that your website will not only look lovely, but will also more likely become the business asset you are hoping for.

What other knowledge/experience would you expect a web designer to bring to the table for your web development project?

If you are a designer, how do you feel about being involved in these additional aspects of building a website?

Website Usability Testing

usability-choices-arrowsDuring the web development process, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the ultimate goals of usability: conversions, and happy visitors. Developers, designers, and clients can all be sidetracked by minor features, small design changes, and general project hiccups; everyone is susceptible to losing perspective after being intimately involved in a project for a long period of time.

Usability testing can be the tool that brings focus to a project, and gives everyone involved an unbiased, outside perspective on how a finished website will actually be used by web visitors. Despite their value, usability tests are often overlooked. Some teams have never facilitated a test, some teams believe their projects are too small, and some teams believe the time and cost involved in testing is too high. The good news is, a usability test doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or time, can be done for any size project, and can be quite easily administered by anyone.

The simple concept behind a usability test is to bring in test subjects who fit the target demographic of the web project, allow them to use the website naturally (hopefully as they would at home) and record/observe their actions and thoughts during the process. This provides clear feedback for the team about how the site will be used by visitors, what problems people run into, what functions are intuitive (or frustrating), and what changes need to be made, if any. Making a recording of the test allows for careful study of the website interaction and resulting feedback by everyone on the development team.

A usability test doesn’t need to be an overwhelming production – at minimum a test can be conducted with one test subject, a computer workstation, a microphone, and a well written usability test script used to guide you through the interview and stay on point. Using screen capture software and a microphone, you will be able to record the conversation between the test facilitator and the subject, the subject’s thoughts, and their actions on the screen during the test.

usability-woman-at-computerThe most important part of a usability test is the facilitation. A well prepared script allows the facilitator to clearly explain the idea behind the usability test, and the importance of free-flowing, vocalized thoughts, and natural web surfing patterns from the subject. It also allows for a fun and low-pressure environment, to help elicit a good deal of natural feedback from the subject. The script should explain to the subject that they are being recorded, and that the recording will help the development team evaluate the site’s usability. It is also useful to gather basic information about the subject, and allow them to ask questions.

After introducing the idea and setting the tone for the test, it is important to have at least one task for the subject to complete, to initially direct their actions, but don’t be afraid to tailor the task to something they are naturally interested in trying. You may have a series of tasks for the subject to complete, in order to test a variety of functions on your website. Make sure to interact with your subject, in order to keep them thinking out loud. If your subject seems stuck, remind them to surf as naturally as possible, and remember to ask questions that keep them thinking like, “What part of this page initially draws your attention?” and, “What elements on this page are you tempted to interact with?”.

If done right, usability testing can be inexpensive, fun, and eye-opening. Usability tests are the only true way to provide your development team with unbiased outside information about your website project. If you are a web developer or designer, I encourage you to gather the needed supplies, and try a usability test on your next web development project – you may be amazed at how much information can be gathered by watching someone use your site.

How Websites Work

A website is a collection of web pages, documents and multi-media files that are hosted (stored) on a server (computer) on the Internet. The server can be in your own town, in another part of the country or in another part of the world.

All of the public Internet servers throughout the world are interconnected. When a person goes online with their personal computer, they connect to the Internet and are then able to access all publicly available documents and files stored on the World Wide Web.

The location of a website and its files on the Internet is usually identified by a domain name.

When you type the domain name for a website (website address) into a browser address field, or click on a link to the website via a  search engine results page, you are requesting to view that page and the related files stored on the server at that location (the domain).

Your request is sent from your computer to the server of your Internet service provider, which then passes on your request. The request is passed through a series of interconnected servers until it gets to the ‘host’ server where the website files are stored.

The host server responds to your request by sending the content back to you along a similar path of Internet servers. You are then able to view the web page and related files via your web browser, e.g. FireFox or Internet Explorer.

website-diagram

Since these terms are somewhat abstract some people confuse their website ‘domain name’ with their website ‘hosting’. In my next post I will go into a bit more detail about what a domain name is, and how it relates to your website and hosting.

SERPs, what are they and why should I care?

SERPsSERPs are ‘Search Engine Results Pages’ (the pages of search results you see after submitting your search query).

Understanding what kind of content is presented to you in the SERPs, and how it got there, can help you be a more shrewd and savvy searcher.

If you’re a business owner, with or without a website, getting to know what the SERPs have to offer gives you more ways to market your products and services, and maximize your web visibility.

A Google Results Page

Google SERPs ScreenshotAt the end of this post is a large screenshot of a Google search results page with the various parts identified (click on the thumbnail on the left to see it now). It highlights the paid and organic listings, the shopping results and the universal search results, all of which I’m now going to describe in more detail.

Organic vs Paid Search Results

One of the first things you need to know about SERPs is that they usually offer at least two kinds of results, organic search results, and paid search results.

On the left of the SERP you will see the organic listings, which are given the majority of the page space. The term ‘organic’ is used to describe the non-paid search results that are ranked by Google’s calculation of their value and relevance to the search query you’ve entered. The owners of the organically listed websites have almost certainly spent time working on the quality of their content and optimizing their web pages for the search engines.

Paid search listings are placed at the top and right hand side of the page (or sometimes only on the right hand side of the page). These results are labeled ‘Sponsored Links’ and if placed above the organic search results are distinguished by a pastel backround. This is what is known, among other things, as ‘Pay-Per-Click’ advertising. The advertiser has to pay for every click through to their site via one of these paid search results.

So as a web user, when choosing what to click on, it’s important to bear in mind, that the organic results have earned their placement based upon their content. The sponsored listings have paid for their placement.

Universal Search & Google Base

Also, on the left, in the main body of the Google search results pages, you might see some other results from Google’s ‘Universal Search’. These are results Google offers if it’s pertinent to your search query.

For example if you are doing a search on a product, you’re likely to see shopping results at the top of the page listing the product and various prices. These listings come from Google’s ‘Product Search’ database. If you own an e-commerce website you can upload your products and related information, for free, to Google Base for the opportunity to have your product listings show up for related shopping searches.

Google’s Universal Search also includes, when relevant, video results, image results, news results, book results and more.

Local Search: Google’s Local Business Listings

google-local-searchIf you are searching for a service and use a town or city name in your search, then Google will show a map and a list of 1-10 related business listings at the top of the search results page.

As of April 2009, even if you don’t use the town or city name, Google will try to identify your location and show you the local business listings if you type in a location-relevant search term such as ‘restaurants’ or ‘bicycle repair’.

If you’re wondering how Google knows where you are located, you can read more about it here – http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/04/google-becomes-more-local.html

There are a couple of ways Google gathers content for these listings. They either retrieve the information from other web sources, or the business owners  set up a Google Account and enter their business information via the Local Business Center. This is one of many free services Google provides.

In this post we’ve touched on organic vs paid search, shopping results, universal search and local search and have pretty much covered all of the basics of the Google SERPs page. If you have anything to add or any questions, feel free to leave a comment.

Example Google Search Results Page

google-product-search