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The Top 20 Web Mistakes Small Businesses Make

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My parents made a monster. Little did they know 30 years ago that they would get exactly what they wished for. Like W.W. Jacobs' tale of "The Monkey's Paw", they got what they wanted, for better and maybe even for worse.

See, my father is a virtuous man. Never cursing, never doing drugs, always honest and hard working, he is of the fiber that idealists say America is built upon. He taught me many things - some of which have yet to sink in, and others, although my teenage rebelliousness attempted to distract me, have become ingrained into my very being. "If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right" he would say (ad nauseum, I might add).

When I began working in music in 1996 I had what I now feel was a personal foresight into the power of the Internet and the ways in which it could be used to help me generate public awareness for the live music events I was promoting and the artists I represented as a talent agent.

Some people seem to think that the Internet has been around forever, but in 1996 it was in its infancy compared to the Internet of today. Web pages in 1996 generally revolved around mostly educational sites and vanity pages. Then, the Internet more resembled an Information Superhighway in that most of its content was informative. Heck, I remember downloading whole Philosophy books back then.

At that time, I decided that I could utilize the Internet's power to help me advertise the events I promoted by keeping a diligent schedule online and also by using the power of e-mail, chat, and IM in order to communicate to fans and bands and make things more efficient and less expensive than using the telephone and postage stamps.

The problem I was faced with was a simple one - I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Regardless, I made an extremely simplistic and unattractive website and put it up on the web. Over the next few years, I had the privilege of getting to know a small handful of knowledgeable people who were eager to help me by making my websites. In the end, a variety of factors both external and internal made reliance on others simply something I did not feel comfortable with doing.

Like a lot of people, I decided to go back to doing it myself. Like before though, I was faced with not knowing what I was doing. My father's words "If its worth doing, its worth doing right" kept ringing in my head. So I decided that what I really needed to do was learn how to do it right. As you now know, I've progressed to the point of being a CIW Certified Professional Site Designer. But, it didn't come overnight.

I've prepared this list, 'The Top 20 Mistakes That Small Businesses Make', from my own experiences in making my websites, as well as from my observations while learning web design and studying for my certifications. By no means complete, these 20 Mistakes relate mostly to websites by small businesses (less than 50 employees) because they're typically organizations that outsource their web services. The list is further separated into "Design Mistakes" being the mistakes that are made in the design of the site itself, and "Purchasing Mistakes" being the mistakes businesses make as customers of web design companies. First, we need to get on with it by covering the first mistake:

1. Designing/ allowing the site to be designed by a person who does not know what they're doing -

I've written and rewritten this paragraph a dozen times so that it doesn't sound offensive to anyone but the message is still the same. Just because someone has a stethoscope doesn't make him or her a Doctor. Similarly, just because someone has a copy of FrontPage/ NetFusion/ Composer/ GoLive/ Dreamweaver, it doesn't make them a Web Designer.

Your business' brand awareness is greatly affected by the image you give off to everyone - even the visitors to your website. If your website looks bad, does not work right, or is unpredictable across a variety of potential platforms and potential visitors, your very credibility will be harmed. I find this especially important for Real Estate Brokers/ Agents, musicians, and other businesses in niche markets - especially those who have younger clientele. Hire a professional designer who can supply you examples of their work and make sure that their work is good.

Design Mistakes

2. Annoying The Visitor -

Do not ever use things like cursor trailers or midi music on your site. People really really hate that. It surprises me how often I still encounter these things on sites when I've never met anyone who enjoys having an 8-mile trail of stars/ dots/ whatever following their cursor across the screen or some song they never liked in its real version much less in midi form invading their speakers. Ask anyone with these features about their website's statistics and I guarantee that no matter how many "Hits" they get to their site, their "Sessions" are extremely low. Everyone I know has the same thing to say about these features "whenever someone has that on their site, I leave".

3. "Use of any design element meant for one type of browser only without an alternative" says David, Webmaster of http://www.rubmybuddha.com. Have you ever seen the little notices at the bottom of websites that say "Optimized for use by Internet Explorer and 800x600 resolution"? What it should really say is "Unpredictable results when used by other browsers and resolutions". A good website will be made so that it looks and performs the same no matter who is visiting. In the real world, browsers render web pages with at least some subtle differences, but a good web designer will make every effort to avoid using features that will alienate visitors and will avoid using design elements that result in unpredictable results. Internet Explorer may be the most widely distributed browser on earth right now, but even if they owned 99% market share (they don't), there would still be millions of potential visitors who are alienated by a website that produces unpredictable results in other browsers. The correct way to make a site is to design it to work properly regardless of browser, operating system, or resolution.

4. Use of poor navigation (i.e. obscure labeling, ridiculously long lists, etc.)

Effective navigation means getting your visitor to the content they came for, easily, painlessly and enjoyably enough to induce repeat visits. Brainstorming the navigation of large sites with a lot of content can be as difficult as coming up with the content itself. A good navigational setup should be intuitive to the visitor and not dependent upon their efforts to decipher where they should go to find what they're looking for.

Avoid using obscure images for labeling your links unless they're joined with text. Visitors tend to look for familiar clues in navigation such as little pictures of houses for "Home" or mailboxes for "Mail". You don't have to use these images for navigation, but at the same time you shouldn't confuse them with obscurity.

Avoid using very long lists of links to your sub pages. Try to categorize items into main content areas and keep the list of those main content areas to as few as possible while still keeping things easy to find. Users can then navigate to the more specific content instead of searching through one huge list.

5. Use of bad colors (i.e. colors that hurt the eyes) Heck, I'm colorblind and I know this. Would you wear a bright orange shirt with bright green pants? Then please, don't put bright green text on a bright orange background. Again, you'll surely be chasing away visitors.

6. Not making it easy for people to contact you from your site (and not following up when they do)

No matter how comprehensive the information is on your website, customers are often too lazy/ in too much of a hurry to find the information they're looking for and will want to contact you. Not making it easy to contact you will mean that you could potentially lose business because rather than hunt for your contact info, these lazy/ hurried customers will just go somewhere else. It is my opinion that you should supplement your contact page with some form of well-labeled e-mail link on every page.

Once the customer has contacted you, you absolutely must respond as soon as you possibly can. Typically, customers expect a response within 24 hours. Want to win a customer for life? Respond to their e-mails promptly and completely. Want to chase them away forever? Take two weeks to respond. - Unfortunately, you're more assured to chase a customer away with your failure to respond than you are to keep them by responding.

7. Over-reliance on graphics

This is one of the greatest paradoxes of web design. Studies show that an attractive website will give off a greater impression of "credibility" than an unattractive site, regardless of the real accuracy of the information contained on the site. However, like many things in life, you can have too much of a good thing.

If you're lucky like me, and connect to the Internet with a cable modem or some other broadband service, it's easy to take for granted the speed with which you can download data. I'm downloading MP3s, programs, all kinds of stuff at breakneck speeds. But you must remember that a vast majority of people are not connecting with broadband access, they're connecting with regular old telephone lines and modems.

Your website should be easy to access for all visitors. While people on dialup may be used to "coping" with long download times, a better approach for you would be to consider these people into your design. Let them be alienated by your competitor's site, while they quickly and efficiently get the information they need from yours.

8. Embedding text within images

Often, people "new" to making websites will embed text within images. I've found that this is often due to their ignorance in knowing how to layout a page so that everything is positioned where they want it - their solution is to make all (or a large part) of their webpage one big picture. The problem with this approach is twofold. First, it makes the webpage "heavy" through an over-reliance on graphics (see #7 above). Second, it makes the website invisible to search engines.

Search engine methodology has changed recently, mostly due to the trickery used by pornographic and MLM sites to attract higher search engine positioning. No longer can you be reliably indexed simply because of the "Keywords" and "Description" META tags. Nowadays, the biggest search engines rely more on the actual text content of your website. Embedding text within an image may render readable words onscreen, but to a search engine, an image is an image, and text is text. You should limit text-within-images to only logos and icons.

9. Failure to market your website

Amazingly, people will put forth all their time and effort to build and maintain a website, yet will fail to make it part of their marketing plan. Your website's address should be emblazoned upon every single piece of promotional material, advertising, and every business card by every employee. Your website's address should be mentioned in every TV and radio advertisement and placed on your signage. You should diligently submit it to search engines and link indexes.

Your website is more than an advertisement. It is a sales tool, a branding tool, and a sales prospecting tool. Unlike your employees who are only on duty 40 hours a week, your website is there 168 hours a week. 128 of those, it is by itself! Put it to work by driving traffic to it.

10. Not keeping your website up to date

As you surf the web, you've no doubt seen the little blurb "this page last updated on _________" on some sites. Or maybe you've clicked on links that say "News". How often are those dates actually recent to your visit?

It is a bad idea to include either of these two features on your site unless you plan to diligently update the site. Having a site that says "last updated June 1998" is only going to give off the impression that you don't care about your website (and therefore your site's visitors). You should either make sure you keep the site up to date, or omit any features with date-relevant information (i.e. news, sales, limited offers, etc.)

Purchasing Mistakes

14. Expecting a $5,000 site for $300 When I was in college, I worked for a tattoo shop, basically as the guy the customers would talk to and set appointments with. Time and again a customer would raise his sleeve to expose a terribly ugly tattoo and brag: "See this? I got this for $40!!!" It was always so hard not to respond with "Yeah, and it shows".

For the most part, you get what you pay for. I don't want to place too much emphasis on this statement - because you can also spend too much and get too little in this business - but I would rather place the emphasis on the underlying meaning of the statement. Very advanced designing and programming requires the knowledge and experience of a person qualified to do the work. This goes especially for database design/ integration or Flash. Above and beyond the knowledge needed, these features require a ton of time to create. If you want to drive home a BMW, don't bring the dealer a cashier's check for a used Pinto.

15. Hosting your site with Angelfire/ Tripod/ Geocities/ other free service

Webhosting is such a competitive market these days that you do yourself a severe disservice by using a free webhost. Free hosting services lack some of the really useful features that even budget webhosts offer and at the same time, they litter your site with banners and popups that are guaranteed to annoy your visitors and make you look bad. Any advertisement on your site gives off the image that you endorse the product advertised. With free webhosts, you have no control over what ad pops up.

Another reason to avoid free hosts is their long site addresses. These days, your website's address is tied directly to your "Brand". While there are ways to work around the long address problem, it just isn't worth it when you can spend a few bucks and get your own name and quality, feature rich hosting.

16. Expecting your web designer to be your on-call tech support

Do you call the mortgage officer who wrote your home loan and ask him to come over to balance your checkbook? Then you shouldn't call the guy who made your website and ask him why your computer is crashing.

When soliciting suggestions from my peers regarding what to include in this article, they all mentioned this issue. Some have found it to be such a problem, that they now have a provision in their contracts that states that any "tech support" calls will be treated like any other charge. i.e. if your designer charges $150 an hour for changes and updates, then you will be charged $150 an hour for him to address your non-website related technical issue.

Above and beyond that, this issue is a bad management practice anyway. I've found that a good manager will manage personnel based on each person's strengths - you wouldn't put the best salesman in the company behind a desk to answer phones would you? A web designer may not be the best person to address non-website related problems and you would likely be better off finding a more qualified person to address your problem.

For "remedial" concerns, your best solution is education. These days most community colleges offer continuing education classes in a wide range of computer topics ranging from basic computer usage to application-specific classes, database management, and advanced programming. You'll be better off to empower yourself or a dedicated employee with the knowledge than to sacrifice your company's efficiency by waiting on someone else to fix a remedial technical problem.

17. Allowing the designer to own the domain name.

Time and again I hear complaints from people who hate their web designer but who are afraid to move because a) the designer "owns" the name and/or b) the designer is holding the site hostage. The truth is, the designer does not own the name!!!

Domain names are "registered" with a company who has the authority to make the registration. During the process, the contact information for "Registrant", "Administrative Contact" and "Technical Contact" are entered. What often (unfortunately) happens is that the web designer's information is placed in every field. I am of the opinion that this is not an ethical business practice. At the very least, the owner of the business (i.e. purchaser of the website design service, aka "you") should be listed as "Registrant".

You can avoid this problem from the very beginning by being the person who registers the domain name or by explicitly instructing the designer to name you as "Registrant" when they sign up for the domain. To do it yourself, go to http://www.buydomains.com - a service I personally use which offers several added services such as parking, redirects, and DNS service (basically, pointing the address to the right place whenever you want).

If you're ever in a situation where the designer *owns* the domain name, please be assured that a short letter from a lawyer should solve this problem for you. United States Trademark Law is well established in this matter and you can fix this problem very easily and quickly.

18. Expecting the web designer to teach you web design

Lets face it, this is business. If your web designer teaches you web design, you become his competitor. You don't give your customers the prices you actually pay for your product, do you? If you're a real estate agent, you don't tell potential homebuyers how low you're willing to sell your listing for, do you? Like #16, about tech support, I'm sure you could offer to pay your designer his hourly fee to teach you...

19. Getting sucked into "Scope Creep"

"Scope Creep" is like the lure of a Mermaid upon a lonely sailor. It is something that happens to nearly every project and must be controlled for the sake of your bank account, your site as a whole, and the sanity of your web designer. "Scope creep is the pejorative name we give to the natural process by which clients discover what they really want," Says designer Hal Helms (http://www.alistapart.com/stories/scopecreep/)

First you start off with a simple 5 page site with "Home", "Services", "Products", "Contact", "Links". Then, you get excited about having a page and all the cool stuff you can do. Now you want a messageboard, different sections for different product categories, and some killer Flash animation on its own intro page. Now, your site has grown to 5 times the size, time, and money you initially planned for. Prepare yourself for this natural phenomenon by doing extensive brainstorming and cost-benefit analysis with your web designer before even one line of code is written.

20. Not insisting on total satisfaction

As a customer, you are handing over your hard earned cash or the hard earned cash of your company. Your level satisfaction is just as much your responsibility as it is the responsibility of the designer. Your part comes in simply by making sure you communicate your wishes with the designer and NOT accepting anything less than total satisfaction. Obviously your satisfaction may be limited by your budget, but if you have a request (for example the look and feel of the site) that is within the budget, then make sure you get absolute satisfaction by telling them about your idea. In the end, the site represents you, not the designer.

Notes, Helpful links, and Sources Used

With exception of the first link below, all of the other links in this section come from usability guru Jakob Nielsen's biweekly "Alertbox" Newsletter. What I'd like to point out that may not be so obvious as you click to these links is the date of these articles I am linking to. As with many things in the history of man, we just don't seem to be learning from our mistakes. Nielsen's first "Top Ten Mistakes" was created in 1996 when, to most people, the web was still young. Now, seven years later, the Internet has exploded in size and use, yet people still don't seem able to wrap their heads around many of the usability concepts that can make or break the success of a website.


  • Web Credibility Project

  • Top Ten Web-Design Mistakes of 2002

  • The Top Ten "New" Mistakes of Web Design (1999)

  • Who Commits The Top Ten Mistakes of Web Design?

  • Top Ten Mistakes Revisited Three Years Later

  • Top Ten Mistakes of Web Management

  • (The Original) Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design


Karl Groves is a freelance web designer who has done production work on such sites as National Cancer Institute, Aerospace Medical Association, and Network For Good

 

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