I built my first, real website for someone other than myself back in 1999. By modern standards, it was awful; but back then, it was amazing! I still remember being so proud of myself for figuring out how to use tables to perfectly position images on the page. And, let’s not forget the Perl scripts used to execute functions on the server.
That was 24 years ago. A lot has changed in that time.
Websites have transformed and matured from mostly a handful of simple, informational pages into highly-complex tools used for marketing, lead generation, subscription-based services, and—ultimately—a key source of revenue for many businesses.
Since that first website I built in 1999 for a client, I’ve watched the evolution of the web through developing, leading, or re-launching numerous projects ranging from small, personal blogs to e-commerce and content sites responsible for hundreds of millions in direct and attributed revenue. And, in that time, I’ve learned that there are some basic principles and patterns you can follow to help you launch a website that doesn’t suck.
Know Your Numbers
This one may sound weird, but I have this at the number one spot because it’s a critical component for anyone looking to relaunch an existing site. I’ve added it because I’ve had way too many conversations over the years that go something like this:
“Our website stinks. I want a new one.”
“Ok. What’s not working with it? What’s your goal?”
“It’s just outdated and ugly. We don’t like it.”
“Do you know your average monthly traffic number, bounce rate, or conversion rates?”
“…we just want it to look cool like us…can you do that?”
If you have an existing website, know your current metrics before you ever talk about redesigning or rebuilding anything. And, if someone offers to redesign or rebuild something for you and doesn’t ask about your key site metrics, run.
If you don’t know your current metrics, watch a few quick tutorial videos for Google Analytics and Google Search Console as basic starting points. Don’t start any work until you know how the current site is performing. If you need a list of some specific metrics you should be watching for, reach out to me and I’d be happy to share!
Articulate Your Desired Outcome
Hint: “Make a cool-looking website” isn’t good enough. Take the time to articulate the desired user behaviors you’d like to see on your website that ultimately lead to achieving your business goals. Take 3-4 hours, sit down with your team, and come up with a statement that articulates what the future will look like in 12-18 months if your website is serving your business the right way. This statement should become your compass for making decisions during the strategy and design phases.
Develop a Strategy
This is one of the most difficult things for people when it comes to building a new website—and one of the most important. Most business leaders can get behind #2, but they often stop there. This is also why there are millions of websites out there that, quite frankly, stink—they aren’t built for a strategic purpose. The truth is, your website strategy is so much more than just marketing: it’s the combination of your content strategy, marketing language, brand and visual identity, product marketing strategy (if you’re a digital product), SEO strategy, and the actualization of your customer value journey. To do it well take a lot of brain power. At the very least, I recommend teams take 1-2 days and start by walking through a StoryBrand exercise. From there, you need to translate your brand script into functional pieces that will help guide the information architecture (yea, this matters), content, UX, and design of your site. Ideally, your team will come out of these 2 days with a rough outline of a strategy and roadmap that can help guide the project.
Invest in a Great UX Designer
Do yourself a favor and invest in someone with real UX/UI expertise—not just a graphic designer, but someone who actually understands user experience. (If you’re not sure of the difference, check out Adobe’s breakdown of the two.) The value of bringing a UX/UI designer into the beginning of the project is that they’ll be able to translate your desired outcome and strategies into layouts for your site using a tool like Figma or InVision. If you’re new to this, then you’re probably asking “why can’t I just hire a frontend developer to design and build everything for us?!” Well, you can. But it’s kind of like hiring a structural engineer to do interior design. Could they figure some things out? Sure. Is it going to be fantastic? Nope.
The other important aspect of investing in UX upfront is that it’s a lot quicker to move around pixels than it is to write code. Ideally, your UX designer can translate your entire website into a functional, clickable set of prototypes that can be used to show the entire flow of your site. As you review the mockups and want changes, those prototypes can be also manipulated much more quickly than trying to manipulate and change code. And, when it’s time to actually build the site, having these fully-baked prototypes and mockups will accelerate the development time which will ultimately save you money.
Test It Before You Build It
If you skip out on #4 in the process, then this is going to be costly and probably impossible. However, it’s going to be a game changer for your site. I can tell you firsthand that the best, most successful website projects are the ones that utilize tools like UserTesting.com or other methods to put their prototypes and mockups in front of real people and garner feedback. Chances are you’ll quickly uncover issues with usability, confusing messaging, and—in some cases—make drastic changes to your original website flow to better accommodate your potential users. This is potentially going to save you months of trying to collect and interpret analytics from the actual site to determine potential usability improvements. But here’s the rub: you need that UX person to lead your user testing…so don’t skimp!
SEO is More Than Just Words
No, I’m not referring to that song by Extreme… SEO has become such a buzzword over the past 5-6 years that it has muddied the full weight of the term. Because of this, Search Engine Optimization is one of the most common areas where I find people wasting money on services from companies that aren’t really doing anything beneficial for them. Here’s the truth: paying someone to “make sure your website shows up in search engines” is, at best, a waste of money. Modern Search Engine Optimization is a highly-complex amalgamation of multiple disciplines and is impacted by content strategy, URL structures, HTML best practices, website performance, site usability, accessibility, and multiple other facets. And if you happen to be a business that is trying to position yourself as a thought leader or expert in your space, you have another layer of complex considerations based on the ways Google evaluates Experience, Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness (E-E-A-T). So, just like a great UX designer, a real, experienced SEO expert could be worth their weight in gold in the long haul—that is, based on the current price of gold. But, make sure you bring them into the project early enough to speak into some of your strategies.
Watch Your Analytics
So let’s say you’ve followed steps 1 through 6 and you’ve launched a beautiful site with a great user experience. You just get to sit back and let the leads roll in or conversions happen? Right? Nope. You need to be watching your site’s analytics, at a minimum, every single week. If you don’t understand how your site is performing and how users are engaging with it, you’ll never know if it’s actually working or not in the real world. I can’t tell you how many sites I’ve worked with where the business owner or leader thought they needed to rebuild their website when, in reality, they just had a broken link or broken submit button on a key lead form but they weren’t proactively watching their metrics to know that anything was wrong. Don’t fly blind—know your metrics! New to the concept of website analytics? Check out this tutorial.
Don’t Stop Optimizing Your Site
That’s right, folks, websites are like a puppy. Once you launch it, you have to keep feeding it and caring for it (and, occasionally, they cause big messes when you don’t). If you’ve launched your site, are consistently watching your analytics, and—by all accounts—things look healthy, then it’s time to start asking “how do we make it better?” Instead of just rebuilding a relaunching your entire website every few years, make the investment to iteratively improve it and make it better for your users! This continual process of incrementally and iteratively improving the experience of your website is typically referred to as Conversion Rate Optimization. In my experience, very few small to medium business sites engage in this practice but, when coupled with a great SEO strategy, it’s one of the most effective ways to improve the ways your website helps you reach your business goals. There are some great tools out there like Optimizely and VWO that can help you facilitate the functional aspects of CRO testing but I would strongly encourage you to invest in your overall CRO strategy as well.
While following these won’t necessarily be a silver bullet or guarantee a great website that brings in millions of dollars in revenue, they will hopefully help set you in the right direction. And, if you’re not sure where to start on your website project or just need some help, connect with one of our Strategic Technology Advisors who can help you come up with a plan, build your strategy, and build a website that doesn’t suck!