Before You Build Your Website Or Tackle A Redesign, Read This

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Whether you don’t have a website at all, are ready for a makeover or upgrade, or went down the “my son’s friend’s father’s nephew knows a guy who knows web design” route only to regret it later, I’m about to share with you some practical insight into the reality of building a website.

Why?

Because I’ve seen so many people do it wrong time and again. Because I’ve listened to the heartbreaking stories of people who might have become my clients if they hadn’t wasted their time and budget on a web project that collapsed halfway through or failed to meet business goals. Because I listen to people every day tell me how they’re web developers just because they read “Become A Web Developer in 21 Days”.

But mostly, because you’re not a web expert, and you’re not supposed to be. You’re supposed to be good at what you do and you are fully entitled to expect that the person you hire to build your site is good at what he (or she!) does.

So before you start –  or restart – and repent later, arm yourself with some insight into how you should approach the web development process if you want a site that has marketing value for your business.

Define Business Goals

This bit of advice should precede every single marketing decision you make. Why do you want a Facebook page? Why are you sending an email newsletter? Why are you building a website?

“Because everyone has a website” is not a good reason.

“So I can have a web presence” is not a good reason, either.

You must define the goal and what you want to achieve. A goal has two important components: a specific intention and a measurable result.

“Get more traffic” is a common desire but it’s not a good goal. It is neither specific, nor can it be measured. What’s “more” traffic? One more visitor per day? Ten? Ten thousand?

“Increase traffic by 10% within 6 months” is both specific and can be measured. At the end of six months you will be able to say that you either achieved this goal or did not.

However, increasing traffic is not inherently a good end-goal, because it doesn’t really speak to your business needs. Why does it matter how much traffic you get? Traffic must mean something to you. Do you want traffic because it increases ad revenue, sales or leads? Or just because it makes you happy to look at an upward trend on your analytics graphs?

Every time you think you know what your goal is, ask yourself, Why? Keep asking why, all the way back until you can’t answer why anymore.

I want a website. Why?

To get more traffic. Why?

To get more leads. Why?

To make more money. Ah! That sounds like a business reason. Other good business goals might include decreasing human resource hours spent on specific tasks or reducing costs in specific areas.

There can be mini-goals along the path toward your ultimate goal. A mini-goal may be to increase traffic, but that isn’t your ultimate goal. Make sure you can define each type of goal, both big and small. Before you think about website pages, design or anything else, start by deciding why you want a website and what specific, measurable goals it will help you achieve.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Anyone who sits down and just starts building a website is either naïve or crazy. Without a plan, it’s impossible to know what to build. Even the smallest, simplest website must start with a plan.

Would you say to your contractor, “Build my kitchen”? Well, you could try, but he’d look at you like you’re a crazy person and then ask you what cabinets you’d picked out, where the sink was going, whether you had the proper electrical wiring and a host of other questions. You can apply this analogy to your website. What pages do you want? What content will go onto those pages? What message do you want to convey?

before-you-build-website-sitemap

This is an example of a simple sitemap. Yours may be a list or a complex diagram, depending on your website goals.

I always start with a sitemap. It can be as simple as a list of pages or as complex as a series of flowcharts and diagrams. It all depends on your site needs, which will depend on your goals. An ecommerce site with the goal of making online sales will have an entirely different planning need than one that’s meant to generate a newsletter subscriber list. The important thing is to be as specific and detailed as possible.

Once you know what pages you’ll need, you have to decide how to fill them. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to who will say they need an “About My Company” page and then have no clue what to put on it. Or want a footer on the page but then stare blankly at it without an inkling how to fill it. A better approach would be to start with the content and build the site around it; not build the site then try to plug the holes with whatever you can find.

A wireframe can help with this. Sketch out a page and what content you need for that page. Start with broad strokes and global elements. Every page will need navigation, so spec a space for it. You may want your contact information on the footer of every page. Perhaps you know that you want to include a testimonial on each page. Define these very high-level spaces.

Then you can get more granular on a page-by-page basis. If it’s a contact page you’re planning, you probably need an area for a form, perhaps some contact info and maybe an introduction. Your “About” page needs a content area. Will you be including staff bios and photos? A photo of your office building? Whatever content needs to be on the page should be planned ahead of time. It will make the building process much easier and more efficient.

As you plan, consider the practical reality. You may want a testimonial on each page, but do you have a testimonial for each page? Or for any page? You may have visions of a welcome video on your home page but without the actual video you’re going to end up with an empty page and a lot of aggravation.

Part of the planning process includes having a vision for what might change. You may not have a video now, but if you plan to develop one within two months it would be smart to think ahead and make sure your website is flexible enough to accommodate it.

Create And Collect The Content

If you need copy written for your company profile, personal bio, product descriptions, case studies or anything else, it’s time to start writing, before a single page of your site is built. If you’re ready to tackle that video, do it and have it prepared. If you need a headshot, call a photographer. Create whatever content is necessary for your site if you don’t already have it at your disposal.

I’ll go a step further and say it’s not even good enough to simply have the content. You’ve got to collect and organize the content. Otherwise you may find you’re doing a lot of hunting around for things you thought you had, delaying the process and racking up the expenses.

Here’s a common scenario: a client tells me they want a photo gallery of their work. I ask if they have photos. Yes, they have photos, great photos, high-res photos, tons of photos. That is, until I ask for the photos. Then it’s two weeks of, “I thought they were on my computer” and “Our drive crashed” and “The last person in charge of our website lost them”.

Do yourself, your sanity and your budget a favor and collect your assets: photos, video, copy, graphics, whatever. If it’s content that needs to go on your site, gather it, sort it or create it before you start to build the site.

Decide On The Aesthetic

I don’t want you to design the site, but I do want you to think about what you want the design to convey. Corporate? Fun? Edgy? Traditional? Cutting-edge? Warm and fuzzy or starkly modern? Whatever you decide must be in line with your brand and the image that you want to convey to customers.

It can help to look at other websites to get an idea of what’s happening on the web. Of course, it can also be a double-edged sword because there are so many things happening on the web that it may be distracting and overwhelming. If you do decide to look to other sites for ideas, try not to get too mired in what other people are doing and forget that your site has to be a reflection of your business – not theirs. Looking around can give you ideas you might not have thought of. Maybe you never thought to add a Facebook fan box to your site but once you see it, you realize this could be the perfect engagement tool for yours. But if it’s not a good tool and won’t further your business goals, don’t add it just because it looked great somewhere else.

I’ll leave you with one final consideration about design: the design must support the business goals and meet the business needs. Too many people get hung up on how a site looks but don’t consider how it works. Design is subjective. What one customer may love, another may hate, at least from a visual standpoint. But if the design makes it easy for visitors to find what they need and do what they want, and leads them to your end goal, then it’s fulfilled its business purpose.

Many paragraphs later, you may have noticed we never got around to actually building the website. That’s because building a good website starts long before you actually start building. If you’ve got the vision, goals and plans in place before you start, you’re already halfway there.

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Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn is a content creator and marketer who has been in the business of digital marketing since 1999. Along with her husband and business partner Ralph, she owns and operates both {Web.Search.Social}, a consulting and marketing services business, and Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio. On any given day Carol Lynn will wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. Her true passion is writing, whether it’s web content, a blog post, email campaign or social status update. When she's not writing for customers, {Web.Search.Social}, or her own blog, she's planning her early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera
  • Ellen M

    Great article!! Always ask “why”… love that advice

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      Thanks Ellen, and yes, “why” is so important and so often omitted!

  • Chelsy Grace

    Carol, do you give opinions free for sites?

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      Hi Chelsy,
      We do website evaluations for a fee, but if you would like to email your web address to me I would be happy to take a general look at no charge and email you my thoughts. You can send a request through our contact page (it will come directly to me) and let me know if you have any specific questions or things you want me to look at. Include your web and email address so I can get back to you!

  • Matthew Stokes

    Great article, interesting that SO many companies miss the basics!!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      I could write this article again and again and still need to write it again :)