Monday, January 28, 2008

One Page Site Designs: Cool Websites Ideas

There seems to be a trend — and maybe it’s just Web 2.0 web apps pushing this concept — of one-page web designs.

I think this concept has some real value when you think about the concept of “landing pages.”

Think about this … if you’re company or business is seeking to sell services, why not have a website specifically designed to solicit an action by your site guest.

What better than a site designed similar to a one-page design or landing page.

Here are some examples of sites with some of these concepts and ideas in mind:

- Apple
- Tumblr
- Basecamp
- FarmLogic

Friday, January 18, 2008

Top Ten Reasons You Should Avoid Cheap $500 Website Design Companies

You need a website and you just found a company advertising the cheapest rates around. This is a no-brainer, right? You’re going to save a boatload, right?

Unfortunately, more and more disaster stories like this one are surfacing: “I hired one of those $500 companies to build my website—but they did a horrible job, they never finished, nothing works properly, and now they don’t return my calls!”

If you’re thinking of cutting corners, be warned! Here’s a little preview of what to expect:

1. No Talent. A talented web designer is a prized possession. A web designer with no talent works for a $500 web design company, which lacks the artistic creativity of a professional design house like WebTech Net Solutions.

2. Poor Communication. $500 web designers have no formal education. This limits their expertise and communication skills. So be prepared to expend a much greater effort—and more time—to build your site. Some phrases you’ll soon be familiar with:

“Can you please repeat that?”
“I thought we went over this already!”
“You said you’d call last Monday!”
“This is the third time I’m telling you!”
“You said the project would be done by now!”

3. Bait & Switch. Many companies advertise $500 websites just to “pull you in.” The final bill is often many times that amount. Make sure to see a contract up front and read the fine print carefully. Most $500 websites come with an obligatory 2-year hosting fee of $39 monthly, $49 monthly, and even $59 monthly. So you end up paying for a nice website—but getting stuck with a cheap one instead! Not to mention unreliable hosting that you’re stuck with for two years.

4. Atrocious Copywriting. A website is only half graphic design, the other half is copywriting—the words used to grab your audience’s attention. Copywriting is crucial. Your website has only 6 seconds to captivate visitor interest before it’s “Asta La Vista, Baby.” And, no, they won’t “Be back.” Do you think $500 designers work hard to ensure that visitors actually stay on your site? In fact, most cheap web designers charge extra for their atrocious copywriting. But what are their writers’ qualifications? Are they university trained? Do they have real-world marketing experience like WebTech Net Solutions' copywriters?

5. Irresponsible. What separates a good work ethic from a bad one? The answer is simple—salary! Imagine you worked at a job paying $13,000 a year. Now imagine the boss asked you to stay late every night. How would you feel? But how would you feel staying late for $75,000 a year? Sure, we all like to think we’d go all out no matter what. But if we be honest with ourselves, reality is a bit different. Bottom line? Getting paid less will show in one’s work and dedication.

6. Shoddy Outsourcing. Some $500 designers outsource coding, scripting and HTML overseas to third world countries. What do you get? An outdated website that’s horribly designed, that doesn’t function properly and that is virtually worthless. It pays to buy American.

7. Boring Templates. $500 web companies use dime-a-dozen templates, giving you no control over the finished product, and making your site look like every other site out there. Ask them to change the design, and their answer will be “I can’t.” Ask them to shift the text, and their answer will be “I can’t.” Custom designers like WebTech Net Solutions know you never get a second chance to make a first impression. We distinguish your company by standing you head and shoulders above your competitors.

8. No Guarantees. $500 web designers make you sign a contract tipped in their favor. Ask to take a peek and you’ll read, “The website is complete only when the designer says it’s complete. The client has no say in the matter.” They know you won’t be 100% pleased with the finished product! We at WebTech Net Solutions write the following directly into the contract itself: “One web design mockup after another will be presented, until the client is 100% happy with the design and comfortable moving forward.” Which company would you rather work with?

9. Unreliable Resources. Ever notice how some websites download faster than others? Guess who builds the websites that take ten years to download? You guessed it! Same deal with website downtime. Ever notice how some websites you visit often suffer downtime more than others? WebTech Net Solutions relies on top quality resources like top tier servers. So if you want to ensure that your website will be there in the morning, or that your site will download at lightning speed, steer clear of those $500 designers who rely on cheap resources.

10. Can’t Deliver. Most $500 designers have limited expertise. Some don’t know flash, others don’t know how to create contact forms. Some can’t create search functions, others don’t know log ins. Make sure you ask the right questions. If not, you risk getting stuck with a company that can’t deliver what you need.

Putting things into perspective, when you hire a $500 web design company, you take on all the headaches and frustration of dealing with an inferior staff, lesser quality and questionable service. In other words—you get what you pay for. Sure we all like to save money if we can. But you shouldn’t buy a website at a rock-bottom price for the same reason you shouldn’t buy a $9 pair of shoes—because you’ll be wasting your money and getting what you pay for. Top quality web design and copywriting is a matter of price.

Sometimes your budget is limited and the $500 web design company may seem your only option. Dedicated design houses like WebTech Net Solutions usually care enough to offer payment plans. Just ask.

The moral of the story is that you get a much better value by partnering with a reasonably priced web design house like WebTech Net Solutions. You work with a dedicated team of kind and friendly professionals who always deliver what you want on time, within budget, and in a way that’s going to make your website impress prospective clients…and convert them into paying customers!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Forget the Home Office Remodel, Add Another Bathroom

If you've ever sold a home, you're probably familiar with the real estate industry's guidelines about which home improvements will deliver the most return-on-investment.

A rule of thumb, for instance, is that remodeling a home office is a poor investment for home re-sale; however, an additional bathroom can make your house more attractive for quick sale.

As you consider which web site improvements to budget in this year, consider only those that likewise will increase your site's "sale value".

Here's a list of the do's and don'ts for companies on a limited budget (aren't we all?):

· New content: Do. Review your site's current positioning on the major search engines and create content for important terms with which your site is not performing.

· Search engine optimization: Do. If it hasn't been, have your site optimized for the keywords that your customers and prospects would use to locate you on search engines.

· Link-building program: Do. This is an important way that search engines measure your site's importance in your industry.

· Web site audit: Do. A comprehensive audit will check to make sure that internal and external links work, contact forms are operational, your site's performing on search engines, etc.

· Foreign language pages: Do. If you routinely do business outside the U.S., devote pages to the language of your other markets. It'll help position your site in foreign search engines.

· Technical data sheets: Do. Give your prospects enough information about your products to want to do business with you or contact you for more information.

· Site redesign: Do. If your site hasn't been professionally designed, it's time to ante up for the good paint.

· New site navigation: Do. If you're site looks like it has Bandaids all over with buttons and links that were added after the site was launched, it may be time to re-do the navigation to make it more user-friendly and attractive.

· Back-end applications: Do, if it improves your company's ability to serve your customers in an efficient manner. Don't, if you're trying to cut out customer service by making your clients do all the work.

· Flash: Don't, unless you've already done the do's and have money left over.

· More images: Don't, unless the graphic conveys information better than text.

· Videos: Don't, unless your video shows something that would be difficult to describe or illustrates a significant difference in how your products work or are used compared to competitors.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

How To Get A Custom Website for FREE!

The quick answer is: You don’t. Your odds of doing this are about the same as winning the lottery.

In website design and development, just like most other things in this world, the adage of ‘You Get What You Pay For’ stands. But this adage applies ten-fold in website design and development.

With the proliferation of freelancers who call themselves website designers to the thousands of off-shore companies who work for a few dollars an hour, you can, indeed, have a very inexpensive website built for your business. Unfortunately, you will get exactly what you pay for: poor design, sloppy programming, confusing navigation, and so on. Not to mention the miserable customer experience you will have. If you think calling the toll free number for Dell customer support is bad, then sit down, because you have a whole new type of misery in store for you when you work with freelancers and cheap web development firms.

It is widely agreed that a website is a reflection of your business. If you want to appear shoddy and cheap then perhaps this is the route for you. If, however, you are serious about your business you will need an intelligently designed website. This means you hire a web design firm that has years of experience in design, website strategy, and technology.

Look for a web design firm that has that perfect blend of the three divergent capabilities it takes to produce compelling design. A great web development firm fuses art and science, solid logic and inspiration, primitive intuition and cutting-edge know-how to build fabulous websites.

Will it be expensive? That depends on the features and functions of your website. For any web design firm that is worth their weight, you can expect to pay a minimum of $3k for a basic ecommerce business website. Prices range from there on up. The bottom line is, when you want results that are both refreshingly enticing to your site visitors and exactly what you envisioned for your company’s website only a proven professional design firm can get you there.

Top 5 Common E-Commerce Mistakes

Ready to embark upon the world of e-commerce? Wait – not so fast! Make sure you avoid these pitfalls.

1. Not investing in quality design
Many new-comers to e-commerce attempt to keep their cost down by using a template shopping cart website or hiring the cheapest designers around to build their website. This may help you budget-wise but it will never help you build your business. Customers will view your website and business as unprofessional and will figure that you are not a place worthy of their spending. There couldn’t be a worse first impression if you tired! So, be smart! Invest in a web firm that can create professional looking graphics that help bolster your business and your sales.

2. Lack of Follow-Up and Auto-Responders
Whether you’re selling t-shirts or cell phones, customers want to know where to begin. When you send your product be sure to include a “Read this First” or “Getting Started” document to help them through your product step by step. In addition to this you should have an auto-responder sequence that is generated from your website that follows up with them and reiterates this information.
Whether it’s Wash and Wear or Plug in and Play…help your customers understand your product as best as possible.
After the product has shipped, get in touch with your client. Let them know you care.

3. Weak Product Line
At best, there are a couple of dozen success stories as a result of selling a single product. If you are relying on selling to new customers then your chances of long-term success are minimal. It is well known that overcoming the sales hurdle is much easier when you are dealing with an existing customer. Without additional related products you cannot upsell. Moreover, you reduce the possibility of starting a relationship with your customer if they have no reason to return to your website.

4. Living In a Virtual World
Don’t underestimate the value of human contact. As much as we love all the conveniences of technology, your customers will appreciate the ability to talk to a real person – especially when they have a problem or a question. Use e-mails, forms, and support tickets as an option but always offer a live representative for your customers. This will go a long way with building the rapport and trust that leads to long-term business relationships.

5. Inconsistent Branding
The value of brand recognition is huge! You need people to recognize your products. Give a consistent look and feel to everything you do online and off. Your website should look like it is related to your products and your customers. Think of it as keeping it all in the family.
Whatever you sell online, your offline materials and the look and feel of your website should be related. Just like with twins, people will know that they are related. It’s easier to sell a product to someone who is comfortable with you and branding is a critical aspect of increasing consumer’s comfort level.

How Much Does a Website Cost?

Fees for website design and development can range from a few thousand dollars to half a million dollars. In trying to understand what costs are right for you, it might be useful to think of your website in terms of a car. Everyone knows that cars vary widely in price. A Hyundai is a car and so is a Mercedes Benz. But there is an ocean of difference between these two vehicles. In the same way that things like engineering, features, functions, design, safety, and service factor into the cost (and appeal) of a car so, too, does design and programming for a website.

Even when you select the make and model of a car, the cost of accessories can cause the price to vary drastically. There are choices to be made: 6 Disc CD changer vs. single CD, ipod dock vs. no mp3, dual-sided climate control vs. air condition, 1-touch automatic windows vs. automatic windows, heated leather seats vs. leather seats, and the list goes on and on. Each of these decisions will be reflected in the final price of the car.

A website comes with “accessories” too. We refer to these as “features and options.” Within each feature there can be any number of variables that dictate the simplicity or complexity required to develop a feature. Just like there is an extra fee for a car with a multi-disk CD player vs. one with a single-disk CD player so too is there a premium for a website that has Flash in the header vs. one that uses basic HTML in the header.

In nearly every aspect of website development, there are design features and programming options to take into consideration. To help you better understand the individual costs, contact WebTech Net Solutions to get a FREE price list emailed to you. Typically a web design firm will bundle costs together making for a lower price, so treat these as estimates. Cost will vary depending upon complexity of each item.

You should expect no less from a website design company than for them to be able to provide you with a cost sheet of everything they offer. Any company that refuses this, isn't worth the heartache.

Choosing a Web Site Designer

Choosing a web site designer is an important decision. It's amazing how many companies have paid good money for bad web sites. A lot of people are hanging out shingles as web site designers these days. So, how do you decide which company to use?

Selecting a web site designer is like choosing any service provider: the more you know, the better off you are. Here are a few things to consider when choosing a web designer.

- Local or long distance? You can locate a lot of designers by going on line and checking out web pages. Theoretically, you could choose someone in California to design your web site and communicate with him or her by telephone, fax, email, and snail mail. However, if you're new to this, being able to see someone face to face could be important. Maintenance and upgrading are issues to consider, too.

- Experience counts. Look at the work a designer has already done. Ask for references and follow up on them. Ask about the working relationship, turn around time, pricing, follow up, and responsiveness. If you need an online store, find someone who is capable in all the technology involved. Avoid having your site be someone's learning experience. If you do want to give a brand-new company a chance, ask them to donate some or all of their time. They get experience and a demo site; you get a low cost web site. Timeliness issues can crop up with part-time web designers. Build reasonable but firm timelines into your contract.

- Ownership issues. Be sure that you own the copyright to everything on the web site. Some businesses have had problems when they wanted to give a site to another developer for changes. Have your site set up so you can easily make changes yourself, through FTP software or a Telnet shell account. Having to go through your designer every time you want to put an item on sale or change your graphics will quickly become cumbersome. Designers are very busy people. Ownership should be addressed in your contract.

Stay at Home Moms - Make Money Online!

I'm not going to push this alot. In fact, this is the only time I'm going to post anything about making money online. It is not what this blog is about. However, this was too good of an opportunity not to post.

Click the image below to read a website that talks about making money with your blog. Give me feedback on what you think about it.

Rule #10 - Make your pages error-free

Make sure your graphics load. Make sure that your links work. Where you link pages at other sites, review your links regularly to catch sites that have moved.

Validate your pages. Errors in your HTML can cause strange behavior, including information that doesn't display.

Look at your pages. It's truly amazing to see a page that doesn't even load correctly; it says that someone didn't care enough to look even once before putting that page on the web. While you're looking, make sure that the page displays the way you intended for it to display. Do this in several browsers; not all browsers implement the same tags, or implement them the same way. Browsers also tend not to follow HTML syntax faithfully; validation is no guarantee that any particular browser will render your page in a readable, useful manner.

Rule #9 - Listen to hear yourself say, "Yes, but..."

If you find yourself defending the design of your pages, especially to the people who read them, but also to other designers, be open to the possibility that your pages really do have a design problem.

Remember that most people aren't going to tell you about errors or problems. If your content is worth staying for and the problems aren't too obnoxious, they may stay and read. Otherwise, they're likely to hit the back button and never come to your pages again. You'll never know how often that happens, so listen carefully when you do get feedback.

Better yet, seek out feedback from other designers. They'll be happy to tell you everything that you're doing wrong. You don't have to agree with them, but do listen carefully to their explanations of why they think some particular feature is a problem.

Rule #8 - Provide redundant navigation

People learn in different ways. People behave in different ways. People's perceptions respond to different cues. So be good to everyone, and provide navigation that works in multiple ways.

This is one of the arguments for using both image maps and text. Some people are going to use the text links, even if they are loading graphics and the image map is right there on their screen.

There are other ways to provide useful redundancy, including horizontal linkage between pages at the same level in the same area (this can be either a complete mapping or threading, as appropriate), vertical linking (especially upward to all levels), including pages in more than one subject area when appropriate, putting cross-links in context within articles where it is appropriate, and for large sites, a site map page whose only purpose is to link to every page in the site in some organized manner. For site maps, it helps if every page links back to the site map as well. For the primary navigational links which provide structure to your site, be as consistent as possible about the placement of these links.

The "three-click rule" is important in navigation. It should be possible to get from any page in your site to any other page in your site with no more than three links. It's even better if there are multiple three-links-or-less paths, because different readers will try different paths between the same pair of pages.

Rule #7 - Leave the reader in control

There are a lot of things that go into this, more than some of the really awful sins. One pet peeve of mine is the auto-refresh. Please, let me decide when I want to go to the next page.

A more subtle interpretation of this is to make your page usable as quickly as possible, even before it is completely loaded. Don't force your reader to wait for netlag.

• Use height=nn and width=nn attributes on all of your images. Most browsers will format the page immediately and load the image later, so at least the text of your page is usable.
• Break long pages into several pages, unless the page really focuses on a single issue. (Long pages are most likely to be appropriate on detail pages, and least likely to be appreciated on your home page.)
• Use the top of each page to give the reader enough information to decide whether they want to stay on that page.

There are other ways of taking control away from the user. Frames are bad about this, because they take up valuable screen space, and most framed sites don't give you a way to make the frames go away.

Keep your hands off the status line! Status-line crawlers are a popular toy, but they take away link information that the user may consider more important than your crawler. (Not to mention that crawlers, either in the status line or elsewhere, are nearly as evil and distracting as blinking text.) Some people also use JavaScript to put link descriptions in the status line when the mouse is over a link. If you have a link description that's that good, use it for the link text. Again, you're taking the URL away from the reader at exactly the moment that they're likely to be looking at the status line to see where a link is going to take them.

Background sound is another bad idea; most sounds are fairly large, and a reader should be able to choose whether they want to spend the time waiting for a large download. The same is true of large graphics; give readers a thumbnail to select, and let them know before they select that they're going to be downloading something huge.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Rule #6 - Don't try to be cool

Being cool generally means that your web site isn't so cool. "Cool" generally seems to mean distractions, self-promotion, and such. A lot of it is counter-productive.

The human visual system tracks to motion. This is why blink is so evil, and why animated gifs are distracting. At first, these things sound great: "I want this to be noticed!" The question is whether you want your reader to see anything else on your page. Every blink, every movement, is going to draw attention away from everything else. And if you use these to draw attention to something adjacent to them, such as text, their mere presence will be extremely annoying when the reader is trying to read what you want them to read.

Background graphics is another way for coolness to interfere with your website. Most backgrounds, even lightly textured ones, reduce legibility of plain text. Different browsers--even different versions of the same browser--differ considerably in the amount of contrast displayed in a background, so what looks OK to you might not be legible to someone else. Solid colors that contrast strongly with text colors are really the only way to ensure legibility.

It should go without saying that high-contrast or extremely busy backgrounds are really very un-cool. It should go without saying, but there are some really hideous backgrounds on the web that totally destroy their pages.

Understatement works surprisingly well on the web. Remember that when your page comes up, your reader will be completely focused on it. So know what it is that you want to say, then say it and be done with it. If you've done your job well, you'll get your point across. If you haven't, no amount of cool is going to compensate.

Rule #5 - Your reader is not an idiot

If a person has been using a web browser long enough to find your page, they probably understand what a link is, and how to activate it. It is not necessary to tell your reader to "click here."

Rule #4 - Keep your toys to yourself

There is a tendency on many sites to clutter up the home page with stuff that is of no interest to readers. Counters. Awards. Things the author cares about, but no one else.

The key point here is focus. Your web site has a purpose. Each page has a purpose. Everything should contribute to that.

This is not to say that you can't have fun with things. Take awards, for instance--I have nothing against those, and have a few myself. But they're all stashed away on an awards page; those who are interested can look, and those who don't care don't have to deal with it. Awards really don't belong on your home page.

Counters are another sticking point. No one cares how many other people have been to your web site. If possible, get your access counts from your server's logs. If those aren't available, use a hidden counter, although remember that even those will require an additional internet connection, and will slow down the loading of your page.

And then there are the people who collect animated gifs. These are incredibly distracting. I'll have more to say on these shortly. For now, I'll only say that most of the animations I've seen are pointless, cute but no more. They are confections. As Bruce Sterling once said, no one ever cried over the beauty of a cupcake.

Advertising is another kind of distraction. Think about it: Do you really want to go through all the work of attracting someone to your site, only to suggest that they might be happier somewhere else? Many advertisements offer hidden counters as an inducement, but they're not worth it. And you get to advertise your site as well--except that it takes thousands of hits on your site to get an extra hundred hits through the advertisement. You can assume, at least, that many people leave your site to follow an ad, and they may never return. I'd suggest that you don't bother with advertisements; they're not worth it unless you're getting a lot of money.

Rule # 3 - Make no assumptions about your user's browser

I've already said that you shouldn't try to dictate what browser the reader uses. Since you really have no control over this anyway, you might as well start with the assumption that your reader may use anything under the sun.

• Always use alt="..." attributes for your images, and provide text alternatives for image maps. There are many reasons why a reader might not be loading your images, including the possibility of a voice synthesis browser for a telephone. (Don't blow it off; there are telephone companies that would like to make that happen.)
• If you use frames, make sure that your site works just as well without them.
• If you use proprietary tags, don't depend on them to get your message across. The same goes for Java and for features that require plug-ins; think of those as enhancements rather than requirements.

Designing for any possible browser isn't that hard. You start with a subset of HTML that is universally recognized. HTML 2.0, plus a few enhancements such as tables, is a reasonable base. Restrict yourself to this set of tags when you add your content and design your navigation. Then add the rest as enhancements, making sure that your pages are readable and transmit their content on browsers that don't support those special features. (Yes, it's a good idea to keep an outdated version of a second-rate browser, and to use it periodically to check out your own pages--before you put those pages out on the web where other people might view them with the same outdated, second-rate browser.)

Rule #2 - You're a guest in your reader's environment

When you visit the home of someone you've never met, do you immediately tell them to replace their carpet or rearrange their furniture? Do you carry a portable stereo into their homes and turn it up with your favorite music?

Each of the following is just as rude:

• telling the reader to get a new browser
• expecting the reader to resize their page to fit your design
• playing background sounds that the user can't control
• setting type size or font in ways that the reader cannot override

It isn't simply that you don't know what your reader's environment might be, but you don't and can't know what things might be important to them, or why. Anything you do which forces conditions on your reader might violate some basic need that determines how they configure their system. Telling a reader to reconfigure their system just to accommodate your page is rude; if it does so in a way that breaks their work routine, they will probably leave your page immediately.

And you'll never know.

Rule #1 - The Web is not on paper

People who have done design work on paper documents often have a hard time making the transition to the web. The web is a fundamentally different medium, for better and for worse. A good designer will use a medium--any medium--to its best advantage, and will minimize its weaknesses.

You cannot control layout on the web; trying to do so will ensure that some readers will not be able to use your pages at all. HTML is a structuring language that lets you give hints about presentation, but the final presentation is a combination of your document plus the reader's browser, the reader's preferences, and the reader's window size for the browser. All of these latter items are out of your control.

This doesn't mean that everything you know about layout is useless; you can still do things such as flowing text around an image and adding white space. For examples of pages which use white space, and yet are durable enough to work well in different browsers and in different window sizes, take a look at WebTech Net Solutions' website. Feel free to look at the source, too; you'll find that the HTML mark-up is pretty conservative.

The web is a hypertext environment. Paper documents can only begin to approach the possibilities, through such things as indexes, tables of contents, and cross-references. Web documents can bring these tools to life by providing live links that go immediately to the referenced topic.

At present, the web is accessed almost entirely through computer screens. This does have its drawbacks; screens have much lower resolution and sharpness than paper. They are also harder for many people to read for other reasons. Typographical controls should be approached with great restraint, especially when it comes to body text in your documents. Readers should be able to select a font style and size that are comfortable for their reading conditions; as a designer, if you override these choices, you may be degrading the reading conditions for the most important person in your life--the person who reads your pages.

Another important use of the web is searching, and how you code your documents does affect their accessibility to search engines. <meta> tags are important for providing the right information to search engines, but the search robots will read the rest of your document as well. Some things simply won't be available to the robots, such as text in images (alt text is important here) and words which are split by mark-up embedded in the words (e.g., drop caps).

Rules of Thumb for Web Design

In my next ten posts, I will be laying out the rules of thumb for web design. These are design rules of thumb; you won't see much HTML here, if any. These are ways to think about your pages, not ways to code them.

Something to ponder as we look at these rules over the next few days:

We all want to have the best-looking, most effective pages on the web. Unfortunately, our own opinions of our work are highly unreliable. The only opinions that matter are the opinions of your readers. Base your ego on that.