There's some irony in the fact that, in 2011, an age of super-fast computers and ubiquitous broadband connections, there's more reason than ever to keep websites simple and focused - low-tech, even.
But with ever-more consumers browsing the Web on small, handheld screens rather than big ones, and search engines more and more at the centre of the consumer's daily life, a new set of pressures is acting on modern site design. For small businesses looking to take their websites one step forward, here are three factors to consider:
Down with Flash
Skip intro! For years, Flash was the go-to tool for multimedia creation. Flash was - and still is - a popular tool for website creators. Static pages sat there, but pages created with Flash came to life with flashy introductions, ambient music and swooshing graphics.
However, it had several problems, right from the start.
For one thing, jazzy introductions were never a good idea. This is especially true for business websites that customers are likely to visit searching for practical information. (Indeed, websites that people visit for scintillating multimedia experiences - in any field - are few and far between.) For years, Flash intros have been synonymous with bad design.
More recently, though, broader trends have further conspired against Flash. Famously, Apple's mobile products - iPods, iPads and iPhones - don't run Flash. (Apple claims that Flash is prone to crashing and slows its devices down; thus the boycott.) iPhone visitors to a site with Flash see only a blank square. Other mobile devices play Flash, but Apple's many customers aren't a demographic any business wants to shut out.
Secondly, Flash is at a disadvantage with another key demographic: Search engines. While engines like Google are capable of understanding and indexing Flash animations, SEO professionals say that they seldom rank as high in search results as non-Flash websites. (This is partly because having multiple pages helps a website's ranking, while Flash websites all unfold on the same page.)
Up with optimization
Being search-engine-friendly means more than making sure your site ranks well. It also means ensuring that search engines can extract the information they need for other popular applications, like local search and mapping.
One upscale restaurant I recently visited had a website structured such that Google mistook the owners' address for the restaurant's (both, inexplicably, were listed on the contact page).
After looking up the restaurant on Google Maps and being given the wrong address, I was left driving in circles around a residential suburb as my reservation ticked past.
It's a Google planet. Making sure that websites are well-suited to search engines is becoming more of a priority than ever. The transitional years in which consumers were adapting to the Internet, learning how best to find information, and tentatively moving away from phone books are all but over. A business either appears on the first page of results, or it might as well not appear at all.
This makes it all the more baffling why more small businesses haven't made sure their websites are optimized. A sustained campaign to reach the very top of the charts for a popular search term ("Calgary electrician," say) usually takes time, sustained content-writing and professional advice.
But making sure your website has the basics covered - good structure, well-named pages, the right kind of basic content, and ensuring that your business is well-represented in related services - is a one-time investment. If Google can find your phone number, it will even list it as a push-to-call button on mobile phones - saving visitors the hassle of digging for it. That's a convenience not to pass up.
Don't bury what people are looking for
Making sure the information that users are looking for is front and centre has always been a tenet of good design. But with the rise of mobile browsing, the fact that websites are - once again! - being displayed in an environment that favours simplicity over extravagance makes an old principle more important than ever.
Small phones make it critical that websites get to the point, and get there quickly. Picture every visitor to your site sitting in a hot car, poking away at a slow iPhone or a cranky Android device, looking for your opening hours, address, phone number, services offered, or menu. In this context, your brand becomes tied not to the colours and logo, but to how painless it is to use.
Having a clear vision of what you'd like your website to achieve is critical to its success, whether you're looking to boost sales, build a subscriber list, or boost a brand.
But in no instance can you discount the role of your website as a simple directory listing, whose job is to get basic information into - quite literally - the hands of the customer on the go.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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