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what not to do

An eye-catching website is a must for every business, but many are still making rookie design mistakes that are easy to avoid. And that's not something any business can afford.

"Your website is the single most important marketing element for your business today," says Ezra Silverton, president of the Toronto Web design firm 9th Sphere, prioritizing it ahead of that increasingly archaic prop, the business card.

"You only have one chance to make a first impression," he says. "In person, very few people will walk away within seconds if they get a bad impression – but on a website, they click away instantly."

Here, Mr. Silverton and Doug Morneau, founder and chief executive officer of Rhino Marketing in Vancouver, share their seven deadliest Web design sins and how you can avoid them.

Putting design before content

Yes, good design is non-negotiable, says Mr. Silverton. But creating a design template and then trying to fit content into that design is a fatal flaw. "The most important reason people go to your site is to find the content," he says.

"If you're putting design before content, then you're forced to adjust the content to comply with the design, and you really want it to be the other way around."

Designing without strategy

"You need to know the goals of the site first, and then achieve those through design," says Mr. Silverton.

"We emphasize strategy first, but I can't even think of a single client who would think this way. They always come in and talk about the colours and images they want to use. They're excited about the visual aspect, and they forget about strategy."

It starts with understanding your audience, says Mr. Morneau. "You need to understand where and when they're going to use the site," he says, adding that often the goal of a business site is to support and drive sales.

He recommends visualizing how users are going to interact with your content. If, for instance, you're in the business of selling washing machines, people will visit your site for three reasons: To research your product, to find out where it's available and to actually purchase the item. "Before you rush to roll out a site, you need to know how people are going to use it," he says.

Getting too creative – or not creative enough

Mr. Silverton cautions against getting too fancy with animated graphics and music. "People can go overboard and put a lot of flashy things on their site,' he says. "If it's a business about, say, plumbing, it may not be appropriate."

Conversely, it may be tempting for new businesses to go with an out-of-the-box template design, but considering the consumer demand for websites, and what the competition is likely offering, it may not be the best choice. "If you're going to set up a site, set up something that looks like you spent time on it," says Mr. Morneau. "Otherwise, you may be better off without a site at all."

Mr. Silverton agrees that sites that are quickly thrown together without care make a bad impression. "You can spot those right off the bat – and I'm not just talking about people in the Web design business. Customers can, too."

Burying contact info

It sounds like a basic necessity, but many businesses make their contact information hard to find.

"It's the most basic problem, but I'm surprised by how often it happens," says Mr. Silverton. "I think it happens because businesses are so entrenched in their daily work, they overlook the basic stuff." He sees it most often on sites that were clearly a do-it-yourself job. "When you work with a professional, we'll ask the right questions."

Simply providing a form, instead of an e-mail address, phone number and street address, leaves potential customers not knowing whether they'll ever hear back from you, says Mr. Morneau, who recommends listing all three methods of contact prominently on the site and leaving it up to the customer to decide how they want to communicate with you.

Out-of-date information

"The easiest thing to do is keep your site up to date," says Mr. Morneau, but, he adds, lots of businesses don't bother. Once they've got a site up, they think they're done. "It's a lot like not doing regular maintenance on your car. It becomes out of date and irrelevant. Eventually, it stops working."

"So often we'll see sites where they have a news posting that's over two years old on their homepage," says Mr. Silverton. "Out-of-date material speaks to credibility, professionalism and a commitment to being better as a company. When you're looking for a company to do business with, these things matter."

Take stock of what you have on your site at least every two to three months, advises Mr. Morneau, to ensure the freshest news is placed front and centre.

Designing for you, not your audience

Mr. Silverton often sees companies basing site design decisions on what they like. "That's the wrong question to ask," he says. "What they should be asking is, does their target market like it? You need to design for your audience, not for you."

"Quite often, companies build websites based on their own perspective instead of the users' views," says Mr. Morneau.

With the added benefit of traffic data, companies can constantly improve their site to give their customers what they want, he adds. He recommends businesses take the time to look at site traffic patterns to see where they can make improvements.

Forgetting about site structure and search engines

"Bad organization kills user experience," says Mr. Silverton. "It doesn't matter how beautiful your website is. You're better off having great navigation and content and poor design than the other way around."

Site structure comes back to strategy: What's the point of your site? Once you've answered that question, organization becomes far easier. You may want to organize by sales process, by popularity of product, by profit margins. "It all depends on your goal," says Mr. Silverton.

Search engine optimization (SEO) has its place too, experts agree. But what you don't want is a site that is written entirely for that purpose. "Search engines don't buy things, people do," says Mr. Morneau. "You need to have the keywords that people are searching for, but you don't need to repeat the fact that you're a Vancouver design firm at every opportunity. As a user, that is annoying."

Mr. Silverton agrees that SEO shouldn't dictate design, but he suggests considering it in unison with design from the get-go. "Most companies believe SEO comes after site development, but then you'll have to go back and make a lot of changes. It's inefficient."