Web Design for the non-designer

Web Design StyleThe first thing to do is to have a clear distinction in your head between content and style. Content is the text and images that visitors read and look at; style is how these are arranged, laid out and presented.The style side is where the web designer comes in. This is his/her main area of expertise and he/she will have the design skills to present your content in a way which communicates your message clearly and professionally.

The content is the site owner’s responsibility. In website marketing content is king. The main reason a visitor will come back to your site is because he/she found what they were looking for. The look and feel are very much secondary to this.

Creating your content can appear a little daunting if you’ve never thought about it before, even for a small site, but it’s really quite simple if you approach it in the right way. You may not have designed a site before but you have used plenty of sites. The trick, as with any marketing, is to put yourself in the visitor’s shoes. You need to consider:

  • When they come to your site, what are their objectives – what might they want to go away with?
  • What information will they expect to see?
  • What other information might be helpful to them?

If you can consider these things you will satisfy your website’s visitors. The next step is to check out the online competition.

  • What do similar sites (your competitors) offer?
  • Can you offer anything that they don’t?
  • Can you make your site more useable than theirs?

If you can give your website visitors what they want better than your competitors do you have a recipe for a successful site. Pair that with professional styling and your site will be a great success.

Beat the Credit Crunch – Move Online

Save moneyWith all this financial doom and gloom in the media it’s perfectly understandable that many businesses are looking to cut back on spending and play it safe until the economy is more stable.

Starting a new website or investing money in website marketing is probably something that is generally viewed as an expense to be avoided in the current climate but a move towards web based business could actually save you money.

We all know that paper publications like corporate brochures are in decline and electronic media are on the increase. Now could be the right time to make the leap.

If you produce a brochure it’s probably costing you thousands. You’ve then got all the distribution costs – covering letters, envelopes, postage. With a website you’ve got an initial cost (almost certainly lower than brochure print costs), some annual maintenance costs (hosting, backups) and then internet marketing costs (promoting your website to get your business found). The big cost difference online is that when you come to the next cycle you don’t have this initial outlay again as you would with a brochure. There’s a huge saving to be made.

Moving your marketing publications from offline to online won’t just save you thousands, it has other benefits. With a traditional brochure the only way of measuring its effectiveness is seeing which of its recipients go on to enquire and then which buy. In reality most companies don’t even track this and don’t really know whether or not their brochure works but carry on with it blindly more out of habit than anything. With a website and online marketing tools everything is tracked, logged and measurable. Consider the advantages of knowing all this:

  • You will know how many people visit your website. With a brochure how many are read and how many go straight in the bin? You’ve no idea.
  • You will know which products people are looking at. Again, with a brochure you’re in the dark.
  • You will know how people found your site – from search engines, from other sites or by typing in your web address (from offline promotion).
  • With online advertising you will know exactly how many people have viewed your ad and how many have clicked it. Compare this with an ad in a newspaper or magazine – there’s no easy way of knowing how effective it is.

Moving your marketing from offline to online will not only save you money but will provide you with exact data which can be used to inform your marketing decisions. This means better marketing and less money wasted on ineffective marketing.

Content Management Systems explained

A different type of content managementYou’ve probably heard the phrase CMS or Content Management System. I’ll explain what it is and some of the benefits.

A CMS is a system which sits behind a website and allows you to edit a website easily. It’s called a content management system because it specifically allows changes to the content of the website – the text, images and links on pages – but not the layout or design, which stays fixed.

The usual method of changing web content is by logging in and gaining access to an admin or control panel. This gives options of creating, editing or deleting pages as well as setting up page order and hierarchy (which pages are sub-options of others).

When it comes to editing pages this is normally done through a visual or WYSIWYG editor, which is short for “What You See Is What You Get” so no knowledge of HTML or web page coding is required. It’s very easy to use, as easy as using Microsoft Word, probably easier. You write your page’s content in a large text area and have buttons to help with formatting – Bold, Italics, Underline, bullets, numbering, text alignment, indent, etc. You may be able to select from a limited range of fonts though this is usually controlled by the design template to ensure a consistent look and feel throughout the site. The best part is, you don’t even have to use the WYSIWYG editor – you can simply paste your content from another application, like Word.

As well as working with text you can insert various media – images, video clips, audio files, Flash.

So, what are the benefits? Well, the main benefit is that anyone can use it which means that your site can be managed by anyone. In a medium or large company that means anyone in a team, not just the IT person or contracted web design company. For a small private site it gives you full freedom to control your content and changes happen instantly – no more waiting for the web designer to make your changes.

If you’re still using a static website and relying on someone else to update it, it’s time to take control and manage your own content.

Web Design for Different Screen Sizes

When you design for print media you work with graphics and text and arrange them in a way that is both pleasing to the eye and conveys your message. With the web you have to do the same but there’s a whole lot more to it.

With print, the publication has a fixed size. With web design, the size of the page can vary. Imagine trying to paint a picture when your canvas keeps changing size. Users view web pages through different devices and different software with different screen resolutions. Most web pages are still viewed on a computer screen but these days can equally be viewed on mobile phones, PDAs, web books, even games consoles. In terms of software, the main web browsers are Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox but there is a whole host of others. You may have heard of Chrome, Safari, Opera and beyond that mobile devices use their own. Each web browser is a program designed to interpret and display web page code (HTML) but they all interpret it slightly differently so when writing the code you have to be sure it will display as you want it to. As well as conventional web browsers there are also specialised screen readers which read the text on a web page aloud for those with visual impairments. This is where accessible design comes into play. As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, individual users also have different screen resolutions, some viewing the same content on a screen resolution 4 times larger than others.

Areas of the screen can be stretched or squashed to fit with the screen size and, rather than being given fixed heights and widths, are given maximum and minimum dimensions within which they can move.

So, when you look at a web page, you need to realise that what you see will probably not be exactly the same as what others see. The content should be the same but the layout will vary.

As people buy newer computers with larger monitors and higher resolutions websites need to be redesigned. The majority of users in the UK use a Windows PC with Internet Explorer 7 and a screen resolution of 1024×768 pixels. Three years ago the typical UK user would have been using Internet Explorer version 6 with a screen resolution of only 800×600 pixels. If you haven’t redesigned your website in the last 3 years it’s time it was optimised for the new generation of visitors.

Links, link exchanges and strategies

There’s so much written about links, linking strategies, link exchanges and so much conflicting advice out there. How do you know who or what to believe?

Well, it’s actually quite simple. Don’t listen to anyone, not even me. When it comes to links and what you should do let’s see what Google has to say. Google has a Webmasters section of their site which gives clear guidelines of what you should and shouldn’t do. Read it. Do it.

On the subject of links this page is a good place to start: Creating a Google-friendly site: Best practices > Link schemes.

Google’s advice: “some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results.”

In summary, links are important but it’s about quality not just quantity.

Getting links is difficult. If people like your site’s content they will link to it. The more people link to it, the more people see it and so on in a snowball effect. But… how do you get people to like your content when nobody is viewing it because you don’t have enough incoming links – it’s a vicious circle. How do you get your little snowball started down the hill?

Give it a little push. Here are 3 great ways to get going:

1. Add your site to directories, not any directory going but directories where the theme or content is relevant to your site. Try a Google search for your theme or industry plus the word “directory” or “listing” and see if you can add your site. You could also try “add site” or “submit your site” to see where you can get a free link. Before going too mad creating directory links remember it’s about quality as well as quantity – it’s all quite logical – a link from a site where you’re allowed to add your own links isn’t going to be worth as much as a link that someone else has chosen to add.

2. Get involved in forums or online communities. Find sites relevant to your site where you are allowed to contribute and join in. Don’t be obvious and steam in advertising your site but get involved in discussions, try to help people out and, soon enough, if they’re interested in what you’ve got to say they’ll look at your site.

3. Blog. Write articles or posts, just like this one, and post it on your own site or submit it to a blogging or article site. Be sure to include an interesting headline and some links back to your site. Submit this to the right blog search engines (e.g. Technorati, Digg) and it will be read and passed around gaining you not only links but visitors in the process. Pssst – I know a very good blog designer.