Our Web Advice
A Different Perspective
Our goal is to expand the number of perspectives for your project. While this may sound simple, it is surprisingly uncommon.
Consider web site design for example. Today there are plenty of tools to allow an average person to create a web page. With some time a single person can make a web page that contains the desired information plus graphics and maybe some multimedia (i.e. sound, video, etc.) content. With a little more time the web page can be refined to look good on the web person's one display screen and default web browser.
This is what we call
single perspective web design. Sadly, it is very common.
By single perspective web design we mean it looks good on one computer with one monitor and one web browser. But what happens when that same web page is shown on a different computer with a different brand monitor and possibly a different web browser running on a different operating system? More often than not it looks different than it does on your display and may, if it looks significantly worse, become an unflattering face on your company, product or service.
Why Is This A Problem?
Most first time web page authors think about fonts simply as an artistic way of making the page look pretty. A fancy font may look nice on the author's screen, but what does the web page look like when viewed on a computer where that font is not available? Most web browsers try to substitute a different font, but unless the web authoring software added specific font substitution instructions, the alternate choice is not likely to look like it was originally intended. If the substitution mistakenly selects a non-alphanumeric font, like Wingdings, the text becomes unreadable.
There are whole industries built around nothing more than accurate color. It is hard enough to get the exact desired color of ink on paper, but getting two different monitors to show exactly the same color is nearly impossible. This involves a great number of variables including the display technology, size, speed, and even age. The best choice for color is to ensure the important things are high enough contrast to remain visible even in the worst conditions.
All that flashy video and motion on your web site might look impressive to you, but what does your web page look like when that animation can't be shown? There is no universal standard for video that is guaranteed to work the same on every web browser on every operating system. In fact every video format, web or not, always requires special player software to be installed in the browser or the operating system. What does the web page look like if that player software is not available? Any web site with content that is only available in a multimedia format is effectively invisible to users with disabilities and more importantly for commercial web sites the content is invisible to search engines too. And this doesn't even touch on the bandwidth required to download the media to the user.
By now you may be noticing a common theme. It is relatively easy to create something that looks good from the perspective of one single machine, but it is a whole different thing to make that same web page look good on a lot of different machines.
So what exactly are these different perspectives and why should I care?
In a business setting, the target audience is your primary customer. Unless you can absolutely ensure every member of your target audience uses exactly the same setup as your web author, you can be guaranteed they will be using a variety of different (including older) operating systems, different (including older) web browsers and may or may not have any media ability. Large corporations sometimes have internal web content for the company employees that are likely to be using a company owned/maintained computer with a common operating system and default web browser. Creating web content for internal distribution is very different than web content for customers outside the company. If your web page looks bad in front of your target audience, it does nothing to attract and might even turn some away.
Unless your primary customers have disabilities, visually (sight) and aurally (sound) impaired users are rarely considered when first designing web content. This is like turning customers away at the front door of your business simply because they do not have the same abilities as your web page author. In most companies, an employee that turns away paying customers is soon fired.
Think about how you find a web page when you do not know the address. You can try to guess the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) address of the company, you can use a web index or you can use a web search engine.
Here are each of the choices and their associated issues.
Trying to guess the URL address is most often disappointing because surprisingly few companies own all of the misspellings, plural and singular versions of their name in all of the top level (.COM, .NET, .ORG, etc.) domains. It is impossible all of your potential customers will be able to guess your correct domain name and type it 100% of the time without any typographical errors. Humans make mistakes. Planning ahead to help your human customers even when they make mistakes is good for your business.
- Web index.
In the most simple form this is a list of links or bookmarks. Some of the larger web indexing sites put a little more effort into grouping the web links by class, popularity or subject, but this still requires the end user to know the kind of web site before they can find the URL address. What happens when someone from the web index first finds your web page? Do they know the category to use for your web site? What happens if you want to be listed in more than one category?
- Web search.
This is the most popular way to find a URL address because it allows you to search with keywords to find things that may not fit into web index categories. Since most people start with a web search, modern web browsers often include a place to directly search without needing to go to the search engine web page first.
Each one of these (target audience, alternate audience, infrastructure) see your web page in a different way with their own unique perspective. The target audience may be the only one that sees the pretty stuff. The alternate audience and infrastructure are likely to only see the text content. If your main content is in flashy animation, video and audio, your content is effectively invisible to everyone that can not see it, including all web indexing and search infrastructure.
How do people find you if you are invisible?
We Can Help.
It all starts with some perspective and that starts with a little education. Here are some topics to get the conversation started.
- It's all about...
- The Long And Short View
- Our Perspective on Web Technologies like Flash
- Escape the Flash Trap
- Content Creation
- The Problem With Wide Text
- Contact Information
- Page Counters
- Menu Navigation Everyone Can Use
- Why We Do Not Promote Social Media Sites
- Commodity Vs. Commercial Web Hosting
- Graceful Degradation
- SHOUTING in Moderation
- Promoting Through Blogs
- Writers Block Buster
It's all about...
Successful physical businesses know that success is all about location, location, location.
Successful Internet businesses know that success is all about information, information, information.
If your web site does not contain relevant, original, valuable information, there is little to encourage someone visit more than once. See, it works. There is a nice bit of valuable information to start your collection.
The Long And Short View
Some people are too impatient to build real businesses. They repeatedly fall for deceptively convincing
get rich quick promotions, always believing this one will be different. Focusing only on the short term view always ends up costing more because it continually runs into unexpected barriers.
We do our best to avoid
put it up quick and cheap web sites with no real value that are so common on the web. Instead we do our best to focus on the long term goal. An extra hour or two invested into a good design at the beginning with a hour or two of maintenance invested each month can make days, months or years worth of difference as your company grows. We can help you avoid common self-imposed barriers.
Our Perspective on Web Technologies like Flash
A surprisingly large number of small business owners are unknowingly drawn into paying huge sums of money for web content that requires a brower extension or plug-in to view. This is unfortunate because that same business owner would never knowingly spend money on advertising or promotional materials guaranteed to be invisible for a portion of the customer base. Most likely this continues to happen just because the business owner is uninformed.
We refuse to create, edit or maintain any media-only (e.g. Flash) web site content for the following reasons.
1. This content is effectively invisible to all search engines. The search engines are in business to help people find you. Help them help you.
2. Up until recently all but the most simplistic web animation used proprietary technology that is never universally available. This means part of your customer base may not be able to see the pretty pictures simply because they have an old version of the proprietary player, or can't get the proprietary player for their choice of operating system.
3. If you thought it is expensive to create that animated content, consider the cost of a minor change. If you don't have all of the source materials used to create that animation, you effectively have to pay again for it to be created new from scratch. Alternatively, an HTML edit to change a price or date is trivially simple.
We choose instead to help educate our customers so they can save money and get a much higher level of effectiveness out of their web content while keeping the ability for rapid changes and updates at very affordable rates.
Escape the Flash Trap
If you have one of those expensive and
invisible Flash web sites, we can help turn that site into highly compatible and easy to maintain HTML that is friendly to the search engines and attractive to your customers.
Words should be the heart of every web page. Well known and very successful
multimedia web sites like YouTube have much more text than video. Keep in mind that virtually all of the text is written voluntarily. Start by writing your own words but let others help to write more words where possible.
Do you need help getting started? Every great writing work starts with something simple. Sometimes all you need is an idea or a strong phrase to get started. Once that first stone is set in place with a second and third stone to keep it company, you are well on your way to building a much larger structure.
This is why we suggest starting small and simple. It doesn't need to be anything more than writing down a few thoughts or ideas when something sparks your interest. Think of it like email to people that visit your web site. Describe what makes you, your service or your product different just like you would when talking to someone on the phone or in person. Then go back a little later after you collect enough ideas and see if there is a theme to connect the dots. You may find that your great work has already started with very little effort.
The Problem With Wide Text
Do you have a nice big wide-screen monitor with a very high resolution? Do you ever wonder why so many web pages are displayed in a relatively narrow width when you have all this space on your screen? This is a lesson learned a very long time ago by news publishers (yes, the ink on paper stuff) that shows the human eye quickly fatigues from excessive side-to-side movement. This is why every news paper in the world is divided into narrow columns no matter the physical paper size. If the column is narrow enough and held at a comfortable distance, the side-to-side movement can be minimized which makes it easier for the reader.
Here is an example of what this feels like.
These two boxes contain the exact same text. Which one is less effort for the reader?
Every web site should have some way for the user or customer to contact you. Depending on your business this may include physical (voice phone or street address) or electronic (fax phone or email address) contact information. Unfortunately few business owners consider how their business looks when viewed just from the online perspective as many of their online customers are likely to do.
Consider the email address on your web site for example.
Have you noticed the number of business web sites that use their own company domain name but the contact email address is hosted elsewhere (a cable company, phone company, Google, Yahoo or AOL)? This is like saying your business is too small to afford a phone, so it rents an extension off of some other company's phone. Even if that is exactly the situation, openly displaying this to the public never helps. No matter how cheap that email service may be, it can never overcome the unprofessional appearance especially when your web site already has your company domain name.
We prefer to skip the whole email issue altogether for two main reasons.
- The first is the huge onslaught of spam targeted at any email address that appears on a web site. There are many different ways to attempt to thwart the email address harvesting, but to some degree all of them only cause problems for legitimate users and do little or nothing to prevent the spam.
- The second is that it is growing to be impractical to force a web user to open up their email program, retype or copy your address and then send it to you. An email address on a web page mostly worked in the early days of the Internet when all email was handled by an email program. Now users are just as likely to use a web browser to read and write email, possibly the same web browser viewing your web page which means they are no longer on your web site.
So why not simply provide a box on your web page where the user can type a message to you without all the email stuff getting in the way? No need for the user to switch to a different program, or a different web site to contact you and a much lower risk of looking unprofessional in public.
Page counters that show the number of visitors on your commercial web site are generally a bad idea. This is most likely to cause one of two negative reactions in your visitors.
- The first is if they think the page count number is too low, which is always a relative number that only the customer knows. In this case they are most likely to equate a low page count to a restaurant with no cars in the parking lot. No matter how good that restaurant may be, the sign of low popularity is a very real barrier to attracting new customers.
- The second is if the number is too high, which again is always a relative number that only the customer knows. In this case the customer may view your company as too busy to provide personal attention to each customer. This is even more true for customers seeking better than average quality in the products and services they buy.
If you must use page counters, only use them to track activity on specific pages in your web site. Unless you have a specific purpose for the page count, never show the number directly on a page where the user can casually see. And especially do not advertise the date when the counter was started anyplace where a customer can see. This kind of information is only for the web site owner.
Instead of page counters it is much better to use any number of web server log file analyzers to gather traffic patterns and generate detailed traffic reports not possible with a simple page counter. Armed with these reports you can invest time and energy in the places where your customers are spending their time and customizing your web content to better fit your customer's point of view.
Menu Navigation Everyone Can Use
Every web site with more than one page needs a way to get from one page to another and back. Easy navigation is required to keep a user on your web site without limiting their quick access to the information they want. Unfortunately a large number of otherwise professional looking web sites use graphic images of words (instead of actual text) and scripting or a plug-in (see note on Flash above) for menu navigation. The problem is only made worse when the images have no alternate text or other clues to help users that can't
see the graphics. This can be a fatal mistake when your competitor is using a text menu.
Here are some things to keep in mind.
- Not every web browser has scripting enabled at all times. Security conscience users have web scripting disabled by default to protect against infection and attack. We recommend NoScript for users that want a safer web experience. If your menu is invisible or impossible to use without scripting, you just sent users that care about security to your competition.
- Not every web user can see graphics. This is not just visually impaired users, but also applies to users with very limited, unreliable or expensive bandwidth. If your site navigation is impossible to use without the graphics, you may have lost a customer.
- Not every display device has the same color depth or contrast. What looks fine on your high end display may be totally unreadable at a lower color depth. If your menus are only available as images, the user is unable to use an alternate method to read the text to find what they want.
We work hard to make sure the navigation is well structured and easy to use for all of your users. Check out our menus on this web site. No images or scripting used here.
Why We Do Not Promote Social Media Sites
It all starts with time. Every business owner knows time is money and your time is a limited resource. The social media world demands a constant supply of current content and timely responses to users, especially the negative ones that can quickly damage reputation if not handled politely and professionally. This only works to your advantage if your business is ready to invest the time required on a regular basis. Nothing hurts a business more than putting time sensitive content out there only to forget about it. From the customer perspective there is little difference between a company that is too busy to update their page and one that is going out of business.
Social media sites can be incredibly valuable if all of your customers are already there and are unlikely to stray out to find your stand alone web site. But requiring all of your customers to enter into a legal agreement with a third party social media company and agree to their terms of service in order to conduct business with you or receive support from your business may ultimately cost you much more than your time.
In the case of a small business with limited time and people resources, investing your time and effort first into your own web site by creating new and worthwhile content with real value and keeping everything current is much more effective in the long term. This is primarily because your own web site should be the first place where customers go to interact with your company without distraction or outside influence. Invest your time wisely.
Commodity Vs. Commercial Web Hosting
Web hosting has grown into an industry with a wide variety of options from the very low end costing nearly nothing to the very high end costing thousands of Dollars a month. What is the difference and why is there such a big price range? The best way to answer this question is to consider it from the other perspective.
As a business owner or employee how much would you care about someone that only paid $5 or less a month? How much time could you afford to spend on them and stay in business?
The common saying
you get what you pay for holds true here. In the most basic sense the cost of hosting directly equates to how much that host can afford to care about you. But even more than that they can afford to have more knowledgeable and better trained people watching to make sure everything is going smoothly and to quickly notice and fix things when needed - before you notice and complain.
If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. ~ Ben Montanelli
Of course every budget has limits which is why it is good to have so much choice. The important part is to never base your hosting choice on price alone. Get the best service for the price you can afford, but expect to pay a reasonable amount for the service you get so they can stay in business.
Some website owners believe their content should be highly formatted like a magazine where everyone must see exactly the same thing in the same place with the same colors and at the same size. Even in the print world the magazine approach can miss or alienate customers with different needs and different visual abilities. Instead it helps to think about your web site more like television.
In our modern world there are TV sets still in operation that span the range from analog black and white to digital high definition. There are at least two different aspect ratios and to make things worse every analog TV has a slightly different overscan setting where part of the picture was purposefully targeted outside the display area to avoid showing any black bars at the edges. Add all this together and you get some placement artifacts in TV shows that favor a relatively small sweet spot at the center of the screen even on wide screen displays.
Do you know why most banners, channel logo imprints and other visual information displays are one third the way up from the bottom of the screen and so far in from the side of the screen on your wide screen TV? This is for those TV sets with 4:3 aspect ratios and high overscan settings. The TV show is designed to gracefully degrade for all TV sets without forcing those with newer, more capable TV sets to watch analog black and white low resolution content in a 4:3 aspect ratio.
It is called graceful degradation because in very simple terms it means never putting your most important content out of the reach of a viewer with the least ability.
It is impossible for every web browser ever made to show the exact same content in exactly the same way. Some web browsers can only show text without any images or active content like scripting. Others can only show a small subset of image types and very limited active content while the latest and greatest cutting edge web browser can do so much more including multimedia and fantastic special effects.
The largest benefit to all your customers is to design your web content so it looks best on the latest web browsers while still being accessible and useful to those with the least capable web browser. Try it here on our web site to see how graceful degradation works in the real world. Make note of the special design elements visible on newer web browsers (like Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome) that never get in the way of older web browsers accessing the content.
SHOUTING in Moderation
When home movie cameras first hit the market everyone thought it was fun to zoom. I can't count the number of times I've seen home movies that made me seasick from the constant zooming in and out. I do not think zooming is bad. When used sparingly it grabs attention but when used too much it does the opposite.
Keep in mind that ALL CAPS and BOLD text can be very useful in the right context. It can serve to bring attention to something you want to stand out from the rest of the text. It can be powerful communication when used correctly.
The word intuitive is used a lot these days. Unfortunately absolutely every use of the word for describing a technology product is wrong.
First here is the dictionary definition so there is a clear understanding of the word:
Intuition is pure, untaught, noninferential (not figured out) knowledge independent of any reasoning process; immediate cognition of an object not inferred or determined by a previous cognition of the same object.
By this definition anything claiming to be intuitive, including stuff like web pages, would be so obvious that it could be understood without any learning, experimentation or prior contact no matter how brief. That is obviously not possible in the current state of the computer industry.
Now that you have the definition can you think of anything that is absolutely intuitive in the technology world? Apple may have come the closest with their early mobile devices bringing stories of technology ignorant people in third world countries able to pick up an Apple touch screen device and start sliding and scrolling without any training or prior exposure to the technology. In reality this is less likely to be an example of intuitive technology than a demonstration of the natural process of exploration built into us from birth. The freedom to explore something new helps explain why children often are able to discover things about technology their parents did not know. But exploring takes time and that is something most busy adults have in very limited quantity.
Instead it may be more cost effective reaching for something new that is also simple, familiar and comfortable. In the past few years a number of very well known technology companies have drastically changed their user interface designs in an attempt to reach something that is intuitive. Every one has only succeeded in alienating their long standing users and customers either directly by forcing them to the competition or indirectly by lowering productivity while they learn something new.
Good product design requires a balance between cutting edge and familiar while keeping a firm grip on what is most important not to change. This is the same balance everything with a user interface must follow from cars to web pages.
In the very early days of the automotive industry cars had a number of very different user interfaces. Some cars had sticks to steer while others used wheels. Now well over a century later every car in your local dealership has a steering wheel but at the same time other things, like the dashboard, have changed radically from old gages to cutting edge touch screens. Keep this in mind when changing your web page design.
Promoting Through Blogs
Promotion, including advertising, is a cost of business. How much you are able to afford is something only you can say. How you promote your web site, product or service is a whole different story with some interesting opportunities.
Traditional advertising used to mean newspapers, radio and television but all of those media outlets are gradually losing audience (readers, listeners and viewers respectively) to the Internet. To most company owners Internet advertising means paying for banner ads or search engine keywords but there is something that can be many times more effective; blogs.
Well respected blogs are the Internet version of
word of mouth advertising which may explain why they are so powerful. Be very careful about blindly using blogs for promotion. With any form of promotion it is important to look at the target audience and if/how any specific media outlet (e.g. blog) reaches that audience.
It is a good idea to spend a little time looking at their site(s) and reviewing not only what the blog owners say but also the comments. If the comments sound like your target audience that is likely a good place to promote your products and services. And more importantly it is likely to get more sales per promotion Dollar than any search engine can offer.
If you are unsure or want to control your costs it might be better to offer a substantial discount rather than outright free stuff to the blog owner.
Here are some points to consider if you have a product that you want to be reviewed by a blog owner.
- Never drop ship to someone reviewing your product. Personally open, inspect, test, clean and double box everything to make absolutely sure there are no defects of any kind either in the product or in the packaging so it gets there without any damage.
- Keep in mind that promotion through someone else's blog can be much more than just giving away product. Often it is much more valuable to provide information content to them in whatever form you feel comfortable. A telephone interview or two where you share some of your insider tips and hints would help the blog owner provide more value to their readers over a longer period of time than just a single product review.
- If the blog owner only wants the free product and not the free information, that is not likely to be as good for you because it is a sign they are not in it for the long term where valuable information is always king.
Writers Block Buster
A long time ago someone very wise in the area of writing revealed his secret to me. The secret was how to become a better writer while avoiding or reducing the effect of writers block. This is not one of those theoretical or magical secrets, it is based on solid fact with a well proven history.
Before I reveal the secret outright, let me tell you what this has done for me and many other writers that use this simple tool to very good effect.
- Deadlines involving words get a little easier to estimate and budget. I attribute this part to pure experience gained through the direct application of this secret.
- It becomes a lot less of a chore to write words even if they are not all sterling examples of award winning prose. In fact almost any kind of writing gets easier including places where a little flair, artistic or otherwise, is needed.
- Big work becomes a little like the infinite monkey theorem where monkeys banging on typewriters eventually turn out some great literary work. Given enough time almost anything is possible, even with crude tools and resources.
The surprise prize is a valuable resource in itself. Anyone that writes often enough will end up with a storehouse of idea odds and ends tucked away just waiting for the right moment in a jeweler's hand to turn their old rocky appearance into jewel-like brilliance, or at least a shiny trinket.
By now it should be clear enough the secret to better writing is to write more words more often. A little consistency in writing frequency, like writing a regular journal or blog, can go a very long way to overcoming writers block and maybe even improving the quality of your writing over time. All it takes is a starting place and some persistence to keep going even when it gets tough.
Why wait? Write now. Write often.