By Ilze Hugo

If a company doesn’t have a website in today’s tech savvy market, it’s almost as if they don’t exist, says Jean-Pierre Mouton, co-owner and lead interaction designer at web production studio, Shapeshift: ‘A website gives you credibility. Being online shows that you’re reputable, that you’re not a fly-by-night.’But while it certainly helps, just being online isn’t enough. Your site needs to look good and work well too. Consumers are becoming increasingly web savvy and can spot a badly designed website a mile away, warns Riaan van der Westhuizen, a web developer at full-service digital marketing agency, Hello Computer. Just as not having an online presence can be bad for business, a shoddily designed site can also do damage: ‘If you’ve got a brand experience online and the text is too small, it creates frustration for the person interacting with that data,’ explains Mouton. A scrollbar or a link that is broken will irritate potential clients, leading them to assume that dealing with your company will be equally frustrating. A bad website says simply: You’re incompetent.

Speak to the right audience
So, what does a good website look like then? First of all you’ve got to understand who you’re making it for. Identify your audience and what they like – from graphics to types of interactions, content and style of copy: ‘Many designers blindly follow trends without considering whether those design trends actually fit their target market,’ says Mouton. Get a group of people that represent your target market to test a prototype of your website before it goes live says Van der Westhuizen: A good strategy is also imperative: ‘Before even starting the design process you have to develop a site strategy and decide what your goals are for the site – be it sales, brand exposure etcetera,’ says Mouton.

Think sexy looks and smooth sailing
‘When designing a website, you need to communicate a certain set of information to your users. If you don’t lay that info out properly it will get lost or your users will get bored and go somewhere else,’ warns Van der Westhuizen. The site needs to be laid out in a way that makes sense on an interactive level, so that users can interact with it in an intuitive way, says Mouton. One example is to put your search box at the top right-hand corner of the website where your users expect it to be. A user shouldn’t have to work for information. People are lazy, says Van der Westhuizen. ‘Focus on the main points and don’t force more info onto people than they are willing to read – keep copy clear, concise and to the point.’ Layout and colour plays a huge role in a user’s perception of your site, and can be used to visually point people in the right direction – highlighting the most important points and focusing their attention where you want it to be.’

With a content-heavy site, the challenge is to present it in such a way that users don’t get overwhelmed: ‘You have to ask yourself, how do I design it that user only need three clicks to get to the info he/she wants,’ says Mouton. A good designer will also program your site according to web standards and ensure that the site doesn’t discriminate against anyone. For example: You should be able to open it from any browser, be it Internet Explorer or Firefox.‘Beware of trying too many fancy things. Rather stick with what actually works, like menu bars that have words on, instead of pictures,’ says Van der Westhuizen. Another bad idea is fancy flash intros that take too long to load. If you’re a local company targeting middle income users in South Africa, keep in mind that your audience might have slow internet connections, so you can’t have massive videos that take forever to load. ‘When going to a restaurant, people want to see the menu and not read about the chef’s grandmother’s influence on the recipes. You need to know why people come to your website; who your target market is and what the most used internet connection is amongst them.’

The buck doesn’t stop when your site hits the net
Your site should be designed in such a way that you can measure your results continuously – keeping track of hits, seeing where your users are coming from and whether you’re getting the correct audience, after the site is up: ‘With statistics like Google Analytics you can even see which areas of the website somebody’s actually clicking on and which areas are being totally ignored by visitors,’ says Mouton. ‘Websites are dynamic platforms. Always keep in mind that your site will never really be complete because as markets, audiences and technology change, people interact with things differently and you constantly need to measure your results and tweak your website accordingly,’ says Mouton.

There are billions of sites out there and competition is tough. That’s why its hard work to keep your website highly ranked, says Van der Westhuizen. Regularly redesigning it ensures that users don’t become bored with the design and keep coming back: ‘Sites like Kalahari do this once a year.’ He advises looking at a redesign every 18 months. ‘Rather spend more initially and invest in a content management system that allows you to update the site yourself, with photos and content will work out cheaper in the long run.’

Be social or go home
Marketing on the web has changed dramatically: ‘A couple of years ago before the social media revolution we would do search engine optimization to ensure that Google’s bots found your site. That’s still relevant today but, because there are more and more people online, it becomes much more difficult,’ says Mouton. ‘For example, in one country there may be thousands of plumbers who are all competing to be number one on Google.’ With the invention of socially aggregated communities like Digg, Stumble Upon and Reddit, that aren’t ranked by Google’s algorithm, but by internet users themselves, ranking has become social: ‘It’s not bots ranking your site anymore, but people. That’s why social networking integration is so important. If you want to be ranked high on Google today you have to be ‘Liked’. The ‘Like’ button has been the biggest revolution in the social web. If your website is Liked, you are ranked higher, you are more relevant and therefore have a better brand. And of course this translates into hits as well. So marketing yourself online is very much tied around being social, being Liked.’ Also pivotal to your online marketing is a blog – which not only informs your visitors of what’s happening, but also establishes you as a thought leader; generates excitement around your brand and makes you look like an innovator. And if your content is interesting people will read it and ‘Like’ it. Others will pick up on this and it will snowball logarithmically. But of course, not all businesses have to be marketed in this way. Here again you have to ask yourself who are you talking to.’

Social networking is huge and one cannot afford to ignore it anymore, agrees Van der Westhuizen. ‘There are amazing things you can do with Facebook fan pages and Twitter these days. But if don’t know how to manage those things then it’s better to just leave it, as managing them badly can actually harm your brand.’

Choose an A-team
A good website isn’t just something you can slap together or get your young nephew to design because he knows a lot about computers, warns Mouton. The web has become a very specialized industry. Make sure the team you employ has the necessary experience and a proper track record. Ask to see portfolios, enquire about past successes and turnaround of sites. If the price seems cheap, go somewhere else. Says Van der Westhuizen: ‘With cheap options, clients often end up spending more money getting the site redesigned than they would have if they had just gone to a reputable company with a great portfolio the first time round.’ Also be careful of guys who claim to be SEO experts, he warns: ‘There are no magicians out there who can get your website onto the 3rd slot on Google by magic. It’s hard work. You need a website with good content and good links to other sites with good reputations.’

Originally published in High-Flyers Magazine, Issue 17. 3PHXU8TX3RVN.


The Web – Ready for the Real World

Human civilization has been around long enough to have established many different political, social and business structures. Technology has developed along with these systems and is still ever-changing. The wheel has been around since before records began, steam has given way to electricity and there seems to be no end to what may still be possible.

My Grandfather always said that Man has advanced more in the past 100 years than in the whole history of the world. Transport and communication have come a long way. Amongst all these mature technologies, the Internet is still very young. Just how old is the World Wide Web, and do we measure it in dog years?

The Toddler

As its father, Tim Berners-Lee changed the nappies and endured the sleepless nights during the web’s infancy. The formative years saw the establishment of standards that would later pave the way for the first websites. Steve Crocker’s “Request for Comments” series laid down a firm base for the education of the Internet and, as more people contributed, the web grew into a kindergartner. Computer geeks used their programming skills to hack together websites that resembled finger-paintings. Colours, fonts and animated giffs adorned websites that belched out badly formatted information. Hit counters informed you of the popularity of a website (although they were easily rigged) and feedback forms allowed you to submit messages to the webmaster.

The Youngster

The web grew up a bit and the years that followed showed an increase in interest from the world. Businesses started to see the potential in the youngster. With the right guidance, it could achieve great things. But, as with most adults, the world had its own problems to deal with and trusted that the web would make it’s own mistakes and so learn to be a better person/thing. Of course, prepubescent youths just want to play and are mostly oblivious to what is expected of them. Programmers made advancements in scripting languages, but these were no more than tree-houses and the web was still seen as an annoying brat that was neither here nor there.

The Teenager

Fashion-conscious, rebellious and self-assertive, the web entered it’s teenage years. Designers joined the party to add a much-needed visual edge to websites; programmers started creating more intricate systems and marketers better utilised the advertising tools at their disposal. Website owners began experimenting with different web-services and users become more trusting of websites. Internet payments become more popular and websites moved from being simply informational pages to actual business tools.

The Graduate

Today, the web is changing faster than ever before. Professionals colaborate on many levels to produce cutting-edge websites, products and services. Companies have integrated the web, either solely or as an extension, into their day-to-day business. People (young and old) use the Internet to manage many aspects of their lives and information multiplies on a daily basis. Even so, the web is still young and immature, but (like a young adult) it is ready to go out into the real world and realise its full potential. We have the skills and the resources we need to do amazing things and it is up to us, as Internet Godparents, to steer the web in the right direction. There is still so much to learn, with many more mistakes yet to be made. The future is bright and it will be a long time before the World Wide Web has fully matured, but I think it’s ready. The tools are available and the foundations have been laid. Personally, I am very excited to see what the web may become. So, to all websites out there, I say this: look sharp, think smart, focus on your goals and don’t lose sight of your dreams.