The Times on Poor Small Business Website Design

David Churbuck (I know, I’m citing him often, but he’s that good) posted about the NYT article entitled How to Make Your Web Site Sing for You – which comes down to the following:

Build a bad-looking small-business site filled with poorly written text, and your potential customers will go away. Build one that is attractive, compelling and clever, but crucial design mistakes will still guarantee that few people will know that the site exists.

Churbuck’s response is that we’ve heard this for years.  Tell us something we don’t know.

But he doesn’t travel in the same web circles I do.  He doesn’t meet with small (or even large) businesses about their websites.  The crimes perpetrated on the web are even more numerous today than they ever have been.

I’m going to resist the temptation to post concrete examples (much to the relief of my lawyer, I’m sure).  Just take it on faith that without even opening a web browser, I can site at least 10 instances of failed site designs.

Websites are a visual media.  As such the first impression your customers get from your site is a visual one, and that impression will on some level evoke an emotion.  That emotion can be a barrier to entry, especially if it could be described with words like “nausea,” “laughter” or “disgust.” 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have sites that look as though Salvador Dali designed them. We’ve all seen them, works of high art in which it’s close to impossible to discern the message – or find anything even slightly useful.  I’ll include in this the sites that are monuments to the skill of the developer, using incredible technology to accomplish little, if anything.

Too many sites are designed without a clear cut objective in mind, and when that happens, the confusion is transmitted direct to the customer.  “We don’t know who we are” is not the message you want to get across.  My experience tells me that the site is doomed if you cannot figure out *exactly* what the company does and their value proposition.  Clear and concise is the key – and that key is often lacking. 

Then there are the outright mistakes – spelling – even in headlines and company mission statements, or out of date price lists, or contact pages that lead to a non-existent email address.  Rob O’Regan noted last week that he has a huge problem using those website contact forms we see all the time because of the “apostrophe bug” – basically the apostrophe means something on the code level in most languages, and often breaks the forms.  If your site breaks when I try to contact you, chances are I’ll be visiting your competitor.

Two weeks ago I posted this bit and it bears repeating:

On the web, every single one of your competitors is but a click (okay, a couple typed letters) away.  Customers hit one blip in the road, one minor flaw, and the likelyhood of them taking the detour to the enemy becomes higher. Simple, clean, easy to use sites make you relevant.  If the customer wants art, he/she will go to a museum.  If they want to be wowed technologically, they’ll go to a science museum.  As a screen writing professor of mine (sorry, forgot the name) pontificated once “If your imagery is noticable to the viewer, you’ve failed…utterly.”  On the web, if your customer is paying attention to your utterly cool design or checking out your code to see how your neat little Ajax app works, you’ve failed…utterly.

The path to marketing (and indeed all business) success is in professionalism.  Know your customers, embrace your customers and serve your customers.   Everyone wants to be a part of excellence.  Take a good look at your website today as though you had never seen it before.  Then ask yourself the hard questions.

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