Building a winning website

Think of the websites you personally consider “good.” Chances are that at least some of them don’t include the most state-of-the-art technology; they may not be the most visually attractive sites on the web. But they likely are well-designed, with helpful information that you can find easily.

All useful websites are based on quality content and supported by helpful information architecture and sound technical infrastructure. To draw people to even the best designed spot on the Internet, a website must also be actively marketed and promoted.

On a small website, all these functions may be performed by one or two people, or even a collection of part-time resources. A large website will require dedicated personnel with specialized expertise. When building a website team, keep the following in mind:

A website should be managed by a web-savvy editor, who knows what your target readers want, and understands content design;

Because web surfers are almost time-pressed and have many choices for their information sources on the Internet, information architecture skills are vital to your team: your content must be well structured so visitors can quickly find and easily read what they’re seeking;

Even if you can capably construct your content, don’t underestimate your need for technical support, particularly in the area of web security. Here’s what you need to know:

Why should an editor run a website?

Regardless of your industry, e-commerce means selling with content. If the content isn’t right, the customer won’t buy. Assembling and organizing your site’s content is not a technical issue but an editorial one. A capable editor ensures that the right content is being created (or acquired), and that it is being edited, organized, presented and published correctly. In this role, the editor performs a critical quality control function, setting up processes to obtain and present useful information while rejecting poor content. Quality websites get the right content up quickly in a way that is easily accessible to site visitors.

What is “information architecture?”

The term information architecture refers to the design and processes relating to how content is organized and presented. In essence, information architecture relates to the many decisions underlying how a site’s users will find what they’re looking for, including classification of information, navigation, search, layout, and design of the website. Maintaining the information architecture for a small website is a relatively simple job but is far more complex for larger websites. Another factor that can complicate a site’s information architecture, even for a small site, how dynamic is the information. In other words, how frequently is the information on the site changing.

What technical resources do I need to support a website?

Even relatively simple websites reflect several important technical issues — some of them not immediately apparent. A website that doesn’t load quickly or isn’t consistently available to your customers is of little use. Technical resources necessary to all sites include the capacity to deploy the underlying programming in HTML, PHP, JAVA and the other related languages of the web; systems administration to keep your site up and available; and, of course, security — which is an important issue, especially if you conduct e-commerce on your site or use it to collect information from your visitors. Any site engaged in e-commerce requires attention to sophisticated security concerns.

What to Do

Specify Your Business Requirements

To design and execute a website that’s effective for your business, it is essential to establish the business requirements for it, and then to manage how these requirements are being met. Begin by asking a most fundamental question: What is the website supposed to achieve? If your site is modeled on a traditional print publication, it will need to generate revenue through advertising and subscriptions — each of which have technical and support implications. Most websites, however, exist to support the sale of the organization’s products and to promote its brand.

Scope the Breadth and Depth of Your website

The number of people and the level of skills you need to run your website depends on how ambitious your aims are for the site. The larger the site, the more complex it is, the more information changes, the more transactions you expect to accommodate, the more people and sophisticated skills you’re going to need.

Form an Editorial Board

Consider creating an editorial board within your organization to focus on the information aspects of your website, establishing the content objectives and overseeing their implementation. All the main departments and sections of your organization should be represented, with senior managers involved directly.

Understand the Managing Editor’s Role

The overall charge of running your website should be given to a single individual, with an editorial background. The Managing Editor should:

Manage the site’s content: deciding what type of information is to be published, where it is to come from, and how often it is to be updated;

manage the staff: with responsibility for hiring, training, motivating, assessing, coaching, and rewarding
champion the visitor: making sure that the website focuses on and serves its target constituencies, encouraging and making use of feedback from site visitors;

promote the website within the organization, notably to senior management and key managers associated with the brand(s) the site exists to serve;

report to management on a regular basis, tracking key success indicators such as total number of unique site visits, how much time people spent on the site, and what they did while visiting the sites;

ensure that the website is achieving its objectives and evolving to meet changing needs.

Employ A Site Editor

Among other things, the editor should:

commission and purchase content to support the site’s mission, making sure that it is delivered on time and within budget;

edit the acquired content so that it meets the site’s editorial standards (as determined by the Managing Editor and Editorial Board). The editor is responsible for assuring that the information on the website clearly communicates its subject matter and is well written. The editor should check all content for libel and compliance with other legal issues; and make sure the metadata for each content page is correct; and review published content to make sure that it appears as intended;

publish the content: deciding what is to appear on the site and what is not. The editor should decide, in conjunction with the managing editor, what content should be highlighted on the site’s home page and which content should be relegated to other sections of the website; the editor also makes judgments about the relative import and relevance of items in sections of the website where information is subject to change and updating;

manage writers: content for the site may come from many people in the organization for whom writing is only a small part of their job, so they likely will require training and perhaps motivation to complete their assignments. In dealing with full- or part-time writers, the editor also will have responsibility for hiring, assessing, and coaching and rewarding these employees and contractors;

champion the visitor/reader: understanding what readers want and responding to their needs with appropriate and engaging content noting and replying to feedback from site visitors.

Find A Writer

In addition to having an ability and enthusiasm for competent and engaging writing, writers should come to the job with an innate sense of curiosity. They should be able to learn about subject matter with which they may not have had previous experience, and suggest content ideas for the site to the editor.

Build A Pool of Contributors

A contributor is person who provides content to the website on an occasional basis. A contributor may be an employee within your organization or may be a freelance writer outside it.

Employ A Production Assistant

In larger operations where the writer is not responsible for adding the metadata to the content, production assistants ensure that the content gets to the editor quickly with all the appropriate metadata.

Employ A Copy editor

Copy editors check the work of others for the accuracy of spelling, grammar, and metadata. They ensure that the content is the right length and rewrite where appropriate.

Appoint Moderators of Community Content

If your website employs elements of an online community such as discussion boards, list serves, chat rooms, and the like, you will need moderators. They blend facilitation skills with editorial judgments to assure the appropriateness of content on your site.

Employ an Information Architect

The information architect is responsible for the way information is organized on your website, including the following:

Navigation: the information architect decides on the most effective options for how someone finds their way through the site’s content. The overarching goal is so that a visitor to your site can find a particular item of interest easily and quickly — no matter where on the site the visitor first enters, and to no matter where on the site the visitor navigates. The information architect establishes standards for navigation and content presentation design so that consistency is maintained through out the site.

Search: to help visitors find exactly what they are seeking, the information architect should design basic and advanced search options. The search function should be easy to use and deliver accurate, easy to interpret, results quickly.

Layout and design: the information architect should ensure that all website content is laid out on the screen in its most readable format. Simple, elegant design delivers web pages that are fast to download and easy to read. Maintaining consistency of design throughout the website assures a quality experience for the site visitor. Defining content templates helps to ensure that all pages on the entire site include all the vital elements that a particular document should have, such as date of publication, author name, summary, and keywords.
Usability: the website must work for its visitors. What seems intuitive to people who designed a website may not be intuitive or even comprehensible to a casual visitor. It’s essential to obtain regular feedback from site visitors and to conduct usability testing to ensure that the website is perceived by your target audience as functional and easy to use as you intend.

Metadata: this information which “tags” content on web pages — invisible to visitors but accessible to search engines — is crucial to the design of websites. How content is classified will directly affect how quickly and effectively search engines will index your site and how easily visitors can find your site.

Find a Graphic Designer

Graphic designers support the information architect by helping to present information in a visually consistent and attractive fashion. Your graphic design team should be skilled in creating small, elegant, fast-downloading visual elements that support site navigation and the presentation and readability of content and other website elements.

Take On an IT Manager/Programmer

The information technology skills required to set up and maintain your website may be supplied by your internal Information Technology (IT) department or it may be outsourced to a specialty contractor. A high level of skills are needed most when you are initially designing and implementing your website design, but there is an ongoing need for technical support, so have some sort of programming resource permanently available if possible. A key responsibility of the IT manager is to ensure that the website is secure.

Hire a Systems Administrator

A website that receives many visitors requires constant monitoring to assure its availability and functional quality. Responsibilities of the systems administrator include maintaining the site’s network and servers, the day-to-day maintenance of all software, backing up the website, testing pages for download speed, checking for broken links, and testing for security breaches.

Employ a Programmer / Coder

This skill will vary depending on whether the website is being built in pure HTML, whether it uses Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), deploys a more sophisticated web database structure (e.g. PHP or Ruby on Rails), or incorporates a commercially available or open-source content management system (CMS). Remember, even if you use templates or deploy a ready-made content system, someone still has to understand how that pre-existing material integrates with your site, and you may need help to maintain and support the off-the-shelf components to keep them functional and adapting to your specific needs.

Promote Your Site!

Resources will be required to promote your website engaging in activities such as ongoing search engine registrations, establishing links with other sites, promoting your site to target visitors through e-mail newsletters, and developing advertisements.

What to Avoid

You View the website as a Technical Matter

A website is a prime vehicle for communicating with your organization’s key publics. Ideally, your site is a collaborative effort that epitomizes cooperation across your organization’s departmental boundaries. Depending on the scope of your site, it may involve product marketing, product technical support, corporate relations, HR, and others all supported by the IT department.

You Don’t Have an Editor Run the Project

A web-savvy editor should oversee your site’s development and operation. The job of the editor is to understand content — the central fixture in Web design and management. Sites that are run by graphic designers or technologists often make extraneous design elements or technical wizardry the site’s focal point at the expense of readable content. This does nothing to attract or serve the intended audience.

You Don’t Give Content Its Due

Content is the most valuable resource a website has, but it must be given its due, and not simply treated as a commodity. Many promising sites self-defeat with poor organization, overlong, superficial or confusing articles, badly written headings, missing, inaccurate or incomplete metadata, and a host of other avoidable transgressions that repel the very people they want to attract. All such shortcomings reflect a website that doesn’t care about its content or the person who is supposed to read it.

You Fail to Reward Writers

Your site’s content is written by individuals. Creating content requires a high level of skill encompassing both technical knowledge and the writer’s craft. While poor and mediocre writers abound, when you find highly capable writers, they should be remunerated accordingly, otherwise you risk poor results or high turnover.

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