The 4 pillars of a successful business website

by Sonja Jefferson on May 5, 2009

VALUE – TRUST – USABILITY – PRESENTATION

I’m often asked to evaluate a business website before we get down to rewriting the content.

As an independent outsider it’s easier to give a fresh perspective, without being mired down in the detail.

I try my hardest to think like a customer and review the site from their point of view.

Here are the four crucial elements that customers have come to expect from a company website, and some ideas on how to fulfill them.

1. VALUE

Does your website provide information that is of real value to me, the customer?

Once upon a time, in the beginning of all things web, company websites were merely over-designed, hype-filled brochures, pumped up with their own importance and bursting with impressive phrases such as ‘world class’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘…..’ (feel free to add more meaningless gobbledygook here).

This approach was supposed to wow customers into action: the flashiest, ballsiest website would win the war for new business. Very 1980s, don’t you think?

It worked for a time when we were web-green and gullible, but today customers rightly expect more.

We want value. We want to know how the sites we visit will help us solve our problems and achieve our goals.

  • Focus on customer problems. Tell your customers, in language they understand, exactly how you help clients in their position.
  • Segment your customers. For each group, describe their business problems and say how you will solve them. Show the benefits you will bring.
  • Make yourself useful. Serve your customers with valuable content – educational articles, papers, resources, ebooks, video clips, audio files, cartoons – whatever content will best help them to solve their business problems.
  • Prove the value. Show that current customers have had success – provide case studies and testimonials that show the real benefit of what you do.

2. TRUST

Is this a bona fide company I can trust?

Trust and credibility are big, big issues on the web. There are millions of company sites up there and not all of them are reputable. Web users are a suspicious bunch. How can you win the confidence of your visitors? Here are a few ideas:

  • Provide information on your people – your management team and key customer contacts. Show photos of real people so they know who they’ll be dealing with. Enable your customers to make contact with your team directly.
  • Use social media and provide links from your website. One of the major benefits of getting your company into social networking is the ability to show that your company is made up of real people with opinions, passion and expertise in their marketplace. Social media enables you to connect with your customers. Whether it is via a company blog, Linkedin, Twitter, another platform or a combination of the lot, social media makes good business sense.
  • Keep your website up to date - provide fresh content, regularly updated. Don’t let your website go stale – if you last updated your company news in 2006, visitors may think you’ve gone out of business!
  • Provide testimonials from customers and case studies that tell the story of their success thanks to your services or products
  • Be approachable and genuine. People like to do business with people. Genuinely communicate through your site and you’ll form a connection.

3. USABILITY

Can I get to the information I want, fast?

People visit websites for their utility. As usability expert Jakob Nielsen states: ‘The web is a tool. If it’s convenient, people will use it; if not, they won’t.’ Today, users are far less tolerant of difficult sites. Usability is more important than ever.

It’s all very good providing information that gets customers to trust and value your services, but you’ve got to make sure people can find it. Make your website easy to use, so your customers can get to the information they want, fast.

  • Pay close attention to navigation - plan and organise your content carefully. If you’re redesigning your site, build a wireframe first.
  • Test your navigation with real customers. Give them a task and see how easy it is for them to achieve this. Tweak the navigation accordingly.
  • Follow web conventions such as recognisable page names. Web layout has become standardised.
  • Write for the web: poor writing makes web sites fail.
  • Design your home page carefully. This is where web usability usually succeeds or fails.
  • Make contact easy. Make your contact details very, very obvious.
  • Don’t make me think. If I have to think about it I’ll click away – to the competition.
  • Usability for all. Make sure your site is accessible to everyone, including the disabled – follow WC3 guidelines.

4. PRESENTATION

Is this a professional company? Do I like how they look?

You’ll notice that presentation is fourth in the list. Colour schemes, branding and imagery are important of course, but must not be prioritised at the expense of usability and content.

  • Hire a professional web designer to make the site visually appealing to your customers: bad design can frighten customers away, good design adds interest and will help to draw them in. NB: hire someone who specialises in web design.
  • Don’t overcomplicate things – make it interesting but also simple, consistent and free of clutter.
  • Pay attention to typography as well as graphics – make sure your content is easy to read.
  • Avoid bloated design and splash pages - these will detract from your content.

If you’re thinking about taking your own company website forward, try these four criteria for size. How does your website fare? Does it meet your customers’ expectations?

I hope this evaluation technique is useful. Is there anything else you’d add?

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Sonja Jefferson

Sonja Jefferson is a consultant, writer and founder of Valuable Content. She helps good businesses to create and share great content so they win the business they deserve.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Dick Willis May 6, 2009 at 8:10 am

You should also mention the need to take account of the Disability Discrimination Act for websites. Of course, this is part of good design and what you would (I hope) be paying your webdesigner for but it’s worth the client knowing about the DDA at least in principle. There are some useful notes about this on the Businesslink.gov site at http://bit.ly/BL_access

avatar sonja May 6, 2009 at 8:30 am

Thanks Dick. Very good point – now added in under Usability, with link.

avatar Nigel Dean May 6, 2009 at 9:07 am

A really good checklist for any website design/re-design Sonia. I like the fact that you put presentation in 4th place. I know it is important and can help build trust etc., but I would always choose a bad looking site with great content over a good looking site with nothing to say.

Our old company website fails on so many of your points, a checklist like this would have made it easier to see where we needed to improve. I’m pleased to say that the new site I am currently working on will be a big improvement. I still picked up some really good tips though, thanks a lot.

avatar Sonja Jefferson May 6, 2009 at 9:27 am

Thanks Nigel, and for sharing this article with your Twitter community too. I agree with you when you say that a company website is ‘an ongoing project which must develop. If you wait for it to be perfect, it will never be launched!’ So true.

avatar Nick Walrond May 6, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Excellent article Sonja, your first two points are exceptionally relevant and probably the hardest bit of soul searching a business will ever do in order to get it right. In some ways it is better to start by asking for testimonials and comment from your customers. Surely your credibility and value as a business is borne out by what people say about you. We are going through a web development programme on our site and what our customers are happy to say about us (on record) is leading the way in which we are trying to capture the interest of visitors to the site.
Time will tell how successful this is and I am sure we won’t get everything right, but with google analytics we can now track that anyway and adjust accordingly.

avatar Sonja Jefferson May 6, 2009 at 8:39 pm

I totally agree about the value of involving your customers and using their feedback- see this article: ‘Ask your customers’ http://tinyurl.com/dguh9v.

avatar Iain Claridge May 6, 2009 at 9:35 pm

Nice article Sonja with some good points raised.

From my perspective, working as a digital creative in the field of online user experience, my one reservation would be the distinction made between usability and presentation, as I feel the two are inextricably linked.

It’s interesting that you quote Jakob Nielson as I have always thought his own site (http://www.useit.com) suffers in terms of usability due to it’s lack of attention to typography and inconsistent layout.

avatar Sonja Jefferson May 7, 2009 at 10:22 am

Hi Iain,

Thanks for that. I can see what you are saying about the blurring between usability and presentation. Both are integral to the job of the good web designers, but I’ve found that some less skilled designers focus on presentation and not on usability, so wanted to split them up. Anyway – 3 pillars wouldn’t sound so good!

Re: Jakob Nielson – I understand he is the usability guru that designers love to hate. Here’s an article on why his site is as it is: http://www.useit.com/about/nographics.html

avatar Iain Claridge May 7, 2009 at 10:45 am

I guess in the context of your article, differentiation is acceptable . You are forgiven..! ;-) And yes – 3 Pillars sounds rubbish..!

Interesting to read Jakob’s defence of his own site presentation. I agree with his reasons for the minimal use of graphics but strongly disagree with his lack of attention to typography and layout. Preparation of a decent stylesheet has negligible cost in terms of file download yet provides huge benefits in terms of information delivery and hence, usability.

avatar Sonja Jefferson May 7, 2009 at 10:59 am

I’d have to agree Iain – attention to typography and layout is badly needed for Jakob Nielsen’s site.

From a marketing point of view though – brilliant! Look how much publicity he has got from not doing any of this!

Wouldn’t work for the rest of us though.

avatar Iain Claridge May 7, 2009 at 11:22 am

Indeed….

And on that note, an interesting article here on how Amazon rely on brand credibility above good usability – http://econsultancy.com/blog/3777-amazon-relying-on-brand-credibility-instead-of-good-usability

avatar Sonja Jefferson May 12, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Great example of small consultancy website that ticks most of the boxes above: http://www.hoarelealighting.com

avatar sonja October 7, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Here’s another very good example – this time from a marketing consultancy (they should be good!): http://www.clear-thought.co.uk/

avatar Sonja Jefferson November 25, 2009 at 8:53 am

Fantastic article from David Meerman Scott on his http://www.webinknow.com blog:
- Great web sites mix art and science http://bit.ly/65xImo

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