The Toughest Site You Will Ever Build

by Lee Creek

I have received several e-mails in recent months from people telling of
their woes while building a web site -- not knowing where to start, not
knowing what to include, not knowing what to do. The e-mails to which I
refer all have one thing in common: The designers were trying to build
their own site.

It is rare to have problems figuring out what to do when building a
client's site. You simply sit them down and ask them what they want, how
much to they wish to pay, and when do they want it done. Those answers
will usually dictate a direction in which to proceed. But to build one's
own site is somewhat different, although the process should be quite

I don't advocate that web designers interview themselves aloud, at least
not in public, but it does begin with them asking themselves similar
questions. What to they want? How extensive a site is needed? When does
it need to be done?

The other thing that must be done is that decisions must be made - and
then the web designer needs to stick with those decisions unless there
is a technical reason to alter those plans. Too often designers, knowing
what all they can do, cannot decide which of those talents to put to
use. Therefore, they either use virtually every option available to make
the site so flashy and complicated that it takes an act of Congress to
get it open, or they withhold their trade "secrets," and the site just
lays there like a dead fish.

The dead-fish syndrome also appears when a company is small and has too
much business for the staff (or, often, the one person in the business)
to take time and work on the company site. If that occurs, laugh all the
way to the bank.

Where to start if you do not have a site
The easiest way to start is to look at sites located in your area that
are in the same business. You can easily see mistakes of others, even
though you may not be able to recognize your own. By reviewing this
cross-section of sites, you can get an idea of what topics they include,
what they don't include, and what topics you think should be included.
Make notes. How fancy were those sites? How fast were they? Was the
content adequate? What makes your business different from those you
reviewed? Where can you get a competitive edge?

Next is to take a look at similar businesses from around the country or
world. Again, notice the content, the design, the differences. Are any
of those things pertinent to your area or your business? If so, make
sure you include them.

Once those questions are answered, you begin making an outline of what
you wish to produce. It does come down to what you like or dislike.

Where to start if you do have a site
Perhaps the best way to tackle your own web site is to get an opinion
from someone you respect. My company has been approached several times
to do such studies, both in and out of the web designing business, and
it proves to be interesting for us, too. Such services should not
destroy your company's piggy bank.

What we try to do is get five sites in the designer's locale and five of
the better sites we can find from around the world. We work from an
extensive list of topics and rate each site on a 1-to-10 scale for each
topic. We then can average out those scores and give a general ranking
of those sites.

Among the areas we examine are:
-- URL: If possible, it is important to have a domain that is as
pertinent to a business as possible. It is also important to have a
domain, rather than a subdomain with an address such as, because that shows a lack of
professionalism and commitment on your part by not investing in your

-- Visual Impact: First impressions are always important, and no where
more so than on the internet where viewers can go somewhere else in
seconds. Nothing is a substitute for content, but to get viewers to see
that content it is important to have a site that is visually attractive
so they will stay long enough to see it.

-- Load Speed: No secret here. We figure you have about 30 seconds to
get something worth reading on the screen, if not have the entire page
loaded. In today's design market, the use of Flash and other animations
can delay the total loading of the page, but at least get something for
the viewer to read on screen within the first 20-30 seconds.

-- Navigation: Viewers can't see it if they can't find it, and that's
why it is important to have obvious and effective navigation. As a
viewer, it is more than a little frustrating when you know a site has
something you want to see, but you can't find it.

-- Originality: Recently a potential client came to us and showed us
their web site and asked what we could do to improve it. The first thing
I told them was that we would eminate the template used for their front
page. To demonstrate, I did a web search for the name of the template
and turned up several thousand sites using it. They all basically looked
alike. The person was not happy to see that after spending about $7,000
on their site. If you must use a WYSIWIG editor, at least use your own
graphics to make the finished product original.

-- Professionalism: A web site should reflect properly on the business
that owns it. In other words, if you are building a web site for a
funeral home, avoid making the site look like it was built for Comedy
Central. That would seem to be an obvious thing to do, but it is
surprising how many sites are so inappropriately designed.

-- Readability/Brevity: Nothing can chase potential clients away faster
than seeing incorrect language use, and text that never seems to stop.
Say it and go on with your life. Say it correctly and get a client
before you go on with your life.

-- Scope: It is important that a site covers the entire scope of a
businesses' services and products. That doesn't mean it has to have
unlimited details about everything, but it should at least tell viewers
what the products and services are and how they can get more

-- Contact Info: One of the biggest surprises I have found is the number
of sites that make it difficult for potential clients to get in touch
with the company. That is one of the most important things needed on a
site. Some sites tell viewers how to get in touch with the webmaster,
but that is not necessarily the person they need to talk to for
information. Make it clear.

-- Meta tags: While search engines are using these less than before,
they remain important for those that do use them. Too many sites do not
even make an attempt to use them.

-- Stylesheets: By using stylesheets, you are telling your users that
you are interested in not wasting their money. That is because
stylesheets enable changes to be made more quickly, and as the internet
universe spins more and more toward the use of stylesheets, the clients'
sites will work for a reasonable amount of time before needing an

-- Freshness: Your web site should undergo frequent change - not
complete redesign - but enough change to offer something new when
viewers come to visit. That is important because it can also be a
selling point for the designer who wishes to sell the client on a
maintenance contract or periodic updates. Monkey see, monkey do.

-- Browser Compatibility: It is important to know how browsers handle
various items. For example, while Internet Explorer and Netscape will
show the bullets used in this list as filled-in boxes, Opera will
display them as empty boxes. Because potential clients find your site in
all types of browsers - and their sites will be viewed likewise - it is
important to make sure your site looks its best in each type of browser.

-- Use of technology: If you site appears modern and features the use of
technology, whether it be Flash, Java, JavaScript, or whatever, it will
more likely score higher in the visual impact, originality, and
professionalism categories. It also helps sell the potential client on
having the same type of approach to their site.

By reviewing the items that made the sites score the highest in
particular areas, we often can spot patterns and make recommendations
that the designer or site owner may wish to include when redesigning or
correcting a site or when having it done. It also gives the evaluator
ideas for other sites, including his/her own.

A lot can be learned from people out of the business, too. They can tell
you if they think it's easy to navigate the site, whether or not your
content is enough to keep them interested - or better yet, to keep them
coming back.

Take advantage of your knowledge
One of the biggest mistakes web designers make when building their own
sites is that they take for granted what they know and figure everyone
else knows the same information. Not always true.

Just as a designer would explain a client's business and products, so it
is that the designer should explain his/her own. In some cases, examples
are appropriate; in others, simply telling the story is all that is

Just as it is for a client's site, it is important to create a fast
loading site, hopefully while showing the reader something early on to
catch their interest.

Break down the various services offered and give enough detail to answer
the more general types of questions potential clients may have. In some
cases, a more detailed approach may be needed. It is important to
anticipate questions potential clients may have.

It is also good to tell readers why those services are important and why
you should be the one doing the work. That may sound like blowing your
own horn, and it is, but who better to do that than you? By explaining
how your expertise and talent is an advantage to potential clients, you
also demonstrate their need to have you do the work. It is important for
a client to know your strengths and for you to show confidence in those

At the same time, don't promise something you can't deliver. If you lack
knowledge to handle .cgi scripts, for example, don't say you can. If you
don't have the expertise to set up databases, don't say you can. Only
promise what you can deliver.

Should I show samples?
Yes and no. Samples should be available, but how they are made available
depends on what they are.

For example, if you are offering samples of small files, such as
bullets, lines, and clipart of that nature, or even web sites that do
not have major time-eating components, then go for it. However, if you
wish to demonstrate large graphics, java applets, FlashTM files, and
other time-consuming items, it is best to describe those elements and
offer a link to those who wish to see them in detail. Thumbnails with
links can also do the trick.

Clearly, there are times when it's impossible to not include those
time-consuming items. If a company designs and sells Java applets, then
it should use the better examples up front and then link to other

Nonetheless, it is recommended that the designer remember that not
everyone has a super computer sitting on their desktop, and items that
appear instantly on a powerful machine (or in their cache because it
started there) may tie up others for what may seem like an eternity.

Use the site in your advertising plan
Now that you have gone to the trouble to build a site and get it the way
you want it, use it to your advantage. When you contact potential
clients - or they contact you - guide them to the site so that they can
read more about what you have to offer. It's also a good way to get
across such things as how much of the payment you want up front, what
you are or are not willing to do, and other services they may find they
want but not even realize you provide.

Any promotional material you produce should have your web site address
on it. It should contain the same logo as the web site so that people
immediately recognize your company and begin building name recognition
in their minds.

Keep the site fresh so that people always have a reason to look at the
site. Offer enough content to keep them there for more than a glance.
The longer they are there, the more likely they are to come back when
the need arises.

You may wish to surprise them by having a coupon on the site that they
can redeem for a discount on the construction of their web site. It
doesn't have to be huge, but it sure can get their attention if they are
on a tight budget.

Make sure the site enables readers to realize that you can build sites
that cover the cost spectrum, with varying degrees of features and
sizes. The company that wants a small, simple site today may want a much
larger one in the future - and the cost associated with customer
retention is usually much less than the cost of tracking down a new

Of all the recommendations made here, perhaps the most important one is
to make a decision and get started. Too often people spend more time
mulling over what to put on their site than they do actually building

If the thought process is going forward, that's good. If you're spinning
your wheels, that's not good. Make decisions and stick with them.
Usually, a person's first impression is their best impression, but too
often people do not trust their own instincts.

Once completed, get busy promoting the site and getting out to meet
potential clients, guiding them to your site for more information. And,
make sure you have your telephone number and e-mail address in a
prominent position on the site. You worked hard to find them; don't make
them work hard to find you.

About the Author:
Creek is a former newspaper and wire service writer, editor, and
graphics editor with more than 25 years experience. In 1989, he started
his own company, Creek Communications, Inc., which today builds internet
sites and provides advertising and other desktop publishing services.
CCI recently opened its own recording studio and is establishing its own
music label. In past years, Creek wrote software reviews for various
publications. Email:

Reprinted from The Web Developer's Virtual Library