The next generation of web sites will turn clutter into elegance.
HOW DO YOU TALK TO YOUR CLIENTS? Imagine you are in a conversation with your leads or your prospective clientele. Which would you rather have at your disposal – a Powerpoint presentation, where the only option is to flip through multiple slides and deliver your message in order without deviation from a script, or a white board on which you could place all the information and simply circle it or point at it and respond as they ask questions? Which do you think would get a better response from people who are short on time, live in an information-rich environment like the modern web, with lots of options among your competition to choose from, and who might be interested in your services? Maybe you get the idea.
THAT’S SO Y2K! You’ve seen them – the skinny “squeeze pages” of yesteryear, on which you scroll and scroll through lots of red lettering to get to the punch line. The corporate-looking version of those is a bit like a glossy information resource for some academic institution, with glammy sales lingo that fits in a neat, simple rectangle, and very little grabby material. These purport to tell visitors what they need to know, but rarely if ever do – at least in a way that feels natural and organic. They’re boring, and visitors don’t so much use them so much as just accept them, until they see something better.
WIDE IS BEAUTIFUL. You may also have seen the big wide web sites of 2010 onward, that seem to fill the whole browser window, at least with the design, if not with the content. They tend to have lots of big fonts, and even bigger graphics, and bands of wall to wall color. The text and images are grabby and punchy, and they make you want to look around a bit on the home page. You’re not so much in a tightly controlled little box as you are free to move around the entire large canvas of the page. These are Web 2.0 style web sites, and they’ve been telling us for some time what web site layout will be like in the coming years.
THE MENU IS DEAD. One of the most significant trends in Web 2.0 sites is abandoning the menu. It’s still not widespread, but it’s coming. With little or no menu, and few if any secondary pages, everything is simply contained on the landing page – the home page. What would ordinarily become additional pages, becomes lightly separated sections of the home page that you access by simply scrolling. An example is Fizzle.com (take a look, be sure to scroll all the way down, then come back here). The approach goes against everything you think you know about what a web site should look like, and perhaps even about what a web site really is.
TEXT RULES! Everything goes on the home page – the return of text: Text can be beautiful. Forget the boring word-processor style text of older style web sites – think big, pretty fonts! People often say they want a “simple” web site layout that’s free of clutter (by which they often mean “not a lot of content”). The oft-cited example is Google – it’s just a logo and a box. Of course, that’s because Google is really just a search engine for other people’s pages – it doesn’t offer its own content. On the home page of a business web site that offers services, there is a certain amount of text that needs to be there for search engine purposes – like the place names you’re targeting and the services you’re offering. If the main search terms are not on the home page, good luck getting indexed for them at all. even with ill-advised backlink tricks. After all, when someone is looking for a plumber, they don’t upload a photo of a plumber, they type plumber into a search engine – or sometimes “hot water heater installation Ruben, Texas”. Search engines tend to give disproportionate weight to text that appears on the landing page (e.g. the home page) vs. secondary pages (that take an extra click to get to). After all, your home page is where you put the ‘most important’ qualifying information, while any information you put on secondary pages is inherently less emphasized in a presentation. This is one reason splash pages (a landing page with a logo or graphics but almost no text) went out of vogue – they’re really bad for search engine optimization. But also, for human visitors to the home page, you want your qualifying information, market differentiators, and options for action right up front. That’s more text, and text is beautiful.
IT FEELS SOCIAL! Everything goes on the home page – social media as a web site model: Social media sites offer a more useful model than Google for Web 2.0 business web site layout. By contrast, they are at least more content driven, if not “cluttered” per se. The ‘everything goes on the home page’ concept is based partly on social media. Besides a lot of content right up front, more content is accessible with no effort but scrolling. In the old days, when scrolling through Tumblr pages, Twitter streams, Google Plus feeds, and Facebook streams, you had to click the “next page” link at the bottom. The fashion now is what’s called “endless scrolling”. It’s also an upgrade to blog pages, too. Why make the reader load the next set of posts himself at some arbitrary cutoff number like only 10 to a page? The likelihood of visitors seeing and clicking “read older posts” or “next page” is fairly slim. A home page based on the endless scrolling model is simply one in which secondary page information appears as the user scrolls, and the easiest solution for that isn’t fancy animation, which can slow response time in some browsers, but simply more content blocks below the fold, and farther down the page, chunked up by lots of good use of space and separator images. When businesses caught on that social media was way past popular, they did something typical – they tried to build their own social media networks. What’s more effective is simple taking the best ideas from social media pages about web design.
NO SQUEEZE! Everything goes on the home page – goodbye skinny web sites: The new Web 2.0 sites have what are called “fluid wrappers” – meaning they extend all the way to the left and right in the browser and fit any device. They can still have fixed content areas which remain in the center of the page when the browser window is resized, so there is a minimum width for the content. This requires the device to resize the content rather than go so far as to squish it down to something too narrow. In general, though, this means Web 2.0 sites area bigger canvas and look far wider than the skinny web sites of the 1990s. The idea is that a) a web site is a presentation, and b) a presentation is a canvas for concepts or a white board for information. This is even popular in presentations for training and business – using a canvas or white board model that can be accessed in the determined order and reviewed in any order instead of a linear “deck” of Powerpoint slides that’s still based on the slide projector model of the 1950s. Similarly, white board videos are popular right now, and while they are linear, they nonetheless share that big, spacious – even cluttery white board meme. For a while, infographics were popular. They looked exactly like Web 2.0 web sites, but you added them as downloadable items to old-fashioned Web 1.0 web sites. The response to infographics was overwhelmingly positive, but the response to downloading them from a web site was pretty bad; instead, the popular ones were distributed mainly through social media. It’s not much of a leap for someone to ask, “why ask them to download what they really want to see – why not make it the home page?”
IT’S NOT A BOOK! Everything goes on the home page – goodbye canned secondary pages: It’s not about the amount of content, it’s about how the content is presented. So while your’re at it with the core home page content, why not include an “about us” content block instead of a separate page for that? And then there’s the venerable FAQ. But genuine “frequently asked questions” as opposed to the kind everyone makes up for visitors, wishing they’d ask them, probably belong in whatever content area they actually apply to. Questions about who you are belong with your “about us” content block. Questions about why we should do business with you belong on the home page – as your market differentiators – same with questions about what services you offer, since we’re including those up front for qualifying and search optimization purposes. Testimonials are another example – it’s old fashioned to stick them all on one page. Better to sprinkle them throughout the web site if possible, and then link out to social review sites like Merchant Circle or Yelp to get more reviews. You can make an argument for a “contact us” page, from search optimization, since it promotes click-through, but if you don’t have contact options right on the home page, you’re likely missing leads from human visitors, and that “contact” link probably fits just as nicely in the footer. Originally, designers didn’t know what a good analogy was for a web site – they tried car dashboard models with all kinds of buttons and knobs, but eventually they settled on the book, with its stack of pages and a nice cover. Clients often say “It’s a web site, we’re not writing a book.” Indeed, so why are you designing it like a book? Again, it’s not about the amount of content, it’s about how the content is presented.
EVERY POST COUNTS! Everything goes on the home page – hello anchor posts: First, you also want the most current blog post excerpts automatically added to the home page anyway – it’s a huge search engine optimization feature. But also, almost anything you can think to write a static content page about should probably be a blog post instead. Posts get treated far better by search engines, they’re more socially shareable, and they keep your site fresh and current. So you use “anchor posts” for content that most site visitors probably need access to. Anchor posts are “sticky” in some way – they are available ‘on top’ in the order in which content is provided. One way to do that is do have a menu, but have it linked to anchor posts from your blog not to static web site pages. If you do that, just include a HOME link, and maybe a CONTACT US menu item. This makes blog posts even more accessible from the home page than if you had to scroll through a Blog page to find them. The Blog page itself becomes most useful as an aggregator of posts for the purpose of pushing them out over a feed to social media users, and less a user-navigated page at all. This is the answer to the question “how many people are ever really going to become regular readers of my business blog?” So how do you get people to read your blog posts? You do it the ideal way – by focusing on getting teasers out into search engines and social venues and in e-mail blasts. In short, you put stuff in front of a lead-laden audience, instead of expecting them to become avid users of your web site overnight. Web 2.0 web sites use a hybrid of social media navigation, blog navigation, and maybe some residue of that year 1990s web site navigation, to put more content in front of more people.
BUT I LOVE THE MENU! You don’t have to ditch the menu bar on your web site, with various pages to click, or eliminate all secondary pages. It’s just a trend, but it does suggest a more unified way of thinking about user experience on our business web sites. Take a look at paidtoexist.com (scroll down through it, and come back here) which has just a handful of essential menu items and secondary pages, but still carries off the Web 2.0 approach with a big, fleshed out web page: Still sort of like the skinny page red letter look a bit? You can still “Web 2.0” that puppy. Take a look at 37signals.com (scroll through it once again, and return here to finish up) – it can be as simple as just opening up the white space. White is an amazing way to pop your content, and suggest it’s one of those white board conversations.
THE FIRST WEB MADE BETTER: This isn’t really such a new idea, of course. The earliest web pages or web ‘documents’, as they used to be called, could contain (hyper)links to other pages, but they could also contain links that targeted different sections of the one page. When you clicked a link, it took you down the page to a relevant section. This became the norm, in fact, for long FAQ pages that had many questions and answers. You could still use a menu to access different parts of the home page, but being able to lightly suggest an order for consuming the information is probably a better presentation technique than soliciting random order clicks from a menu. The FAQ went hand in hand with forums as the first social networks on the web. Before that it was dialing into bulletin boards with something called a phone modem. What web page design is getting back to is that original sense that the earliest web communities had, that a page should be orderly, useful, and comprehensive. What they’ve added is Mac-like design which also makes it fun to use, and more reflective of a lifestyle of pulling up information on the web.
There’s nothing wrong with a more traditional web site. But if you’re wanting something new, fresh, and cutting edge, the look and feel of a Web 2.0 site can be quite a welcome change, especially in relatively unexciting industries where the norm among competitors isn’t to be so adventurous, and standing out could make a significant difference. A web site that isn’t boring is one that might actually retain the visitors it receives from search engines and social media traffic.
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