Web Site Choices – Picking From What You See on the Web

If you’ve been doing internet marketing long enough, you’ll have seen every deeply flawed marketing attempt pointed at and lauded as something to imitate. This is no less true of web sites in particular. If we get past the childish simplicity of labeling “good” and “bad” web sites, and look at a web site as simply another marketing tool (if not, why bother?), we can actually evaluate rationally what’s helpful and what isn’t.

Imitation, in particular, is probably the most flawed model on which to build a web site. It is a confession that we don’t really know what else to do. In that sense, imitation can actually give us a sense of ‘expertise’, because we can point to examples. But will those examples actually deliver what we’re trying to accomplish, if we do it just as well as they do?

There are a number of flawed premises people use to make choices about creating a web site. And they cost money, because you spend money and they aren’t optimal for what you want to achieve.

Can You Copy Those Guys’ Web Site but Use My Photos? Sure, anyone can, though most ethical companies won’t unless it’s just a standard template anyway. But why would you want to? Why be “just as good as” but not actually any *better* than the other guys? And even if you like their design, are you sure it will actually accomplish your goals for growing your business? The most important premise to revise is the notion that a web site is just a look and feel. It’s not. That stuff anyone can do. A web site is an internet marketing tool – or else why build one? Just because it’s the thing to do? We’re in business, so we get the stationary? And if it’s a strategic tool, it had better be put together with a view to implementing a strategy. The decisions we make to simply “lift” a design from someone else could actually run counter to what we’re trying to achieve and our plan to achieve it.

I Know What I Like. Do you? Based on what criteria? If you’re not an internet marketing expert, you might like things that are counterproductive to your intended strategy and goals – things that won’t like you very much in return. In 2000, a flash intro on a business web site was all the rage. “I like that. I want to look like that. It’s impressive.” Sure, having your own “movie trailer” was impressive, when it was new and not yet just annoying. It drastically killed your search engine value (so who cares about your fancy intro if no one sees it) – it broke your site on numerous devices and browsers where flash was installed improperly or not at all (say hello to hits, goodbye to leads), and it put the barrier of an extra (“how the hell do I get past this thing?”) between visitors and the reason they were looking in the first place. But hey, you liked it. Is that really the basis for an effective marketing decision?

My Parent, Sibling, Spouse, Friend Thinks This is Great Too. I bet they thought that poem you wrote in 3rd grade was great. It’s good to have caring family and friends. But it’s a business web site, remember? The reason you’re doing it is not to get positive feedback from the family on how *they* like it, but from prospects who never heard of you and don’t care about you personally or your feelings – skeptics who are just as likely at the outset to go with the other guy and not you – the very people you’re looking to reach – people who aren’t moved by it just looking great. It can look great and not convert leads or prospects.

My Client Likes It. Yes, but clients aren’t leads or prospects – those are different things. Your client already does business with you. If your marketing goal is mainly to appeal to existing clients, this could actually be highly relevant. If your goal is to appeal to a guy who doesn’t know you from Adam and has pulled up 3 search results and is going to call one of them based on a set of criteria (do you know the criteria?) then maybe it’s not that relevant that your client likes it.

I Like the Simplicity of Google’s Home Page. So do we, for a search engine. And if you’re building a search engine, it’s a good model. But if you’re a local business that serves a dozen urban areas, it’s internet marketing suicide. Visitors need sufficient qualifying information to even proceed to care at all what you have to say next. If you don’t give them that qualifying info, your window gets closed, and the other two search results they open get the attention. In addition to at least a couple of types of qualifying info, they need market differentiators. Most web sites have bullsh*t hype. And that hype actually is negative marketing. As with design, the content may sound good to you, but what do you really know about what’s effective in internet marketing to visitors? You either know or you don’t. It can sound good and be anti-marketing swill that costs you leads. It can be simple and ineffective. Simplicity isn’t a goal in itself. Simplicity and effectiveness, which is really hard and involves trade-offs – that’s a possible goal. Where you land on those trade offs should be determined by your internet marketing strategy.

I Like This Color or This Graphic Header. OK. So keep in mind, a web site is just a box. Let’s demystify it for all time. People like to believe in the mystery surrounding ‘technical’ things, but frankly a web site per se is something any kid can put together in his garage in a few hours. In the next few years, not being able to create a web site will be considered illiteracy – it’s like not being able to multiply fractions. It’s OK if you’ve forgotten, but the point is, that building a web site is a basic skill. The visible portion of a web site consists of just:

  1. the box (the platform)
  2. the layout (the template or design framework)
  3. the graphics
  4. the colors
  5. the content (text/fonts, videos, etc)

That’s it. Those 5 things. The rest is bullsh*t hype. Sure, it also needs the non-visible things – back-end search engine optimization, security, backup capability, admin functionalities, etc. But the part you can point to by looking at it on the face, on the web, is just a box with layout, graphics, color, and text, and that’s *all* it is. So you like some color – any web site can be that color. You like some graphic. OK – you probably don’t want to just put your name on their Nike swoosh if your business plans to avoid litigation in the future (no we won’t help you steal their logo), but you can have something similar designed. The point is, even if it’s a graphic image that dominates the top half of the page, it’s still just a photo, or it’s a set of bullets, or it’s a font or something. It’s a .gif – so what? That’s not a reason to imitate the rest of the site. The rest of it might have serious deficiencies made up for by a stellar photograph on top. First, what do you like about it. Second, is what you like actually useful to your internet marketing strategy.

I Like That it Looks Corporate, not Informal. OK, there’s nothing wrong with a ‘corporate’ style if that’s what you want. But is that in keeping with what you’re actually going to do to grow your business through internet marketing? If you don’t have an internet marketing plan at all, or are planning to use the internet to generate leads, will the corporate look send them away again, or do you know? Design isn’t a decision you make in a vacuum based on concepts like the clothes we wear to the appointment we’ve already got with a prospect who expects us to dress that way. Design is part of a strategy to grow a business (or again, what’s the point)? So make sure you’re thinking consistently with that strategy as it will actually play out in the wild. Corporate clone web sites are a dime a dozen. They’re also boring as hell. So make sure – is boring part of the strategy? If so, ok, but be sure. And if you don’t have an internet marketing strategy, why aren’t you talking to an internet marketing consultant before plunking down bucks for a canned web site?

I Like That it Doesn’t Have Any Images of People. Yes, people actually insist on “no human images” rather frequently. This is popular among people who are self-conscious about their own appearance or personality, or believe there’s an inevitable conflict between being considered a real person and being taken seriously as a professional. But 50% of site visitors don’t agree. Not saying you’re wrong – just saying half your visitors think you’re wrong, and will treat your web presence accordingly. Basic personality modeling suggests that half of visitors respond to a sense of human presence and are not comfortable with marketing presentations (which is what a web site is – or else why have one?) that don’t suggest personality and the presence of real human beings. It doesn’t matter if you’re like that or not, or if you or I prefer it or not – it matters whether our leads and prospects do. And if you’re willing to throw out half up front just to avoid having a photo of a human being, then you might want to consider what your internet marketing strategy actually consists of. People have personal theories about lead response just like they do about design and about content, but if it’s not based on data or analysis of behavior, is it useful?

When We Do Web Site Audits, we go right for the throat, because you’re paying us to give you the goods, not pull our punches or hold back to spare your feelings. No lead capture? Why not? It looks great, but if doesn’t convert leads, the looks aren’t helping. I’ve got great looking stuff in my closet that I don’t wear, either. By the same token, is your site telling your message, but it’s a long essay with endless links to click on and no sense of rational layout or design? Yeah, that really is important. I have a lot of great info just like you do, but if it’s not presented in a useful format, it doesn’t get used. So how do you know what goes into an effective web site?

Being BETTER Than the Other Guys: Remember, a web site is a box. Sometimes we get asked “can you build a box like this?” I always kind of chuckle. Sure – anyone can – it’s a box. Put in a layout, graphics, colors, text, and there you go if that’s all you’re concerned about. But our question is always “what’s your internet marketing strategy?” Do you know? Do you have one? Are you sure the box you’re pointing at will assist that strategy rather than hinder it? Again, do you know the implications of the choices you’re making? They make look great, but have made some really costly choices you haven’t considered. I saw a site the other day that was missing seven out of ten things they need for an effective home page. But hey, they had a nice photo on top. Even if you don’t just clone something you saw on the web, which is kind of the lowest common denominator of “I don’t know what I’m doing, but the other guy probably does” – even if you’re building the box out of a set of goals, have you clarified those goals into effective strategy? If not, you’re just buying an off the shelf, canned web site. You can get one of those anywhere.

Same Is Always Less, Not the Same. You’re not going to be as good as the other guys doing what they’re doing – let alone be any better. Just take search results as just one aspect of it — even if you totally copy the competition you want to beat, you not only won’t beat them, you won’t even come close to catching up – even doing a 100% identical web site, even using all the same SEO tags (which is silly). Even from just a search engine perspective alone, they were there first, they’ve been there longer, and so they automatically have more dominance than you, all things being equal. Growing in that is a process, and they’re ahead – so you won’t even get close just matching pace. You have to be *better* to even just catch up, let alone actually do better than them. Imitation is the sincerest form of failure.

Effective Web Sites: So, we’ve mentioned a number of faulty premises for putting together a web site. It’s probably helpful to reiterate the stuff we always say about what goes into an effective web site, when the goal is to grow your business:

  • Branding that doesn’t dominate, but a consistent appearance
  • Sufficient qualifying info on the home page for search engines to index properly, and visitors to qualify the result
  • Market differentiators that aren’t simply what we think is great about ourselves
  • Call to action with options (someone asked “isn’t that old fashioned?” Um… no.)
  • Lead capture with effective data gathering
  • Social networking, bookmarking, and referral capability
  • Simplified and orderly navigation you can easily update with new content without having to redo the menu on every page
  • Some sense of human presence (images of human beings that don’t all look like stock models – 50% of site visitors agree.)
  • Some sense of life (video, slideshow, or some other indication that the lights are on and someone is home)
  • Dynamic written content (if it’s just a static web site that sits there, and no one is posting updates, it’s asking to get buried – so right away we’ve guaranteed a kick in the marketing groin)
  • Original written content (if it’s canned content that a dozen other web sites are using, you’d be better off with a blank page and a phone number – given Google’s penalty for duplicate content, that is)
  • Color warmth. Color combinations that suggest company attitude (don’t choose sterile, if sterile isn’t the attitude). Don’t just match your logo (would you paint your wall the same color as the sofa in front of it?).
  • Good typography. Fonts matter. Is it designed for beauty and speed, for efficiency? What’s the approach?

We give straight talk. You can probably tell. We won’t ask you to the prom, and we won’t just take your money and sell you the first thing you ask for, like a canned item off the shelf, without at least making you aware if we think the choices you’re making might not actually help you achieve your goals. Sure, we can do it, if it’s legal and ethical, but we want to at least inform your first, if we think it’s not going to be in your best interest. There are small firms that are nevertheless Walmart-like in that they’ll just pitch you what you seem to want in terms of the product without digging into what you’re trying to achieve in the way of goals. If you want those guys, they’re a phone call away, and you can find them anywhere. Dime a dozen. We’re not here to hurt your feelings, and we aren’t going to say “you suck” because your web site isn’t up to snuff, or you like something that has serious flaws it would be unwise to imitate. But the currency we trade in that is the reason we’re taken seriously is forthrightness and directness on your behalf. Our approach is candor – we’d rather lose your business than take your money based on an illusion of value. If you like that, great – we’re probably a good match. In the end, we’ll do it your way, even if we wouldn’t recommend it, as long as we at least get to raise the concerns. If you want the sugar coating and for us to never mention if the widget isn’t going to do what you want to do – just sell to the excitement – we’re probably not your first choice. 🙂

More straight shooting from Market Moose.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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