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What makes a professional website?

Admittedly, my job can be very frustrating sometimes. Don't get me wrong, I love what I do and am thankful I have the rare opportunity to get paid for something I love to do. But sometimes, only sometimes, people don't want to listen to a professional, or they are listening too much to someone who is not a professional.

There are basic rules regarding web design. These rules have been established through years of trial and error, focus studies as well as observation of success and failure in the field. The unfortunate website owner who does not follow these basic rules is virtually assured failure. It may not be failure in the sense that your website gets shut down, but in the lack of users, especially returning users.

What the user wants

Let's think for a minute about the goals of the website user. This depends on the website, but let's consider why a person is on your website in the first place. You can think about why you use the internet, for how long and which websites you frequent.

Be it by search engine, advertisement or back link, the user has arrived at your website. The user's need or goals can vary, but most can be categorized into one of the following types.

The user wants information

The user has come to your website for information. The user expects the information to be easy to find if it's not available immediately. The user also expects the information she is seeking to be free, accurate, and thorough.

The user wants to purchase or use a product or service

The user has come to your website seeking a product or service. This category is not as common as the user seeking information, but has grown in popularity over the years as the internet becomes more popular. There have been many, many websites that have succeeded by offering a product or service.

The user is just killing time

The user has found her way to your website looking for fun. This user wants to be entertained by the content on your website, yet many times this entertainment is geared towards a specific category of entertainment. Gossip versus news is one differing example, but in both cases, the user desires distraction and entertainment.

The following list is the top 5 websites in my opinion at this point and time, in no particular order.

Popular websites, according to the author

According to Alexa, a company that specializes in gathering and ranking website traffic from websites, the top 5 websites in order are as follows.

Popular websites, according to Alexa

A global list of the top websites can be found here at Alexa's website. According to Alexa, MySpace is ranked 6 while Craigslist was ranked 64. While not in the top 10, 64 out of billions of websites is not a bad ranking.

Truly good ideas for websites

All three of the categories of users above share similar expectations. They demand: 1). The information to be accurate or the service to be competitive and 2). The desired information to be delivered and located quickly. Even if the user is just bored and looking for entertainment, they still want that information quickly. The average user will not wait 10 seconds for a website to load.

Most of the popular websites have a few attributes in common:

Attributes successful websites share

  • They are fast
  • They are simple
  • They are accurate
  • They are free
  • They are informative
  • They are fun
  • They were the first of their kind

Two websites in particular, Google and MySpace, are extremely popular and profitable. MySpace is, in my opinion, an anomaly of success in the world wide web, and something many, many websites have failed to duplicate. I believe MySpace is a virtual representation of the time to market principal. That is, because it was the first of it's kind and familiar, it is and will remain the most successful, yet to what degree has not been determined.

Google, however, was not the first search engine, nor was it the first to offer online advertising, yet it has become the most successful company in both those highly competitive fields. Microsoft has been attempting to compete lately, to little avail. I am suspect of Alexa's rankings putting Microsoft above Google, but I do also realize that Internet Explorer 7's default search engine is Windows Live.

So what made Google so popular? Google's website is fast, simple and easy to use. Google's advertising is visually simple, appealing and again, fast.

Craigslist is another example of how you want your website to be designed. Looking at the website, there really isn't much to it, but it is wildly popular because it is so simple and easy to use.

So what do you want to have in your website and what do you want to avoid? In my opinion, these are the most important points.

Use dark colored text on a light background

Reading a website is like reading a physical publication. When is the last time you read a book that had white text on a black background? There is a reason that few, if any publications are created this way. A dark colored text on a light background is the easiest on the eye, and is the standard.

Use a standard side or top menu

The menu is the user's guide around your website, and the majority of users do not use any search functions due to poorly designed or implemented search algorithms. Users need a clearly defined, consistent menu either down the left side, across the top or down the right side.

The menu on the right side of the page has become favored for blogs and is used frequently for search engine optimization and accessibility and viewing from mobile devices. The menu on the right side is generally generated last and appears at the bottom of the page when styling is disabled, or in the case of a tabled layout, the menu is rendered after the important content.

With careful planning, one can use a left menu that is generated after the content and appears at the bottom of the page. This website is one example of that type of styling. The left menu on this page is actually generated after the content and positioned at the top and to the left using CSS.

This is desirable as it puts your main content first, before the rest, less important content on your page when rendered by a search engine.

Don't use some off the wall, non standard menus and I would suggest not using JavaScript menus as they tend to be annoying and, unless great care is taken, can leave the website inoperable due to menu placement. It can also be an accessibility issue when JavaScript is disabled.

If you have many, many menu items, a reorganization of the website may be needed, even being split into several top level categories (sales, support), or by country or region.

Also a drill down interface (favoring clicks vs. spewing your menu items all over the page) with a sub-menu is, in my opinion, a better option than using a JavaScript menu.

Limit content area width

Your content area should be limited to about 500px, but not more than 600px. This is because people tend to lose their place when reading across a space that is greater than 500 to 600px.

Limit images and don't use image ads

Google has found that the most effective advertisements are text links. They tend to be unobtrusive, can blend in with the website and don't distract the user from the content of the website. Unless the focus of your website is images, limit the number of images as well as the sizes of those images. Also, ever since Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 has included support for PNG transparency, this format should be used for images, especially those requiring transparency.

Nobody wants to browse a website that has a bunch of flashing, scrolling image ads and no one wants to hunt and peck through a website crowded with images to find the information they want.

Also, it may be beneficial to use CSS to display images rather than the HTML image tags. The more light weight and clean the html, the better for search engines and browsers.

Limit scrolling of the page

Your web pages should not scroll horizontally and scrolling vertically should be avoided, although it is completely acceptable and the standard, especially if you have a good amount of content on your website.

It is important to note that the user not looking for a specific piece of content will not generally scroll past the top part of your page. Think of a newspaper, where the top half of the front cover is sought after and generally reserved for top stories.

Limit the use of flash

Flash is a proprietary product and should be used sparingly if at all in web pages. Some browsers do not support flash because it is proprietary, it will make the web page load slower, and it is not generally search engine friendly. Try to think about the total amount of time you have spent playing with an interactive flash application (aside from a game), or stared at a rotating flash gallery of images and announcements, then ask yourself is it worth it to risk accessibility, compatibility or forcing users to download and install a product (flash player). At the very least, do not offer critical information only in flash form.

Do not use music

Just don't do it. There is nothing more annoying than having music or audio on a website, especially when it plays automatically and doubly so when there are no controls to shut it off. Many of the surfers on the internet are listening to their own audio and most would like to keep it that way.

Limit your media

With the explosion in popularity of websites such as YouTube, many sites have started placing media, especially flash video on their websites.

This has spawned the practice of putting media longer than 10 minutes on websites or even using commercials inside that media. No one is going to listen to, or watch, an hour long piece of media on their computer, unless they have a specific need to do so, and people still expect information on the internet to be free, even in terms of their time and attention. Don't use commercials (if your information can be sold, use a cheap membership) and don't expect users to watch an hour long video about any topic. You might just be wasting disk space.

Conclusion

I have just touched on the subject of web development. It is the content of the website that determines the success or failure of a website, not the flash, style or colors, even for abominations such as MySpace. When is the last time you went back to a website solely because of the way it looked, the images on the website or it's animations?

People don't go to websites to stare at the colors or even the animations, they go for the content and anything else is a distraction for the true purpose of your online venture.

Comments

Thanks for the post!

I do have to disagree about the foreground/background color. I believe and have read that having a light text on a dark background makes a stronger contrast and is easier on the eyes to read. The focus is on the outline of the letters as they are popping out from the dark background. When you have white text on a dark background, those with weaker eyes, the letters can start to fuzz on the edges since the strong contrast is the white, and then trying to distinguish the black outline of the letters.

Still, the majority uses black text on white background.. it has been a standard, newspapers use it (that would be a lot of ink if they switched to black background with white text). So the main printed genre will throw in some white text on dark background, but the waste of ink would be extreme. Then again applying to the browser, some browsers have an option to print bg/fg colors ... and with a dark background, that is a lot of ink.

There have been studies that have shown black text on a white background is superior (from here:

"Studied examining the reading performance of older adults have found that colored text on a colored background typically reduces their reading performance compared to reading black text on a white background (Charness & Bosman, 1990). Moreover, research has shown that dark text on light backgrounds is generally superior to light text on dark backgrounds (Tobas, 1987). However, older adults do have an increased sensitivity to glare. Thus, it is recommended that backgrounds not be pure white, but some form of off-white color (such as background presented here)."

While I haven't read the study, I have yet to see a study cited that says light text on a dark background is superior for reading comfort. I do know that there are many, many ergonomic studies that suggest working on a computer in a dark room may not be healthy and I believe there may be some correlation. Working in a room with uneven, bright light is not good either as brighter lights can train the eyes away from what the subject is trying to look at, forcing the subject to refocus.

I believe this may have something to do with the dark on light preference, although it is recommended that a white background not be used as it is too bright for some users.

However, it has been theorized that a light on black color scheme is different on the web because the light is emitted light rather than reflected light, as on paper, which makes it easier to read emitted, light text on a dark background than picking out the black text on a light emitting white page.

From what I gather, a more modern study with modern equipment should probably be undertaken.

It's interesting how many people view seo in a different perspective.

Consider things like SEO as well, which it seems that you kinda did. SEO is huge and can make or break your website. IF you do it correctly you can have tons of targeted traffic coming to your website. Great advice overall though, these are essentials that any website should follow.