Make Websites that Don't Suck

Make Websites that Don't Suck

October 12, 2020

Being a lifelong technologist, I have been privy to the whims and fashions of website development from the earliest public usage of HTML.

I saw the simple sites on Lynx and later on my trusty Mosaic. I started my expansion into the great unknown with text-based search engines like Gopher and Archie. I was thrilled with the advances of JumpStation and Infoseek. By this time, I also started developing simple landing pages and small, interlinked corporate websites.

In the early days, it was all about maximizing what little technical layout and integration functions were available. HTML at that point didn't offer much, but for those of us that had some C/C++ chops, you could do a little bit of integration and dynamic content using Common Gateway Interface (CGI) on the server side. At that point in time, knowing how to do this made you akin to a programming god. (In fact, few of us had vision to do much more than simple data connections.)

As websites development languages matured, so did the technical capabilities of the web. After the evolution from C/C++ to Pearl, and from PHP to today, we now can program web pages in just about any language you can imagine. The result is that the answer to the age-old question of "can you do that on the web?" has gone from "not really" to "it all depends on your budget and timing."

Now we are kids in candy stores. What cool mode du jour can we achieve with which to talk about ourselves. What cool layout or design scheme can we leverage to make ourselves and our products actually seem interesting. There MUST be a way, after all, to make a bearing manufacturer seam hip and newsworthy, right? You want repeat visits, right? We have to be "sticky;" we MUST be a "portal" for our industry, right? What technologies can we leverage to make that happen? We need the latest and the biggest to prove we are a serious player, right?

No. And frankly, this is why your website sucks.

In fact, if you thought "yes, yes, yes..." to the questions above, YOU are likely the reason your website sucks.

Your website is owned by your target audience. It is their view into how you relate to themselves.

Here is the thing: We are now at a point where a website is no longer just a website. To define it as such would be like thinking of an automobile as just a car. This is fundamentally missing the point. An automobile is an expression of how most consumers want to think of themselves. A conveyance, of course, but more often than not an automobile is part of an identity. Automobile makers figured this out long ago. Similarly, your website is not your website. Your website is owned by your target audience. It is their view into how you relate to them. Your website is, at best, a dialectic between you and your target audience.

As such, the worst things you can do is to make the key mistakes I see corporations regularly make, including:

  1. Making the delivery technology the primary focus of your web development projects
  2. Focus on the internal structure of your organization as a way to organize the content of your website

These are the two most common, cardinal mistakes I see again and again and again.

So, let's look at the first mistake: Focusing on the technology.

If your IT group is running your website build, you are already screwed. IT doesn't care about the dialectic. IT doesn't care about how your audiences perceive your brand or how they understand your ability to help them. IT cares about how the site integrates with the business systems they are responsible for. This makes them a stakeholder, but not the rightful owner. As such, having IT own your website is akin to asking an auto mechanic to choose the color of your car's interior because "they know about these things."

Similarly, if you are going to a "web development shop" to get your website built, you are making a similar mistake. As soon as they break out the "card sorting" process to determine the architecture of your website, you should run as fast as you can in the other direction.

Both of these groups will give you a sucky website. Sure, it may be technically sound, and often will have deep functionality and flexibility that you will never use, but at the end of the day it will still suck.

Why? Because of mistake #2.

IT and web shops don't understand that your website isn't a website. They are still laboring under the 1990-2010 notion that it is. Because of that they have "tried and true" methods to help you best prioritize and organize your "content" that are nearly all based on variations of card sorts that give internal audiences most of the control over what "content" to prioritize. This results in websites that are organized and presented by the way your organization thinks of itself internally.

Again, you don't own your website. Your audience does. Otherwise, there is really no point in having it unless its sole purpose is to assist your inside sales group with finding content to help them discuss your products and services while on the phone with customers.

If this is how you went about building your website, this is why your website sucks.

"So, how do I make my website not suck?"

First, relegate IT back to its proper role in your website: a stakeholder. Nothing more, nothing less. Next, stop thinking about what you need to put into your website and, FOR GOD'S SAKE, don't even begin thinking about what cool technologies you should be using.

Start thinking about what challenges you solve for your customers, what trends can you help them take advantage of. In short, start your website by thinking about your buyer's purchase journey. Because at the end of the day, this is how your buyer will find you and, if you are skillful and prescient, how they will find value in your web representation.

Understanding that all buyers in complex purchase decisions follow a predictable journey will help you to find your site content and organization. Buyers first look for educational content that helps them solve problems they are facing or take advantage of trends they are experiencing. After that, they look for informational content that helps them connect products and services to the solutions they learned about in the educational content. Finally, they look for content that confirms (confirmational content) that they are choosing the right products and services.

It really is that easy. If you focus on your buyer and their journey, and focus your website development and content around building a narrative that allows your audience to move themselves through that journey, you will have a website that doesn't suck.

Does the technology matter? Yes, having a memorable, well working site is important--but it is secondary to the content supporting your buyer's journey.

So follow my advice. When you need to get your website built or rebuilt, don't go to a "web shop." Go to a marketer that understands how to properly align your messages with your buyer's journey and how to build sites that are based on this alignment.

I might just know someone that fits that need.

We make sites that don't suck.

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