Ten resolutions that will wring more results from your Web site.
Here are some New Year's resolutions that are vastly better than those you've made for yourself. They're resolutions for improving the usefulness of your corporate Web site. And unlike your oaths to learn the oboe or stop playing the ponies, these are 10 resolutions that you can easily and quickly act on (or delegate). The best kind, I say.
1. Don't allow people to e-mail your company if their messages will neither be read nor answered.
Try testing addresses on your site, like firstname.lastname@example.org, to see if they actually reach a real human being and garner a response."Contact us" e-mail forms are also worthy of investigation; it only ticks off customers when they fill them out and never receive a relevant response.
2. Allow customers to establish more direct contact when they need it.
That is, when someone visits your Web site, they should be able to talk to a real person, either through online chat or by having someone from your customer service or sales departments call them on the phone. This is often a prelude to a sale or a deeper relationship with the customer.
3. If you sell products directly from your site, look to eliminate as many unnecessary steps as you can.
Give buyers an overview of the process, and the number of steps, before they start. At the bottom of each page, tell them what they need to do next, and where they are in the process ("Step 3 of 5", for example).
If you don't sell products, but instead point people to a network of distributors, partners or resellers, you should track how many leads go to each one and offer incentives to them based on how quickly and effectively they respond.
4. Find out how long it takes for your Web server to reboot after it crashes.
Does it happen automatically, or is human intervention sometimes required? How long does recovery take in the latter case? If your Web server dies completely, how long will your site be offline before it can be returned to life on another server? Decide whether you're happy with the answers you get - and if you're not, take action.
5. Stop taxing your customers' patience.
If your home page includes a zoomy 974K Flash movie that visitors are forced to watch every time they come to your site, ask your designers why people who already are interested in your company must be required to watch an ad for your company before they can get information from your company. The same goes for music that automatically plays when visitors arrive at your home page and pop-up windows too.
6. Don't prevent users from grabbing text from your site.
Many Web sites use special HTML code on their pages that makes it impossible for site visitors to highlight and copy your text to another application. The ostensible reason for using such code is to protect your precious intellectual property, but it's more of an annoyance than anything else. Potential customers who are making a case within their companies for buying something from you may need some information to back them up, and may want to insert it into an e-mail or a Word document. Why make them retype the text they want to use?
7. Give people the straight scoop when you ask for their e-mail address.
E-mail lists are a wonderful and inexpensive way to stay in touch with customers and prospects. But asking someone for their e-mail address without telling them what they're going to get in return is like asking the stranger in the train seat next to you for her Tax File number. You'll get a lot more e-mail sign-ups if you explain how often you send out your newsletter or update, make it easy for people to unsubscribe at any time and link them to a sample of what they'll be receiving.
8. List actual job titles, salary ranges and descriptions on your"Careers" page.
You'll get more rA©sumA©s of higher quality that way than you will if you just say:"We're always hiring, so send in your rA©sumA©!"
9. Make sure your homepage includes a list of the three (or five or 10) most-recently added documents or pages.
This reinforces the idea that you're constantly working on the site and that it's the best source for current information on your products or services. And you'll condition people to check your site more regularly.
10. Try a dozen searches on your site's search page.
Some should be for topics you know are covered somewhere on the site; others should be for topics that may or may not be there. Are you happy with the results you get? Search engines can often be fine-tuned to yield better results; but many sites use ineffective search technology that's cheap (or free) - and it shows.
This column was inspired, in part, by a new book from Web usability experts Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir called Homepage Usability: 50 Web sites Deconstructed (New Riders Publishing, 2001). Thanks also to David Rose, president of Ambient Devices in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Shayne Gilbert, founder of Silverweave in Boston, for their contributions.