Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Websites III: Features of the Business Website

October 1998

By Mike Gould

In last month's episode, we covered how to get started building your website; locating an architect and contractor, etc. This month we will begin to discuss what rooms you need and how to make sure all the doors open properly. (And I think I'll drop the architecture metaphor right here, before I get into closets and bathrooms.)

The Front Page
Our story so far: Mr./Ms. NetSurfer sees your URL (your Internet address, such as www.coolbiz.com) on one of your print media ads, or finds you in an Internet directory like Yahoo, fires up his or her browser, and surfs out to your new, freshly constructed website. What appears on their computer's screen? Your front page, that's what. This is the digital equivalent of your storefront; the first thing a prospective customer sees. This sets the tone and establishes the setting for the customer's experience. You want a page that spells out what it is you offer, has some nice, attention-grabbing graphics on it which relate to your business, and pops up on the screen as fast as possible.

The speed issue is very important; a potential customer is not going to want to wait 5 minutes for your elaborate logo to download. The Cardinal Rule: CONTENT IS KING. Someone going to your site is going there for information; give them some right away! Graphics are important, the look and feel are important, but information is the most important of all.

If your site is relatively small, you can have an index to the other pages within the site on the front page, so that the user can select where they want to go next. If your site is fairly large, you may want to greet the user at the front page, give a brief, engaging description of your business, and then usher them into your real index page, which will probably be considerably more complex than the front page.

Let's return to the site I built for Harmony Hollow (http://harmonyhollow.com) as an example. The front page features a large logo with the name of the firm, a picture of one of the products (a wedding bell), a short paragraph describing the company and its products (bells and chimes), and a line of text you can click to enter the site proper (which leads you to the index page). It is also possible to jump immediately to various product offerings, special deals, etc. The whole page weighs in at 29.5K, so it loads in fast. A visitor immediately knows the name of the company, the products it sells, what they look like, and even what they sound like (clicking on the picture of the bell downloads and plays a bell sound).

Getting Around - The Index Page
Going to the index page ("The Back Deck", establishing a metaphor relating to where the products are usually used), the user can choose where to explore within this rather large and densely-packed site. This brings us to navigation: if you are going to provide your visitor with a large place to visit, you had better give them the means to find what they are looking for, and, very important, the means to return to index page to ease further exploration. The index page is the main lobby of the site, where the index to the building's tenants can be found. (Dang, there's that architecture metaphor again, the one I promised I would stop using. OK, I lied.)

Navigation
In addition to the clickable words and pictures on the Harmony Hollow index page, there is a navigation strip on the left of the screen that is always present; this enables you to jump to different areas without returning to the index page. The main point is to provide navigation, and always have an easy means to return to the index page (because some newbies don't know about the "back" button in their browser window. But not you, because you have been reading my columns, right? No newbie, you!).

Contact info
This is perhaps the most important information of all that your site has to offer: how to contact you for more information, and to place orders. Remember that someone may have come to your site as a result of an Internet search, and know nothing about you, including where you are. Put your email address, your phone number, and your snail mail address prominently on your site, in more than one place. Remember, the whole point of this is to make it as easy as possible for people to do business with you; they can't do business if they don't know where to send the money. Also remember that this is the WORLD Wide Web; if you are interested in opening new markets abroad, you might want to include information in languages other than English. On the Harmony Hollow site, we have information in 5 languages, and have received responses from all over the world. Also remember that 800 phone lines don't work outside of the US; provide an alternate number if you anticipate responses from overseas.

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