“Anything that works is obsolete.”
The need for reinvention
Yahoo! reinvents itself, moving things around on its home page periodically to reflect new offers and give a fresh look. Google’s tinkering with its search algorithm is anticipated with trepidation by most SEOs, and let’s not forget how often it refreshes its graphical themes (every common holiday and some of the more unusual ones as well). These are the big players; as a “small” player, reinventing the right way may very well be the little effort you need to become a bigger, more trafficked site.
If your site is not reaching our expectations, you must redesign. Even if it is “on target,” you should periodically redesign and add new content and technology, or you run the risk of falling behind, or worse, being rated low on search engines such as MSN which rate frequently updated “fresh” sites higher than sites which are not.
Sites are designed by looking at several basic factors. These include aesthetics (how good it looks), content (what it offers), usability (how easy it is to get around and use) and finally site/search engine optimization (how easy it is to find). Web designers are generally quite proficient at aesthetics and usability; it is in the areas of content and site optimization that they mainly fail to meet the objectives of the site owners.
These are the two aspects that we will look at in the question of site reinvention.
Stop the presses
If you have a template site, your site definitely needs a redesign. There is no way a template site can reflect a site’s unique identity. All it does is make the site look generic. A site that stands out for its unique design and layout will not necessarily get repeat visitors, but it will definitely be remembered for being unique.
Another issue that faces template sites is that there is no way of assuring that it is usable by the market the site owner is targeting. It may be a site for senior citizens, or for children. These two markets have different attention spans and require different approaches; for example, the official site for Harry Potter is crammed full of animations. Sites targeted to senior citizens, on the other hand, may be based on multimedia content and large text sizes.
When purpose meets design
When redesigning your site, you cannot simply redesign without concentrating on the purpose of your site. You must redesign with a purpose. Music artists change stage names with due consideration to their fan base; if you redesign your site, you run the risk of alienating your current users. This risk is unavoidable; however, it can be ameliorated by considering the primary purpose of your site. The exception is when you want to totally re-focus your site.
When redesigning around content, you want to attract web surfers and keep them on your site until they perform your desired outcome. You should write your content around your desired outcome, and you should build your navigation around your content. This takes constant practice, and must be studied carefully. I believe that sounds sufficiently sage-like to confuse even me.
Simply put, you must write compelling content, telling your visitors to perform your desired action. A call to action must be worked in at least three times on a page. Your site must have a focus, and this focus must come out in your content.
You must imagine your content as cattle herders, driving traffic to your desired outcome. I believe this may sound like a severe comparison, since traffic is not like cattle. But traffic can be directed by content.
Most websites have mediocre copy, apart from sites that seek to give information. When reinventing, you must offer information. Even if it is not your primary aim, you must. Information is the biggest single thing people are looking for online; information on prices, information on procedure, information on other people, things and products. Giving free information will help your search engine rankings and keep traffic coming to your site.
If your site does not have an opt-in form, you must place one on it and build a database to keep the names of people who leave their information. Some of the best sites I have ever visited do not have a subscribe form, register form, or opt-in form. This is a huge mistake that cost them my continued patronage. There are simply too many sites out there, and you cannot guarantee that users will always come to your site to get the information you offer. Sometimes users find another site, other times users forget your URL, and still other times users do not even know they need your services until you remind them via email.
You must reinvent your site and place your registration form in a location where it will not be impossible to find; the top left of every page is desirable. However if you want to have your form on just one page, then you must use your content to drive your users there with promises of great benefits.
A good feature to incorporate into any site is a members section. This builds up your opt-in data base. It will also increase the number of repeat users to your web site. A members only section can offer registered users an opportunity to contribute to a forum related to the content of the site, access to content rich emails, or access to freebies.
Be search engine friendly
One major design obstacle to making your site search engine friendly is graphics. Web designers love graphics; remember, in the print industry it is often said that “one picture is worth a thousand words.” Designers of brochure sites like it; it is a nice escape hatch when the customer is slow coming up with content. Amateurs love it the most, since they know nothing about optimization techniques.
One word is worth a dozen pictures
In web search, one key word is worth at least a dozen pictures. Graphics should always be next to text, or far below it. Web crawlers cannot read images that do not have the “ALT” tag; some cannot read images even with the “ALT” tag. Combine that with the fact that images take up valuable text space in the first paragraph. Images should, if possible, always be next to text.
This redesign feature is an issue that has been harped on by web designers (amazingly, not search experts), but surprisingly a lot of web sites make this mistake. Why don’t you know about them? The search engines list them on page 500, if they are listed at all.
HTML boot camp
Frames and dynamically generated pages have to be used with the search engines in mind. Check for broken links, and remember to use header tags. The crawlers must be studied to know which ones are unable to crawl through certain features. If in doubt, hire an SEO expert while redesigning. When in doubt, stay with HTML throughout the site’s design and stay away from frames.
When redesigning for search engines, you have to watch every aspect of your web site design, from content to navigation. Most sites are built with no search engines in mind. To effectively position a site for search engines, radical redesign with the aid of an external SEO expert working with in house staff would be ideal.
Reinvention for interactivity
With new tools to aid every aspect of web design, a redesign should occur to incorporate these new technologies into the web site, apart from scripts that run in the background and cannot be seen by the user. New interactive features to improve the browsing experience of your users are necessary. All reinvention should be targeted to improving the site’s performance. The pay off will definitely be worth the initial cost, risk and effort of redesign.
Reinvention for better content management
A bonus of this approach was that their site was more aesthetically pleasing, going from a basic but fun blue and white color theme to shades of purple and orange that could rival a Renaissance Master’s creation. This leads us to the last way to reinvent.
Reinvention for a better look
If color themes and backgrounds were clothes, most websites would never change into new outfits. Most would not mind changing, but are probably afraid of the cost of redesigning. There are two ways to go about beating the budget. The first is to either hire an in house webmaster or train an existing worker on how to edit websites. The second way is to work three or four redesigns into the initial contract with the web designer as a condition for getting the job.
Without reinventing yourself, you stand the risk of looking unappealing and “uncool.” Google, Yahoo and Amazon periodically redesign just to stay “cool.” Most of the time, the redesign of their home pages does not reflect any new offering; they do it just to give the user a new experience.