Trim the Fat: Maintain Your Website’s Focus

Make sure your site offers exactly what it claims to offer instead of trying to have a site that offers everything to everyone or a web site whose purpose is obscured with too many features or irrelevant content. Examples of sites that do exactly what they say they do include Google and Hot or Not.

When I attended college as an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to take part in a writing workshop. The author who led the workshop, Robin Hemley, described a process that not only applies to writing, but also to web site production and just about anything. He described a process of going through a work of short fiction and eliminating as many sentences as possible. After that, he said to let it sit for an unlengthy period of time then repeat the process again on the already trimmed down story. This is to be done as many times as possible while still retaining the overall meaning of the story.

The point of this process is to strengthen the impact of the story by ridding it of extraneous details or information so that the essence of the tale can better shine through. Short stories need to be succinct and to the point because of the format. Typically readers of short fiction don’t want to spend a lot of time reading in one sitting. They want to experience the tale to its fullest then move on. Does this sound similar to another type of audience, an audience with mice in their hands? There is no audience more fickle than Internet users, and that is why implementing a process to strip away the fluff in order to leave the users of a site with exactly what the site purports to offer will in the long-run be more vital that trying to have a web site that offers everything to everyone or even a web site whose purpose is obscured with too many features or irrelevant content.

The example I will hold up as the glimmering beacon of ‘the process’ is Google. When someone visits Google they essentially see the web site logo and a textbox to perform a search. The total essential user interface consists of a textbox, a textbox worth forty billion dollars. That single textbox instantiated millions of times a day symbolizes the pragmatic beauty of the process at its best. This wasn’t an accident. In the recent Playboy interview with the founders of Google, they explain in their own words how the process is important:

Playboy: Many Internet companies were founded as portals. It was assumed that the more services you provided, the longer people would stay on your website and the more revenue you could generate from advertising and pay services.

Larry Page: We built a business on the opposite message. We want you to come to Google and quickly find what you want. Then we’re happy to send you to the other sites. In fact, that’s the point. The portal strategy tries to own all of the information.

In addition to Google, other sites that follow the process continually stand out as leaders in Internet entrepreneurship. Hot or Not draws millions of visitors and frenzied mouse-clicks. The theme of the site is self-evident: browse photos of people and click a number from one to ten to let them know if they are hot or not.

The site can be broken down almost completely into two actions: uploading a picture and clicking numbers over and over and over. Compare the success of Hot or Not to many other singles web sites with millions of venture-backed dollars and its simple to see that Hot or Not’s success came from presenting a clear, simple function and sticking to it. Visitors aren’t presented with horoscopes or dating tips. That information can be found all over the net. But where else can someone go to find out if they are hot or not? Nowhere.

Some sites can pull off a sort of online ‘mall of America’ approach, like Yahoo!, where anything and everything is under the umbrella of one domain. However, there is only one Mall of America and one Yahoo! because it is extremely difficult to find success by using such an approach. When a web site attempts to provide everything to everyone within a market there begins a huge resource drain in order to be competitive with the businesses who have their resources concentrated on only one or two of the features found on a conglomerate web site. Simply put, a one or two man (or woman) show can realistically only produce a web site with one central theme. When a small team of people start down the path of many paths, it’s easy to forget where you are or remember where you are going.

Many times Website productions begin on the right foot, or as James Brown would wail, the ‘good foot.’ A web site may find success in reporting Internet conspiracies as an example. A lot of time and effort goes into writing a lot of content that is central to Internet conspiracies. A year goes by and the site receives 10,000 visits each day. Advertising income increases. The feeling of success sinks in and the owner decides to expand his (or her) web site from Internet conspiracies to also include ‘real news.’ Afterall, 10,000 people visit the site each day. The site owner thinks, ‘Instead of just Internet conspiracies, they are probably also seeking real Internet news as well’.

Without thoroughly considering the outcome, Mr. (or Mrs., or Mr. And Mrs.) Site Owner, determined to make their Internet conspiracy web site a source for real Internet news as well, branch off from the original theme and begin their plan of ‘growth.’ Now there are more responsibilities since the site must produce an entirely new type of product in addition to the original. Visitors coming to the site are confused about what is going on and scratch their heads thinking, “What happened?” Not only that, but since there are many more real Internet news web sites than Internet conspiracy web sites, the bar is higher for success. Resources start getting pulled from the stories about Internet conspiracies and are used for “real news’”, degrading the quality of the original product. Traffic then begins to decrease. Advertising income drops and the only conspiracy left is the conspiracy the site owners made when they forgot the process.

Production of a successful web site will more often than not start as a simple idea. When the simple idea comes, stick with it. Don’t confuse the issue with a lot of brain-stormed ideas that find themselves in the equation simply to make someone happy. Remember Wacky-Wall-Walkers. One man had a vision, as odd as it is, and ran with it. Ken Hakuta made millions by producing the octopus-like toy that 5-year olds across the nation slammed against walls and watched slowly walk down walls paneled or painted with countless tones of latex. He made so much money off one simple idea that in 2003 he had enough cash to attempt to purchase significant parts of international toy retailer, FAO Schwarz. Hakuta could have easily warped his vision in countless ways, but he stuck to the original, simple idea and banked.

Don’t confuse trimming the fat with the notion that a site must be some sort of fad in order to succeed on the Internet. This isn’t true. The purpose of a Website can be complex and broad in scope. However, the point is that even if a Website production’s purpose is complex, it still must stay focused on the original intent.

Ebay sells anything and everything on the planet. They sell things that no one could have ever imagined. However, the theme of the site is online auctioning. They have stuck to this and developed features in line with the simple idea that they are an online auction house. The founders could have decided in the early stages to branch off and compete with other successful online giants like Amazon, but they stuck to auctions and became a multi-billion dollar business.

I’ll leave off with a few final suggestions. If you already have a web site, ask yourself, “What is the point of this?” Answer the question in one sentence, in as few words as possible. Make sure that your answer isn’t too abstract. If it is, maybe it’s the basic idea of the Website that needs developed first. A clear, concise vision that maintains its integrity will meet success with proper execution.

Now go through your site and note every feature, function, image and piece of content that doesn’t have anything to do with the answer you gave. Consider eliminating these items. Features that the web site production team finds valuable but that don’t match up with the purpose of the site must be weighed against diluting the impact of the overall site to the visitor who has come to check out the wares. If you are in the process of starting a Website production, ask yourself the same question and answer in the same manner. Now design every piece of the site around that answer. Only implement the features that complement the original purpose of the site that you have outlined. Stay the course. Trim the fat.

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