Web Design Quick Fixes – Are Businesses Falling Foul of Free Website Generators?

Buses in Cambridge are like web design in Cambridge: reliable, convenient and reasonably priced. However, I am given to understand that the story is not the same elsewhere. Indeed, books have been written on the subject of why such vehicles often come in threes. Suffice it to say that the hidden mathematics of everyday life also extend to the life of a freelance web developer. If I am asked about a particular web design topic or technique, no matter how obscure, I can pretty much guarantee that the question will crop up again very soon afterwards with a different client.

At the moment, in the land of web design in Cambridge, the burning web design issue is free website generators. Many web hosting companies offer these programs as a “quick start” to getting your business online. But do they work? If you haven’t got a lot of time, the short answer to the question: “Are website generators any good?” is: yes, for a limited time, then no.

Many business owners make the mistake of thinking that a website can be established and then left to mature like a fine wine. It isn’t the case. You can get immediate positive impact from a website, but after that point, it’s a bit of a labour of love. To keep yourself in the search engine rankings and encourage return visits from customers, you have to work hard at it: tweak page titles, descriptions and keywords; add new material and respond to user feedback. In short, you need to be creating noise around your site (albeit an excited buzz, not an annoying drone…) to keep things moving.

Free website generators address the immediate need, but some can fail to lay the groundwork for a sustainable website.

Use of images

The most common crime of the free website generator is to use images where text should be. This is hugely damaging for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) because search engine crawlers can’t read images, so your content is wasted: it’s not working for you. Text readers won’t be able to read your pages either, so disabled visitors don’t stand a chance of using your site.

Content Management

Many free website generators are intended to provide a starting-point, so once you’ve created your website, you may not have the opportunity to go back and edit your pages. One Cambridge web design client had the experience that meaningless URLs (e.g. A.html, B.html etc.) were being generated and could not be renamed, with the result that his pages could not rival those of his competitors. Changing page titles, descriptions and keywords are all important parts of managing your website which may not be available to you with this kind of program.

HTML validation: An experiment

As an experiment, I decided to run a website generated by one of these free website generators through the W3C Validator, a useful tool for web designers and developers, which can pick up on any errors in the code on the page. Such errors can represent accessibility issues which can prevent visitors from using your site properly. It wasn’t good news. The validator came up with 69 errors, beginning with failing to identify the document type, with no XML declarations at the beginning of the webpage.

You don’t have to be technical to understand that these are quite fundamental problems. The webpage hasn’t even declared what code it’s trying to use, so the validator doesn’t know where to start. Many other errors referred to HTML attributes which are now deprecated (i.e. no longer used) which also suggests that the website generators are not updated to reflect changes in XHTML standards.

Another Cambridge web design client’s website, also generated by one of these free programs, had far fewer validation problems. Why? Because the whole website was made up of images. The only reason the validator didn’t pick up on more problems was because it can’t read images in the same way as it can read text. This goes for Google, Bing and any other search engine you care to mention. If you fill your website with images and Flash instead of text, it can seriously damage your site’s performance in search engine rankings.

Why not try it out yourself?

Think of a search term and Google it. Most likely, on page 1 you will find text-rich websites which run through the W3C validator with few or no problems. Click on the last pages of Google and you will find sites dominated by images or created using Flash.

Sometimes designers make the decision to use images in place of text, mainly for cosmetic purposes. The number of fonts available in most web browsers can be limiting and can lead to a repetitive look and feel. However, with web design as with so many areas of life, you need to know what you’re ignoring. If it is a conscious design, fair enough, and knowledgeable web designers will probably take other steps to boost SEO in lieu of the images. However, if you’re a newcomer to web design, you may not even be aware of this distinction.

I think it is unfair that businesses – especially small and medium-sized businesses trying to economize – can be led to thinking that a free website generator is going to be enough to give their website a fighting chance. It is a false economy. It doesn’t pay to take these errors lightly in web design, because they prevent visitors (especially disabled visitors) from being able to use your site properly and can do serious damage to your Google ranking.

So if you are planning to use a free website generator, what can you do to ensure the quality of the result?

  • Start by searching the site for “web design”, “css” and “html validation”. These issues should be addressed upfront or in support documentation.
  • If possible, view a tutorial or trial the content management system (CMS) to ensure that you can manipulate the design in the way you want and that it’s easy to use.
  • If you can find an existing website produced with the same generator, try running the site’s URL through W3C’s website validator: http://validator.w3.org/ for yourself to see the results. This will let you know whether the HTML the generator produces is suitable.
  • When inspecting other sites, if you can’t highlight text, right-click. If you see the option “Save Picture As…”, you are looking at an image, not text, which could potentially cause accessibility and SEO issues.
  • What are the other options?

 
The other options available to you depend on how comfortable you feel with the process of web design and development and the level of commitment you are willing to provide. If you are willing to learn HTML and CSS or have someone in your organisation who is able to do so, you could try http://www.freecsstemplates.org/? This website provides great CSS webpage designs which are already validated and make a great basis for your own site. I used a template recently for a Cambridge playwright and author and found the templates to be well-designed and documented (you do need to retain a credit to the original web designer).

Alternatively, you could employ a local web designer to do the work for you. If you take this route, there are many more options you need to consider, but that’s a different topic for another day. Do your homework Whichever route you choose, the most important element of the process happens before you sign up to any package, whether free or paid. Invest your time before you invest your money – with the best will in the world, it’s the best way to ensure that your expectations are met and your online business flourishes.

How a Professional Website Developer Can Help Your Business

A website is a necessity in today’s business environment. It is your online opportunity to connect to the millions of potential customers for your product or service. Your website is also a very visual representation of your business, and as such it is vitally important to project a professional image.

There are a number of web site design programs that can be used to generate a basic web site. They use basic templates for pages and limit the customization that can be done. These web sites are usually created by end users for their personal needs and for that they do an adequate job. However, for your business the last thing you need or want is a cookie cutter web site created by one of your employees, or worse, someone you paid to create that kind of site for you. A web development company or web design firm uses professional grade tools and programming languages to create a customizable, unique web site that will provide you with something a template designed site can’t give, pizazz!

Did you know that the average first time visitor spends only 30 seconds on your website? If your site doesn’t grab the viewers attention quickly they’re going to move on and probably not return. Even if you do keep them around you can still lose up to 45% of those visitors on their second visit if they don’t perceive that your site has something new to offer. By using professionally designed graphics a web design firm can help you keep those first time visitors at your site longer, retain your existing visitors and those same professionally designed images make your business look its best.

By using dynamic content, content that changes based on criteria you set up or based on user preferences, a web development company can help you retain more of your visitors after their second visit to your site. Interactive tools, only available through a web design firm can keep your visitors engaged so that they stay longer and want to come back. A clean, logical, easy to navigate site structure makes it easier for your customers to find what they are looking for fast and with minimal effort, and that translates into money for your business.

Of course the biggest challenge any business faces is getting your web site found among the millions of web sites on the net, or even among the admittedly fewer sites of your competitors. Using a technique called Search Engine Optimization (SEO) a professional web development firm can raise your site’s rankings in search engines like Google, Yahoo, or MSN. By using specific keywords search engine friendly design and programming techniques a professional web design firm can have your site listed at or near the top of every category in which your business fits.

Web site design and development firms provide consultation services with design specialists who will work with you to get the most pleasing design for your business. Graphic designers will use their years of training and experience to assure that your site is not only visually pleasing and easy to navigate, but that has the added benefit of being a unique representation of your business, now and in the future. A web site is not a static entity. It must keep up with trends in design as well as project a fresh face to your customers. Periodic redesigns or more frequent minor face lifts will ensure that your business projects a professional, relevant and timely image.

A professional web design company, well versed in SEO and graphic design, is your best partner in the battle to drive visitors to, and keep visitors on, your site.

4 Useful Tips for Web Copy

Being a web designer or web developer, sometimes can mean that you need to know how to write professional web copy. It may be for your own website, a client’s website, or you might be hiring someone to do it for you. No matter which situation you’re in, it is important that you know a good web copy from a not-so-good web copy.

Below are 4 useful tips that can help you develop or instruct a successful web copy:

Short Paragraphs: At some point with online reading you’ve had to have read one, or several, very long paragraphs. When doing so, I’m sure at least one of the experiences, induced boredom, loss of concentration or the full inability to read it thoroughly. For these reasons, write somewhat simple and short paragraphs for online readers. Typically, online readers or visitors have a very short attention span and don’t want to read a ton of words to know what you’re doing, who you are or what your business does. Keep it short, the visitor will stay longer.

Simple Word Usage: Mentioned briefly above, keeping your use of words at a simple level is a great idea. Don’t fill your paragraphs with intellectual hogwash. People aren’t interested in how well a web designer can craft words. All the visitor wants to know is: who, what, how much and how to contact you. Be polite, professional and informational, but you don’t have to be very technical or abstract.

Break up key elements: For the visitor to have a pleasant experience reading your site, it’s a great idea to break up key points, elements or services by using a bulleted or numbered format. It’s much easier for a visitor to read through and find the important information that they are looking for when the information is broken up.

Create Attention-Grabbing Headlines: For the reader to be drawn in to the content, a great headline is necessary. A great headline will draw the visitor in, and if you place a few sub titles throughout the rest of the content, it will also help break up the information.

Web copy is just as important as the services that you offer because it helps sell those services. Be sure to also proofread and correct grammar and spelling.