Top Considerations for Choosing URLS

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Main Building, Univ. of Notre Dame
Main Building, Univ. of Notre Dame

Boy, we’re lucky to be at Notre Dame!

No, seriously. Besides the fact that we work at a premier university, if we’re wanting to make sure our websites have a fighting chance in the bit world of the Internet, just having the “” brand adds to the value of any Web address we can think of for our various departments and programs.

But that aside, how do we pick out the best URLs for our new sites?

Well, the answer I give today is different from what others would have said two, five, or 10 years ago, and will be different from what I might say in another year or two. Search engines are adapting to the “new world” of SEO and how Webbies try to get their sites noticed, and the rules will change as the Web evolves.

But right now, here is what the experts are saying we should consider when picking a URL:

  • Keep it short. Longer is more SEO friendly and more descriptive, but harder to type without errors and harder to remember. Also, current (2008) research[1] showed that long URLs tend to be ignored, with users clicking on shorter URLs more than twice as often.
  • Keep it simple. Easy to remember is a key.
  • Make it descriptive. If the URL doesn’t describe or somehow obviously relate to your site, chances are that your users will not remember it very long. (Will users remember that ace stands for Alliance for Catholic Education?  Or tas stands for Teachers as Scholars? Maybe so. Know your audience and how they think.)
  • Make it memorable. It’s easier to remember impact than Economic Impact Report (
  • Make it easy to spell (versus easy to misspell). Otherwise, reserve likely misspellings of the URL for redirects. (When deciding on a URL for Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics, we “argued” about whether users would misread or misspell the one chosen: Two d’s or one?
  • Make sure it’s not ambiguous. (Gee, do I spell out department-of-french? Or was it dept-of-french? Or was it just French?)
  • Make sure there are no “words within words.” Beware of accidentally running together words that could be taken apart in different combinations—For instance, Peterson’s Experts would not want to use
  • Use keywords when possible. Would your users be looking for you under department or French?
  • If you must use hyphens or underscores, which some argue helps search engines find the keywords easier, use hyphens. Although underscores are gaining in acceptance, hyphens still rule. Better yet, though, would be to leave out the hyphens since users tend to forget them and thus make errors when trying to type in your URL.
  • Use lowercase. For most of us, the use of capital letters in URLs will not make much different; most servers these days use Microsoft operating systems that don’t care whether you use upper- or lower-case lettering. Also, search bots “learn” to tell the difference and route traffic to the site in spite of any capitalization issues. However, some experts feel that with the growth of open source software, the problems with different cases will increase. Thus, at Notre Dame, we avoid the case issues by defaulting (through Conductor) to all lower-cased urls, including subpage names.
  • Make sure it’s not spammy. If you think your URL might be considered spammy, check it out at before requesting it.

Consider the following URLs in use by Notre Dame. A lot of thought and discussion went into choosing these URLs, and the final choice was often a compromise. Choosing the correct URLS is not always as easy as one would think.

What would you have chosen as a URL, based solely on the criteria above?


Current URL
Alternative SEO-Friendly URL
(much longer)
Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics
Alliance for Catholic Education
Department of Applied and   Computational Mathematics and Statistics
Applied Investment Management
Notre Dame Magazine
Robinson Center
Strategic Research Investment

What’s your least favorite URL? Most memorable? Have you experienced choosing the wrong one? If so, how did you work around that? Let us know!

[1] 2008 MarketingSherpa eyetracking heatmaps show short URLs are clicked 2.5x more often than long URLS (

A Search Box by Any Other Name …

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Web Search Box ExamplesI recently studied a number of blogs and sites talking about placement and design of search boxes and buttons. While there is very little data on why decisions were good or bad, there are plenty of opinions as to what makes a good button/box and placement good or bad.

Search Box Location

The one point all the authors agreed on was that the search function should be at the top middle or right of the page and easily distinguished from other items on the page. (You will note that Harvard failed in this in that it includes search as part of a menu line. If you click on “search,” you are directed to another search page.)

Wikipedia moved its search box from the left sidebar to the top right corner based on common user expectations (most search boxes are in the top right corner), research about the search box size and how that would affect the Wikipedia layout, and actual Wikipedia research lab results.

Reasons cited for having the search box in the top-right corner include:

  • Expectations of users
  • Better use of site real estate
  • Immediate access to the browser scrollbar
  • Easier to maintain fixed standard width from page to page

Icon vs. Words in Search Boxes

While no one gave any reason why the magnifying glass icon should not be used, of the 11 major sites I checked, only four used it, and three used it in conjunction with the word “search.” Bing was the sole site that used only the input box and icon, with no accompanying text.

Only one site (NPR) used the word “go,” and again, that was in conjunction with the word “search.”

One site (AltaVista) used the word “find” instead of “search.”

Two sites (Boston Univ. and Wikipedia) used language within the input box, with Boston clarifying that the search included by the Web and directory.

Wikipedia’s technical blog still retains the “search” and “go” language; however, in the English version of Wikipedia, the search box contains the word “search” and the magnifying glass icon. For them, the “go” function was meant to find articles with the same title as entered in the search term. On my quick review of these sites, however, that wasn’t always the case;’s “go” function gave me the same results as the “search” function.

Search Box Width

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen recommends 27 characters as the ideal width. He indicated that his tests showed this width would accommodate 90 percent of queries. If the box is shorter, only part of the query would be visible, making editing and review difficult for the user.

Experian Hitwise published a breakdown by percentage of clicks in early September that shows that search queries are getting longer. What effect Google Instant will have on that is up in the air, but it would behoove us to watch for trends and, as a safety measure, make sure our search boxes are wide enough for those longer queries.

Experian Hitwise charge showing searches consisting of 5 to 8+ keywords have increased 10% year-over-year for the 4 weeks ending 9/5/2010.
Experian Hitwise charge showing searches consisting of 5 to 8+ keywords have increased 10% year-over-year for the 4 weeks ending 9/5/2010.

Based on this survey and your own experiences, what are your thoughts? Is there anything that says one way is right or wrong?

If anyone has tested theories on placement, size, and language/icons, let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

In the meantime, I’m charged with figuring out a way to test these for AgencyND.

Content, Context, and Beethoven

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I preach content made for the audience: context is vital. It bears repeating.

The Beloit College Mindset List came out this week. Typically, this just makes me feel old. But then, I felt old when I was 18 and mentioned Albert Schweitzer in a college speech class and was told that I should have explained who he was because not everyone knew had heard of him (and that was MANY years ago; I can’t imagine trying that today!).

With this year’s report, however, it’s different. Today, I feel a call to action. I need to use this mindset as a reminder to our Web clients (and me) that not everyone knows that Nirvana was a band; that Beethoven wasn’t always a dog; and that children used to never even consider divorcing their parents! Today, students (according to the poll) don’t even know how to write in cursive (it’s an optional subject in school these days).

In other words, it’s a different world out there. Messages and calls to action that might work for my generation probably won’t do a thing for the college crowd. To make a reference to Black Monday in a financial sense won’t bring our students’ minds to Wall Street (well, except for a few finance majors), but instead, to the punk rock band.

We speak in the same language in different tongues.

The lesson I need to drive home (in my own mind as well as those of our clients) is that we need to ALWAYS keep in mind the experiences and knowledge of our readers–in other words, the CONTEXT in which the CONTENT will be read.

Yahoo and the Ultimate Sourcebook

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Aha! Finally, the big guys agree with me. Yahoo! just published  The Yahoo! Style Guide, billed as the “ultimate sourcebook for writing, editing, and creating content.”

Cover, Yahoo! Style GuideA few posts back, I ranted about creating a style guide for your website to (among other things) help ensure consistency across the site. (See Website Style Guides.)

Even before writing this post, I purchased the Yahoo! Style Guide for my Kindle, knowing that it will make a great resource for explaining thorny issues to clients.

Just read the top-level items in the table of contents:

  • Write for an Online Audience
  • Speak to Your Entire Audience
  • Write UI (user-interface) Text, Email, and Mobile-Friendly Content
  • Manage the Mechanics
  • Clean Up Your Copy
  • Resources

As a former editor, I realize there’s no one right way to write content (punctuation, capitalization, etc.), but this guide provides lots of guidance and would be a great resource for someone wanting to have “one source” for content guidelines for their site. The writing is clear and simple; and there are exercises to help you learn how to use the knowledge you’ve gained from reading.

My favorite chapter of the Yahoo! Style Guide (so far) is “Chapter 19, Keep a Word List.” And yes, I admit it. It’s because I’m always preaching about keeping a written style guide that includes how you prefer to spell or capitalize certain words.

Style Guide Template

In fact, the authors have the same reasoning for their word list that I do for my “home-made” style guide (66 kb  pdf): It will “make your work easier, maintain editorial stands, and give your site a consistent voice.”

Who would have guessed a simple list or, plug, plug, a simple style guide (66 kb  pdf) would do so much for you?

Secret Formula to Capture About Page Readers

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How much thought do you give to your About page of your website? Until recently, I hadn’t thought much about them either. Yes, I know, we need to cover the basics—who, what, where, when, and how—on these pages, but really, can it be that hard?

According to John Hyde, who wrote “About Pages: Good, Bad, and Missing,” it can be. Hyde says that, although users seldom choose to form a relationship with businesses (or, in our case, a school) because of an About page, they often come to these pages to get a feeling of who we are, “who lives behind the websites” to find out whether the like what we are and what we value. According to Hyde, “About pages help users put our heretofore anonymous organization into perspective.”

In the competitive atmosphere of higher education, drawing students, staff, and faculty to our university can be a challenge. By providing good About pages, we are helping our various schools and departments fulfill their missions to bring the best to campus.

After reading Hyde’s article, I decided to quickly review some of Notre Dame’s sites to see how they measured up to Hyde’s  5 Ws of About pages (who, what, when, where, how) as well as an added one (call to action). (Hyde also has other good criteria, but I’ll touch on those later.) While the call to action might be an arguable requirement, I would argue that even having an added “Contact Us” button or link (even if in the header of every page of the site) would help make users feel more “at home” and comfortable, knowing we are inviting their contact.

Here’s how a few of our sites stacked up. (Note that the last site is not ours; it is Hyde’s. I wanted to make sure the doctor took his own prescription!)

Who What Where How When CTA (University of
Notre Dame)
x x x x The University of Notre Dame, founded in 1842 by Rev. Edward F. Sorin, C.S.C., of the Congregation of Holy Cross, is an independent, national Catholic university located in Notre Dame, Ind., adjacent to the city of South Bend and approximately 90 miles east of Chicago (College of Arts & Letters) x x x x x x Separate contact page within About
x x x Uh oh! We have work to do!
(Center for Social Concerns)
x x x x Separate history/staff/quick facts sections

(School of Architecture)
x x
(English Department)
No About page
(Notre Dame Security Police)
x x x x (Notre Dame Fire Department) x x x x x x Separate contact page within About (Provost’s Office) x x Separate biography, directory, and other pages (Registrar’s Office) No About page (University Health Services) x x x x x x/
Welcome letter rather than specific “About” section.
(John Hyde)
x x x x x x/
I’m John Hyde. I’ve been improving websites since 2006. I’m based in York, England.

With a new client I look for the easy wins. This makes everyone feel good.

Did you notice that the University home page covered who, what, where, and when all in one sentence?

Some of these were “stretching” to cover all five Ws. Some were better written than others. But just reading these, I’ve a new appreciation for a good About page.

What are your thoughts? Does it matter, for instance, that some sites don’t have an About page? Or that some don’t have a call to action?


Now that I’ve completed this little exercise in reviewing some of our sites and making notes for future edits, I think I should take some of that medicine Hyde offered and drank. I need to fix my About on this blog. And then offer some suggestions to those who maintain the AgencyND site. Thanks, Mr. Hyde!

Testing Your Site “On the Cheap”

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Every website should be tested for usability. Web visitors (users) will turn away from or devalue websites with errors such as:

  • Factual inaccuracies
  • Misspelled words
  • Broken links
  • Text that is too dense or too long to scan (Web users scan rather than read)
  • Information that is “hidden” from users by being too deep in the site or on a part of the page users tend to overlook
  • Navigation problems
  • Accessibility issues

Even though it’s known that testing will help solve usability issues, many people counter that website testing involves a usability lab, outside consultants, and/or expenditure of a great deal of money. Having to pay for design, hosting, and maintenance of the website already stretches departmental budgets.

The idea that usability testing is expensive may have been true in the past; but inexpensive tools and methods are now available that can provide valid feedback on a site’s usability and, therefore, its ability to help meet the goals of having the site in the first place.

Why Do Websites Need to be Tested?

One of the first questions to ask when planning a new site or rework of an existing site is “Why?” What is the goal of your site? If there is no stated goal, or if the site is not designed to meet the goal, then  the department is simply wasting time and money.

Stories about how simple changes to websites transformed the sites into moneymakers abound. One that stands out is the one usability expert Jared Spool, CEO and founder of User Interface Engineering, tells about a simple change that was made to a major e-commerce site’s checkout process:

By testing the form users had to fill out in order to make a purchase, they discovered that users resisted the process of having to register before making a purchase. The form, which had been designed to make it easier for repeat customers to make quick purchases, actually turned off new customers! Spool’s team removed the registration step and allowed purchasing without registration. As a result, new, purchasing customers rose by 45 percent, and those new purchases brought in an additional $15 million in the first month, a total of $300,000,000 over that first year.

But We Don’t Sell Anything . . .

While departmental sites typically don’t count success in monetary terms, it’s easy to see how simple changes, the result of testing for effectiveness, can bring about better success for departmental sites, as well. While your site may not be a retail site, users are often prospective students, faculty, or even donors. Making a good impression and providing users what they came for will go a long way in building relationships.

Testing Assumptions

For instance, AgencyND was asked to rework the home page for the Notre Dame Law School. Below is a screenshot of the current home page:

Current Law School home page with right-hand navigation items
The current site, with right-column buttons. Crazy Egg heat map tests were conducted to find out if users actually used this navigation.

The general consensus was that few people were clicking on the buttons on the right side of the page, and that this valuable piece of Web real estate could be put to better use. A simple heat map test quickly showed, however, that users did click on these buttons! As a result, the cost of reworking the home page was drastically reduced by making minor changes versus an entire redesign.

Heat map of home page showing right-hand navigation with heavy use
Heat map showing that the right-column navigation was heavily used!

Testing Prior to Launch

Now the question arises: When do we test our site?

The answer: Always!

If a Web agency is working with you to rework an existing site, they will suggest testing the site as it currently stands.

They will want to find out:

  • Where are users having difficulties?
  • What pages are doing well and should be left alone?
  • How does the site compare to other Notre Dame sites or the sites of other peer schools?
  • Does a rework need to be done? Or will minor, inexpensive changes be sufficient?

They will be setting a baseline for your site for comparison with any rework. (In other words, there’s no sense in throwing out the baby with the bath water.)

Testing After Launch

If you are reworking your current site, your agency will also suggest testing after any rework. This post-rework test will be designed to find out:

  • Are old problems solved?
  • Were new ones introduced?
  • Is there improvement?
  • What can make it better?

If the site is new, they will most likely suggest testing a few months after launch to find out:

  • Is the structure sound and logical?
  • Do users have difficulty navigating the site?
  • Is the nomenclature working?

What does Website Testing Involve?

Website testing can involve any number of things, but some of the more common tests are as follows:

  • Heuristics evaluation. The most popular form of testing for usability, heuristics evaluation is simply learning by discovering. By using a website, you will find areas that need improvement. Jakob Nielsen provides a list of usability heuristics at
  • Time to accomplish goal. This will measure how long it takes users to accomplish certain tasks relevant to the goal of the site. In other words, if a user wants to sign up for a newsletter, does it take so long that he loses interest or gives up in frustration?
  • Success rate. Each portion of your site should have some sort of call to action—a place for users to sign up for newsletters, provide their email address, or download documents. Without a call to action, users have no reason to engage with your site, which is what the Web is really all about. The success rate will measure how many users tried to accomplish a task and actually finished it.
  • Satisfaction with site. This is a measure of the feelings users have about your site. Although your agency and you may feel the site is the most beautiful website ever, if users don’t find it inviting, factual, and worth returning to, the site will have failed in its mission and you will need to review it to find out where to make changes to satisfy user needs and make them wish to return.

The saying goes, “If a user can’t make it work, it’s broken; and if a user can’t find something, it’s not there.”

How Can We Test Our Site Without Breaking the Bank?

There are a number of ways to test your site without paying a vendor. Although you probably won’t get the depth of results you would if you hired professionals to test your site, you can, by self-testing, find a good number of areas that need improvement. You will also find that the more you are familiar with how users interact with your site, the more knowledgeable you’ll become about what you want your site to do and how to accomplish that in the future.

  • Walkthrough. This simple test is done before launch; however, it would be advisable to return and repeat this test every quarter or so after launch. It involves going through each page of your site “in the shoes of the user” in order to find usability problems.
  • Survey. You can provide a quick, four-question survey for your users to find out directly from your users whether they are satisfied with your site.
  • Heat Mapping. For little or no money, you can have heat mapping software added to your site to show where users click in order to find out whether your navigation is easy to follow.
  • Analytics. Install Google Analytics or some other form of analytics on your site and learn how to “read” it.
  • In-Person Testing. You can conduct in-person tests asking users to complete certain tasks. While this is a good way to get information, there are some nuances to consider in moderating and setting up such tasks. It would be wise to do some research on conducting these tests before attempting to do so.

So, in Conclusion . . .

As you can see from the examples given, usability testing can be done quite inexpensively, often without the need for paying for help for the simple, quick-and-dirty tests. You can follow this process to gain much insight, and then contact your agency when you want more information or want to discuss ways to improve your site.

You can test in any of these ways:

Walkthrough—no cost except time—Open your website and make note of problems you encounter as you:

  1. Click on any links to verify they are accurate and working
  2. Review for errors (faculty no longer here, misspellings, factual errors)
  3. Review for consistency in style and formatting
  4. Repeat the above for each page of your site, including those not included in the navigation

A handy “25-Point Website Usability Checklist” can be found at

Exit Survey—4Q Exit Survey—no cost except time

The test is free, from iPerception. There are no strings attached; you can turn it on and off at will. To perform this test,

  1. Sign up at
  2. Follow their simple instructions to modify the survey to fit your situation
  3. Activate the survey
  4. Compile the results and choose modifications to your site as needed

Analytics—Install (or get your vendor to install for you) an analytics tool such as Google Analytics and spend some time learning how to read the results and interpret what they mean. You’ll be surprised at some of your findings!

Heat Mapping—cost of Crazy Egg or similar vendor product and installation (typically $100 or less for one month of testing)

  1. If an agency hosts your site, notify your account representative that you want to use Crazy Egg or another heat mapping tool
  2. Have your agency developers will add the code to your site
  3. Decide how long you will have the test active
  4. Activate the heat mapping and compile the results for future modifications as needed

In-Person Testing—You can, of course, also conduct your own in-person testing with think-aloud protocol. However, you may find that you get better results at a lower cost if you use an outside vendor or your agency to develop and moderate the tests and then provide an analysis of the results.

If you decide to conduct in-person testing yourself, you will want to:

  1. Determine exactly what you are testing for
  2. Prepare a list of questions you want to ask (scenarios describing the task you want the testers to accomplish)
  3. Find five users who fit the model of your “typical” user, if possible
  4. Set up a computer with some sort of monitoring device (Silverback is a good recording software for tracking user movements)
  5. Prepare a moderator’s script for use in testing
  6. Conduct the tests
  7. Compile the results for future modifications as needed

Can We Do This?


And No.

You can get a very good idea of major areas of your site that should be reviewed and/or reworked.

Self-testing of your site is far better than no testing at all. However, there will always be aspects of your site that you might overlook because of lack of experience or exposure to the “hazards” and implications of testing. Hiring professionals can help make a difference if your budget allows, simply because they already have trained personnel, testing protocol, and additional tools in place.

More information:

“25-point Website Usability Checklist” online at

Kaushik, Avanish. “Occam’s Razor” online at

Krug, Steve Don’t Make Me Think! Que 2000 195 pp.

Nielsen, Jakob Designing Web Usability New Riders Publishing 418 pp.

Nielsen, Jakob. “TenUsability Heuristics” online at, 2000.

Pearrow, Mark Web Site Usability Rockland, Mass. Charles River Media, Inc. 2000 350pp.

Peterson, Eric T. Successful Web Site Testing Practices 2010 32 pp.

“Plan a User Test in just Six Steps” online at

Spool, Jared M. “The $300 Million Button” online at

Evernote as Interviewing Tool

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I’m always in the market for free tools to help me in my work, and I’ve fallen in love with Evernote (software for taking notes) for several reasons:

  • I can take notes in a meeting and actually read most of them later on (I have horrible handwriting)
  • I can immediately sync my notes between my PC netbook, my office Mac, and my iPhone
  • I can send my notes to team members
  • I can print my notes

And now I have yet another reason to love Evernote:


You see, I’ve set up my notes in folders (clients, Web group meetings, 1:1 with boss, etc.), and now I’ve started a new one just for templates. I’m one of those people who loves to have an idea of what I’m going to be asking during client intake meetings, but I hate hauling around papers that look like scripts. Now, I have my handy-dandy little form right in Evernote.

When it comes time to meet with the client, I follow these simple steps to have a form for taking notes:*

  1. Open Evernote
  2. Open the Template folder and note (Kickoff Meeting Questions, in this case)
  3. Highlight the text in the note and copy
  4. Open a New Note
  5. Paste the text into the new note

Voila! I now have a screen with blanks for all the questions I want to ask and get answered and no one’s the wiser for it!

Kickoff Meeting Template

Kickoff Meeting Questions Template
Kickoff Meeting Template for Questions and Site Plan

The template I’ve attached is basically a set of tables; one for the intake questions, and one for the draft of a site plan. If I think of other questions to ask or want more lines in the table for the site plan, then I simply add more rows to the tables just as you would in Word or Excel. And, of course, I can simply type below or above any of the text already on the screen, so there’s no limitation such as having a printed paper.

New and Improved!

With much gratitude to Evernote, I am entering a new phase of efficiency in interviewing.

Not to sound like an Evernote salesman (I have no connection with the software maker other than using their free version, so this is honest praise), but I also find it useful to take notes on conference calls for my online class or in other general meetings, make lists of things I just “gotta” do, and generally keep track of things I used to jot on paper and then lose or misfile.

Now to just figure out what else I can use it for . . .

*Note: If anyone knows of a template function, let me know! In the meantime, this works really well.

Website Mistakes Mean You’re Not Worth My Time

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I found a site today that had this statement across the page:

I’m glad your website has spelling mistakes.
It confirms my initial thoughts that you are an idiot.

Now, while I can’t say I approve of the language used throughout the other pages of his site, the author has a valid point. Why shouldn’t visitors to our sites assume the worst of us if we don’t even take the time to proofread our own work?


I heard a story recently about a family whose oldest child developed an interest in baseball. He loved to play the sport, and with his natural curiosity and intelligence, soon developed into an all-star player. Mom and Dad went dutifully to all the games; Dad coached Little League in order to be a good influence on the boy; both parents spent money and time to support the boy in his chosen path through adolescence.

But, as often happens, the boy soon learned the he would never be “top dog” or even make it to the major leagues without a great deal of work and even more luck. He gradually dropped his interest in baseball. He quit working with the pitching machine and batting cage Dad had bought. He skipped practice (and even school). He would deliberately sabotage his own game by showing up with a bad attitude. He eventually showed up in body only, leaving his spirit behind, and finally quit playing ball at all.

Dad, of course, was devastated. But he realized that there had come a time when he cared more about his son’s baseball career than his son did. And that’s when he stopped caring about the prospective career.


Smart dad. He knew he couldn’t continue that strategy.

Likewise, visitors to your website cannot care more about your information than you do.

If they do, they’ll soon realize it and discount your site as inferior and not worth their time.

The information might be perfect for them—the graphics incredible. But if they spot a spelling error, that’s a strike. A grammatical miscue could be another strike. And a broken link? Well, that’s definitely the third strike. And many visitors will leave after the third strike, if not before.

Stanford University conducted a study on why people believe (or disbelieve) what they read on the Web. Three years of research including 4,500 people, resulted in a number of findings and reports, including “Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility.” The final guideline they suggested was “Avoid errors of all types, no matter how small they seem.”

In the researchers’ words, “[t]ypographical errors and broken links hurt a site’s credibility more than most people imagine.”

So, when you’re tempted to just “slap up anything so there’s a site for people to visit,” think again. Think how you could be striking out with your visitors, not just with the site, but also with their opinion of your organization/department/program. And then think how quickly bad news spreads on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Is that the reputation you want? If not, check your site again. And have someone else check it.

You can never be too careful. It’s your reputation at stake in this ballgame.

Building a new website is a lot like falling in love.

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When you find someone who interests you more than usual, you will often go out of your way to try to impress that person: dress up a bit; maybe get a haircut; shower regularly (thank you!); and work really, really hard at being polite, sensitive, and interesting. You may even pretend you’re someone you’re not in order to attract that person; perhaps hide a part of your personality your ex said was annoying. And you might even feign interest in or show off your expertise in something that interests your love interest.

Believe it or not, we do the same when building a website.

Setting our goals.When we start looking for a spouse, special friend, or lover, we already have a goal, whether or not we realize it. We are looking for someone special.

Likewise, when we build a website, we should also have goals. What do we want to accomplish? Are we selling a specific program? Are we trying to encourage donations to the University? Are we trying to impress our peers or a funding agency? Or are we simply sharing knowledge? Not knowing what we want to do with our site is a little like going to a singles bar or a matchmaking club before we decide that we really want to share our life with someone else. If we do attract someone special, then what?

Finding our new love. We’ve decided something is missing in our lives. We want someone special. So we clean up our act a bit and head out to where our best pals met their true loves; or we get involved in the community; or we join a dating club. Anything, just so long as we’re meeting people. And we begin the sorting out process. No, that’s not the one–too self-centered. Nope–no attraction. We soon discover we know what we want in a mate, and we start looking for that specific type. And we narrow down our search.

Just as when we’re searching for that one-in-a-million person, we will want to narrow our Web audience to those who really have an interest in what we have to offer and determine what it is that would attract them.

Although clients often tell us their audience is “everyone,” by asking lots of questions, we can often determine that yes, Mom and Dad might check out the site to find out what kinds of classes Junior will take, and the Trustees might come here to find out what kind of professors the University has hired; but the main focus might turn out to be incoming first year students looking for an interesting major and sophomores trying to decide if they want to take three more years of Norwegian literature.

What is interesting to Mom and Dad or Ms. Trustee would, of course, need to be represented, but the major focus should be on the audience that will help us fulfill the goals of our site. To quote the inimitable comedian Bill Cosby, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Making an impression. Wow! That’s the one! We’re in love! From across the room, we can tell this someone is THE someone, and we want to make the best possible impression as we introduce ourselves. We scramble to come up with the best lines, the most sophisticated “look,” and the right way of saying things as we move in to make that first big impression.

Likewise, in the Web world, we want to present the best possible side of ourselves. We hire the best designers and developers to create an experience that our audience will not likely soon forget. But we need to be careful to not overdo it. Just like the guy who shows up with a dozen roses, perfume, and candy for a first date, we don’t want to scare off our audience (or overwhelm them) by trying too hard.

Knowing what they want. When we begin dating that special someone, we soon find out everything we can about this person so that we can do everything we can to create a harmonious relationship and find common interests. We try nearly anything to make this person happy.

It’s the same with the Web. We study our audience so we know exactly what they want, need, and expect from our site. We work within the goals we’ve set forth for the site to make sure our audience gets what it wants and in the most pleasant manner possible.

Keeping the love alive. We’re madly in love. We plan to spend the rest of our lives together. But how do we sustain the love and commitment through the bad times? It’s a commitment we make to work diligently, always trying new things to keep the spark alive and to keep our mate’s interest. Is it easy? No way! But it’s something we do because we are partners now. And it means we both win in this relationship.

Keeping the love alive in a website is much the same. We must always test our Web presence to make sure both the audience and we are getting something from the relationship. And if the audience changes or the needs of our audience change, we must always be ready to change our website to reflect what our mate, er, audience wants.

By frequently testing the site, refreshing the material, and listening to our audience, we can keep this relationship going for a long, long time. As in a strong marriage, both parties will flourish and have their needs met. And what more can we ask from a relationship?

Elevator Pitches for your Website

Listen with webreader

We tell clients they need an elevator pitch for their home page, and often they look at us like we’re from another world. Why an elevator pitch? We’re an academic institution; we’re not selling anything!

Ah, but I disagree.

We are selling our university, our department, our program. Whether we realize it or not, we are selling something just by offering our thoughts, publications, or insight into our organization. We may be selling our school to potential students (and their parents), our expertise in a research field, the world-class stature of our faculty, or something else, but by our presence on the Web, we are, nonetheless, selling something.

And unlike in a face-to-face meeting, we cannot immediately adjust our pitch to fit the circumstances. Or hand out a different brochure to difference audiences.

Our Web elevator pitch needs to be a brief, compelling, and visual way to entice visitors into our site. It’s a way to tell others in one or two sentences

  • Who we are
  • What we do
  • Why they should care
  • What we can do to benefit them

An elevator pitch is what we want others to remember about us or what we want a journalist to quote when describing us.

In order to create a good elevator pitch, we must, of necessity

  • Know our audience (how do they speak? what are they looking for?)
  • Know ourselves (what are our strong points? what do we want our visitors to do?)
  • Know our competitors (saying the same thing about ourselves as our peers say about themselves will only bore our visitors; we must separate ourselves from the crowd)
  • Know our advantage (what makes us different and better?)

We can then set these down in a short paragraph and then look at that draft from the harsh viewpoint of a disinterested visitor to our site.

  • Does it ring true?
  • Does it make me want to learn more?
  • Does it bore me?
  • Is it memorable?
  • Does it clearly state who, what, and how?

Then we cut mercilessly. We whittle our pitch down to one or two sentences.

But we’re not finished yet!

What about all the other pages? Do they have an introductory statement like this? Since most of our visitors will make their return visits beginning at something other than our home page, we want to be sure to capture their interest on each page.

Oh. And then, we will need to make sure each of these pitches is relevant today. And next month. And next year. Like anything on the Web, we must keep our elevator pitches fresh and relevant.  When our department/school/program changes, we need to review our pitches to make sure we’re still being truthful and informative.

And you thought the Web was just moving text from print pieces . . .