Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Shine it May, Work it Must: Writers and Websites

Recently, I've been thinking about this. I'm setting up a website for my upcoming novel Dark Side of the Moon .   And a number of other authors I know are either updating or creating websites for their projects. The problem, though, is that many writers confuse "pretty" or "dramatic" or "cool" with effective.

Unfortunately, the same is also true of many "professional" web designers. They often come from graphic arts or IT backgrounds. They want all the bells and whistles and think about the web site as an art project rather than what it is: A Sales and Communication Tool for you and your Products.

I had an electronics teacher in high school who had a saying when he saw students shining up the outside of a project before testing the circuits. He would say "Shine it may, work it must." What he meant was that the important thing the project needed to do was work.

I've been designing web sites for about 15 years now. I've made all the mistakes, trust me. However, one of the things I did was listen to the experts and read the studies and learn from those mistakes. Here are a few tips I've learned:

K-I-S-S. A pastor's wife handed the pastor a note before he went up to give his sermon. It said on it KISS. A woman sitting next to the pastor's wife said, "Ah, that's sweet. You give your husband a kiss before he preaches."

The pastor's wife replied. "That's not what it means. It means: Keep It Simple, Stupid!"

People in general come to web sites to get some sort of information or entertainment. They need something simple to use. Too many bells and whistles can actually get in the way of a person's ability to use a web site.

Ask yourself some questions

Is the website easy to navigate?
Is everything on the site no more than two clicks away from the home page?
Is the design simple and not too "busy"?
Can the visitor see quickly how to get to the information s/he needs?

Of even more importance than any of those is one question: "Is it easy for your visitor to buy your product or service?" I'm amazed at how many writer's websites have no "buy" link visible for their books. Make it easy for them to make a purchase. In fact, it would not hurt to have a buy link somewhere on each page or at least a link to a buy page in the navigation bar.

Content, Content, Content. Ask yourself how someone will benefit from visiting your site. What are they going to get. Put another way, why would they be looking for a site like yours in the first place? Odds are that they are not looking just to find your book and buy it. They might be looking for writing services if you provide them. They might be looking for books of a certain genre. They might be looking for games, puzzles, free reads, etc.

Give your visitor something of added value when s/he arrives. This can be a variety of things. Here are a few examples:
  • Links to locations with information relevant to the genre or subject matter of the book
  • Information related to the subject matter of the book. For instance, I'm working on a page on my site with information about the Moon since that is the setting in the story. I'll have NASA photos, information about the size, mass, geology and history of manned exploration of the moon. 
  • Free reads. Unless people already know your writing, they are going to be leery of spending money on an unknown quantity. However, if you can give them some short stories, articles, helpful hints or an excerpt from your novel, then they can reduce their uncertainty. 
  • Resume and samples of "for hire" work. This is especially important if you are selling your writing services. 
  • Games, contests and puzzles. There are a number of crossword puzzle generating programs. If you could put up a puzzle a month related to your topic, that can keep crossword fans coming back. Contests in which you hold a drawing for free books or other prizes are also good traffic builders. 
Cool is rarely Hot.  Whenever I hear a web designer wax poetic about a "cool" feature, I get worried. I get more worried for every "o" in "cool."  If someone says "I found this template and it is realllllly coooooooooollll," I am almost afraid to look. Most "cool" features get old real fast. One of the top ten website annoyances is auto-start music on websites not related to music. Just about every survey lists this as something that turns off a visitor. Yet, so many website designers add some sort of cheesy midi file that keeps looping. It's cool until the third or fourth or fiftieth loop. Remember, you are hoping your visitor will remain on your site for some time. Looping the same 30-60 seconds of music over and over is not conducive to keeping them on site.

Other "Cool" annoyances include words following your cursor, pop up boxes, extremely high definition graphics which take a long time to load, and flash applications which have to load completely before the visitor can enter the site.

Don't Make a "Splash." I alluded to this in the previous point, but "splash" pages, usually with some music, animation, flash video or navigation are problematic for so many reasons. First, they take forever to load if you have anything other than a cable broadband connection. Secondly, they are not always smartphone friendly. Third, not everyone has flash installed on their computer or smartphone. Fourth, they are not search engine friendly. When the search engine comes to a site to index it, the "spider" or "robot" is looking for text that tells it what the site is about. Flash only splash pages are invisible to the robot. It's like your site doesn't exist for the search engines. Always have some basic HTML on your page with text that includes key words.

Cross Browser Compatibility. Always test your web page in a variety of browsers. At the very least test them in Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Chrome. These four account for the majority of web traffic. Your page will look slightly different in each, but it should still be readable and everything should be in their "containers" meaning boxes, white spaces, etc.

Accessibility. I am the daughter of a woman who was visually impaired. While she never learned to use a computer, many visually impaired individuals surf the web using screenreaders and text-based browsers. You can download a free screen reader called Thunder and a text-based browser like WebbIE  to use with it. One of the wonderful things about the web,  and those of us producing ebooks is that visually impaired individuals can have things read to them online using these utilities. However, designing a website with the visually impaired in mind takes a bit of thinking. Here's a link to an article about testing for accessibility using text-based browsers.

Well, there are, of course, many more things to consider including optimizing for search engines, crafting a marketing message and making your web presence more interactive, but this should give you something to get started with in evaluating your web presence.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

well said. The young man who designed my website was most careful to explain all the reasons why I needed to avoid the 'bells and whistles', which colors work and why, why certain features were in specific places. And yet he also made it clear a site must reflect the person (and product) it represents. Very educational. And very much worthwhile for every writer to understand.