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  Practice good web design


'It is common sense that if you practice good web design, your visitors will want to stay for longer and come back on a more frequent basis'. Jim 27/2

INTRO

Firstly, let me say this; there is no right or wrong answer to web design. During this report I am not going to lecture you on what may or may not work. As a Webmaster you have to realise that everyone is an individual; what will please some, might make others cringe. Let me use an example; lets say you walk into a pub, the air is heavy from cigarette smoke and all sorts of stains mark the sickly yellow carpet. What do you think? Yes, I want to stay in here and have a pint or, quick lets go next door to the well-ventilated, modern looking bar? A select few will go for the first option and a certain percentage will go for the second option and I am sure that a few would not choose either option. What is my point I hear you say, well, it is simple 'You cannot please everybody'!
Nevertheless, the amount of research that has been done on good web design and user etiquette is outstanding, and the statistics speak for themselves, for example, it is an established marketing fact that visitors only buy your product after being exposed to your message, on average, seven times! This report will look at well-known methods on how, as an affiliate, you can design your site so that visitors will stay longer. I shall also teach you certain tricks of the trade to keep your visitors coming back on a more regular basis, thus acquiring customer loyalty and hopefully clicking on those banners. 

Download time

Unfortunately impatience is a common feature in the sphere of the world-wide-web; your visitors really do not want to hang around waiting for a slow loading page. They would rather close the page and try another site. This is fair enough as you have to remember that they are not all on Free 40 hour internet trials. There are a number of guidelines you should follow on the download time of a web page. The first important one should be that your web page (including HTML, graphics etc) should be no more than 80kb and in general a page should not take longer than 40 seconds to download. It is important to note that some of the page should be visible within the first few moments of a visitor clicking through. 
Don't get too worried about the speed of the page; Robert Brady recently told me that the heaviest pages at http:///www.highstreetcentral.com suffer no traffic penalty from slow loading pages. The extra traffic attracted by the keywords used, outweighs the number of visitors who press the 'stop' or 'back' button. In a perfect world all pages would load immediately. This may be the case in the future, but for now though, make sure they don't exceed the 40-second mark. The only real exceptions to this rule are pages that deal with customer transactions (it has been reported that visitors will abandon a purchase if it takes too long) and pages that are reviewed by directories (these web pages should load quickly for obvious reasons).

Content

What subject matter you include in your site is not, necessarily, a factor for web design. The fact is though, even if your site is visually stunning, you need to think carefully about its content. Would you buy a Ferrari that had no seats, stereo or engine? The answer is NO (well some of you might); your outward appearance may look flash but there has to be something inside to keep your visitor craving for more.
Firstly, the content of your site should be as relevant and concise as possible, for the quicker your visitors are brought to an understanding of what your site is about, the better for business. As soon as a visitor clicks through to your site, there should be no doubt as to what you are trying to convey/sell/promote.
You should also consider giving away as much free information as possible. This will give your visitors a reason to bookmark your site and return to it at a later date (remember, it takes a number of visits before a visitor performs a transaction). Another advantage to free information is that, if it should contain your keywords and phrases, it will then be indexed by the search engines and found by your visitors that are specifically interested in your end product (thus you are more guaranteed of a sale).
An 'About Us' link is an extremely important addition to your sites content. In the 'About Us' section, you should include contact details, so that visitors can e-mail you with suggestions, complaints and compliments (good practice is to reply to e-mails within 48 hours). You should also add a basic summary of what your site is about and perhaps include the date when your site was created (all this is extremely important for those who take customer transactions online, for you need to create an element of trust). 
It is advisable to try to refresh your content on a regular basis. I sympathise fully when you say that it is a lot of work, but think about it this way - would your visitors buy a newspaper that had yesterday's news in it? You don't have to spend hours modifying the content - refreshing the material around once a week would still have the same effect.
Some other important pointers for your content include using an easy to read font (there is nothing more annoying than straining to read the text). You should also try to avoid having great 'lumps' of text splashed haphazardly across your web page; the only thing this accomplishes is for your visitor to click on the 'Back' button. Instead of great blocks of content, you should separate them with numerous paragraph spaces (it shouldn't require more than four clicks on the scrollbar to get to the bottom of the page).
When it comes to the actual text of the web page, make sure you have proof read it all. I am a very fussy fellow and cannot stand to see simple grammatical errors, typos and spelling mistakes. All it achieves is to make your site look amateurish.

Graphics, Layout + Thought = Quality Design

What your site looks like is an enormous factor when it comes to your visitors wanting to either 'stay, shop and come back' or just 'window browse'. I have split this subject into a number of important sub-categories, ranging from the use of frames to choosing the background colour, all of which are essential in making your site a professional looking, visually stunning website. 

LINKS

I recently wrote an extensive article on how to increase the effectiveness of your links. In the report I concentrated on banner links because they, above other forms of advertising, bring in revenue and can also dramatically change the way your site looks. For the present moment, I am going to run over a few guidelines, (please read the report for a more in-depth view). 
First thing's first, don't make your site look like a banner farm. Pasting your site with numerous adverts ruins the professionalism of your site and inevitably makes your visitor hit the 'x' button. There really is no point in using all the space available on your web page for banners, your visitors know that you are trying to make money out of them, so be more subtle (in general, targeted traffic results in a higher click-to-sales ratio). 
Try to keep the number of 468 x 60 banners on each page to a maximum of 2. If you really want to show a large amount of banners, why not use rotating banners. By doing this, the page the banners are displayed on looks different every time it is refreshed and you are able to display a variety of banners without adding more bandwidth to your pages. It is also a known fact that after someone views the same banner over and over again, they'll become immune to it, thereby reducing click-through rates. 
If you are using text-based links try to place them on relevant web pages for targeted traffic. The majority of http://www.ukaffiliates.com's members use their text links in online directories. If someone were after a stereo system, they would go to the HIFI/electronic section, not the fly-fishing section. Relevancy is the key. 

GRAPHICS (+ software)

Graphics can give a helpful edge to your website but if used foolishly, can serve to undermine your site. Remember the original Ford advert? - You can have the car in any colour, as long as its black - well, life is not that simple anymore. Surfers want ultra cool sites, with eye-catching graphics and 'flash' based movies; unfortunately all these options slow the downloading time (see the 'download section'). It is a good idea to use a certain amount of graphics on your web page to gain attention, just don't overload any one page (this is especially important of your index page).
There are a certain number of graphic packages that can help you in the design of your site. To make your site vivid and interesting, why not try Macromedia Fireworks (which works with Dreamweaver). It allows you to create buttons and animations without any fuss or fret. Adobe Illustrator expands your creative freedom and enhances your productivity with its web graphic tools. If you are into photographic images, why not take a look at Adobe Photoshop; with some of the best interface's available and one of the broadest toolsets, you can explore your creativity and achieve great results across all media.
There are also plenty of readymade freebies that can be found on the web if you do not wish to pay for any software. http://www.freegraphics.com/ has a large searchable database of graphic sites and http://www.animationstation.com/ has hundreds of free backgrounds and templates to choose from.

COLOUR

The use of colour, be it the background colour or the colour of your font / links, should be thought about with care before you paste it onto your site. In general, anything outside of a white or black background should be approached with caution. In broad speaking terms, white backgrounds are used for sites that have a lot of text, whereas black backgrounds are used to 'achieve a cool look'. 
Remember that different colours show different moods. Black creates a dark and enclosed mood, whereas white gives a crisp, clean, open mood.
Your links should also be a different colour to the body text (blue being the obvious choice, as it is the default for most browsers); if the links are the same colour, things can start to get confusing.
I also feel that a busy background (i.e. flashing banners, pop up gifs etc.) can undermine what you are trying to achieve; try to keep the colours consistent. If you have text that needs to be concentrated on, do you want your readers attention drawn away because of the distracting background?

FRAMES

There are both positive and negative aspects to using frames on your site. You should only really use frames if you honestly feel they will improve your site. If, for example, you intend to use frames for navigation, then why not think about using a navigation bar instead. If you are going to use them, there are a number of pointers you should watch out for. Firstly, under no circumstances should you trap external links within your web site's frames; yes, you may keep your visitor for an extra few minutes but believe me, the visitor will NOT come back! You should also try to provide a non-frames version as not everyone want to experiences frames. Another thing to remember is that frames can sometimes present problems to your visitors when they try to bookmark or print the page; which again would affect the number of return visits. One last thing, make sure the frames can be scrolled, if necessary; your links might fit into the frame perfectly on your 19" monitor, but a visitor has no chance of squeezing everything in on their 14" monitor.

NAVIGATION

Easy to use navigation is fundamental to the design of your web site. Think of your website as a futuristic DisneyLand, the old-fashioned 'YOU ARE HERE' signs can now provide instant teleportation to the ride you choose - thus making it hundreds of times more efficient.
You should aim to have navigation links at the top, bottom, left and right side of the web page. I myself cannot stand to go into a site on my lunch break, only to find that it takes 15 minutes to try and find the DVD section. Providing navigation links may be time consuming, but in the end they will keep your visitors happy.
Another golden rule is that you should try to keep the number of clicks required to get from your main page to any other page down to four. If it is a lot more than that, you should really consider your navigation design.

Name that tune

Da, Daaa Da, Daaa, Da Da, Daaa Da, Da, Da Da, Daaa, Da. Da etc. - this is my rather poor rendition of Greensleeves; unfortunately (like the mobile phone ring tone), it is an all to common feature that is being used by webmasters worldwide. Being an affiliate coordinator at http://www.ukaffiliates.com/ I have to source new signups for unsuitable content and one thing I regularly come across is a blast in the face by a midi version of Whitney Houston's 'I will always love you'. Do me a favour guys, if I want to listen to this 'music' I'll go to Switzerland where I can buy some real cheese.

I am not saying that a web site shouldn't feature any music; I have in fact been to a few that pulled me deeper into the site by the magnetism of the sounds being played. What I am saying is that it shouldn't 'auto play' whenever you click onto the homepage. None of the top 100 websites use 'auto play' and I know it's good to be original but really, neither should you. Having an 'auto play' feature can even crash your browser - so Greensleeves could be your downfall. Obviously, if your site were relevant to the music business (for example you have an MP3 site) then music would be advantageous. Otherwise, if you want your visitors to come back again and again, turn off the music feature before they turn off their speakers.

'Sticky'

In this section I shall go over a few useful guidelines, which will hopefully make your visitors stay for a longer duration whilst encouraging their return. Firstly, as I have already said, you should strive to add new content on a regular basis. New material stimulates re-visits. Your visitors do not want to miss out on any goodies - and they won't if they bookmark your site. Remember, you can attract visitors with keywords and key phrases (see the 'search engine report'), but you will only get them back if you give them exactly what they want.
Book marking is an extremely important method for getting repeat business on the web. On your front page you should encourage, without looking garish, your visitors to add your web address to their favourites.
Newsletter subscriptions are another method of getting your visitors to come back to the site. On the subscription form, keep the amount of information you ask for to the bare minimum - long admin forms can scare off potential subscribers. The best thing about newsletters though is that they not only encourage subscribers to re-visit but they also build brand loyalty through familiarity (thus helping to convert subscribers into customers, an all important factor when it comes to pay per sale banners).
Competitions are another way to encourage your visitors to return to your site. How are they going to know if they have won the BMW if they do not check the winner notification forum?
Remember that honesty is the best policy when it comes to web design. If you trick your visitors and lie to them, not only will your site's reputation go downhill, but also your visitor numbers will slowly diminish. If you are currently under construction, then you should post the message and give them a correct timescale for when your site will be re-launched. You should also make efforts to apologise for any broken links or Error 404 pages. If your visitors are presented with an apology, and information that gets them back on track, then the best is made from a bad situation.

Conclusion

Don't get too discouraged early on. Everyone has to start somewhere. If you keep working at it, using the resources available, then your site will soon attract larger numbers of traffic and hopefully earn you more revenue. Bear in mind that there is a huge number of sites out there; so next time you are surfing and you come across a well-designed site, why don't you stop and think what has made this site stand out. Remember, it is good to be original but you can learn from other peoples success and add your own material to it never be afraid to challenge the existing ways of web life.
Keep it simple, keep it relevant and enjoy what you are doing. Anyone can create a website, but not everyone can design it so that they have their visitor's interests in mind. Even if you put into practice a third of what I have said, you will still see an increase in the number of visitors and hopefully an increase in the number of click-throughs.

James Cooper

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