10 ways to improve the design of your commercial Web site

Avoid 10 common Web design mistakes that can cause the public face of your commercial enterprise to fall flat. Applying the experiences and the lessons learned from previous designs can make your own Web site design a productive and valuable addition to your enterprise.

When you first start designing a Web site, your options are wide open. The opportunity seems limitless. There is just so much you can do that it beggars the imagination. With all this potential ahead of you, it is ironic that the mistakes that cause a Web site to fall short of your goals for a valuable addition to your business endeavor are all too common.

The following list of ten common Web design mistakes addresses the needs of commercial Web sites, but it can easily be applied to personal and hobby Web sites, and to professional nonprofit Web sites as well. Avoid these common, and uncommonly bad, mistakes at all costs.

  1. About Us: Every Web site should be very clear and forthcoming about its purpose. Either include a brief descriptive blurb on the home page of your Web site, or provide an About Us (or equivalent) page with a prominent and obvious link from the home page, that describes your Web site and its value to the people visiting it.

    It is even important to explain why some people may not find it useful, providing enough information so that they will not be confused about the Web site's purpose. It is better to send away someone uninterested in what you have to offer with a clear idea of why he or she isn't interested than to attempt to trick such a person into wasting an inordinately long time finding this out without your help. After all, a good experience with a Web site that is not useful is more likely to get you customers by word of mouth than a Web site that is intentionally obscure and difficult to understand.

  2. Alt and Title Text: Ensure you make use of the alt and title attributes for every XHTML tag on your Web site that supports them. This information is of critical importance for accessibility when the Web site is visited using browsers that do not support images, and when more information than the main content might otherwise be needed. The most commonly important reason for this is accessibility for the disabled, such as blind visitors who use screen readers to surf the Web. Never include too much text in the alt or title attribute, however — the text included thusly should be short, clear, and to the point. Do not inundate your visitors with paragraph after paragraph of useless, vague information in numerous pop-up messages; just make it as accessible as possible. The purpose of alt and title tags is, in general, to enhance accessibility.

  3. Archive URLs: All too often, Web sites change URLs (Web addresses) of pages when they are outdated and move off the main page, into archives. This can make it extremely difficult to build up significantly good search engine placement, as links to pages of your Web site become broken. When you first create your Web site, ensure you do so in a manner that allows you to move content into archives without having to change the URL. Popularity on the World Wide Web is built on word of mouth, and you will not be getting any of that publicity if your page URLs change every few days.

  4. Content Dates: In general, you must update content if you want return visitors. People only come back if there's something new to see. This content needs to be dated, so that your Web site's visitors know what is new and in what order it appeared. Even in the rare case that Web site content does not change regularly, it will almost certainly change from time to time — if only because a page needs to be edited now and then to reflect changing information.

    Help your readers determine what information might be out of date by date stamping all the content on your Web site somehow, even if you do so only by adding "last modified on" fine print at the bottom of every page of content. This not only helps your Web site's visitors, but also helps you: the more readers understand that any inconsistencies between what you've said and what they read elsewhere is a result of changing information, the more likely they are to grant your words value and come back to read more.

  5. Content Density: Including too much information in one location can drive visitors away. The common-sense tendency is to be as informative as possible, but you should avoid providing too much of a good thing. When too much information is provided, readers get tired of reading it after a while and start skimming. When that gets old, they stop reading altogether.

    Keep your initial points short and relevant, in bite-sized chunks, with links to more in-depth information when necessary. Bullet lists are an excellent means of breaking up information into sections that are easily digested and will not drive away visitors to your Web site. The same principles apply to lists of links — too many links in one place becomes little more than line noise and static. Keep your lists of links short and well-organized so that readers can find exactly what they need with very little effort. Visitors will find more value in your Web site when you help them find what they want, and make it as easily digestible as possible.

  6. Decorative Images: With the exception of banners and other necessary branding, decorative images should be used as little as possible. Use images to illustrate content when it is helpful to the reader, and use images when they themselves are the content you wish to provide. Do not strew images over the Web site just to pretty it up, or you will find yourself driving away visitors. Populate your Web site with useful images, not decorative images, and even those should not be too numerous. Images load slowly, get in the way of the text your readers seek, and are not visible in some browsers or with screen readers. Text, on the other hand, is universal.

  7. Link Indirection/Interception/Redirection: Neverprevent other Web sites from linking directly to your content. There are far too many major content providers who violate this rule, such as news Web sites that redirect links to specific articles so that visitors always end up at the homepage. This sort of heavy-handed treatment of incoming visitors, forcing them to the homepage of the Web site as if they can force visitors to be interested in the rest of the content on the site, just drives people away in frustration. When they have difficulty finding an article, your visitors may give up and go elsewhere for information. Perhaps worse, incoming links improve your search engine placement dramatically — and by making incoming links fail to work properly, you discourage others from linking to your Web site. Never discourage other Web sites from linking to yours.

  8. Recent Features: The Content Dates point, above, mentioned changing content. Any Web site whose content changes regularly should make the changes easily available to visitors to the Web site. New content today should not end up in the same archive as material from three years ago tomorrow, especially with no way to tell the difference.

    New content should stay fresh and new long enough for your readers to get some value from it. This can be aided by categorizing it if you have a Web site whose content is updated very quickly (like Slashdot) — by breaking up new items into categories, you can ensure that readers will still find relatively new material easily within specific areas of interest. Effective search functionality and good Web site organization can also help readers find information they've seen before and want to find again. Help them do that as much as possible.

  9. Thumbnail Image Size: When providing image galleries with large numbers of images, linking to them from lists of thumbnails is a common tactic. Thumbnail images, in case you are not familiar with the term, are smaller versions of images intended to give the viewer an idea what the main image will look like when it is viewed. When presenting thumbnail images, however, it is important to avoid making them so small that the visitor to your Web site cannot get a useful idea of the main image from the thumbnail.

    It is also important to actually produce scaled-down and/or cropped versions of your main images, rather than to use XHTML and CSS to resize the images. When images are resized using markup, the larger image size is still being sent to the client system — to the browser the Web site's visitor uses. When loading a page full of thumbnails that are actually full-size images resized by markup and stylesheets, a browser uses a lot of processor and memory resources. This can lead to browser crashes and other problems or, at the very least, cause extremely slow load times. Slow load times cause Web site visitors to go elsewhere. Browser crashes are even more effective at driving visitors away.

  10. Webpage Title: Many Web designers do not set the title of their Web pages. This is obviously a mistake, if only because search engines identify your Web site by page titles in the results they display and saving a Web page in your browser's bookmarks uses the page title for the bookmark name by default.

    A less obvious mistake is the tendency of Web designers to use the same title for every page of the Web site. It would be far more advantageous to provide a title for every page that identifies not only the Web site, but the specific page. The title should still be kept short and succinct, of course. A Webpage title that is too long is almost as bad as no Webpage title at all.

The above considerations for Web design are very important, but often overlooked or mishandled. A couple of minor failures can be overcome by successes in other areas, of course, but it never pays to shoot yourself in the foot just because you have another foot to use. Enhance your Web site's chances of success by keeping these principles in mind while designing your Web site.

About Chad Perrin

Chad Perrin is an IT consultant, developer, and freelance professional writer. He holds both Microsoft and CompTIA certifications and is a graduate of two IT industry trade schools.

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