Today at Marketing Portland, we would like to provide some pointers for business professionals who are wondering if their web sites are too old. After all, design and tech trends change regularly, and keeping on top of such changes can send messages to potential customers (positive messages if you do, negative if you do not). Those messages are often understated, of course, but people do pick up on these things.
I'm going to break this out into two distinct areas to help answer this question for business owners. First, we will discuss technical cues, and next design cues. So, review these items and maybe you'll get a better perspective on whether your web site is okay as is, or perhaps would benefit from a complete overhaul, a new design, or maybe just some tweaks.
While the following is not exhaustive, here are some indicators that your business web site could possibly use some updating:
- Flash-based content. Flash is difficult to maintain / change, is not SEO friendly, is not generally user-friendly, and does not perform reliably on today's platforms, devices, and browsers. While the technology does still have its place in the business world, the trend is (and has been for a long time) to move away from it -- especially for areas or pages on which Flash adds little or no value to the presentation. For many sites, embedded video seems a better choice. But, that's a site-by-site decision. I could certainly understand the occasional, conservative use of Flash still. But, I sense that the days of entire sites made of Flash are (thankfully) long gone.
- .html or .php page URLs. Another thing to look at are your page URLs. Browse to your company site and click on one of your content pages. Does it end in .htm or .html or .php or .aspx (or dot-anything)? If your site contains strings like these in most URLs, that's usually (but not always) indicative of an older web site. It doesn't mean your site is bad or outdated per se -- indeed many of these "static coded" sites perform very well! -- but there could nevertheless be a negative perception there. Instead (and for SEO reasons), companies today tend to favor shorter, less cluttered URLs, like www.myfirm.com/about, for example. (That said, I would love to find a client today who would like to do an entire static HTML web site. I'm not sure such a client exists, though.)
- numbers as URLs, such as "www.myfirm.com/1234.html" or "www.myfirm.com/index.php?article=1234". Imagine if most of your pages about your business had URLs like that. Is that of any value to someone reading that address? Most businesses today are (and have been for a long time) moving away from these types of URLs for SEO reasons. Google places considerable weight on a given page's URL. So, a page like 1234.html will generally rank far lower than, say, a page with an address like "www.myfirm.com/contract-law" (to use a law firm as an example). Also, numbers like this usually indicate that the system running the web site is an older Content Management System, which can also send a message to visitors about your company's adoption (or lack thereof) of modern tech.
- You cannot make simple changes to your site's copy. Can you easily make a change to a page -- say, adding or editing a bullet on your bio, adding a new service page or a press release? If not, it probably means that either (1) your company is not using a Content Management System, and/or (2) uses one for the web site but no one knows how to access and/or work it. In this day and age, if you're a business, you should probably have a CMS in place -- and a good, solid one like Joomla if you're serious about your business and the role your web site plays in it. Among the organizational and technical benefits, you'll also be empowered with a user-friendly, state-of-the-art system that allows you to take control of your web site. And, don't worry -- it's easy to learn! We've taught complete technophobes how to add blog entries, make text changes, add pics and videos at will, and more. Most of our clients largely administer their own web sites and only call us for tech updates and/or more advanced things like technical design work, functionality projects, and so forth.
- Other unusual URLs. Some sites are based on web hosts that do not allow normal "www.myfirm.com"-type URLS. Many hosting platforms like like Google Sites, Yahoo, Wix, Verizon, iPage, Weebly, Networksolutions, GoDaddy, etc. offer web-building platforms in addition to their domain and hosting services. These are DIY-type web sites that, in our opinion, usually look DIY rather than professional. Often, they result in weird URLs, as mentioned. While these services DO allow non-developers the ability to develop their own sites, they rarely result in a professional-looking web site, not to mention lacking many of the amenities that a pro-developed site would feature.
- Nonfunctionality (or Poor Functionality). Forms that do not work, broken links all over the site, menus that no longer work the way they used to, missing images, broken SSL connections, painfully slow pageloads ... all hallmarks of old sites that need TLC.
- You haven't paid anyone in 6+ months to do anything web-wise for you. This one's tricky, but easy to explain. Most sites today run via Content Management Systems (CMSs) like Wordpress, Drupal, and Joomla (our favorite). These systems *must* be kept up to date, if you care to keep hackers at bay. 99.9% of the hacked web sites we see at Marketing Portland are outdated CMS installs. When you're running an open-source CMS, it's a great thing because it's free. But, there is still a cost, and your company should have a budget (even if a small one) for allowing a pro to get in there and do the periodic security and platform updates as they come out. If you do not, you're truly running at risk.
- The "Rumsfeld" Issue. This one's tougher for most business owners to ascertain. What I'm getting at here is that "you don't know what you don't know" about your server. A business owner may think that the only content or code available on the company site is limited to the web site content online at the moment. But, in reality (especially for older sites), there could be all sorts of data lingering on your web server. Much of the time, this represents just old junk files. Other times, it could be data (benign or sensitive) still available to intrepid snoopers, and still others it could be remnants of old systems that not only take up space, but could actually be a security hole that hackers could exploit. (I see this a LOT, as described above.) If you aren't aware of what all is on your server, then it would be a good idea to have someone take a look and let you know if any security holes might exist and/or if anything else is wrong.
Design and Other Considerations
Okay, so those are many of the technical issues. Let's consider some design elements that may indicate a need for some web work:
- Old copyright notices in your footer. Well, this is probably the lowest-hanging-fruit, in terms of tipping off site viewers that you're out of date. It's easy to let this one slip, though. I used to frequently just code the copyright notice to always show the current year. But, with CMSs, it's also just as easy to update the footer / copyright area yearly. So, it's not uncommon to see something a year out of date. But, I also see some really ancient copyright notices sometimes, so I know it's more than just an "oops" thing. And your readers / visitors know, too! If a site is too old, it's my honest opinion that a lot of would-be customers will simply go away.
- Predominant Design Aspects Utilizing HTML Tables. HTML Tables certainly still have a solid place in the web design world. But, in years past, entire (and very complex) web sites and themes were built using tables. I used to do this myself back in the late 90s and early- to mid-2000s, as it was an effective way to get the layout you wanted. But, with the advancement of CSS, it's often not necessary anymore to use HTML tables. If you have them here and there for various special purposes, maybe you're okay. If your entire web site is built using tables... probably not.
- You have a "Mobile site" (or no mobile site at all). Back when mobile first started, a lot of companies developed mini sites meant for phones. Typically, these were redirected to URLs like "m.mycompany.com" or "mycompany.com/mobile" and contained entire mobile-versions of the larger site. It was handy stuff, for sure. But, nowadays, the big thing is to have ONE web site for your company, which changes / adapts to the device on which it is being viewed. The buzz word (which has been around for a while already) is "responsive design". Nearly all of our clients request this, and we're very happy to do it. (Not only is it fairly easy to do using today's modern design platforms (like our specialty, Gantry), but it's a lot of fun to do as well!. So, if your site either (1) has such an old "mobile" version of itself, or (2) doesn't cater to phones/tablets at all, then it's likely in need of some TLC. Increasingly, more of your visitors will appreciate the effort. Note: Sometimes "retrofitting" a site to make it responsive is possible. Other times, the site needs to be ported into a responsive design platform first. It all depends on the CSS setup of your site. We do see a LOT of great-looking web sites that are not responsive. And, in fairness, not all sites choose to be responsive. A decision about whether responsiveness may be called for, for any given site, should be informed by analytics showing the percentage of visitors who are on various devices and platforms.
- No Social Media Integration. Almost all businesses are increasingly participating in the social web. Even if your company is a bit too conservative to deal with Facebook regularly, it may well want to at least be on LinkedIn. But, there's a good argument that potential clients like a certain level of accessibility and interaction, and many of them will prefer social media for this. They want to "like" you on Facebook, or follow your company on LinkedIn, so that they can comment and interact. Also, maintaining such presences shows a commitment to furthering the human side of technology (see our articles on "Techmanity 2014 -- here and here) for some further indication of what I'm getting at here. Finally, as social media is the latest and greatest thing, it can do a lot to at least help build a perception that your company is up with the times, regardless of whether it truly is or isn't.
- No SEO work. This is actually a design/tech issue together, but it's less technical than the above section, so I placed it here. As SEO is increasingly important to businesses, a poorly-informed site along these lines is, by inference, indicative of a web site that isn't yet up to snuff. SEO, I think, also indicates a certain pride. It's like saying, "Hey, what we're doing is valuable. Come find us!" So, if you're not doing SEO, then it's (at least in some way) tantamount to saying "Well, this is our site, for better or worse. We're not actively promoting it, though." Which leads me to ask: Why not? The answer is often that the client just isn't too wild about the site. Ergo, it ties in with design a good bit. You know, people really DO judge books by the cover. Design counts for a lot. One could probably argue that a well-designed site with sub-par content might well covert more customers than the opposite.
- Small site.. Is your site just a few pages? Well, it may be that way by design, but from an SEO perspective, Google does tend to favor somewhat larger sites, and your employees, management, and owners may be a great source of new content (for exmaple, if you had a blog on the site). We're not suggesting that you have to go overboard with things. But, many companies do not flesh out web sites for numerous reasons. Sometimes it's just because they're uncomfortable developing copy for the web. Well, we can help you there, as well -- in many ways. So, let us know if your site has more to say but isn't saying it!
- Needs some more photos / graphics.. Some sites have fairly good content, but the design just isn't there at all. Others have good content, with the design being 90% there -- but not quite. In these cases, a smaller update could make a world of difference. We see this a lot with text-heavy sites that could benefit greatly from some photos or graphics to help break up the text. Alternatively, even call-out quotes from the text could help draw attention to a main idea while also serving to break up the text a bit more.
- "Our 'IT Guy' handles the web site." We see this one from time to time. Usually, it's something we can infer based on an analysis of a web site's various configurations. "IT Guys" generally have very good intentions, and solid ideas when it comes to IT matters. They can certainly help cut down on spam and configure servers, if asked, but they can also come up with many reasons why a corporate web site is "fine as is." At Marketing Portland, security is of course a priotity, as it is for any web development company. (In fact, we often take on new clients because someone referred us to them after their site was compromised.) That said, we believe the primary driving forces behind a web site should be marketing, business development, and interactivity. A company's IT resources (if involved in a web development project) should play a supporting role to help facilitate that goal, not the other way around.
- Too Secure for Your Own Good! We see a lot of things like not including your email address on a web site, requiring a user to fill out a form instead of just clicking or copying an email address. While many could cite spam and/or privacy concerns, this harkens back to our previous point about the site being there for a marketing reason. Yes, you would like to discourage spammers. But, is it worth the cost of frustrating bona fide clients? So, this is an area where, from a marketing perspective, you say, "Ok, we're going to put our email addresses on our site." Then, if spam becomes an issue, you have the IT person look into better filtering technology on the email server side. (That said, be careful not to over-filter it or you'll miss out on legitimate emails.) Most CMSs today, like Joomla, have add-on capabilities to help combat spam, usually by attempting to hide addresses from spambot harvesters. This method works fairly well, but it's an issue to be discussed during development. As business clients get younger and younger, this demographic wants things faster / quicker / and via some mode they prefer. Access to a professional should be widely available via numerous means -- email, social profiles, inquiry forms, and more.
Bonus Section: "Fugliness"
Note: As a quick FYI for you and CYA for myself: If I have sent you this article's link to read, please know that I will never send this link to anyone for whom I feel that this section applies. If a site is that bad, I figure the site owner can come to me; not me to them, as it likely means they simply do not care about their site. So... hopefully anyone can now read the rest of this without feeling like I'm trying to tell you something! Rather, it's just me pontificating a bit more.
Okay, well, perhaps this section's title isn't the most professional word (please don't make me spell it out, okay?). I guess I'm just trying to bring some humor to the elephant in the room here -- the notion that one's web site design is basically, for lack of a better word, with all due respect ... awful.
Now, I should start by noting that this whole thing is a giant can of worms because design sensibilities are so painfully variegated and subjective. Ironically, I can say this with a bit more objectivity than most because I talk to business owners about web design near daily and hear their ideas on the matter. As you may expect, there are several types of business-owner opinions on design, ranging from "100% attention down to the pixel" types all the way over to those who literally couldn't care less about the design, but just want a site to go live now.
My own site, for example, has a ton going on (some would say too much). But I rather like it that way -- busy and linear. And, for me, it's worked out fairly well. I've attracted like-minded clients, and also some that want much more simple / clean / zen sites but who knew based on my content and portfolio that I could deliver that style of site, as well. That said, there are probably those with whom my site doesn't sit well.
At the end of the day, it's often does come down to client preferences. Web developers struggle with this because (1) we want to develop sites that we're proud of for our portfolio, but (2) what we find attractive isn't always what the client likes. So, one either locks horns over these issues, compromises, or merely gives in. Optimally, such a relationship would be that middle ground representing collaboration.
But, I digress... The topic was: Is there any design out there that a bona fide majority of reasonable people would view and judge as absolutely bad? I would submit to you, dear reader, that the answer is a resounding yes. I have seen some of these sites, and some you just cannot unsee. As a web developer, though, it's not always easy to communicate such to a potential client.
Ready to Update?
If any of the above discussion, or perhaps for some other reason, prompts a consideration of a possible redesign / updating / overhaul of your business' current web site, please contact Marketing Portland anytime. It's always quite exciting to help bring business web sites into the state of the art -- a top of the line CMS, a professionally designed theme, custom functionality, ecommerce, and more. It's all possible, and we'd be happy to help.
BTW, the elephant photo, above, was taken by either my wife or me, from our trip to Thailand in January 2014!
Note: This piece also appears on Medium.com as "The Elephant in the Room: Maybe Your Web Site is Outdated and/or Unappealing ."