Thursday, 5 August 2010

Websites: Can you afford to get it wrong?

Sorry, time for a rant!

Normal service will resume shortly.......

For many years now my day job, and some of my spare time, has centred around building internet applications and running some pretty big websites, and it frustrates the hell out of me when I come across poorly designed, poorly implemented or out of date websites. Eventing is littered with plenty of poor examples.

One website I've visited today was more than 12 months out of date with comments about photos being available "as soon as they are available during the forth coming 2009 season", and this is the website of a major event, supported by a major eventing sponsor! The website has no more than a dozen pages so shouldn't take up much time to maintain.

So if you want your website to be popular here's my top tips for getting it right:

Content is the key to popular sites
Getting your content right is crucial. You need to consider who the audience is and what they are going to respond to, so the style of writing is key. The structure of content will play a big part in how well indexed you are in the search engines, the more you seed your content with key words and phrases the better your chances of getting to the top of search listing.

Out of date websites are a killer, not only is it a turn off for your audience, but search engines will rank based on frequency of updates. Steer clear of phrases like 'coming soon', it's better to say nothing than something than soon becomes irrelevant or out of date.

We all love the most up to date and engaging websites, but remember these take time and effort to maintain. So if you're an event or event rider about to launch a new site, bear in mind your time contraints and start the site off with what you can easily manage, a few pages of content that tend to be relatively static (about your horses, about you, etc), and start a monthly diary, not a weekly one, until you're sure you have enough to say and enough time to write on a weekly or daily basis.

The rise of social media (facebook/twitter etc.) means you can share lots of snippets of information and news without putting too much strain on your time. Consider using these mediums before writing a daily diary or blog. Don't get a complex about how many fans or followers you have on facebook or twitter and start begging for more, you will get a solid fan base by seeding relevant and timely content into social media. I've build social networking communities of 30K+ in a few months before, but this takes an enormous amount of work and is a whole subject in itself. The key message here is use social media to your advantage, but keep your use of it relevant and interesting.

Design: Clean and Simple is best
DESIGN: Less is more.

When is come to design and layout of a website less is more. Don't overload your web pages. Keeping it nice and clean and simple makes it a much easier read than if it looks like a jigsaw puzzle. Also definately don't over load your home page with lots of graphics and embedded video, it takes significantly longer to load and will ruin your search engine rankings. 

Avoid dark backgrounds, as they don't particularly bring out photos very well, and make it harder to read text. The less scrolling the better. I came across another event website yesterday and it forces both vertical and horizontal scrolling to see pages (ruined what was a nice site). 

IMPLEMENTATION: You don't need to spend a fortune to get it right.

There are plenty of useful tools for building websites
We've come a long way in terms of the tools and services you can use to create and maintain a website since I started building these applications back in the mid 90s. Nowadays there are plenty (100s) of small CMS (Content Management System) tools that are more than capable of handling the job. William Fox-Pitt has just invested in a new website thankfully, the last one was dreadful, but at least up to date. He uses an inexpensive CMS tool, sadly I think he's taken the wrong route on facebook. Bill Levett has a relatively simple looking site, but it's engaging because he makes an effort to keep it up to date, and writes in an easy to read style. Both these riders have invested a little money to great effect.

For most event riders starting out I would suggest starting off with one of the free blogging tools, and sign up to twitter, and create a facebook 'page' (not account or group). These blogging tools are more than adequate for the job, really easy to use, come with plenty of free designs, and allow you to create static pages, embed video etc. etc. etc.

A few popular small CMS:
  • At the higher end in terms of cost and sophistication, but technically very good.
  • The one William Fox-Pitt is using, much cheaper but simpler User Interface
  • been around for quite a while and very popular. 

A few popular free Blogging Tools:

(I use all 3 of these blog tools and think they're great).

As in any industry you'll also find plenty of 'equestrian specialists' who will help you build a website, many of whom have their own homegrown CMS tools.

Just remember, above all else, Content Is King, if your content is relevant and up to date, you'll work the rest out eventually. Getting it wrong is costly, getting it right is rewarding, start small and build slowly.....

Rant over! Normal Service now resumes......

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