If your site is out of date, with parts that don't work, and violates several usability principles, you're not alone.
If you're reading this, you probably spend a lot of time online. (If you don't, your interest in online marketing is commendable.) And it's easy for folks like us to forget that there are people who don't spend as much time online. When we encounter a website that seems to be designed by one of these people, it throws us for a loop. "How could they not know that rainbow text isn't OK?" we exclaim. "Is this site seriously playing music at me?" "Why can't I find anything?"
There are particular industries where web design seems to have not reached the 1.0 era yet (forget about 2.0). Usually these are industries dominated by small businesses. Small business owners are usually busy doing actual work, so they may not get to spend much time online and may not be up on the latest web trends. They may have heard about "social" and "SEO," but don't understand how it all works together and how you create a web experience that draws customers and enhances your brand.
One industry that's notorious for bad websites is restaurants. When a restaurant does have a website, there's a good chance it's out of date, parts don't work, or it violates several usability principles (e.g., it has a splash page, it automatically plays music, it's built all in Flash, or the menus are only in PDF). This isn't just about bad visual design - although there's plenty of that too. These are things that actively keep users from getting what they need from a website.
This is an actual website. Names have been hidden to protect the innocent. But I do wish Rose was my grandma.
A 2010 survey by the National Small Business Association showed that 16 percent of small business owners didn't have a website at all, either because they didn't think it was necessary or because it would be too difficult to build and maintain. Of those who had a site, 69 percent said the biggest challenge they face with their website is the time it takes to make updates. Thirty-nine percent said their biggest challenge was the cost of maintaining the site. So it appears that, along with not meeting the needs of users, websites for small businesses are not meeting the needs of their owners.
The solution to this problem may be to give up on the idea of "websites" altogether. Think of the restaurant example. A quick trip to MenuPages will usually tell you everything you need to know about a restaurant. You'll see the menu (in HTML and PDF), the hours of operation, the address (with a map), and reviews from other customers. MenuPages also now partners with SeamlessWeb to let restaurants offer online ordering. Best of all, MenuPages' staff does all the actual site maintenance. Restaurant owners only have to send the site their information through a simple form, and then upload, email, or even fax it a menu. In return, they get an instant web presence on a site that is visited by over a million people per month.
There are other sites that offer some of the same functionality, such as Yelp, Facebook, and Google. But currently, these tools don't offer many of the "website" features that businesses may want. There isn't always a place to put your logo, or any pictures of your business. You also aren't usually allowed multiple pages for different topics, which would be necessary for many businesses. Yelp, in particular, only provides the barest options for business owners to publish information about their own businesses. And while Facebook does allow multiple pages, the process is not intuitive, requiring you to log in as a developer and create a new "app" for each page.
It's odd that the bigger players aren't doing a better job of this. The potential is huge for a site that offers built-in search, SEO, e-commerce, content structure, and mobile, all with a great design that was easy to use.
But for a site like this to succeed, we need to let go of the concept that every business needs its own website. The truth is, not everybody needs to have a thrilling, immersive online "experience." Most businesses just need a quick and easy way to get their information out and reach their audience. If we can start getting some tools out there that will help them do this, business owners would be spared a lot of hassle - and we'd be spared a lot of awful websites.
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Sarah has long been intrigued by the challenge of how to translate complex concepts, particularly scientific and technical information, into plain language that everyone can understand.
As a writer at Carnegie Mellon University and Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Sarah developed communications that explained the universities’ research in clear, engaging language. Most recently, she honed her online information design and web writing skills as web services manager for The Segal Company.
Sarah holds an M.A. in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon University and a B.A. in English from Oberlin College. She currently lives in Brooklyn under the reign of a French bulldog.
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