In Praise Of Plain Web Sites

So listen…I’m sitting here in this fabulous resort in Fiji, looking out at the South Pacific, trying to tie up a few business odds and ends after finishing the first of two days of meetings with my client earlier this afternoon.

I know, I’ve got it rough.

And as I look out at the gently swaying palms (I swear they are), and the barefoot gardeners washing the windows, and the water kayaks lined upside down along the sand, and the dozens of squished paw paws on the ground (it’s a fruit… you’ve got to try it) — my mind turns naturally to cosmetic surgery.

My own, in fact. A couple of months ago I had a little eye work done. It was, of course, an act of pure vanity. I could see just fine, and I don’t think it was affecting my ability to get and keep business. My livelihood hardly depends on my looks. My wife and children love me just the way I am. But, I just wanted to do it.

And while I was having it done, I didn’t bother to explore areas that might have improved things. For instance, a look at laser options to correct eyesight, or even a visit to my eye doctor since my current prescription is way too weak.

Nope. No vision correction. No integrated problem solving. No preventive maintenance. Nothing but a nice new look.

In other words, I dealt with my face the way most companies deal with their web site updates.

No new functionality. No integration with partners. No proactive effort to help customers solve problems or find information. Just a bunch of new graphics, a new layout, some JavaScript or (gasp!) Shockwave effects, and more content.

And you know what they call it don’t you?

A web site facelift.

Here’s the real truth: In the business-to-business world (which is what the Internet is now and really always will be about), nobody cares what your site looks like. If they did, do you think the great commerce sites of our times — Cisco, Marshall, Dell, Amazon and others — would have such plain looking sites?

Their sites don’t astound you with flashy graphics. It’s getting so ridiculous that sites that spend all the money building that Schlockwave stuff now begin by giving visitors an opportunity to “skip this intro.” How much do you think they spend to build something they don’t think people want to see?

The smart sites drive you right to the point of business, making doing business as simple as can be, and once they’ve nailed the process, they LEAVE IT ALONE. In all the years that I’ve been using Amazon, I don’t think they’ve changed the look one time, other than to add new products and services.

In fact, in most cases, a web site facelift creates yet another unnecessary challenge to usefulness — why make someone learn new navigation? And it always puts you in danger of breaking something that works, for no good reason.

A B2B software vendor once asked me for a proposal for site architecture. I delivered it — search engine optimization, link exchange program, strategic implementation of cookies tied to a prospect and customer database, development of targeted opt-in programs for driving potential business through the lead generation cycle, navigation design and subsequent usability testing, integration with offline initiatives.

But they turned it down — they told me they only had something like $40,000 to spend on their site, so functionality would have to wait for the next phase.

Now, a year later, that facelift is still there and that mythical next phase still hasn’t been started. And I bet you dollars to doughnuts they’re now sitting around trying to figure out why their site isn’t providing any business benefits — and talking about what other cosmetic changes they should waste their budget on to get some value out of it.

Imagine product manufacturers taking that same approach.

Imagine Microsoft, for instance, pouring tons of money into Word 2000 without making any changes to how it works or what its feature set includes — pouring all that money into it just to make the dialog boxes prettier and to get a new splash screen.

Imagine going into the Mercedes showroom to trade in old for new, and being told that in the last five years, they’ve added no new features or performance value to the cars, but have spent a ton of money importing the finest rosewood to decorate the dash? You’d think they were nuts, wouldn’t you?

Here’s my advice. Make every dollar you spend on your site count. Forget about cosmetics and focus entirely on functionality.

You have $40,000 to spend on the site this year? Spend it on the backend, on databases that help your visitors target their needs and that deliver content focused on those needs.

On opt in programs that deliver quality content on a regular basis in exchange for email and other information.

On pursuing the value of new technologies like XML for helping your visitors find what they’re looking for more quickly and easily.

On streamlining and buttoning down transaction processing.

Leave Ars Gratia Artis to the MGM Lion and make your web site a functional element of your strategic business.

Enough. I’m heading for the pool.

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