Top 10 Web Site Blunders: Part 1

You’ve got a web site — great. But do you have an effective web site? Is it constructed and worded to grab the interest of casual visitors and pull them in?

This week and next, I’m going to provide you with a checklist of the top 10 marketing blunders web sites make. Use it to perform a free do-it-yourself web site makeover.

Blunder No. 1: Your company name heading your web site. As you assess the marketing power of your site, the mantras to apply are “Who cares?” and “So what?” Brandishing your company name in big, bold letters as the title or headline of your web site causes you to fail those tests. Listen, I know that almost everyone does this. Nevertheless, it’s a mistake.

Remember that people often arrive at your site never having heard of you. If they’re searching for help with their immigration cases, which header will reassure them that they’ve come to the right site: “Jones, Popkin, & Graves, LLC” or “Green Card, Citizenship, & Political Asylum Cases Handled”? If they’re looking for supplies for their off-brand hot tub, which hooks them better: “Steamboat Springs Spa Supply” or “Everything for the Commercial Spa and Home Hot Tub”? In most cases you’ll do better leading with what you do rather than with who you are.

For a real example, note how Harbinger Press puts its company name discreetly in the background while its marketing message, “Welcome to the home of the finest books on issues around the child-parent bond,” fills the foreground.

Blunder No. 2: Unclear focus. Who is your site for? When I was asked to look at a site selling a learn-to-read system, it was clear that the audience was parents rather than teachers or school administrators.

However, I couldn’t tell what age range or grade level the system was geared toward. Without that information, it would be hard for some parents to know for sure whether the products would suit their Susie or Sammy. Always make your target audience crystal clear, not just to avoid inquiries from the wrong people but also to reassure those you are trying to reach.

Very often a site has more than one audience, and it goofs by trying to orient and serve all of its constituencies with one set of information. But even sites designed with multiple audiences in mind can stumble. The first page of Monster.com’s Talent MarketSM invites “Free Agents” and “Employers” to click on these terms to be directed to appropriate offerings. This division shows that the site is on the right track. However, the labels chosen might confuse first-time visitors.

“Free agent” is new-economy-speak for self-employed folks and contract workers. Yet if you survey freelance graphic artists, programmers, and consultants, to name three groups squarely in this site’s target market, you’ll find that many associate free agents with sports rather than themselves. And to many people, the term “employers” signifies those hiring for salaried positions — not the intention here at all.

If you insist on using trendy jargon, always also include a translation or paraphrase so that you properly orient those who don’t read the magazines that you and your friends do. Take a look at the Ants.com site. Like Monster.com’s Talent Market, Ants.com targets freelancers and people in a position to hire freelancers. But it does so in much clearer language; instead of the ambiguous “Employer,” it uses “Project Managers.” And instead of the even more ambiguous “Free Agents,” Ants.com reaches out to “Freelancers and Service Businesses.”

Blunder No. 3: Cutesy navigation options. One element on which you should not lavish creativity is the wording of the main navigation buttons for your site. It’s true that legendary showman P.T. Barnum attracted crowds by a sign reading, “This way to the egress,” but most of his showgoers good-naturedly paid another entrance fee when they realized they’d been snookered through the exit. On the web, people don’t eagerly click on baffling signposts. Clear, prosaic navigation labels attract more traffic than weird, mysterious ones.

Here are some examples of obscure navigation options that need rewording:

“Do you HQ?” — at FreeAgent.com

“emedalert” (a new product that first-time visitors would not recognize) — at drugstore.com

“keeping” — at marthastewart.com

“Wireless Weather” (amount of static on the line?) — at weather.com

Remember, clarity trumps cleverness.

Blunder No. 4: Presuming that shoppers already know what they want. Last summer before speaking at an industry seminar, I toured the web sites of several dozen top camera stores. Almost all of them presented their wares by categories (digital cameras versus 35mm), broken down by brand and model and with a jungle of technical specs. This suits geeky shoppers — a minority of their clientele — but leaves in the dark those wanting to know which camera to buy for a vacation, business, or new hobby.

Only two of the camera sites I looked at indicated a desire to help shoppers intimidated by all the features and jargon. And yet, as I pointed out in my talk, when unsophisticated buyers came into their shops, salespeople knew how to help them find cameras they’d be happy with, and the store happily pocketed those profits.

To organize your web site effectively, use the mental categories favored by your clientele, not those that are second nature to industry insiders, you, and your peers. Consider grouping items by purpose or occasion, such as, for a gift-basket site, “Housewarming,” “Get Well,” or “Thank You.”

Tune in next week for blunders 5 through 10!

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