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Is Your Website Showing Signs Of Age?

by Alf Nucifora

As one whose consulting practice involves constant Google searching, it finally occurred to me recently that website technology and design are undergoing radical change; which raised the question, "How current and effective is my own website and what changes, if any, should be made to maintain its effectiveness, freshness and appeal? To get the answers I spoke to web design expert Catherine Jampierre of California-based ITM Computing who delivered the scoop, in terminology that even a technology novice like me can understand.

Nucifora: Are companies refreshing their web sites?

Jampierre: Absolutely. The web has grown so much over the last ten years; there was a time when having a web address on your business card was sufficient to give your business that leading edge. With an online presence now the standard, netizens really do expect more information than just contact details and a list of products and services. I estimate a good third of our workload comes from redesigns and restructuring of existing websites.

Nucifora: What are first signs of shelf spoilage?

Jampiere: The use of frames is the most obvious sign of an aging website. Frames enable parts of the page to stay put (like a header, or links) while the main content can be scrolled up or down. It was a fantastic way to always keep your branding and navigation in front of the user's eyes.

As search engines gained respect, and more websites were created, it became clear that sites using frames were at a true disadvantage versus those that didn't. Why? Because search engines, like Google, rank them poorly. In time, web consultants realized that it was more important to rank well on search engines than to have a logo visible at all times. We still get requests for sites in frames, but we generally advise against it.

Gimmicks also ranks highly on the list of shelf spoilage. Remember mouse trailers? Blinking text? These are mostly extinct. Page counters have been around for ages, but they're dying out because most reputable website hosting companies now offer detailed statistics with their accounts.

There are always new gimmicks. I'm seeing an increasing number of "talking head" presenters - animated or videoed - that start babbling on, unsolicited, when you enter a site. It's intrusive, and a nuisance. Many web users, me included, either turn off the speakers or leave the site prematurely. The same with Flash intros. They serve the purpose of instilling in visitors a sense of "Wow!", but as with frames, they're detrimental to search engine rankings. Plus the first thing most people do when they confront a Flash intro is to hit the "skip intro" button. Flash intros definitely have their place, and can do wonders for a site, but only if used intelligently.

Nucifora: What information should be refreshed constantly?

Jampierre: Obviously time-sensitive items such as news briefs, press releases, media coverage, job opportunities, and events calendars need to be updated regularly. If you don't have the time to add company news on a minimum bi-monthly basis, or maintain a calendar, then it's best to avoid these altogether.

But from a search engine perspective, content should change regularly, even it's just a minor update. Search engines now give preference to updated material because they don't want outdated and invalid material dominating their search results.

Nucifora: How else is technology forcing change to web architecture?

Jampierre: The efforts, that search engine companies are making to weed out irrelevant listings, is constantly reshaping website design. One example is link trade. You used to increase your site's ranking by trading links with other websites. But as with every search engine placement trick, this was quickly abused and link farms were invented, sites with nothing but page after page of links... the ones you curse at when you're searching for actual information. Nowadays, reciprocal linking is still helpful, but only if the site that's linking to you ranks highly in search engines and isn't likely to be blacklisted by Google.

There is increasing pressure for information on the internet to be accessible to everyone regardless of physical ability or sight deficiency. In fact it's the law for US government websites. Accessibility standards influence the way the content is written, what words are hyperlinked, font sizing and color schemes. Expect to see more changes to websites in this direction.

Nucifora: How should one go about the process of revisiting web redesign?

Jampierre: Research and preparation are key. Check your competition's sites and your target market. Compile your findings, together with a preliminary site map and even a just a rough draft of content. Any personal preferences should also be noted. Give this information to web designers to they can prepare a quote, assuming it's not sensitive material that requires a non-disclosure agreement.

As for finding the right web designer, consider the following:

  • How fast do they get back to you?
  • How busy are they?
  • How does their own website look?
  • Do they seem to have a specialty (and does it match your needs)?
  • Do they have an impressive online portfolio?
  • How long have they been in the field?
  • Do they have the right qualifications?
  • Are they good listeners?
  • How much do they charge and how do they charge?
  • How specific are they in their price estimate?
  • Whose property is the site upon completion? (It should be yours)

It's not any one of these answers that will determine the professionalism of an agency or designer but the overall feeling of compatibility, competence and responsiveness. They should feel "right".

Also the best advice I can give is to maintain timely communication with the designer. If the ball is in your court e.g., providing approvals, be sure to complete your task as quickly as is possible. The longer your site remains on hold, the more the project is likely to lose steam.

Nucifora: How does one estimate cost for a redesign?

Jampierre: Some designers quote by the number of pages, some by the hour, some by the project. There's no one right way. And keep in mind that hourly rate doesn't tell the whole story. It may take a recent graduate five times longer than someone who has been in the business for ten years. Remember that designers love to make a Mercedes Benz site for everyone, but we know that most businesses don't have the budget for it. Whenever possible we determine the client's budget and fit as much design and functionality into it as we can.

Nucifora: Who does this sort of work ? Where does one look?

Jampierre: There are countless agencies and freelancers specializing in web design. Other than that, some graphic designers, advertising and PR firms, search engine placement companies and web hosting companies also provide web service. It's not to say that any of these won't do a good website, but since they don't specialize in the field, I would recommend having a close look at their website creations. And not just how they look, but how they function. Click around.

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