Web design: Where we were then, where we are going in the future

Dec. 9, 2014

The art of building a useful and customer-friendly website.

In the mid-1990s, a young man named Ron lost his job due to a work-related injury that turned out to be one of the best things to ever happen to him. His old employer, a large chain of grocery stores in Northern California, paid for his schooling so he could enter a new profession; and while at school, he found he loved building websites.

This fellow was very artistic and his Web designs were nothing less than electronic “Rembrandts.” He started his own business and within months, all types of companies were lining up to have him create alluring, electronic designs just for them.

Web design evolves

That was nearly 20 years ago, and the world of Web design has changed considerably — if not dramatically. To see where things stand today in Web design and what makes an effective B2B website for the water technology industry, let’s examine some of Ron’s key characteristics and trademarks and figure out if companies would still be lining up for his brilliant designs today.

For instance, while Ron’s websites were invariably considered attractive, because of all the images and graphics they tended to be slow to download. In the mid-1990s, the Internet was still relatively new and users were more patient for a site to download; further, high-speed Internet and broadband connections were limited, so practicing patience was the order of the day. Today, if a site takes even a few seconds to download, visitors will likely leave before the download is complete.

Also, Ron’s specialty was creating an electronic brochure, now referred to as “brochureware.” According to Margaret Rouse, a web expert frequently quoted in major web magazines, “Brochureware refers to [websites] or pages that are produced by taking an organization's printed brochure and translating it directly to the Web without regard for the possibilities of the new medium. While a [website] can be thought of as an 'online brochure,' most designers suggest taking advantage of the Web's interactive and dynamic capabilities.” Conversely, less emphasis should be placed on images and graphics.

Something else to consider is Ron did not believe effective Web design needed words; after all, he declares, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

While a picture may be worth a thousand words, when it comes to search engine optimization (SEO) and getting a company’s message out to visitors, it is not much more than a blank screen.

Further, Ron believed that traditional HTML-designed sites were dull; he used other techniques, including “Flash,” to give his customers' sites more creative flare. Flash designs were introduced in 1999 by Macromedia. They wowed users and soon other versions of Flash were introduced by other companies. However, Flash became overused, and while it may have been fun to see once or twice, by the fifth or sixth visit to a website it was boring and bothersome — and no company wants a boring or bothersome website.

Finally, one of Ron’s favorite techniques was to add music to his online masterpieces. He believed this made the site all the more unusual, enjoyable and effective. Like Flash, this “technique” of having sites play music as soon as the first page downloads quickly lost its popularity.

What works today

We used our friend Ron as an example because many of his techniques were used in early websites by several designers. They were a reflection of the era and for many years, they were effective. However today, most Web users, especially B2B Web users, are no longer interested in pretty pictures with slow download times. They want information and they want it quick and typically that means websites may be a bit more on the bland side but a lot more on the informative side.

While opinions can vary, some of the key attributes of an effective website — and those that should prove effective for the foreseeable future — include:

  • Clean and white: A very effective way to see what “works” in Web design is to visit some of the major websites on the Internet. What you will likely notice is most have a very “clean and white” appearance. While others have definitely gotten “busier” in their look, the backbone of these sites still adheres to this clean and white appearance. The reason for this, as mentioned earlier, is the modern Web user wants information fast. A clean, white image lends itself to this function.
  • Websites with words: This is probably the most significant change in websites in the past 10 to 15 years. Many companies in both the B2B and B2C worlds are now using their own websites to tell their own stories. Sometimes this goes by the name “content marketing” or “brand marketing” and it essentially involves short articles, a blog or content that discusses a company’s products and/or services. If done effectively, the visitor begins to understand how a company’s products and/or services might help them, developing a bond between the company and the visitor, which can then result in sales or upsells to a current customer.
  • Search engine-friendly: This is the name of the game today and was something early Web designers rarely considered. In order for a site to be search engine-friendly, the gizmos, Flash, PDFs and related items should be kept to a minimum. An HTML format is far more effective and becoming a skilled technician at developing and using keywords to grab the attention of the search engines is paramount.
  • Give to get: One of the most useful techniques many B2B sites are now taking into account is making downloadable eBooks, CDs, training materials, etc., available for free on their websites. This is another form of content marketing. The goal here once again is to develop a bond between the company and a potential customer and also to gather contact information that can be used in a number of different ways. 
  • Videos: B2B companies should definitely consider developing videos of all types on their sites. This can be another form of content marketing, but instead of words, a company spokesperson is discussing your company’s products and services in an educational format. Videos are also very beneficial when used for training and installation of products.

In closing, one of the most dramatic changes in websites in recent years is that they are no longer as focused on selling products and services as they are on teaching. Providing quality, credible and educational content on websites not only improves SEO and builds a bond between visitors and your company, but it can also lead to sales. Joe Pulizzi, author of the book “Epic Content Marketing says, “The essence of this [educational] strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to customers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.”

Robert Kravitz is president of AlturaSolutions Communications, a public relations, communications and content marketing firm, specializing in B2B industries. He can be reached through his website at www.alturasolutions.com.

Sidebar: The power of blogs

Beginning a blog, or adding content to a site in general on an ongoing basis, is one of the most effective ways of gaining a reputation as a thought leader as well as presenting an organization’s point of view on industry-specific issues. But the bigger power of blogs/content is that they help drive traffic to an organization’s website.

A 2010 study of more than 1,500 company websites conducted by Hubspot, an inbound marketing company, found that a successful blogging program produced the following benefits:

  • 55 percent more visitors
  • 97 percent more inbound links (other sites linking to another company site)
  • 434 percent more indexed pages (number of company pages indexed by search engines).

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