Never, ever, tell someone their baby is ugly — or worse, their website.
Granted, there are a lot of really bad websites out there. As a writer and poster-child for ADD, I spend a lot of time online and have seen them myself.
I'd be rich if I had 10 bucks for every writer's website that had spelling and grammar errors. I'd be even richer if I had 10 bucks for every SEO website that wasn't even on Google's radar, but brags how it'll get you at the top of search results.
For some reason, people just don't want to know their website sucks, but what were they thinking? Here are six red flags that your website isn't doing so well and what you can do to fix it.
No Contact Information
Put contact information on every page. There are a lot of sites that, apparently, just don't want people to contact them. "ADD TO CART and don't bother" me seems to be the message, but sales are based on product knowledge and trust. (OK, and price.) When your customer can't see you or a real, live representative, how are they going to learn to trust you?
It shouldn't have to be pointed out, but for crying out loud, put your area code on your phone number! Are we supposed to guess where you're located, especially if you don't give us an address?
No Place for Feedback
One of the reasons Amazon became so successful selling books was readers were able to see what other book buyers thought before they bought a book. That's been an important component of Netflix's success, too.
Social media sites include "I Like" buttons. Wordpress makes it easy for web developers to allow site visitors to leave comments. Shopping cart software usually has a "star rating" feature so buyers can leave feedback. Use these tools.
Make sure there's a way you can quickly fix unhappy customers. It's true no one can hear you scream in space, but everyone can hear people scream in cyberspace. If you don't have a way to communicate with dissatisfied customers and make sure whatever their problem is is solved, they will let the world know about it. See Untied.com, for example. Not United Airlines — Un-tied Airlines.
The world's a rapidly changing place, and the web is accelerating the process. A yellow pages ad might have been OK for six months or a year because all it really was designed to do was say, "We're here!" People could also visit your store, read your newspaper ads, and maybe see your trucks drive past.
However, your website may be the only store, advertising and signs you have. So your site must tell your customers everything they need to know to buy from you today. If you've added a new product or service, how will they know if it's not on the site? If you've discontinued a line, it's perhaps even more important that your website makes that clear and offers an alternative. If you don't, you may end up having to handle refunds and lose a sale.
Business owners will eagerly find a professional to design a business card, brochure, or ad for them; but apparently, they are perfectly willing to try to design and build their website themselves. The result is not pretty.
They use flashing logos, marching ants, blaring music, and IM-style writing such as ROFLMAO and OMG. It's jarring at best and obnoxious at worst. You shouldn't even use acronyms such as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), SEO (Search Engine Optimization) or DIY (Do It Yourself), or IM (Instant Messaging), for that matter. Some people won't know what they mean. Research shows that people spend less than 10 seconds scanning a page. If they don't find what they want or they don't understand, you've lost them.
You're supposed to be running a business, not building websites. Go to vWorker.com, Elance.com or oDesk.com and find someone who can design a good website and someone who can build a good website. They may be two different people, but they know a lot of things you don't — and don't need to.
Doesn't Meet Variety of Needs
Some people will visit looking for products, some for price, some for location, some for a phone number or email address — but how about reporters? Wouldn't you be delighted to be in a spot on the evening news about innovative new companies or the best service in town? Make it easy for reporters, too, when they visit your site. Include a media page with an electronic press kit, and offer some story ideas.
My wife and I used to run an aviation sightseeing business, and we dreamed up funny names for our flights such as the Dapper Duffer Aerial Golf Tour and The Red Baron Thrill Ride. We wrote descriptions of them in press release format and put them on our website along with about 20 story ideas. In a matter days magazines, newspapers, TV shows across the country (all over the world, actually), and even the local tourist bureau were running stories based on them. All at no cost to us.
Sends the Wrong Brand Message
No, by brand we don't mean the hot iron poker you use to mark your cattle, cowboy. We don't mean the logo or graphics you use, either. We're talking about the whole experience: What people picture when they think about your company.
Our flying business was flying but our brand was fun. So when someone called, on the rare occasion we had to make them wait on hold, we told them, "We're busier than a one armed wing walker with a wedgie, but hang on, and we'll be right with you."
Our website reflected the same sense of fun with a disclaimer at the bottom that said, "We're not responsible for kids who fidget, fuzzy directions, blatant localism, ants, crabby spouses, slow traffic, bad hair days, or earthquakes greater than 2.0 magnitude." The website added to the flavor of our business, and it produced 40 percent of our revenue.
There are lots of reasons a website can suck, but yours doesn't have to. Find a professional to help make sure your site communicates, is easy to use, and reflects the spirit — the brand — of your company. Button-down professional, silly fun, or interesting science, your website is who you are. You don't suck, or you wouldn't be here reading this. Don't let your website make folks think you do.
Tom Harnish is a serial entrepreneur. Always on the bleeding edge of technology, he learned what works (and what doesn't) when raising money by spending countless (and often fruitless) hours in front of lenders and investors.