Your Online Brochure: Design a Site that Markets You Effectively
September 18, 2002
Do editors need a Web site? The short answer is yes, according to panelists at the September Bay Area Editors Forum, all of whom have had experience building their own Web pages. After all, observed panelist Judith Broadhurst, in 2002 if you're in the communication business and don't have your own Web site, you might not look professional.
The five speakers on the panel, which was organized by Annie Belt, were writer and consultant Broadhurst, freelance writer and editor Christine Freeman, freelance writer and editor Kristi Hein, writer and photographer Karen Horwitz, and author, editor, and speaker Ed Robertson.
They addressed the various aspects of having one's own Web site, including deciding its purpose, design and development, hosting, promotion, response to visitor inquiries, and maintenance.
Deciding the Purpose of Your Web Site
Creating a Web site is no slight undertaking. It can be either time-consuming or expensive, depending on whether you do it yourself or hire a consultant. A significant portion of the discussion was devoted to the importance of thinking through what you hope to accomplish. Will it be for promoting your business or products, providing an informational resource, gaining geographical reach and independence, doing e-commerce, forging a community, gaining a marketable skill, or simply developing another outlet for your creativity?
Freeman said it is important to own a piece of the Web. She stressed how building her Web site has helped define her public image and how that matters to her clients. "It is important for those of us who communicate for our clients to see ourselves in public too," she said.
Hein likes having geographical independence. She works with clients from as far away as Hong Kong and Finland.
Horwitz has created several Web sites for herself and for clients. Among other advantages, she said, is the ability to put up an online photographic portfolio. As an editorial and design consultant, she finds it useful to offer Web design along with other services.
Robertson uses his Web pages to promote his books and talks. He said the Web opens e-commerce possibilities in two ways: firstly, he links to publishers and stores that carry his works, and secondly, he sells autographed copies of his books directly. Robertson writes on television and popular culture, and having a Web site allows him to foster a sense of community. His Web site provides links to vendors who sell tapes and DVDs of TV programs.
Two important planning questions: What do you want people to learn as a result of visiting your Web site, and what do you want them to do? You do want people to know about you and to contact you, of course, but you also want to establish controls. For example, do you want visitors to learn more about you—in your professional capacity, your personal life, or both? Do you want visitors to be able to print out your résumé or list of services, or should they contact you first so you know to whom you're sending information and for what reason, allowing you to tailor information for specific recipients?
Design and Development
The panelists all had experience building their own Web sites. They cited some of the advantages of doing it themselves: it's inexpensive and allows faster turnaround for updates, and it offered them a chance to learn another marketable skill.
On the other hand, Broadhurst hired a graphic designer to create the aesthetics of her most recent site.
She cautions those who are hiring contractors to be careful to specify deliverables and deadlines.
A number of technical design aspects were addressed, mostly in connection with the interactive nature of the Web. Ease of navigation is critical, and good designers make use of bulleted lists, bold fonts, and color to organize information. Links to pages should have short descriptive names rather than just graphics. Navigation buttons should be clearly visible on each page and should be consistent.
It is important to shorten download times by learning to optimize graphics, getting the most from small files—JPEGs for photos and images with blends and gradients; GIFs for solid-color clip art. Thumbnails that load quickly can be used for introductory pages and linked to larger versions of the same picture. All graphics should be clearly labeled with a description, the medium, and an attribution.
Also, since not everybody has the same equipment, the Web designer will need to see how the finished product looks on desktop monitors, on notebooks, when printed, and when viewed with different browsers. A large, simple font makes reading from the screen easy. Highly recommended is Research-based Design and Usability Guidelines. A member of the audience also mentioned the book Web Design Workshop by Robin Williams. Courses in Web design are offered at local community colleges, at Media Alliance, and online, for example through HTML Writers Guild. The courses in which the project assignment is to build your own Web site are the most helpful.
Software for creating Web sites was discussed. Microsoft's FrontPage was suggested as a starting point because it is easy to use and works with many, though not all servers. FrontPage is limited and the panelists suggested moving to a more full-bodied program.
HTML files are pure text. The appearance of content items, such as size, color, alignment, or font, is specified by tags and definitions. HTML files can be edited in NotePad, which comes with all machines where Windows is installed but NotePad is severely limited. More sophisticated text editing applications color-code different types of tags and definitions and offer other useful features. For example, NoteTab Pro and UltraEdit are recommended. Some panelists find HTML easy to write, and others find it impossible, but the consensus seemed to be that it is useful to become familiar with basic HTML tags.
Macromedia Dreamweaver ($350) allows more flexibility and control than FrontPage and is faster and easier than using HTML alone. Several panelists said they use Dreamweaver for basic HTML and tweak the code when necessary.
Adobe GoLive ($400) was mentioned as another Web authoring tool.
Macromedia Fireworks is available for creating, editing, and optimizing graphics for the Web, and can be used in conjunction with Dreamweaver.
Adobe Photoshop is also used for Web graphics. The full version of Photoshop is expensive ($600) and complicated. There are simpler versions such as Photoshop Express ($90), Photoshop LE, or Photoshop Elements, which are often bundled with scanners.
Macromedia Flash is used to create sophisticated animations.
Getting into the nitty-gritty, panelists discussed choosing a domain name and finding a service provider. Most basic but frequently overlooked is the importance of a catchy, memorable, easy-to-spell domain name, something that people might naturally associate with you or your services. For example, said Horwitz, although her domain name, rhythm-media, is perhaps memorable, lots of people have trouble spelling "rhythm." Preferably, the name uses key words that enhance your chances of being found through Internet search engines.
While most Internet Service Providers provide free Web hosting, these were not recommended by the panelists, who felt it better to register a proper domain name and use an established service provider. One hosting service mentioned as reliable and affordable is www.valueweb.com. It is also useful to explore www.overture.com, www.wordtracker.com, and www.discountdomainregistry.com for domain name registry and Web hosting options.
Of course, host servers can go down and you should always have a back up of your entire site on your own system.
Site promotion consists of attracting traffic to your site and encouraging repeat traffic via content, community, and commerce. A basic first step is to publicize your URL (universal resource locator or Web site address) on business cards, e-mail signatures, online directory listings, link exchanges, and so on.
Panelists had mixed feelings about the value of search engines such as Altavista, Yahoo, or Google for attracting traffic. Hein has had good results but believes that you must be on pages 1 to 3 of the engines for them to be of use. To attract the attention of Web crawlers—programs that look for content keywords used by search engines—you can use key words in your text, headings, titles, and keyword metatags. It also helps to include an HTML site map.
Responding to Visitor Inquiries
Having succeeded in attracting visitors, you must learn to maximize the time you spend responding. This involves developing savvy about obtaining essential information and identifying good business prospects. You must also be professional about preparing estimates, negotiating agreements, and billing.
In response to a question from the audience about taking credit card payments, Horwitz answered that she has had no problem using PayPal, but other panelists mentioned that PayPal has recently been sued for some accounting snafus. The hosting services and domain registries mentioned previously also offer e-commerce hosting options.
Maintenance consists of checking external links; updating time-sensitive copy such as new clients, testimonials, projects, samples, or features; and tracking visitor statistics.
It is especially important to double check the appearance of your Web site and any external links after posting to the host server, because what might work inside your own system may not necessarily work on the host server. One caveat: refrain from publicizing your URL until after the Web site is actually up, as nothing is more maddening than to visit a site and get an "under construction" message.
Having a Web presence almost guarantees an increase in spam e-mail, and www.mailwasher.net was recommended for filtering out unwanted e-mail.
Tracking visitor statistics is useful for learning which aspects of your Web site are actually being visited and used, thus allowing for you to refine the design, and thereby to further refine your own thinking about the purposes of your work and its presentation.