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How thinking about your website can benefit your business

By John Faulds /

I recently had a discussion with a client that I'd already produced a template for who said they wanted to change the primary navigation items at the top of each page. As the site hadn't gone live yet (they were producing it themselves – I'd simply done the graphic and template design for them), I didn't see much problem with fulfilling their request. But it was a two-part request and the part that raised a warning flag for me was that they wanted the navigation to be flexible enough for them to be able to make further changes easily at some point in the future.

Ordinarily, building flexibility into a website whether it be in terms of flexibility for the site to expand in content or just expand on screen when a site visitor resizes text, is a primary concern, and something that I always strive to achieve. But in this case, the motivation behind the request was more important than the request itself.

A website's primary navigation will not only dictate the site's structure, but is also an important part of defining the message you're try to impart with your website. So when a client says "This will do for now but we might change it later" in relation to site navigation/structure or other key parts of the site, it could possibly be because not enough thought has gone into what the website is about, what it is trying to say and to whom.

Know your business

Marketing experts will tell you that knowing your products/services, your customers (both existing and potential) and what sets you apart from the competition are some of the keys to running a successful business. Once you have this knowledge, you then need to know how to impart it to people so that they'll be persuaded to spend some time considering what you have to offer.

To a certain extent, it should be up to the web developer you hire to help you take whatever information you have and structure and present it so that it first captures a site visitor's attention and then leads them through your site to a point at which they then carry out an action that leads to a profitable result for the business.

But the web developer can only do so much; they have to be led by what you, the site owner, believes to be the key selling points of the business and which parts should receive the most focus. So if you have some indecision about the aspects of your business that you want to focus on, or how they should be grouped together, it might be worth spending some time considering your business and its selling points before proceeding with your web development project.

Benefits of thinking ahead

There are a number of benefits to spending some time on formulating these ideas before rushing ahead:

  • Any time you spend actually thinking about the nature of your business and ways to improve it can only be a good thing. You may find that the processes put in motion by considering how best to present your content on the web have beneficial flow-on effects in other areas of the business which means you end up with a win-win situation: a website that achieves its goals and a business that is healthier overall because of new ideas generated during the development process.

  • By getting your message and how your website should present it right at the start, you'll save yourself money later on because you won't need your web developer to have to spend additional time making changes. How much time and expense will vary depending on how radical the changes are, but if your initial idea of how your site should be structured was only ever going to be temporary and you make wholesale changes, you can expect the cost to be equal to a large percentage of what was paid for the site initially.

  • If you're a new business you might not have that well-formed an idea yet about your target audience and may need time to gather this knowledge. During this initial learning phase, it might be tempting to rework your website regularly as you respond to knew information as it comes in. But altering a site's primary navigation and therefore it's overall structure should be approached with caution for a couple of reasons:

    1. One of the aims when developing a website is to create a consistent user experience. While changing primary navigation elements might make things clearer or simpler for new visitors, for returning visitors it can lead to confusion because they can't immediately find what they are looking for and have to invest new time into discovering how the site is put together. For some, the inconvenience they experience may lead to them not coming back. For this reason, changing a site's primary navigation is not something that should be done on a regular basis, but rather restricted to major redesigns.

    2. Probably the most important way for new people to find your site is through search engines and search engines are able to provide information to searchers by 'indexing' your site, which means creating a catalogue of all the pages on your site and the content they contain. Indexing your site will mean it is stored in a search engine's database ready to be returned as a result for a particular search, but how far towards the top of the search results (and therefore how likely it is that someone will click through to your site) is influenced by a number of factors.

      If you decide to change your site's structure, it is highly likely that a number of your page's URLs (links) will change too which means not only will the search engines have to update their indexes for the results they return for your site, but if you have links to particular pages from external sites, which help boost those pages in the search engine results, then those links will become broken. This has the doubly negative effect of people not being able to follow old links to your site, but also your site possibly dropping in the search engine results until the new pages take the place of the old ones in the indexes.

      There are things that can be done on your web server to help alleviate these side effects of changing pages, but again, more work is required, not only to make the changes at the time the site's pages change, but also afterwards to monitor the effects on the search engines.

So by investing a bit of time considering your website's message and goals, not only may you benefit your business by generating new ideas or a clearer picture about what you're trying to achieve, but you'll also save yourself time and effort later on by not having to undertake additional redevelopment. If your business is only new, it might also be worth your while incorporating your ideas for your website in your business plan, so that your overall business goals and those for your website are even more tightly integrated.