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Dangerous First Impressions!--Why Audit your site

Published in the East Bay Business Times 11/30/2007
Published in the North Bay Business Journal 12/3/2007

Web users form first impressions of sites in as little as three seconds. Your potential clients, referral sources and recruiting prospects make instantaneous judgments of a site's visual appeal. First impressions can skew subsequent judgments of perceived credibility, usability and ultimately influence whether to contact you or not. You only get one chance to create a good first impression, make it count. A clean and professional site can ensure that your first impression will be a good one.

What's at risk? Below are the dangerous losses from a poorly designed Web site:

  1. Brand integrity
  2. Credibility
  3. Potential Clients / Existing Customers
  4. Revenue
  5. Geographic reach

Site surfers are fickle. When an existing client or prospective customer goes to your site they want information and they want information fast. Users will not wait for flash animations and absolutely despise "coming soon" or "under construction" signs with winking construction workers. They shutter at a home page crowded with everything under the kitchen sink the site has to offer. Users will not waste more than THREE seconds figuring out how your site is organized.

Warning: If clients do not find what they need, when they need it, they will leave your site and likely never return.

Brand is very important and does not simply refer to a logo. A site's brand should include logo positioning and color scheme, but it should also include your voice and unique graphical images. It must be an integrated effort, matching all print collateral. Clients will acknowledge your consistency and the brand will be enforced.

Credibility is critical for all businesses. Consider this scenario. A business owner knows he or she needs a Web site, spends tens of thousands of dollars on print collateral and then hires their nephew to build a Web site for a few hundred bucks. May be a smart kid, but knows nothing about branding, marketing or design. Customers aren't fools; they know when you have taken the time to plan out a Web site. If you or your team is embarrassed to send customers to your site, then pay attention. You are losing credibility and quite frankly potential business to your competitors. Building a site should be managed through a marketing or business development director.

Great sites do not guarantee clients and customers, but a bad one certainly will crush business development. For instance, an ecommerce site runs massive risks. Customers shopping online often complain about expired SSL certificates (SSL Certificates ensure credit card security), broken links, missing images, confusing page flow to purchase items, poor instructions and obvious programming errors. Customers will never come back to these sites. Keep in mind, there are not many e-commerce sites as successful as Amazon.com. It's my opinion that the Amazon site flow is quite confusing. However, Amazon has enormous market share, so customers just put up with it. Most e-commerce businesses do not have the luxury of being a multi-million dollar business annually.

CPA firms, law firms, Real Estate companies and other professional services sites are notoriously bad at keeping content up to date. If you try to find an attorney you may find them on the site but then learn that they moved to Kansas. Occasionally you find mug shots of service professionals outdated, missing, or the site reflecting inaccurate staffing. The quality of the images on your site is very important. It's your choice. Do you want to cut costs and take back alley photos with your digital camera, showing your CFO Bob with spinach in his smile or do you want to spend the money hiring a professional photographer? Your customers want to trust you and so how you appear is important. Is your image appropriate to your business? Can your customers trust you with their money?

Losing customers also means losing profits. If your customer cannot find information on your site, but finds what they need on a competitor's site.say goodbye.

So, What is a Website Audit?

A Web site audit is your key to improving your customer experience, increasing the ability to acquire new customers, making more money, building community and "buzz" around your site to keep the company name, products and services top of mind. This audit may be an informal or formal document from a company specializing in audits. To start, you might ask your clients some of the following questions:

  1. Did you find what you were looking for and did you find it fast?
  2. Having been to the site, do you have a desire to go back to it?
  3. What would it take for you to go back to the site?
  4. What do you need?
  5. How can we best provide this?

If you do not have the time to do an audit yourself, you can hire a company that performs these audits. Web Site Audits are typically 20-30 page documents and recommendations that outline some of the following:

  1. First impressions (Is your customer getting what they want?)
  2. Branding (Consistency of brand through language, layout, font use and graphics)
  3. Heuristics (Success of user tasks, site efficiency, simplicity and error handling)
  4. Competition (Competitive Analysis)
  5. Search Engine positioning (How are you ranked based on existing key words)

Jamie Spooner is founder of Planeteria www.planeteria.com, a Website design and development firm. Jamie also provides consulting services and audits to identify usability problems in Websites. She can be reached directly at (707) 849-0588 or via e-mail at [email protected].