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A “first-things-first” guide to website planning

Joe Ross - Website Planning AuthorHaving spent most of the last two decades planning, developing and marketing websites, I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t when marketing your business online. For the most part, I can sum up website planning in one word: relationships. Thousands of books and articles have been written about building relationships online. In the end, it isn’t any different than building relationships offline.

Business relationships are often compared to dating. The metaphor works in the sense that you start by talking a little, then maybe go out for coffee… Over time, a lot of other stuff happens until, shazam! One day you get married. The point here is that beginning a relationaship with a marriage proposal pretty much never works. And if it does, your odds of marrying a desperate, toxic nut-job are pretty high.

I think a better comparison is a student-teacher relationship. Outside of our marketing agency, I teach scuba. I am passionate about diving, especially deep diving, using exotic breathing gasses and hundreds of pounds of highly specialized equipment. Although a student brand new to diving has no need to understand the effects of high oxygen partial pressures on the human body, my expertise is never questioned. The rationale being that if I can survive dives in excess of 100 meters, breathing gasses I mixed myself, surely I must be qualified to teach a new diver to swim around in the top 60 feet or so. When that same diver is ready to buy equipment, who do you think he/she goes to? My students won’t even consider making a purchase without talking to me first.

That concept translates to virtaully every business relationship and should form the basis of your website planning. Website planning is relationship planning.

The first step in website planning

The absolute first rule in website planning is to make sure the right people see it. 7/11 stores are located on busy neighborhood intersections becasue people who like Slurpees live there. In today’s world, ‘busy intersection’ means Google’s search engine results page (SERP). If you stop reading right here, take away this one concept: Make a plan to reach your audience in Google search before you even think about website design.

I see it over and over. Clients toil over every pixel and make countless revisions spanning months to make their websites “perfect” before allowing us to take them live. Meanwile, not one human being is exposed to their business online. With this in mind, website planning essentially means Google planning.

I’ve never been comfortable with the term, search engine optimization (SEO). Partly, that’s because so many of the people and agencies that claim to be SEOs fall somewhere between incompetent and crooked. I just don’t want to be lumped in with that group. I also don’t think SEO is as hard as it is time consuming. At least, not for most businesses.

SEO is a critical stage in website planning

After over a decade resisting the term “SEO,” I’ve grudgingly come to embrace it. If you want your website to bring you customers, you have to play by Google’s rules. That means the written text has to take priority over design. Yet, I’m told over and over, “people don’t read online.” Really? Scores of bloggers make their living writing content people read online. It is more accurate to say, “people don’t read boring crap online.”

The fact is, people DO read online. They read a lot. It’s just that they are very choosey about what they read. If you are a sucky writer, don’t expect people to read your sucky writing just becasue you want them to. Be the expert in your business, but hire pros to do the writing for your website.

A website writer must understand how to write engaging content for humans that also supports the relevancy requirements for search engine rankings. Writing for SEO purposes is an essential website planning strategy.

Make typography a website design priority

The myth that people “don’t read on the Internet” is partly made believable because large blocks of text are miserable to read online. You can solve that problem by making content readable. Unless and until we (we being OCG Creative) bring it up, typography never enters the conversations about website planning we have with our clients.

Typography includes all the elements realted to your website’s written content. The creative use of headings, type styles, font choices, sizes, color, italics, bolding, lists, etc. all contribute to the readability of your website content. Website text must be well-sectioned and scanable by the reader. Online readers will scan your page for specific terms in about 2 seconds before deciding whether to read it or go back to Google and search some more. Therefore, it is essential that typography be central to your website planning.

Your website is never “done”

Right from the start, accept that your website will never be done. Your planning process must include a strategy for ongoing updates. In nearly every instance, websites that are easy to update get more attention than those that aren’t. Generally speaking, the more complex the website design, the more difficult it is to make changes. Plan your website for your visitors, not your designer, or worse, your ego.

It’s funny. We ask new clients every day to describe what elements they feel are most important to their websites. 9 times out of 10, the first word they’ll use is “clean.” Yet, 9 times out of 10, the same client will want everything he or she can think of thrown in once the design phase begins. At the same time, all attention shifts away from content and search engine rankings in favor of graphics.

Website planning Dos and Don’ts

Website planning Dos

  • Do: Plan your website for Google search rankings. Don’t worry about Bing and Yahoo! They have weak market share, and if you rank well in Google, you’ll almost certainly rank well in Bing and Yahoo! also.
  • Do: Make your content easy to read with headings, lists, color, etc.
  • Do: Write content for specific search terms (keywords) people in your target market actually use.
  • Do: Make your website easy to update and maintain.
  • Do: Make an honest assessment of your writing ability and hire a professional writer anyway, becasue writing for Google–while still being interesting to humans–is a specialized skill.
  • Do: Place priority on speed over design perfection. Make your website sexier over time, but get it working toward top search engine rankings first.

Website planning Don’ts

  • Don’t: Waste time on anything that doesn’t support the specific, measurable goals of your website visitors. (Those should also be your goals.)
  • Don’t: Fall in love with your own design ideas. A good web design firm will know how to reach and engage your audience. In my case, I can show you success stories for hundreds of clients spanning decades. Put that to work for you.
  • Don’t: Delay getting your website live over nit-picky changes.
  • Don’t: Hide your personality (unless you’re a jerk) by using overly formal or flowery writing. Be approachable and real.
  • Don’t: Stake your online success on the wrong people. Internet marketing is incredibly complex and specialized. You need a team of pros.

Now, go plan your website

By now, it should be clear that search engine rankings and speed win out over everything else about your website. Once you make it to the top of Google, you’ll have the luxury of dialing in your website for conversions. At that point, you can make all the deisgn changes you want. But early on, plan your website around rankings. I promise you’ll thank me later.

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