I originally wrote this piece for Razor Enterprise in the fall of 2003.

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What is a Website For?

by Derek K. Miller

Pretty much every business and organization should have a website today. You might already have said to yourself, "I need a website." Or, if you already have one, "I need a better website." However, before you move on, it's wise to step back and ask why you need a website. And what that really means is asking "What is my website for?"

We think the key is that your website is not for you—it's for the people who visit it. Keeping that in mind helps you make better decisions about how to build your site, and what you should do with it once it's up and running.

Of course there are benefits that flow from the site to you, or your business or organization—an enhanced reputation, better visibility, the ability to reach people around the world, and maybe even direct sales. But don't focus on selling as much as you possibly can online by pushing a "Buy! Buy! Buy!" message at your visitors. In many cases, you're more likely to appeal to people if you have a site that visitors like to visit, and like to return to.

Think useful

A good website is a useful website. Most people run a web browser to do one of two things:

The two are interrelated, but in each case, it's the web visitor who determines what's useful, not the organization behind any given website. And a website brings people back by remaining useful even after the first visit, usually by posting useful new stuff (information to get, or things to do) fairly regularly.

A neighbourhood store for the whole world

Think about what keeps a neighbourhood shop (such as a small hardware store) in business when big-box outlets like Home Depot are around. It's probably not selection, or price, or even location. It's the personal relationships between the staff at the store and the people who shop there. Customers know they can come in with a question about how to fix their sinks and get a personal answer, and maybe buy the supplies to do the job right then.

A smart proprietor also knows when to send customers elsewhere. "Sorry, I don't carry lampshades here. I could order you in one, but I know the lighting store on Fraser Street probably has what you need. Can I call them to hold it for you so you can pick it up?"

The Web works like that too. The best websites are useful in themselves, but also become more useful by pointing you to other useful places when they don't have exactly what you're looking for. If you think about it, the most useful and popular websites—search sites like Google and Yahoo!—do nothing but point people elsewhere.

Take advantage of your uniqueness

Why do people work with you? Because you have unique skills, knowledge, and expertise. Your website should make it obvious to everyone that you know what you're doing. People who arrive wondering what you do should leave knowing not only that, but also that you're good at it. And they'll want to come back.

A hardware store owner who wants to build a useful website probably can't easily put up a bigger online catalog with more products at cheaper prices than anyone else. But he or she can post short articles about his or her expertise. If you have years of experience helping people make decorative paving stones, why not write about it? Why not have a monthly feature on different styles of paving stones and ways to make them work in the garden or back yard?

A massage therapist's office should have more that its hours of business online. How about a regular series of articles helping people learn about their own muscles and bones, so they find out why they hurt and what the therapists are doing to help?

A non-profit foundation could have stories about the people it helps, to show where the money goes. A hiking club can post photos and maps of each of its latest hikes, and survey members about where they'd like to go in the future.

Share your knowledge

It's not just your skills that are unique, but also what you know about your field. Don't be afraid to link to other websites—even your competitors'—if you know they have something useful available. Big sites like Google try to please everybody, but it's someone with deep knowledge of a field who can be an effective filter. You're the expert, and only someone like you can really sort out what's good and bad on the Web in your field of expertise.

Like the hardware store owner who sends people to the lighting store, visitors will remember you if you send them to the best places when you can't serve them directly. If your site consistently provides good information and good links, it will become the place people start when looking for information about your field. They'll trust you because you've shown that you are trustworthy. Then, if you want to sell them something, or have them join your club, or ask them to make a donation, you'll be their first choice.

Help people use what they already know

The last couple of years have seen significant changes in how websites get built. That's because the people building sites have come to realize that the people visiting sites aren't looking for the most gorgeous, flashy, high-tech, eye-popping sites with fancy animated buttons and thumping sountracks. They're looking for good information and things to do.

So a site that works like other sites—one that's easy to search and move around, with navigation links in familiar places, text that's easy to read, and a friendly, accessible, attractive layout—is more likely to bring people in and keep them coming back. Among web designers, sites that are easy to use are said to have better usability. And, everything else being equal, a more usable site is a more useful site. It's more likely to garner you a good reputation, and it brings more benefits to your business or organization.

Building a good website

So what is a website for?

If you set up a website that works to meet these goals, you'll be far ahead of the vast majority of sites that don't even know about them. And your visitors will thank you.

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Page BBEdited on 7-May-04 (originally published November 2003)

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