Tuesday January 15th 2013
There’s a funny thing about websites and web design. It’s the innate separation of the front end– what the user sees and interacts with– and the back end, which is behind-the-scenes “heavy lifting” and code. A website can work pretty well on the front end, but be so inefficient and bloated on the back end that it actually hurts a business. When company decision makers don’t pay enough attention to this, they can create a website that’s cumbersome and limiting. Focusing more on non-essential features and “bells and whistles” in the beginning takes money away from the important things like planning, structure, compatibility, and testing. Investing in a solid website foundation that you can build on is always smarter than creating a trendy but finite website that’s “done” today. Imagine a simpler site with a great foundation and compare it to an advanced site that includes a ton of features. After they’ve both been live for a year, the site with a good foundation is ready to build on top of, meaning your entire budget can go into add ons and improvements. The advanced site is likely so complicated (and possibly even outdated) that all of your money will go into starting again from scratch. If you’ve had to patch up problems or tweak misguided features, then you’ve been adding to the mess. Forget about building on it at all. It won’t make sense, financially or otherwise. So What Exactly is a Solid Foundation? When I talk about a website’s foundation, I’m referring to some basic staples that every website on the Internet can benefit from. To start, important decisions need to be made about the CMS (content management system), the HTML and CSS code structure, URL structure, visual design systems, information architecture, and database design. Your content management needs to be easy and scalable. A good content management system will increase the frequency of your content updates because it will be easy to make those updates. This is often overlooked, but it’s so important. A complicated or confusing process to update content means no one will ever do it. Code structure, specifically your HTML and CSS, is also a really important foundational element. Proper HTML tag structure means that your website will be better optimized for SEO and easier for search engines and content aggregators to index and use. A scalable and systematic CSS structure means it will be fast and easy to update visual design, including potentially revamping the entire look and layout of your website without changing a single line of back end code. (That’s a technical way of saying you can completely refresh your site for a fraction of the cost of building from the ground up.) URL structure is how your URLs, or the links to your site, are formatted. URL setup has long-term implications, because once someone links to your page, that link is out there “in the wild.” If you change your site and your URL structure, that link breaks. As the Web in general grows and matures, URLs are becoming more and more important. In addition to future-proofing, a smart URL structure helps people know what they’re about to click on and even helps them guess at a URL they might not quite remember. Good visual design systems and information architecture ensure that no matter what content, tools, or trends need to be added to a website, they have a logical visual style that fits the rest of the content, and they have a logical place within your website’s hierarchy. All it takes here is planning. Finally, database design is the organization of your content and how it’s stored in your site’s database. A properly planned database needs to be written once, and then you can use it for redesign after redesign. For instance, no matter how many times my company redesigns our website, we always have a portfolio section that shows our work with screenshots and a write-up. Every site we build for ourselves, from now and far into the foreseeable future, will always need that same content and content structure. So why recreate it? A Foundation Saves Time and Money Enough of the technical side. For that, I recommend hiring a professional. What’s often mistaken for that intangible “professional touch” is actually extremely tangible, very methodical and financially beneficial long term. Admittedly, if you’re not a web programmer, this stuff is easy to miss. Just know that your website should always reflect your business goals and your company’s style and tone. It doesn’t need to be completely torn down and rebuilt when you need an update, though. (You don’t completely start your company from scratch every year or two, do you?) It just needs to be refreshed, built upon, tweaked and improved to reflect your growing company. And just so you know, with a solid foundation, you don’t even need the same programmers to make updates. Good code and planning is sharable and scalable. You Can’t Predict Feature Needs In addition to saving money on rebuilds, investing in a foundation first is a huge opportunity to save money and prevent “feature bloat.” What tends to happen with corporate redesign is that decision makers see the website as a one-time purchase, rather than an ongoing investment. So, logically, they want to make sure that they cram every last possible feature anyone could want into each rebuild... after all, it needs to last a year or more! That’s one of the biggest mistakes made when creating websites. The entrepreneur scene and the application design scene are both huge proponents of the concepts of iteration and pivoting. We should learn from them. Get a basic version of what you’re trying to do into peoples’ hands, and then let them dictate where your website goes. Otherwise, you might spend a ton of time and money building a feature that’s rarely used. Meanwhile, while your potential customers are struggling with another, more highly trafficked section that received less attention up front. I recommend taking all the money you were planning to put into “cool” features and either put it into your foundation, or save it for when those features become proven needs. The Bottom Line Invest in your business by investing in your website. Stop creating “throw away” sites over and over again. It’s 2013, and your website absolutely can help you make money, even if you don’t sell products directly through it. All you need to do is take advantage of today’s tools, but to do that, you’ll need a website that’s flexible and solid.
Investing in a solid foundation for your website is smarter than putting your money into building advanced features before they’re necessary.