Web designers – start your engines

As a design magazine, Design Week quite rightly focuses on, well, design issues. As a Web production company, the pitch to a client is usually based on work that you’ve done for previous clients: “Here’s the site we did for so and so, this is what they said they wanted and here are the designs we did in response.” Throw in a bit of chat about navigation and branding within the site, nod wisely when they ask if you can make their logo a bit bigger and Bob’s your uncle.

But with so many clients still confused by the whole on-line thing, is starting out with design necessarily the best way of convincing a client that you’re the consultancy which is going to do the job that they want?

Matteo Berlucchi, head of Web marketing at multimedia consultancy Hyperlink, believes that having a decent ranking in a search engine is more effective than even the greatest piece of creative design work. Given that more than 80 per cent of users’ Web sessions start with a search engine, it’s obviously a very important way of getting eyeballs to a site, he says.

Basically, the visibility of your site in the morass that makes up the Web should precede any debate about human computer interface issues, interactivity and navigation. Of course, all these things matter, and ultimately determine whether people return to a site or recommend them to friends, but the first battle to win is getting them there.

Out of all the search engines and directories, Yahoo stands out as the most significant. A recent survey by Fletcher Research (www.fletch.co.uk) revealed that Yahoo had the greatest reach among UK users, with 61 per cent of them visiting the site during the two-week survey period. The message is simple: get your listing right in Yahoo and you’re half way there. You submit your site to Yahoo and then the listings are done by human beings who appraise it, write a summary and add it to various sections.

But there are also search engines such as Hotbot which rely on software rather than human intervention to index your site and these are more problematic. What might make great visually exciting sites or even highly functional ones (databases) generally perform very poorly when an automated system tries to index them.

Basically, the lack of text, particularly in key places such as the index page, makes for a pretty poor listing. As Berlucchi says: “It’s important to design, build and then maintain a site around the marketing needs and the search engines. Over time the user logs and log analysis have to be core to a strategy. They tell you which bits of the site are performing and how people are getting to your site.”

A lot of attention is focused on banners as another way of bringing traffic to a site, but here too it’s important to look closely at the results in the overall context. While the industry average click-through is between 1 and 2 per cent, Berlucchi believes it’s important not to get caught up solely in this figure. “What matters is whether having come to the site, visitors then actually buy the product or take the action that you want them to,” he says.

Comparing the elements of a personal loan campaign that Hyperlink undertook for the Alliance & Leicester last year, Berlucchi points out that traffic which arrived at the site via search engines was more than twice as likely to request further information than the traffic brought in by comparable banners.

Graham Goodkind, former managing director of Lynne Franks PR and currently joint MD of Funmail – a free Web-based e-mail service due to launch in April, – takes this even further. “Why spend thousands of pounds on a banner campaign at all? The best way of promoting on-line stuff is through word of mouth. If you look at the website Ourfirsttime.com, which purported to be a website about a couple having sex for the first time, there was a huge buzz and it turned out to be a publicity stunt for condoms. Everyone talked about it, it was all over the media and it probably cost nothing,” he says.

The message to designers and clients is to make sure you’re not just concentrating on the design work on your own site, but also to look at how it might work in a wider context. After all, without the mechanisms to get traffic to a site, even the most sumptuous creation is no more than the sound of one hand clapping.

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