When building (or rebuilding) a website it’s absolutely essential to outline and incorporate the following three items into your website build:
As a recovering developer, I find it acceptable to tell you: website developers are costly, finicky creatures generally devoid of social intelligence, power drunk off of their seeming strangle hold on your digital future and often times dangerously equipped with strong and pungent odors. It’s important that you are in a position of self-reliance as much as is humanly possible in order to avoid these highly volatile and typically over caffeinated abnormalities of human existence. You want and need the ability for you (or other, non-developer members of your organization) to manage your web application on an ongoing basis without the need for regular developer interaction.
Like your digital marketing strategy in general, your website is never complete. It should always be growing and should be built on a foundation that allows for additions and organic growth without the need for costly custom build-outs of functionality. It’s quite likely that you’ve already experienced the unbelievably frustrating event of having paid billions of dollars for a fabulously lavish, custom website build only to find that, shortly after deployment, the new [insert widget of choice here] you wanted to add resulted in a “proposal” for billions more or, much worse, wasn’t even possible with your current infrastructure and required yet another build from the ground up. If you’ve been here before, you never want to repeat this mistake. If you have had the good fortune of avoiding this tragic, yet all-too-common pitfall, allow me to assist in guiding you in the direction of near absolute protection from what I call the “woes of custom development.”
I list “user experience” last only because, of the three, it’s the one “must have” item that is difficult to define from a technical perspective because it’s completely dependent upon your goals, user base and specific functionality. With that said, your user experience (also called “ux”) is easily the single most important consideration when building a custom website. A positive user experience will not only increase your engagement and conversion, it will also increase your organic optimization! Google tracks and measures the engagement of users once they reach your website and uses that data in order to determine your relevance in relation to that user, their search query and their demographic standing. Ensuring a positive user experience is the cornerstone of effective application development.
Let’s dive a little deeper into each of these three items and apply some specificity to their output…
Manageability: The Content Management System (CMS)
A content management system (CMS) is a pre-existing application that your website is built “on top of”. It allows you to manage the site without the need of a full time developer or maintenance contract. A CMS equips you with a web based admin panel that allows you the ability to login and manage the site from anywhere you might find internet access. A well-equipped CMS should afford you the opportunity to:
- Add/edit/delete your main and sub-navigation
- Manage and update all onsite content including text, images and videos
- Add new pages, articles and blogs as necessary
- Manage “back end” components (like meta data, title tags, URLs and Alt tags for images)
- Manage admin panel access for other members of your organization
- Manage custom components of your application like backend databases and specific modules
A CMS is meant to empower your organization to utilize your website to the fullest extent of its abilities with the absolute bare minimum interaction required from the clichéd vampiresque developer.
Scalability: Open Source Technology
Now please allow me to enlighten you as to one of the dirtiest little secrets in the website development community.
Website developers (like most professions) crave job security. For this, and many other self-serving reasons, many developers operate from a proprietary development model; proprietary meaning that they’re building your website on a platform of their own creation. While there are circumstances where a proprietary model is appropriate and / or completely unavoidable (specifically in highly customized solutions), the vast majority of businesses – and I mean 95% – will be well served by an open source platform.
The proprietary development model is of great danger to you for a number of reasons. The first and foremost being that, should you choose to discontinue your relationship with this hypothetical developer, you’ll soon find that procuring a replacement is of great difficulty and, in some cases, an impossibility.
No matter how well built their custom CMS may be, it is often extremely difficult for an outside developer to decipher the inner workings of the custom code. Many times these developers build out their proprietary platforms with the specific aim of keeping an outside developer in the dark. This means, in short, that they basically own your digital presence and you are beholden to them for anything and everything you may need done to your website.
Even if you have absolute trust and faith in your developer – what happens if they suddenly go out of business? Get hit by a bus? Or are unable to perform a task or specific build that is key to your growth? If your site is on a proprietary platform your digital presence is only as strong as the development firm.
Open Source Content Management Systems are applications available for the developer to use absolutely free and can act as the foundation for the vast majority (again, I mean 95%) of websites. The beauty behind the open source model is that it is, prepare yourself for the redundancy, open. Every developer on the planet has the ability to view the source code, learn the model and work with and on your website. This means you have the entire global development community available to you as a potential workforce.
(For further research into the strange anomaly that is open source development, check out Dan Pink’s video on the surprising truth behind human motivation.)
Sound pretty good? It gets better…
One of the most powerful benefits of using an open source content management system is the community that accompanies it. Picture tens of thousands of independent developers who are constantly creating modules, plugins, templates and other forms of additional functionality available for use with your CMS. This means, when the times comes for you to add that special new widget you just can’t live without, your developer can pull an existing module right off of the digital shelf, customize it to your needs and integrate it directly with your CMS. While this integration isn’t free, it is exponentially less expensive (and less time consuming) than having to build said widget from the ground up.
Already too good to be true? Allow me to blow your mind further. The digital world is in a constant state of growth. Best practices, coding conventions and industry requirements are changing all the time. If you’re on a proprietary platform, you’re at the mercy of your current developer’s ability to keep up with this frantic rate of change in order to ensure that your CMS meets all of these standards. If you’re using an open source system the global community, which supports this system is constantly innovating in order to make sure the application is kept up to date. Regular updates are common and easily to integrate and ensuring best practice compliance becomes exponentially easier with an innumerable workforce slaving away in the pursuit of maintaining the integrity of the application with which they all have a common investment and interest.
User Experience: Optimization
“Optimization” is an interesting word in the realm of custom website development. It’s a sort of catch-all that developers use in an attempt to over exaggerate the importance of certain tasks. It’s also used to distract from the fact that many of the key “needs” in website development don’t have clearly defined requirements and are left to the knowledge and interpretation of the developer. With that said, there are some very specific rules that should be followed in order to have a well optimized website.
Responsive web design optimizes your web application for user engagement regardless of the type of device being used to view your website. With responsive design the tools, media, functional components and content that comprise your website are built in a modular fashion that allows the application to dynamically resize or adjust the placement of each of these “pieces” of your website in a way that allows them to be easily engaged regardless of your users device or screen size. The website literally “responds” to the device in use. While not all facets of a website can be completely responsive (specifically advanced functional components), the majority of them can be built within the confines of a responsive structure.
Responsive design is the answer to the mobile optimization issue of how to build a website that users are able to engage with from all by mobile devices (smart phones and tablets). Statistically, 60% of online traffic comes from mobile devices (Small Biz Trends) which means not having an application that allows for easy mobile engagement can be devastatingly detrimental for user engagement.
Prior to responsive design, many websites employed the use of separate mobile sites. If a user queried a website on a mobile device, they were delivered a completely separate (or largely modified) web application built specifically for mobile device engagement. While this wasn’t a “bad idea”, there are issues with this approach.
The first issue is you are left managing two separate applications; even if the mobile application queries data from the desktop tool, there are still portions of the site that simply don’t translate. The second (and much larger issue) is that a mobile website is technically an entirely separate website in the eyes of Lord Google. This is an issue because Google applies a massive amount of value to what they have termed as “domain authority”.
Domain authority is how Google has chosen to measure and rank your domain. The traffic you receive is measured and monitored in order to determine how effective your site’s engagement is and you are scored according to that engagement. With two separate sites your domain authority literally splits in half which can make organic optimization extremely difficult to achieve since you’re now basically having to do double the amount of work.
Not all browsers are created equal (we’re looking at you Internet Explorer). When building a custom web application, it’s important that the tool is built in a way that allows for seamless engagement with as many internet browsers as is feasible. What’s interesting about these browsing tools is they will all interpret your web application differently; certain tools and technologies might not work with specific browsers, content and media might look different on certain browsers and the speed of your application can be affected by the browser’s approach to loading your website.
Because of this it’s necessary to test the website on all browsers with any substantial user base. Especially if your buyer persona is expected to engage heavily with a specific browser. For instance, if your target buyer is an older, affluent persona they’re more likely to engage with Safari (Apple’s on-board browser) which means your website should be built with Safari as the primary optimized browser defaulting to Safari’s interpretation of the site where variations exist.
This might be where I lose you. One of the issues that we face when building custom web applications is the need to balance creativity and innovation with user expectations and what has been established as common best practices. Oftentimes innovation, especially in terms of how a web application navigates or functions, can mean alienating users simply because they’re not used to engaging “in that way”. This problem can be frustrating for ambitious Clients who want to stand out and be unique; it is even more so in cases where the new approach is truly a better or more logical approach to web development but faces a lack of engagement simply because it doesn’t fit within the user’s web browsing paradigm.
This balancing act requires us to recognize the fact that websites have, over time, established socially integrated (often unspoken) pseudo best practices that the global development community has unofficially established as the “right” way to do things. My favorite example of this is the horizontal main menu. While there are a substantial number of websites that break this “rule” the vast majority of web applications have horizontal main page navigation across the top of the site instead of vertical navigation along the side. In the case of sites with extremely large catalogs of content a vertical menu would be much less limiting since our browsing experience has acclimated us to vertical scrolling.
Of course, “once you know the rules you can break them”, but it’s our job as your custom web application consultants and developers to inform you of what is common best practice. Once that has been stated, it is your website! You should do as you please.
So…now what? Let’s talk! If you’re willing to give us fifteen minutes of your time we can give you clarity and direction when it comes to websites and marketing.