Think of the people who visit your site as blind dates. When you open the door, your blind date usually knows whether they are attracted to you within the first minute. How do they know? Easy. By how you look, what you say, and how you treat them. If you open the door wearing the same clothes you wore in 1987, say, "Wow, from my friend's description, I thought you would be a lot better looking," and sneeze in your dates face, not only will you never get a second date, your date will run for his/her life.
The same rules apply to your website. When people do a search for something they want to buy, they usually have many sites to choose from. If yours does not impress them right off the bat, it takes about five seconds for them to find another that does show them what they want to see. There are plenty of other fish in the sea. You are just one among many.
So what do people want to see, you ask? There are 3 standards of website excellence, and they are the same standards you would use to judge your blind date:
1. How it looks: If I visit two different websites with the purpose of buying something, and those two websites sold the exact same product at the exact same price, I would buy from the site that looked better--the one whose design made me think, "Wow, these guys must be making good money if they can afford to hire a good graphic designer." The more money I think the business makes, the more I will identify them with value and professionalism.
The bottom line is, you need to make web design a priority. There are plenty of people out there who have graphic designer friends willing to design their website for next to nothing. Those people have the advantage because, even if they aren't the superior business, visitors will perceive them to be superior.
If you don't have any connections with graphic designers willing to do you a favor, see if you can find a starving artist willing to design the layout of your site. If anyone has an eye for aesthetics and is willing to work cheap, it's a starving artist. Once you know what your site should look like, either you or a web designer can bring the artist's vision to life.
Take the time to design something that represents your business or product well. Don't just throw up a website with gaudy wallpaper, out of focus pictures and graphics placed at random. Remember that first moment when you open the door to a blind date. Remember how much appearances count for in this world.
2. What you say: You want the person who visits your site to know instantly what you're selling and why they should buy from you. Visual representation has a lot to do with this, but you need to watch what you say as well. You must be clear, concise and focused. Don't make the visitor decipher a cryptic headline full of spelling and grammar errors. Include headlines that shout to the reader exactly what you want them to hear.
Go over your copy a hundred times if you must, or have a proofreader edit your copy. You must be sure that a potential customer won't get lost in a stream of consciousness narrative about your product or company, and come out saying, "What was that all about?"
Above all, think carefully about the colors you use for your font. Make sure there is plenty of contrast between the background and the font color. Never put a yellow font on an orange background. Also, be careful with white fonts on black backgrounds. If the letters are large, they will be easy enough to read, but if they are 14 point or smaller, your visitor won't even bother with the copy. No matter what colors you use, always make your font large enough. If people have to squint to read your copy, it is too small.
3. How you treat them--It is socially acceptable for a woman to keep her date waiting, letting him know that she doesn't consider him a priority. However, it is not acceptable for your site to keep a visitor waiting. If your site takes too long to load, the visitor will simply find another site.
Do what you can to ensure that your site will download quickly. One easy thing to remember is that, if you have too much content on a page, it's going to take a long time to load. Also, if you are on a free server, and you are sharing a port with others, your loading time will be lengthy. More specifically, if you have images that are uncompressed, they could be at 70k or 80k, as opposed to compressed images that look almost identical and load at a preferable rate of 5k or 10k.
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