Imagine spinning someone around so profoundly and for so long that when you finally tell them to open their eyes, they ask "Where am I?" not knowing if they are even on the same continent they started from. When someone comes to your web site from a search engine or through a link from another site, it's like that for them. They may have little or no context within which to understand your home page - or another page deep within your site that they've landed on.
By imagining and engineering your site for that profoundly disoriented visitor, you can add subtle clues and explicit messages to your site that orient the person arriving at your site from who knows where. You can do this without "dumbing down" your presentation in any way, turning confused visitors into converted ones.
For instance, while judging sites for the Webby Awards, I've sometimes found myself at a home page about a city that appears justifiably proud of itself for all that it's achieved, yet I haven't a clue what state or province or even what country that city is located in. It's easier to appreciate what you're reading if you know that Kamloops is in British Columbia, Canada and not in Scotland or New Zealand.
Likewise, when people are searching for a service provider and you do what you do only in a specific geographical area, say so right on your home page. For instance, if you provide emergency on-site technical support throughout Southern Vermont, say so. You'll have fewer potential clients clicking away in confusion and have fewer inappropriate phone or email inquiries to deal with.
Sometimes the missing orientation pertains to your profession rather than geography. For instance, I was once sent to look at a site on "Japanese candlestick trading" and found myself completely mystified. After reading a few paragraphs, I gathered that this had something to do with investing in the stock market, but even after I'd read the whole page I didn't know what it had to do with Japan or with candlesticks. How much nicer to include a sentence like this not far into the home page: "Since its origin in 14th century Japan, this method of stock trading according to candlestick-shaped patterns of price shifts on a graph has..."
Another time I evaluated a site for a firm that did "information protection" and "intellectual asset management." Even after reading the entire site, I wasn't sure what kinds of information or intellectual assets the firm protected and managed. I checked with the head of the firm, and my top two guesses were wrong. In fact, the firm helps companies protect trade secrets, confidential company information and intellectual property from theft or inadvertent exposure. Again, be specific and clear so that you let first-time visitors understand whether you offer the expertise or product line that they're looking for.
These three site components help you provide clues to first- time visitors to your site: the page title - the text that appears in the top left corner of the browser; the site's name and tag line, which normally appear as unifying elements on every page; and the wording or text that appears on the home page or other page. Explicitly or through the accumulation of strong clues, make sure that someone coming to your site without any advance warning of what you do will feel oriented within their first 20 or 30 seconds.
Marcia Yudkin is the author of Web Site Marketing Makeover and 10 other books. A four-time Webby Awards judge and internationally famous marketing consultant, she critiques web sites and performs web site makeovers for clients. Learn more about her detailed critique sessions on five different kinds of web sites at http://www.yudkin.com/websitequiz.htm .