Friday, November 24, 2006

The perfect website

The search for the perfect website goes on.  But much of the research into effectiveness continues to be inwardly-focused.  This piece from 2006 showed how factors like competition, consumer expectation, pricing, communication needed to be taken into account too.

Since the first commercial website was launched in 1993 (for the Digital Equipment Corporation, trivia fans), hardy coders and intrepid designers have together striven for a better world.  A world in which we could find what we want.  Where websites work, and pages load properly. 

Of course it hasn’t worked out like that.  We all know from personal experience that the web has a long way to go before it reaches perfection.  To gasps and a collective sigh of relief from the entire online industry then, we can reveal that the formula for the perfect website has been announced by a hosting company called Rackspace, who commissioned some people with high foreheads and white coats to come up with the Answer. 

If, like me, you’re a sucker for a bit of algebra, here it is.

Pwebsite = { ((14.14* EaseNav) + (13.56*Speed) + (13.11*CleanDes) + (10.89*Func) + (10.89*Up)) – ((12.63*Pops) + (10.32*Ads) +(5.21*MultiM)) } / 6.26

So what does this all mean?

The formula takes into account a number of variables, including ease of navigation, speed of loading, clean design, the presence and type of advertising, uptime and functionality, and uses them to divine a factor – Pwebsite, the perfect website.

Factors like speed and uptime (the percentage of time a site is actually live) are quantifiable, and a consumer survey is used to score performance against the other criteria. 

Now we shouldn’t take this too seriously – it is after all just a PR stunt – but it does reveal a common flaw in thinking about websites, and one that runs through much of the work done by many researchers in this area.

Most websites are businesses.

Business is about the profitable satisfaction of customers and like most attempts at research in this area, this one fails to show any interest in profit. 

This is an extension of the ‘if we build it they will come’ theory – make it attractive, functional, quick, and bingo we’ve got a great website – a perfect one, according to the research.  But none of this matters if visitors to our websites don’t buy, don’t register, don’t do what we want them to do.  And for a business to stay a business, that’s what matters.

So to make business successful online, we’ve got to understand what consumers want (often we’ve got to understand what they don’t even know they want).  But we’ve also got to understand how to make them want more, be prepared to pay more, to return, and to recommend us to their friends.  We’ve got to know how the margins work across the products featured on the site and what this means for how we display products, how delivery costs influence conversion, how descriptions impact on the volume of returns.

These are broadly marketing issues, and effective management of these is equally as important as customers’ opinions.

So how do you know whether for instance, your retail website is effective?  The answer is unfortunately much more complex than a simple equation.  However, just five questions will tell you if you need to do more work.

What is the reading age of your website?  Do delivery charges impact on conversion?  Does the profile of online customers differ from offline?  Has your key competitor added any new features in the last month?  Does the copy sell, or describe?

Most of these don’t have a right answer, but they do have an answer, and they’re indicators of whether a website’s design has been properly planned to serve both the business and the customer.  Websites should be in a constant state of development, and these questions address issues relevant to any business in a changing environment – competition, consumer expectation, pricing, communication. 

The website is the nexus between customer and business – it is the means by which the objectives of both can be satisfied.  So looking at what customers want is crucial, but it’s only part of the formula for success online.  The good news is, much of the rest of it is marketing.

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