In what may be the single biggest debut belly flop in internet history, the healthcare.gov website continues to struggle with intermittent outages, an inability to handle peak usage and critical breakdowns at key points.
Put aside the politics for a second: is anyone really surprised that a website project didn’t go according to plan? Web developers, I do not disparage you. Creating a website from scratch or radically overhauling an existing property requires several parties to come together and share expertise. Marketers want the site to look good and convert leads to sales; web developers want the site to function seamlessly and showcase their latest technical wizardry; content developers want to make sure the writing sings and the visual elements help tell a cohesive story … and the C-suite just wants the project done already.
The problem is that these core parties are rarely speaking the same language. What’s a priority for one is last on the list for another. So how to tackle a web project without going past deadline and over budget? Following are a few tried and true tips to make your next website overhaul smooth sailing.
Organize, organize, organize. There’s no substitute for proper planning. What’s the point of this new site, anyway? Is it to give prospects a place to get to know your company? A must-visit hub for existing clients? A reference for the industry on best practices? Some combination of all of the above? Your navigation needs to reflect that. Start with broad categories (About the Company, Services) and build out pages underneath each topline idea.
Streamline. Focus on simplifying each page under the broad categories to one or two subjects (Contact Us, Leadership) versus one big blob of information that eventual visitors will have to sort through. Not only are shorter, focused pages easier on human readers, they help search engines decide what each page is about. And that’s good for SEO.
Don’t forget SEO! Search engine optimization is getting the search engines to direct web queries to your page. If building a website is like building a house, then SEO is the street signs that get people to your front door (and hopefully beyond). The earlier you consider SEO, the better. The marketing team can come up with descriptive, human-facing titles for every page, but the web firm will want to look at URLs and image file names and pack them full of keywords for better traffic. Sure, you can always do this later, but it’s easier to build and refine the overall site if the SEO strategy is already in place.
Manage your (hypothetical) content. Work with your developer to figure out the right content management system for you. The reality of modern websites is this: there will never come a day when you slap a shiny ribbon on all of your hard work and declare the project closed. There will be news sections to update, videos to upload, blogs to write, landing pages to create and populate. Your internal teams can do this easily with the right CMS. So tell your developer what functionality you need.
Create some content. Now that we know what our pages are for, and how we can manage them, we can start filling them in (and we’ll have keywords to guide us!). But don’t make the critical mistake of putting off long-lead projects until close to the launch date. Video is the new king of SEO, and it’s the preferred medium for most business decision makers. But unlike rewriting a service descriptor, creating video takes time – and a team of specialized professionals. Give your content development teams the overall sitemap, and ask them to start building in links to other pages. Connectivity is the name of the game; embed links early and update often.
Now we can think about design. Truth be told, design and content have to go hand in hand. One won’t work without the other. But the overall look and feel of the site is really the “sizzle” on the information architecture “steak.” And yet, it’s where most web projects start. The problem with that is, if the design is brilliant, but doesn’t meet your business needs, you’ve just spent a lot of money on something that will never be quite right. Avoid the temptation to do the fun stuff first.
This is by no means a guarantee that there won’t be stumbling blocks along the way. But if you follow these guidelines, work with professionals who are willing to work together, and give yourself a reasonable timeline, your next web project might be your best yet.
Michelle Pittman is the Chief Content Officer at Jennifer Connelly Public Relations (JCPR). Follow @JCPR on Twitter for more communications tips, tools and insights!