Since the 1990s, usability experts and site visitors have been chanting the same web design mantra: Make your site easy-to-use, professional… easy-to-use, professional…
Research into how people interact with sites shows that visitors make snap judgements—often within seven seconds of landing at our virtual doorsteps. In fact, the Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility Study found (not surprisingly) people evaluate a site largely on its visual design. If the site looks professional, that look enhances the company’s credibility.
An outdated, non-intuitive, unprofessional site can hurt your online image—and excellent reason to undertake a redesign. Similarly, you may have had a shift in business goals that open the door to change. Some companies, however, blindly revamp their sites for no apparent reason other than they are tired of the existing color scheme. For most companies, and especially for small companies on limited budgets, undertaking a redesign is a non-trivial expense. Still, how can you tell if an existing site is on the verge of needing a redesign or has even far exceeded its usefulness? Here are nine questions to guide your decision.
1. Do your analytics show your site is performing? How well does the existing site convert? Are visitors coming to your site only to immediately leave? Identify important metrics that give feedback on your site’s performance and then let real numbers determine your site’s effectiveness. If you have been tracking site metrics over several years and see a general trend in the wrong direction, you may want to look hard at your site and try to identify the problem. On the other hand, if most of the site is performing well, you may want to re-think sinking large sums of money into a new design.
2. What specific elements of your site are good (and bad)? Arbitrarily changing your site just for the sake of change is wasteful. Without direction, you may inadvertently remove some of the most important elements that users find helpful. Many companies churn randomly through design after design, never paying attention, tracking or learning from previous revisions. For all their effort and expense, their sites aren’t better—they are just different.
Building a new web site is a costly endeavor. Conduct a usability test on your existing site to identify specifically what’s working and what isn’t. Retain the positive features in the new design while eliminating the negative. The study may even show that minor modifications are all you need as opposed to an entire redesign.
3. Are you willing to upset your visitors by introducing change? There is an element of risk involved with redesigning your site. Users may react negatively as most humans are naturally opposed to change. In fact, there is an entire discipline devoted to the topic of change management. This discipline is designed to assist individuals with overcoming change resistance in businesses. The new design has to merit the inherent risk in changing what is familiar, especially if you have a large number of customers who regularly return to your site.
Think about it from your visitors’ perspective. It’s as if they came home one day and all their living room furniture had been rearranged. Their favorite chair has been moved over next to the window. The television is on the opposite side of the room. They may not recognize that this is a better design initially… they only see that what was familiar is now chaotic. This reaction explains why it’s not unusual to have a temporary drop in site performance numbers immediately following a new design launch. Regular visitors may be reacting negatively to the change simply because it is new (despite the fact that the redesign may be a dramatic improvement over the old).
4. Does your current site design comply with Internet standards and accepted practices? In the book Homepage Usability, Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir deconstruct home pages from 50 companies. One of their interesting findings was that there were certain expectations about where common page elements were expected to be. Through simple repetition throughout cyberspace, these locations became the places users looked for certain elements. If the element was located in the tried and true location, users found the site easier to use. In addition, their overall impressions of the sites were more favorable. Sites deviating from these unwritten guidelines, however, were considered less user-friendly by visitors. Familiarity was key.
Abiding by common site conventions makes perfect sense if you think about it. Users don’t want to have to learn your site. They have busy lives. If the site isn’t intuitive and easy to use, they will leave and find another site that is. Here’s a case in point.
One company I worked with came to me with a fresh, innovative design they’d developed in-house. They wanted to stand out and be bold. What a horror! The main navigation was hidden in an oversized graphic in the middle of the page. In addition, important information was only visible if the user happened to mouse over certain sections of the page. Different wasn’t better; it was a usability nightmare. A handful of frustrated, live usability testers and huge bounce rates in site analytics finally convinced the company that perhaps a more conventional design might perform better.
5. Have company changes dictated a new design? If your company has been acquired or gone through major internal restructuring, the need for a new web design to reflect the change is obvious. The same applies if your company is altering its brand or direction. Perhaps you’re expanding into a new area and want the new emphasis to be a focal point of the site. Your web site needs to reflect the goals of your business.
A tried and true method of improving a site’s search engine compatibility is improving its crawlabilty. If your site has roadblocks, search engine spiders may have difficulty with crawling, and consequently your pages may not be getting the recognition they deserve.
Search friendly web design is an important component to a good search presence. If your current design is limiting what spiders can index, take heart: You may only be one redesign away from new traffic. Make sure you pick a designer that is knowledgeable about spider traps. For added insurance hire an experienced optimization firm to consult with your web design company as the design is developed. It is much cheaper to fix the design during the planning stage than “retro-fixing” after it’s been launched.
Web Designer Pat Strader of Matterhorn Marketing Solutions advises, "If you intend to hire an SEO, allow them to interact with the design team before starting [the design process]. There are a growing number of talented, creative designers who will deliver a beautiful, artistic website. However, without certain elements or considerations, that elegant design could prove worthless if your goal is to drive traffic from organic search."
7. Does your existing site show its age? Just as on Fifth Avenue, there are also fashion trends in web design. Someone with even a little industry knowledge can often approximate the date of your site based on its characteristics. Black backgrounds with yellow text and visible hit counters are the shag carpets and avocado appliances of the online world. They haunt us from a distant era—in this case the late 1990s. If your company is trying to project a modern, sleek image spinning globes and blinking text is certainly not the way.
8. Does the old design not support all the growth areas? We’ve all seen sites that give the impression that new items have been tacked on to an existing design. This lack of assimilation gives the user a patchwork feeling instead of a cohesive feeling about the site.
After awhile the web site looks like a messy bulletin board. If the original design no longer supports the added material and the added elements detract from the site organization, it may be time to develop a new design.
9. Was the original web site created to be “pretty” rather than functional? Miriam Ellis of Solas Web Design has a few poignant points concerning sites that were built without regard to functionality. "This is where you see that a great deal of money has been spent to create flash graphics, splash pages, pop ups, etc. Little money may have been invested in developing valuable text content, and little time may have been spent considering how the site will be used by humans. In cases like these, it’s the designer’s job to redesign the site so that the backbone of it shifts from gimmick based to text based."
"It never comes as good news to the client that they wasted their investment on something that is actually tripping up the [search engine spidering] bots or driving business away from them, but the sooner they find this out, the better off they will be. They can then formulate a plan with the designer to offer an experience that is simpler and much more informative for the end user. Flash elements, such as a video, can certainly enhance that experience, but should not be the overall format of a website. This scenario tends to be most prevalent among large, well-funded companies who have been sold on the idea that being ‘cool’ is where the profit is. In a few cases, this may actually be true, but for the most part, I’ve found that being simple and useful is where the profit is."
Redesign Is A Weighty Consideration
A site redesign is not a casual decision. Depending on the size and complexity of your site, redesigning could involve a considerable expense. Do your research. Take the time to conduct usability studies, perform surveys of your visitors pertaining to your site functionality and pour over your analytics to see what your site’s strengths and weaknesses are. Once you’ve compared positive to negative and pro to con, combine the information with your answers to the nine questions above and the decision about redesigning should become crystal clear.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.