A website is now a necessary proof of credibility for any company. It must be visible so that potential customers can find it on the Internet. When they find it, it should easily provide the information they need to confirm the company as a potential supplier.
The way the website is put together is critical in achieving these objectives. Unfortunately in the Tower of Babel atmosphere of the Internet and given the challenges of modern day commerce, people are stressed and have limited attention spans. So the discipline of Usability has sprung into vogue. How can a website be designed so that visitors “naturally” find the information they are looking for? As an extension of this, how can websites help the growth of new sales and solidify current sales?
The architecture of websites is radically different from the structure of published materials. The behaviour of someone browsing the Internet is poles apart from the behaviour of someone leafing through a brochure. The discipline of Usability aims to develop effective websites. This is not as easy as it might seem. The experts in this field show, in the richness of their own websites, the complexity of this subject.
One such expert is Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering: his website is to be found at www.uie.com. Another is Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group: his website is at www.nngroup.com. Both websites are excellent illustrations of the extensive knowledge that is available to help make websites more effective.
However, in encouraging companies to have a website and make it an effective one, we have already perhaps confined our thinking into a box that limits effectiveness. How do we think outside the box?
Product-driven versus client-centric
One key perspective that has appeared in the last few years is the notion of client-centric or customer-centric as opposed to product-driven. Elsewhere on this website you will find a paper “Winning Marketing Plans are Client-centric” that was published on the web by Strategis Canada in March 2000 as its Pick of the Month. In April 2000, McGraw-Hill published a book by Harvey Thompson of IBM entitled “The Customer-centered Enterprise – How IBM and other World-class Companies achieve extraordinary results by putting customers first.”
This is a fundamental change in view. Put yourself in the shoes of a website visitor and see the company as it appears through the website. Both Jared Spool and Jakob Nielsen have examined aspects of this.
Jared Spool has made the distinction between core users and ring users who may visit a website. We all have core competencies where we have knowledge, skill and experience. With a web page that deals with one of these core applications, then we are happy with, or even demand, a page that functions at our competency level. With something that is not central to our operations, such as say accounting, then the web page must be something simpler. Spool calls this a “ring” application because it is not in our core. He says the web page must be designed accordingly.
Nielsen has made a similar sharp division between what may be suitable for a public website versus what is needed in a company intranet. The two audiences have different interests and different skill levels in navigating the site. So, very different principles must be used in designing these two applications.
A public website has a mixed audience of very different participants. There are shareholders, the financial community, suppliers, potential alliance partners, potential customers, current customers and so on. The traditional way this is handled is as follows. The Whose Company (fictitious) might have a website www.whosecompany.com. Anyone visiting would in practice be viewing a web page whose URL was www.whosecompany.com/index.htm. This would be the entry point for all the potential visitors. In some cases, it is designed as a so-called Splash Page. It has little content but allows visitors to select which part of the website they next wish to visit. On this page are other links, which particular sub-audiences might next visit such as www.whosecompany.com/shareholders.htm or www.whosecompany.com/suppliers.htm.
The challenge of designing an effective website to introduce the company to all these different sub-audiences is significant. The notion of a single company website is somewhat product-driven rather than customer-centric. Even among potential customers there may be people with very different interests. Websites for each different sub-audience would be much more effective. Providing such websites is truly customer-centric.
The Website Farm
A server farm is a location where several computer servers are operating somewhat in parallel. Similarly , a website farm is a (virtual) location where several interconnecting websites are operating. As opposed to a single website where sub-audiences must click on a Home page link to get to the real page they are interested in, each sub-audience would have its own website. This website would appear like a gateway designed for that sub-audience. It would have its own domain, which would appear as the URL in any communications to that sub-audience.
For example, the Whose Company introduced above might have three websites: www.whosecompany.com for potential customers, www.whosecompany.ca for its shareholders and the financial world and www.whosecompany.net for its existing customers. These three websites would make up its website farm. [The above three domains are unregistered as of the day of writing.]
Each website would be designed specifically for its own sub-audience. The website would be optimized for that sub-audience and for the particular searches that sub-audience might do using a search engine. Of course on the introductory page of each website, prominent links should be given to the two other websites of the trio for any sub-audience member who has gone to the “wrong” website.
Potential customers versus existing customers
The information needs of potential customers and existing customers are very different. Potential customers may not even know the name of the company and will be using search engines to get a list of potential suppliers. Existing customers know the company name and may quickly want to register so that they can check an order status or send off a Request for a Quotation. There may be privileged information only for them. They may need a more extensive listing of company contacts.
In some ways, there is a parallel with Jared Spool’s notion of core and ring applications. A potential customer is not familiar with the format of a newly found website. He or she will likely need a simpler website – something like a ring application. An existing customer doing a lot of business with your company may often use your website as the way to communicate with the company. For them, the website becomes a core application. This confirms the need to design two different websites specifically for these different sub-audiences.
And what about shareholders and financial agencies?
Equally shareholders and financial agencies have very different information needs than customers, either potential or existing. They expect to see information presented in different ways. Searches done with search engines might take very different forms. A website designed solely for them might look very different from one designed for customers. The notion of a website farm allows this precise tailoring of a website to its sub-audience’s needs.
The benefits of a website farm on Search Engine Ranking
A website farm brings even bigger advantages for search engine rankings. Each website is designed with its particular audience in mind. It is easy to ensure that its structure and design are optimized so as to achieve the highest search engine rankings for the searches this particular audience is likely to do.
This effect is even more striking if the alternative was a single Splash page. Typically such pages have little text content but include graphical images and links to the subpages for the particular sub-audiences. This arrangement performs poorly in search engine rankings.
FAQ’s about website farms
We already have several distinct websites, but we never called it a website farm. What’s all the fuss about?
Excellent. You probably already have applied the thinking set out here. However most people think a single website is the norm and the natural way of doing things. That thinking is product-driven. Assuming that sub-audiences may prefer their own websites within a website farm is the customer-centric approach. You would then only collapse these websites into one single master website, if that gave advantages to your sub-audiences.
Can’t sub-audiences bookmark a prefered web page within a single master website and use this as their starting point?
Yes they could, but will they? … and will they find their bookmark again? The website farm approach means that the customer has to do less of the running around. You are making it easier for them and they will show you their appreciation for that.
Where do we win with a website farm?
The Usability people will tell you that some people may get confused or frustrated by the simplest things. The next act in such a situation is to click away to somewhere more accommodating. With a website farm, you can tune each website to the needs of the particular sub-audience. So the big win is to retain more visitors on your site and to present information to them in such a way that it gets them taking positive actions.
Isn’t it very expensive to set up a website farm rather than a single master website?
There is a small annual cost in reserving extra domain names and that’s the only cost if you host your own website. There will be additional modest monthly charges for hosting each website if your website is hosted by another company. However you may be able to negotiate a discounted package cost for all the websites within a website farm.
The benefits achieved with these modest costs is very high when compared with other promotional costs involved in an e-marketing program.
Isn’t it a lot of effort to set up a website farm?
Creating the separate websites rather than putting the same information within one website is very little more work. Some pages may appear in almost the same format in two or more of the websites. It’s almost the same effort either way. Either you set up the tree structures of web pages within separate sites or you integrate them within a single tree structure in a single master website. The beauty of hyperlinks is that moving within a website or moving across to another website is exactly the same process.
The advantages of using a website farm in Quebec
Quebec is typical of markets where there are several languages used by significant proportions of the population. In Quebec, most websites must cater to at least both Francophones and Anglophones. In California, perhaps some websites must cater to both English and Spanish speaking people.
In Quebec, a way that is often used to get around this is to create a so-called Splash Page. This may have the company logo, perhaps a slogan in French and one in English, then buttons to move to the English Home page or the French “Page d’accueil”. Usually a few images are added. If the website designer is sufficiently persuasive, then you may even end up with a Flash introduction with sound. You can almost guarantee that some website visitors will be slightly turned off by such an intrusive and time-wasting introduction.
The problem becomes even more complicated when the company has different French and English names. Suppose your company is called 123 Software in English and you have registered the domain www.123software.ca [not currently registered at the time of writing]. The name in French might be Logiciels 123. A French-speaking potential customer hearing about the company from a colleague might try to find the website. So if the company has also registered the domain www.logiciels123.ca [not currently registered at the time of writing], then our potential customer might guess it correctly.
So far so good. What web page does the company place at www.123software.ca and what web page does it place at www.logiciels123.ca? A common solution is that the Splash page as above is located at www.123software.ca. The site www.logiciels123.ca is set up with an instant redirect to the same Splash page.
What a missed opportunity! The awkward Splash page approach can be avoided. With the website farm approach, each domain would go directly to a page in the appropriate language. www.123software.ca would take you to the English Home page. www.logiciels123.ca would take you to the French “Page d’accueil”. As mentioned above, there would be a prominent link to the other language page for those who ended up on the “wrong” page.