--Alan Zisman

A few simple changes can dramatically increase
the effectiveness of any company's Web site

Commonly held wisdom suggests that it's important to get people coming to your Web site, and then wanting to come back again and again. As a result, many sites are now offering contests, promotions and gimmicks in an attempt to get people who've viewed a site to bookmark it and return regularly.

In some cases, this makes sense. Certainly, if you've sold ads on your site, and are paid by the number of "hits," it may be worthwhile. But, ultimately, your Web site isn't there to get people to view it -- it's there to produce sales (whether online or offline), to publicize your business or to offer information that would otherwise tie up staff time.

So your initial task is to get people to come to your site in the first place. That means making sure that you're listed on the major search engines, and that your site comes up in response to all the logical queries a potential customer might make.

Once people come to your site, however, glitz and gimmicks may actually get in the way. If you're hoping to generate sales or to provide information, make sure that users can get what they want (or what you want them to get) quickly and easily. Fancy animations just slow everything down, as do pages that load up for no other purpose than to display a button saying, in effect, "Click here to get to the page you really want."

Remember, if it takes a potential customer too long on your site to get to where he or she wants to go, it's easy for that person to click on the Back button to return to the search engine and go to the next site on the list -- probably one of your competitors.

So make your site easily navigable, and be sure to test it out using a dial-in modem connection. Get people who weren't involved in designing the site to try to find information on it, and take their feedback seriously.

Remember, many potential customers are using Web sites as a way to gather information, prior to purchase. If your site easily provides that information, they will keep coming back until they finally make a purchase. But if information is hard to find, they'll probably seek it elsewhere, regardless of any contests, animations or other ultimately diverting frills.

While you're keeping your Web site's focus on your bottom line, take a moment to think about your clientele. One of the most powerful things about the Internet is that it's international; potential customers are not limited to the Lower Mainland, or Canada, or even English-speaking North America. Your Internet service provider's log files can let you see how many of your site's visitors are coming from outside North America.

Most of us lack the resources to deal with customers in a wide range of languages and our Web sites are, for the most part, going to remain English-only. Nevertheless, even in English, there's a lot that can be done easily to make your site more usable to international customers.

For instance, does your site give a 1-800 phone number? If so, does it work outside Canada or North America? Is there a way for potential overseas customers to reach you? Fax is often a preferred tool by people who have limited spoken English.

And when you're listing those phone and fax numbers, include the country code (+1) along with the area code. As well, give business hours along with time zone, if you want potential customers to contact you directly. Including those hours in an international standard time format, perhaps translated to Greenwich Mean Time, can help make it known when it's worthwhile calling.

Make sure that your Web site includes an e-mail contact address, and that it's written as a link on your page. That way, simply clicking on the link loads your address right into their e-mail software, making it easy to contact you -- regardless of time of day.

Such modest changes can mean a lot, giving you a Web site that demonstrates you are open for business, worldwide.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan