All About Web Sites: Day 4 of 6

First, it’s Good Karma Tuesday! Today’s winner, randomly chosen from the list of everyone who commented on any given post over the past week, is: SOPHISTICATED WRITER. Please email me your address, and I will send you a prize!

Now, on with the web site series:

* All About Web Sites (MM blog)
* Website Series, Day 1: Message & Image
* Website Series, Day 1: Follow-Up Q & A
* Website Series, Day 2: Marketing
* Website Series, Day 3: User Interaction & Content
* Website Series, Day 4: Aesthetics & Usability
* Website Series, Day 5: Hosting & Technology
* Website Series, Day 6: Administration

(REMINDER: I’m discussing for the first time ever, my real-life Creative Brief I send to all potential clients. This is proprietary information, so please don’t copy anything I say without asking and/or providing credit.)

The next section on the Creative Brief questionnaire is

Get out your pen and paper!

Ideally, at this point you have a fair idea of the fonts, colors, and general layout. You know whether or not you have a logo and/or slogan and you’ve identified the key features to be present on every page, including the navigation.

Before actually beginning to create your site, however, it’s a good idea to take a look at what else is already out there.

1. List any URL(s) of web sites you find compelling or persuasive. Describe what you find most appealing about these web sites.

The first list you make is of web sites who get it right.

This does not mean competitors–it means successful web sites in general. Perhaps your list contains eBay, YouTube and Amazon. Or maybe your list contains Wikipedia, Facebook, and Meetup. This should be specific to you, sites you find compelling.

Ask yourself, from which websites did you actually use the contact form or purchase a product or sign up for a newsletter? Whose web site was attractive? Whose was easy to navigate? Whose has the best content? Whose did you visit more than once? Whose did you bookmark or forward to a friend?

Once you have this list, analyze what about those sites made them work for you, and what made you act, whether by bookmarking and forwarding or by using shopping carts and interactive forms. If it was the design, what about the design? If the layout, what about the layout? If the content, what about the content? Etc. (Please share examples in the comments!)

2. List any URL(s) of web sites you find displeasing or bothersome. Describe what you find most displeasing about these web sites.

This list is of web sites who get it wrong.

Again, this does not mean competitors–it means horrendous web sites in general. Perhaps this list includes that map site you used once and never again, or that game site that never loaded properly, or that free email site with all the banner ads, or that web portal with more popups than actual content, or that online catalog whose shopping cart system never did work right.

Ask yourself, what made you run away screaming? Why did you never return? Was it the colors? Legibility? Download time? Layout? Navigation? Content? Tone? Distracting images? Too many ads? Actual page errors? Broken links? If you tried to interact with the web site and couldn’t, what went wrong?

Once you have this list, analyze what made the site too much of a hassle to bother with. If it was the interface, what about the interface? If it was impossible to find what you were looking for, which elements should’ve been in plain view on the home page? If it was too busy or cluttered, which elements could’ve been removed altogether? Etc. (Please share examples in the comments!)

3. List URL(s) of competitors’ web sites and explain what you like or dislike about their overall web sites.

Ah ha! This is the list where you finally compare other authors’ web sites. You now know what elements tend to work or not work, and you can look at their sites objectively.

Because of this, you can also keep an eye out for industry related things they do–or don’t do–that you may wish to implement on your site. Do they have an awesome, easy-to-play book video right on their home page? Maybe you want to put yours there, too. Or is their video a giant monster, taking up the whole screen as well as five long minutes to download? Maybe you don’t want yours on your home page.

Look at where other authors place some of the elements you’ve decided to include in your web site. Are the elements prominent or hidden? What will make your layout easier for your readers, your content more relevant, your navigation more intuitive? (Please share ideas in the comments!)

4. List your key competition. How does your product/brand differentiate itself from competitors?

First, a giant disclaimer to say I personally believe that in our industry, unlike almost any other, we do not have competitors in the truest sense of the word.

If you’re car shopping, you’re as unlikely to buy an Aston Martin and an F150 as you are to drop by the convenience store for a bottle of Coke and a Pepsi.

If you’re browsing for books on the other hand, as a reader you are actually more likely to walk out with the latest King, Koontz, Lumley and Barker, than you are to just buy one book. (Or Kleypas, Quinn, Hoyt and Balogh. Or Crusie, Rowe, Davidson and Evanovich. Whatever.)

If you write mysteries, for example, Mary Higgins Clark is not your arch nemesis. Every new reader she entices to your genre is one more reader with the potential to fall in love with your books. Every debut author, every New York Times bestseller, every news release or billboard ad or book signing or podcast interview, all help to increase the size of the market.

This is a Very Good Thing. We are in this together and should concentrate on helping each other. (Plus, you will be indirectly helping yourself. Mua ha haa!! *g)

That said, even if you do write mysteries, you do not want your web site to look exactly like Mary Higgins Clark’s. Perhaps fans of A Cry in the Night would love to read your books too, but you still need to differentiate yourself to show them why.

You want them to recognize your brand, to add your name to their subconscious auto-buy list of favorite authors.

Even if you have mediocre (or no) sales, you don’t have to have a mediocre web site. Make yours rock!

YOUR TURN: Take a look at your list. Please share a few ideas of things that can go right on a web site and things that can go terribly wrong. Have you seen excellent or frightening examples of color usage, fonts, images, advertisements, content, layouts, navigation, interactive sections, registration forms, downloads, etc? What makes it bomb? What makes it work?


  1. Bill Clark - Reply

    We are in this together and should concentrate on helping each other. (Plus, you will be indirectly helping yourself. Mua ha haa!! *g)

    Another glimpse into Miss Erica’s plan for world domination: she is secretly getting us all to help her! 😉

    *Bill is already on board, and eagerly looking forward to the day when Miss Erica will rule the world and the Golden Age will return*

    Well, it seems as though a scene of the novel still known as TATTF (since no one has informed me to the contrary) has vanished into the ether. Does this mean it was combined with another scene? Surely it didn’t wind up on the cutting-room floor?!

    *Bill shudders at the thought*

    In any case, the scene-o-meter is making what Nero Wolfe would call “satisfactory” progress, said word being his highest term of praise.

    *Bill calls it awesome*

  2. Erica Ridley - Reply

    LOL re: Golden Age.

    And yep, not all scenes will make the cut. If the story gets published, maybe I’ll put ’em on the web site under Bonus Material, like a DVD. =)

    And yeah, TATTF is TATTF for now. I plan to whittle down the title selection once I finish polishing. (Hopefully that means soon!!)

  3. Katrina Stonoff - Reply

    OK. One more. I want to order a catalog from Ethan Allen.

    Their home page isn’t bad, though *I* think there are too many items in the main menu across the bottom. Still, it’s easy to navigate, and there’s a button called “Catalog.”

    But I’m easily distracted. I clicked Products instead, thinking I’d look first and then order my catalog. On this page, there are three different menus–and none of them say “Catalog,” though it IS on the drop-down menu.

    Distracted again, I clicked on bedroom furniture and found a bed I really want, but I’m not sure if it fits in my room. I remember seeing a “Room Planner” on the Home Page, but for the life of me, I cannot find it here. So I have to click back to the Home Page to find it–only to learn it won’t work on my Mac anyway.

    I understand they’re dealing with a lot of information, but there has to be a better way to handle it than putting four menus on each page, not of which contain something important enough to include on the Home Page.

  4. Katrina Stonoff - Reply

    I have a website that doesn’t work for me, but first, a disclaimer: I adore . It’s literary agent Lori Perkins’ blog, and she rarely writes an entry I don’t enjoy or learn from.

    However, the color scheme makes it very difficult to read, and since the date is in black type against a black background, you cannot see it without selecting it.

    I know it’s just a blog, but since Perkin’s agency doesn’t have a website, this blog IS her web presence.

  5. Vicki - Reply

    Great advice. I of course love your site. Really, I do. It’s easy to read, always informative, and easy to nav from.

    I’m going to start making my list tomorrow since I’m doing catch up today. 🙂

    The reviseometer is doing great!!!

  6. Kristen Painter - Reply

    This is completely unrelated, but you’re slightly nuts and you make me laugh.

  7. lacey kaye - Reply

    Elizabeth Hoyt’s website is a favorite of mine.

    Bill, you seem to be having almost as much fun watching the Where-frog-o-meter as reading TATTF in the first place!

  8. B.E. Sanderson - Reply

    My nice karma got t-boned today by a semi-truck load of bad karma. If not for good people in the world like you, I’d be seriously doubting whether it pays to be nice to people at all. So, thank you for being you. :hugs:

    On the subject of websites, I’ve been to several that have no visible means of navigating backwards (and even some where the browser’s Back button is disabled) to get off their site. Which means I have to close the window down and start over. Also, as katrina noted, websites that have black backgrounds and dark text, or even black backgrounds with neon text that burns through my retinas. Do the people designing these sites ever look at them? Simple aestetics can save many a viewer’s eyeballs.

    Oh, and my personal website pet peeve – sites with too much going on. Too many colors, graphics, animations, etc. I call things like that ‘short attention span theatre’. My brain gets input overload.

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Erica Ridley