If you build it, will they come? This is one of the fundamental questions anybody creating a Web site has to confront, whether you're a businessperson, a Web professional, or a home user.
One of the fundamental ways to ensure that people do come, and return, is to make the content of your site as appealing and as accessible as possible. A new study by Forrester Research (http://www.forrester.com), an information technology market research firm in Cambridge, Mass., examines just what people most value in a Web site.
The bottom line: People seek substance over style, usefulness over flash. They want to get want they want quickly.
Those surveyed valued, above all else, "direct paths to the content I am looking for." Next was "proper labeling of menu items." After this, people most valued "great search." What people valued least were "personalization of content" and "personalization of interface."
Previous research by Forrester showed that 57 percent of business-to-consumer sites examined don't clearly indicate and describe links to inside pages, and 60 percent don't offer a comprehensive and precise search tool.
These findings gibe with what Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen has been preaching for years. Nielsen, cofounder of the Nielsen Norman Group (http://www.useit.com) in Fremont, Calif., and author of 10 books on user interfaces, believes that most Web sites are poorly designed.
Web surfers are impatient, says Nielsen, basing his opinion on the usability testing that he has done. Surfers typically have short attention spans. If they don't find what they're looking for quickly, another site is only a few clicks away.
Forrester's findings are also in line with the advice offered by Andrew King, president of the consulting firm Web Site Optimization (http://www.websiteoptimization.com) of Ann Arbor, Mich., in his book Speed Up Your Site: Web Site Optimization.
Here's a rundown of the most frequently offered advice about making your Web site appealing to others, from Nielsen, King, and others.
When designing a site, you should think about how you access Web sites yourself and how you browse and read newspapers and magazines.
Surfers should know almost immediately upon accessing your site why they should stick around, what's in it for them. Instead of relying strictly on fancy graphics and animations, which often just slow surfers down, you should use meaningful headlines, subheads and menus, and other links. Headlines, links, and similar labeling text are better when clear rather than clever.
If your site consists of more than a few pages, provide a site map or index that displays all the interior links for those who want to get their bearings from the outset. Providing navigational buttons to the site's major sections at the bottom or edge of internal pages helps surfers stay oriented. An internal search engine lets surfers home in on just what they're after from the get-go.
It's usually better to keep text brief, depending on its nature, breaking up long passages into multiple pages. Many surfers won't scroll down, focusing instead on the first screen of text. If your text is longer than one screen, use the inverted pyramid style of newspaper writing, putting your most important information first and later elaborating.
But don't hesitate to tell the whole story. The Web makes in-depth elaboration possible by having fewer space restrictions than any other medium. Surfers will feel cheated if you leave out important information.
Because some surfers use dial-up modems, it often makes sense to provide small versions of photos, which will load quickly, with links to larger, slower-loading photos for surfers who want more detail. The JPEG file format typically works best with photos.
With buttons, logos, drawings, diagrams, and cartoons, either the GIF or newer PNG format is typically faster-loading than JPEG. PNG uses a more efficient compression algorithm than GIF, making PNG files typically faster-loading than GIFs.
Creating high-quality content for a Web site can be no less challenging than creating a professionally done brochure, user manual, annual report, or television commercial.
If you don't have the time or talent in-house to create content, you can farm the job out to a freelance writer, independent site developer, Web design shop, technology consulting firm, interactive agency, or conventional advertising or public relations agency.
Jupitermedia's List of Web Designers (http://webdesign.thelist.com) lets you search for Web designers according to the types of the services provided or geographic location.
Finally, periodically re-evaluate the quality of your content. Make sure the information is still current, accurate, and complete. Test links, both internal and external, to ensure they're still working.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgold.com.