What really matters when you design your website

You're thinking about redesigning your website: it could be looking dated and in need of a refresh, maybe you're adding mobile compatibility with a responsive redesign, or perhaps it's just not generating new business and you've decided to bite the bullet. Or you know you're going to need a new site: a minisite for a campaign, a product launch or even a completely new business.

You might even be taking too many calls from clients who say they can't find the information they're looking for on your site, but you know it's there so you know you have to do something to make it easier to find.

Before you start the journey, here's what you need to know about what really matters to your clients, prospective customers and of course, to Google.

Your site is like a billboard on the freeway

Myth: People who look at your site will read the menus, weigh up their choices and locate the information they're looking for in a considered way.

Reality: Your visitors will drive by your site quickly and check something out that catches their eye or sounds about right, and then they'll move on. If they can't find it easily, they'll go elsewhere within a couple of seconds. For Google, it's a similar story: search engines look for obvious markers to work out what a page is about and Google is actually more interested in signals that other people have linked to your page because they've found it useful.

You need to personalise and contextualise your information, right from the homepage: work out who is looking at your site, why they're looking at it and what your offer is for them. What problem are you actually solving? And who needs to know? Ideally, you want to make it easy for visitors to see how you can help them by signposting the key reasons they might be looking at sites like yours, and steering them into a lane that gets them to the answers you provide.

You have one shot with your message

Myth: Your homepage should tell your audience about all of the great services you deliver or products you have so prospective clients can see the full range of things you can offer them.

Reality: Like the billboard, you really only have one chance to get your message across with a good headline because too many choices is counterproductive to the kind of quick decisions people make when researching products and services on the web.

You need to distil your message into a single statement about what your best product or service will mean for your audience, and make this loud and clear on the homepage. The fact that people read less has already been researched to death, as has the effects of choice overload, so you need to be upfront about what your key difference is. Why should they get in touch or buy from you, over everyone else who does what you do? What difference can you make, that's better than the rest?

You can/can't please/fool all/some of the people…

Myth: You just need a great homepage so people hitting your site will be encouraged to follow the links and drill down to what they're interested in.

Reality: Unless you've discovered a universal cure for aging, what you provide or sell probably appeals to a specific type of person at a particular time. Even if you're the best, there will be some who respond to your message and some who don't - and like the old joke says: half of your marketing budget will work, but you won't know which half.

After you've worked out who your audience is, focus on tuning your message and the way you present your services or products to them. If there are distinct groups within your audience, it's likely that you'll need to create distinctly tuned messages for each group. Instead of having just one way into your site through your homepage, this means you may have a number of different, distinct pages that are designed for each audience group. Google ranks pages, not websites, so you can present your message differently on different pages when you need to.

People don't care about what you can do

Myth: You can inspire people to get in touch or buy from you by telling them about how great your products or services are.

Reality: Your potential clients care more about what you've done for others like them, than they care about how you talk about yourself. This means that the things your clients say about the way you've helped them are more powerful than anything you can say about yourself.

In other words: you need to let your clients do the talking for you, and feature their stories more than you promote your own. Of course, you need to tell enough of your story to present a credible face, including some information about your business, but this is secondary to your clients' stories. Remember that people typically make decisions to engage with you or buy from you based on small, often personal reactions rather than considered rationalisation. The best question to ask yourself about everything you're considering including in your own story is: who cares?

Build it and they will come

Myth: You can count on your website alone to create new business opportunities and bring in more customers.

Reality: Unless you can create a truly ground breaking site that gets your message across in a unique way and actually generates its own buzz - and depending on the nature of your products or services, this may be simply unrealistic - your social proof and the genuinely useful and helpful information that you share with your audience is much more important.

You need to find out where your prospective customers are online - what other sites and social networks do they frequent? Whether it's LinkedIn or eBay, that's where you'll need to focus on reaching them. Depending on where that is, your focus will need to be tuned accordingly and you might be helping people solve issues in discussion groups or uploading 'how to' videos - whatever makes you a source of useful information that people will turn to when they're making decisions about services or products. Of course, you'll want to be able to refer people to your website and give them clear ways to get in touch or buy from you when they're there, but they won't do that until they believe that you can actually help them.

The takeaway

You will need to invest some time and thought into planning and research into your audience before you get started on the design and build of your new site. You will also need work out how you're going to commit to keeping the site relevant and useful.

Savvy site owners adopt a policy of continual refinement for their website - in other words, it's not set and forget: there is an ongoing process of reactive adjustment and creation of new material to provide genuine value to the people you want to reach, so you'll be front of mind when they're buying or when their peers are asking them for a recommendation.

Another often used truism: website promotion is a marathon, not a sprint.