Christian Heilmann

What makes a good web site?

Saturday, October 14th, 2006 at 8:00 am

Disclaimer: This is a list that will be part of the upcoming book for Friends of Ed about Web Development with Web Services and APIs. I thought it’d be interesting to preview it here and see what you think.

[link:,en español]

Following are some ideas about what makes a successful web site in the web environment these days. Some of this may sound very obvious, but it is a good idea to remind ourselves of the benefits of these ideas.

It is about content.

If you don’t have any interesting content (or content that is also available on hundreds of other sites) you will not reach many people no matter how much you polish the surface of your site.

It is about sharing.

If you put content on the web, it is there for people to see, download and maybe use. You can protect your rights by choosing and displaying a license agreement and copyright information (there is a great “create your own license” tool available at Creative Commons) and there is simply no sense in trying technical tricks to prevent people from downloading your images or copying your texts. When you develop sites these days, you will use a lot of content and programs other people developed. It is only fair to return the favor.

Without people sharing their tools and content for free the web would have never grown as big and exciting as it is now.

It is about access.

If your content is made available to everyone on the web regardless of ability and technical environment you are much more likely to be found and talked about than when you try to block out groups of users or expect a defined technical environment. Your computer is not a representation of everyone on the web and you simply cannot expect people to get a larger monitor, faster computer or install certain browsers or plugins just to access your site. If your content is interesting enough, they may, but I wouldn’t count on it.

It is about communication.

Allow people to communicate with you. Let them comment on your information and offer them easy ways to connect to you. Offer your information in easy to syndicate formats (like RSS) and contact and link to other sites with similar information. This may sound counterproductive – after all, why should you send them visitors you want to keep – but these other sites are likely to link to you as well. The more sites link to you, the higher you will climb in search engine results.

It is about availability.

This may sound paradox but spreading your content on the web and different sites may be a much more efficient way to make it available than keeping it on one server. Of course you need to use the right sites to do so. We live in exciting web times where you can upload your photos to flickr and connect to other picture enthusiasts, upload videos to youtube , share links at and documents at writely.

All of these sites are backed up by large corporations with good servers and even if your site is down for a day, they’ll still be out there. Advertising your site as the source of these bits of data on the other sites will drive people back to it and you can use the APIs they offer to easily include the data in your site.

It is about patience.

As with anything that is really good, you need to spend some time on a great web site.

You will not skyrocket the search engine results in the first few weeks (sometimes even months). Don’t get discouraged by that, instead try to increase your communication with other people in your area of interest – they will link you and you will show up in the Googles and Yahoos of this world.

Having a web site also means that you will get a lot of feedback that is annoying or plain rude. Don’t dwell on that, but pick out information that may be related to real issues and solve these instead. However, it is your site, and there will always be people who don’t like what you have to say or offer – no need to please everybody.

It is about knowing your audience.

Your assumptions of how a web site in your area of expertise should look like might be totally off the mark. Ask people who are interested what they expect, or ask them what they hate about other sites that offer similar content.

It is about playing to your strengths.

If you are not good with words, don’t try too hard but stick to information and what excites you about the subject your site covers. You can also get help from someone close who can put your ideas into words. The same applies if you are good with words but bad with design or structuring information. Don’t try to tackle everything yourself, but instead get some peer review and input to make the end product talk for itself.

It is about offering instead of pushing.

Don’t force anything on your visitors. Videos and Music should not start unless the visitor chose to start them. In addition, offer them as downloads. If you link to PDFs or other media formats, say so in the link as a lot of people will choose to download these instead of reading them in the browser.

It is about keeping it simple.

Don’t try to overcomplicate anything on your web site. Make it obvious what the menu is and what is available. Make it easy to search the site and to contact you. Make it obvious who is behind the site and what the purpose of the site is. Be honest about yourself and people will like you for it. There are far too many one-man-show web sites trying to appear as a whole corporation or network on the web already.

Read your content over and over again – any word that can be omitted or any sentence that could be phrased easier is a win. People on the web are busy and not all of them are native speakers of your language. Don’t make it hard for them.

Furthermore, the web is a secondary media. People do other things while reading your site and don’t take all the content in – instead they scan for interesting words. Steve Krug explains this in How we really use the Web.

It is about advertising without annoying.

Make sure you pick an easy to remember URL and advertise it. With this we don’t mean buying advertising space, but doing simple things like adding the URL to your email footer, stationary or other promotional material. Footers reach further than you may think if you participate on forums and mailing lists.


It is about freshness.

A web site that doesn’t change at all needs to have amazing content or it will not get any visitors in the long term. It is crucial that you get initial visitors, but also oimportant to keep them coming back, talk about your offers and attract new visitors. Update often and with good content and people will come back. If you use a blogging system as your CMS updates also mean that the RSS feeds change and subscribers get automatically notified.

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