How's Your Web "Sight"?

Organizational websites are viewed thousands or millions of times a day by customers, competitors and people searching for stuff, but rarely by those who own, run or work for the organization. Business, government and institutional websites are a frequent cause for complaint by visitors, yet few changes are ever made to address their failures.

At a Glance

Organizational websites are viewed thousands or millions of times a day by customers, competitors and people searching for stuff, but rarely by those who own, run or work for the organization. Business, government and institutional websites are a frequent cause for complaint by visitors, yet few changes are ever made to address their failures.

So how can you spot what’s wrong with your site? Here are 17 problems, all avoidable, and all quite common. They’re not in any particular order, although some related ones are grouped together.

#1 - No Way to Contact You

Many companies regard answering email from website users as a waste of time and money, so they don’t give email addresses, and won’t reply even if you find a working address. They may provide a form, which either doesn’t work (because of programming errors), or the messages get sent to an address that never gets looked at, because the person who used to deal with email has left the organization, and no one knows how to access that mailbox any more.

Remedy: If you don’t need the extra business, this may be acceptable behavior. If it’s because you’re getting complaints, perhaps there really is something wrong with the product or the website. If it’s because of forms spam, reprogram the forms handler, or route it through your spam filter.

#2 - Links that Disappear

A link to some useful information has suddenly vanished. Someone removed it without checking to see if the rest of the page continued to refer to it. Like having ‘Click here’ without the ‘here’ actually being a link.

Remedy: Anyone who edits the site should have the writing skills and technical training to avoid contradictions like this – and they need to take the time to consider the implications of even small edits.

#3 - Pages that Disappear (or Not)

Google for something about your organization, and click on the links to see if they still work. Content-managed and database-driven websites often rename pages, changing their URLs (Web addresses) so that the old ones vanish. The reverse can also be true: when a page changes URL, the old one doesn’t get removed.

Remedy: Set up a naming system for your URLs so that pages only get replaced or added, not deleted, and old addresses get redirected to the new ones.

#4 - Links that Never Were

There’s a fashion in Web design to make all the links the same colour as the surrounding text, without underlining them, so that no one can see they are there. This makes the page look much smoother and more even. It also defeats the purpose of having a website in the first place.

Remedy: Replace your designer. If they don’t understand the Web, they shouldn’t be designing for it.

#5 - Unreadable Information

Some designers like to use text so small you need a microscope to read it, or text in pale gray on a white background. This is virtually guaranteed to lose you any users with poor eyesight, possibly including your older and wealthier donors.

Remedy: Replace your designer again, with one who knows something about accessibility and usability. Also make sure your designer (and you!) test how your website displays on a variety of computers and devices before implementing a new design.

#6 - Feature Overload

Pages that won’t load unless the user has some special plugin software only available to part of the population, or which users can turn off for security purposes.

Remedy: The fact that a user can’t or won’t install the special plugin shouldn’t stop the rest of the page loading. Speak to your designers about it.

#7 - “Click Here”

A sign that the author doesn’t understand what the ‘hypertext’ in HyperText Markup Language (HTML) means. Wrong: Click here for our annual report. Right: View our annual report.

Remedy: Replace your author. It is true that some books say that inline links are not ‘professional’, and that links should only occur in menus. They’re wrong: links can go anywhere, but they are best when natural.

#8 - Information in the Wrong Format

Airlines who provide only printable PDF pocket timetables to download (in tiny type) when what you actually want to do is read them in a normal Web page. Organizations who provide program fact sheets in Word files that don’t format correctly.

Remedy: Provide formats that users can use immediately. Stop making it harder for your constituents and donors to find the information they’re looking for.

#9 - Deceitful Links

‘Download’ links that don’t download but go to yet another page of marketing blurb. Links which look as if they go to what you want, but instead reroute you to the homepage of a different site, where you have to start all over again.

Remedy: Make all links do exactly what they claim to. Mark all links offsite with an ‘external’ indicator (Wikipedia uses).

#10 - Longwinded Routes to Information

How many clicks does it take to get the information you want? Or how much information do you have to give to get it? One travel company required users to fill in the entire booking form, including home address and personal details (everything except the credit card number) before they would quote a price for the trip. You don’t want to irritate potential donors or frustrate a client in crisis.

Remedy: Invest in some analysis to identify and eradicate the longest paths. Put your most frequently requested information closest to the home page.

#11 - Video-Only Home Pages

Car manufacturers and domestic-goods vendors love huge Flash™ videos on every page including their home page, blocking everything else until they’re finished. Users hate them: they want information first, pretty pictures afterwards.

Remedy: Keep videos in their own boxes, or provide a prominent OFF switch or ‘Skip’ button.

#12 - Music, Blinking Text and Broken Links

These are only used by amateurs.

Remedy: There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur (doing it for love, not money) provided you’re not pretending to be a professional at the same time.

#13 - Speling, Grammer and Punk Chew A Shin

Nobody minds the occasional honest mistake if it’s corrected promptly, and everyone makes keyboard slips from time to time. It’s when they become endemic that it affects your image.

Remedy: If your authors have difficulty with their use of language, invest in some training, beef up recruitment controls, or use professional writers or editors.

#14 - National Bias

Forms that can’t be filled in. These are the ones that require non-Americans to fill in their state, or social security number, or ZIP code; or that ask non-French users for CEDEX, or that require phone numbers in an alien format. The Web is worldwide (remember WWW?) and your visitors are as well.

Remedy: Don’t enforce local requirements on non-locals. Irish users don’t have any kind of national postal code! Most addresses outside the United States need at least two lines. There is a standard format for phone numbers worldwide (+country area exchange number).

#15 - Fake Pages

Search for ‘hotel in...’ and you get back links to scripted pages from agencies, sometimes for hotels 100 miles away (try it for the tiniest, remotest hamlet you know, one that doesn’t have any accommodation at all). Searching for a hotel you actually know exists is even harder because the space is polluted with agency pages pretending to be the hotel.

Remedy: Bookmark your own links when you find them.

#16 - More Information for Donors than Constituents Being Served

A classic symptom of an organization in terminal decay, like handing over control to the accountants or the lawyers.

Remedy: There may not be much you can do about this, if it’s gone beyond your control. Donors deserve their own extranet, leaving the main website for customers.

#17 - Out-of-Date Information

Someone, somewhere, has taken their eye off the ball. Usually a symptom that the website isn’t seen as strategic.

Remedy: If the website is serving a lot of incorrect information, it might be better not to have one at all (certainly cheaper). Otherwise it needs to be a part of the job to keep it up to date.

If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

So how does your company or organization rate? If none of the problems came up, you’re doing excellently, and there’s probably nothing that needs fixing.

  • If you found up to four of the problem types above, and they’re accidental, you’re probably OK. Ask your Web people to fix them, and your users will appreciate it.
  • Between five and 12, and you’re really not encouraging people to stay. Users get seriously cross with broken websites, possibly far more so than you realize, and they tend not to come back to them.
  • Over 12, and you’re risking losing touch with the Web, and perhaps your customers as well. A website that badly broken is probably best taken offline entirely and rewritten from scratch.

There are a million and one things that can go wrong on websites, and sometimes it’s no one person’s fault, but it does indicate a lack of management attention. Fortunately, most of the problems are relatively easily fixed. Unfortunately, the ones that aren’t easy to fix are probably symptoms of something much worse than a broken website. 

About Silmaril

Silmaril Consultants is a collaboration of independent consultants working in the field of document management, text markup, Web publishing and typesetting. Clients include publishers, research institutes and industrial companies in the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as European and national government agencies.

About the author

Peter Flynn was Ireland’s first webmaster (for the ninth site on what was then called the ‘World Wide Web’) and now runs the document management consultancy Silmaril. He was deputy director of EARN Ireland, a member of the IETF Working Group on HTML and a contributor to the W3C’s XML Special Interest Group. Peter is the author of two books about HTML and XML and numerous papers on markup and document management. He is currently a member of a research group at a major Irish university where he is doing a belated Ph.D. in the usability of editing software for structured documents.

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