Sep 142010

by Larisa Thomason,
Senior Web Analyst,
NetMechanic, Inc.

Your site’s home page is often the first contact that visitors have with your website design. A good home page helps turn casual visitors into repeat visitors – or even customers! Do you know what visitors want – or don’t want – to see on your home page?

1. Keep Your Visitors Awake

Many sites waste valuable space on their home pages with either a “welcome message from our CEO!” or an interminable mission statement – sometimes both. Most often, that’s about as interesting as reading the tax code, so visitors nod off before the page even finishes loading. Unless he’s just been indicted, few visitors are interested in a company’s CEO. Give him his own vanity page and bury it deep in the site.

But your mission statement can be useful in one respect. Use it to distill your Web site’s purpose into a single compelling statement that contains important keywords. Then feature that one-liner prominently on your home page. For instance, might say: “The World’s Largest Selection of Marsupial Statues!” – a phrase that’s sure to entice any collector of kangaroo or opossum art.

Use that one statement to pique visitors’ interest and encourage them to scan the rest of your home page to see exactly what you have to offer.

2. Make It Short And Simple

Visitors want useful information that is served up quickly in usable, scannable chunks. Don’t expect them to scroll down through 3 or 4 screens to find out about your products. Instead, try to fit your entire home page on a single screen.

Be succinct: you’re writing for the Web. Visitors have different expectations when they read online than they do when reading printed materials. It’s also more tiring to read online, so make it easy for visitors to find the information they want:

  • Bulleted items: People often scan these first and ignore text in paragraph form, so include your most important points in bullet lists. You can even create custom bullets for more emphasis.
  • Clearly defined sections: Use color, header tags, or horizontal rules to structure your page into sections.
  • Columns: These are easier to scan than long lines of text that spread across the whole page.
  • Short paragraphs: Make your major point early in the paragraph because people often won’t read the entire text.

Use these techniques to briefly describe what you’re offering and explain why it’s valuable. Then provide links so visitors who want more information can go deeper into the site. Your home page is the appetizer that makes visitors hungry for more.

3. Tell Them Where To Go

An understandable, easy-to-use navigation system is crucial because visitors hate to get lost on a site. Frustrated visitors leave and never come back. Take steps to make sure this doesn’t happen on your site:

  • Accessible navigation: Give visitors multiple navigation options to avoid locking out visitors using assistive technologies, PDA’s, or non-graphical browsers. Navigation with image maps or JavaScript menus are fine as long as you always include text navigation as well. Keyboard shortcuts are very useful to visitors who use keyboard navigation instead of a mouse.
  • Search function: Visitors love to be able to search a site to find the exact information or product they want. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a coding wizard to include one. Some Web hosts provide them; other free sources include Google, and FreeFind. Learn more about how Web site search tools work at the site.
  • Site map: This is a must for large, complex sites – but it’s often helpful for small sites that cover a variety of topics or whose organizational structure isn’t obvious. By the way, search engine spiders love them because a site map helps them index the entire site.

Your site navigation has to be easy to use. You’re wasting your time tantalizing visitors with exciting copy on your home page if they get lost while trying to learn more.

4. Earn Their Trust

Visitors can’t see you; they’ll probably never meet you in person, or even speak to you over the phone. That means they have to be extra comfortable with your site before they’re willing to buy anything.

Include the following on your home page to increase your visitors’ confidence:

  • Company name, address, and phone number: You’d think this would be automatic, but many sites don’t include this vital information. Many visitors hesitate to do business with a company that won’t provide a phone number. Search directory editors look for contact information too; they may reject your site if you don’t provide it.
  • Contact email address: Always provide a contact email address, but be careful to avoid the dreaded email spiders that harvest your address for spammers!
  • Customer ratings: Sites such as BizRate, eBay, and ResellerRatings allow customers to rate a Web site’s sales and service level. If you’re a member, be sure to prominently list your high rating with these services and provide links so visitors can see for themselves. Careful online shoppers do use these services!
  • Testimonials: Don’t go overboard, but a few well-chosen statements from happy customers add credibility too. You might place them in the margin or inside pull quotes for emphasis.

Don’t forget to emphasize your site’s accessibility on the home page and link to the site’s accessibility policy. Visitors with disabilities are loyal consumers who spend twice as much time on the Internet as people without disabilities. Show them you want their business!

5. Don’t Break Anything!

Finally, your home page has to work when visitors load it. You may have the coolest Flash animation ever, but don’t expect visitors to download a plug-in just to view it. Yes, you do want the page to look good, but avoid advanced technologies unless you’re specifically marketing to a segment sure to have all the latest goodies installed.

That’s a pretty small segment of the consumer audience. The bulk of your visitors just want to see a page that loads fast, looks attractive, and has useful information. That’s not too hard – if you finish these three tasks:

  • Select good colors: Good color combinations give contrast and emphasis to important points. Avoid red/green combinations; they cause problems for colorblind visitors. Standard link colors make navigation easier.
  • Use images wisely: Make sure the images actually advance the purpose of your site. Most visitors want to read information, not read pretty pictures that increase download time unnecessarily. Optimize your images for free with GIFBot before you post them.
  • Correct errors: Even simple HTML coding errors can break your page: forget to close a TABLE tag and Netscape may not display the table at all! Validate your HTML code with NetMechanic’s HTML Toolbox. It will alert you to code problems and even correct your code for you.

Beginning webmasters spend a lot of energy trying to attract visitors. Unfortunately, some don’t consider what visitors see once they get to the site. Yes, you certainly want to invite visitors to your site, but more importantly, you want them to stay – and keep coming back.

Your home page is your front door. Make it as useful and inviting as possible.

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