For the last year, I had been acting Director of Social Media at Unison, probably one of the most fashion-forward, innovative, creative, and tech-savvy web application development companies I have ever worked with. Their sites were responsive before the responsive website was a thing. They produce swipeable, tablet-optimized sites and make sure that brands that retain Unison for design, branding, development, and strategy are universally-accessible. What’s more, they’ve integrated social media, e-commerce, accessibility, usability, and interface into a platform that can convey expertise, tell stories, and engage with both prospects and customers.
Alas, Unison is unique. And their clients are a rare breed who put their money (and their brand) where their mouth is.. And Unison’s sites rock.
I am going to rush through some of the most obvious ones that pop up to me. These are general mistakes, concerns, and issues—I haven’t the time nor the impulse to collect and shame all of the perpetrators and perpetuators of this sort of thing, probably because I don’t make my money from web application development. So, without further ado, here’s my list of web application disasters and mistakes that very well should have been sorted out by last Thursday, 2013. Me? I am writing this post while I am procrastinating from updating and modernizing my consulting site, Gerris digital, which currently suffers from quite a few of the following—here we go:
Your site is a decade old
I was on a sales call with a DC-area architecture firm looking for some website love. When I received my briefing, I was nowhere near my PC but I was near an iPhone 5 on iOS and two Androids, a Nexus 5 and Nexus 7. Nothing could load the firm’s website because the entire site and all its content was hidden in an Adobe Flash blob. Web applications developed with Flash and requiring a Flash-compatible browser suck, no matter how pretty they are. Also, Flash- or Graphics-based websites are not indexable by Google (and, out of pity, Bing). And, what’s worse: the modern Internet runs on permalinks and Flash blobs don’t have direct link-tos, now do they? That sucks.
Let me count the ways. And, even if your aging site is findable, accessible, readable, and navigable via smart phone and tablet, it may well be hard for you, yourself, to access and update it using modern and free platforms like WordPress. Are you still sending your site updates to your IT guy in MS Word who then implements updates—eventually? Remove the IT department shackles and come into the 21st century: rich-text editing, spell-checking, hyper-linking, keyword-suggestion, and the ability to upload your own graphics and photos! WYSIWYG formatting! All kind of good stuff. Multiple-editors, workflow, and different levels of access and editing credentials. I mean, we’ve come a long way since Frontpage.
Your site is 5 years old or more
Even if your site is a fancy database-backed website, thoroughly-cached, and on a super-fast and durable box right on the Internet’s backbone, five years is still a long time with the way technology is constantly changing. Your site’s probably on an over-priced proprietary system that some web developer sold you for quite a lot of money. So, you’re holding onto it as long as possible to maximize amortization. If you’re lucky, your site may well be on Joomla or Drupal or Movable Type. Possibly, an early version of WordPress even.
A lot has happened in five years—time to upgrade in a big way. And not just technology, usability, interfaces, accessibility, or interface, but also content. What you did five or more years ago may well be the same but maybe a lot has happened in the interim. And not just process or relationships or narrative but also the language of what you do. When I started out in 2003, my space was called new media, my work, new media marketing.
Nobody says that anymore. Now, it’s content marketing, digital PR, social media marketing, etc. Even authors rewrite, re-edit, and revise their dead tree books in order to remain relevant and saleable. With very few exceptions, people very rarely buy the oldest business books. So to, people often reject outdated (or seemingly outdated) websites, and they’ll dismiss you, too, if you’re using Ye Olde Busyness Lingoe instead of the most current language, testimonials, references, case studies, client list, and white papers.
My old company, the company I founded and left on March 8, 2012, hasn’t updated its site at all in the last 22 months. A lot changes in 22 months. Even if a website is merely a formality, it surely means a lot to Google when it comes to reliability, reputation, organic search, and Google Authorship.
Your site’s insecure
If your site is running on autopilot, you run the risk of your server, your database, your scripting language (PHP, Cold Fusion, Ruby on Rails, Perl, Python, etc.), and your content management system (CMS) being severely out-of-date. And, in the world of unprotected Internet, rife with hackers, botnets, exploits, and cracks, keeping your codebase is essential. Also, passwords. Also, your file and folder permissions (chmod). If I am speaking Greek, you need some help. Get some help in 2014!
Your site is cookie-cutter
You may not need (or be able to afford) a $20k website. And, to be honest, if your site is a decade old or really sucks or is based on a dead proprietary tool, language, platform, or CMS (or maybe runs on Windows NT and IIS), then go ahead and install a cookie-cutter site with a generic responsive template or theme, just like everyone else; however, if you really want to develop a unified brand, mission, vision, and direction, you’re going to need to put your own flourish onto your site—integrate the brand you have in real life (IRL) into your brand as it exists online.
And, if your real-life brand looks like crap online, it might look like crap on the site of your building, your stationery, and your business cards as well, then it’s time to do a complete branding makeover.
Your site is slow-ass
How much are you paying for web hosting? Did you buy a $4.99 special eight years ago and just run with that? Are you on a dedicated box? Are you using a service like SquareSpace, TypePad, or WordPress.com? If you’re hosted by a site like that, you’re probably OK.
If you’re running on a local box, in a basement, or even in your building, and if you don’t know how much RAM, how many processors, what your server’s latency is, how close your box is to the Internet’s backbone, or whether you have a caching or content delivery network (CDN) strategy, then you may very well need to upgrade your service level (can you budget at least $25- or $50-a-month?) or change either your web hosting company or Internet service provider—or both! If you can’t get your site to show up on the first page of Google no matter what you do with SEO, content, marketing, advertising, promotion, social media marketing, or shilling, then your site is probably a chronic slow-ass.
Your site is too static
Even if your site is super-awesome, on the fastest service imaginable, if nothing ever changes, even if it’s not a static HTML website but a whiz-bang modern site, then Google will start to ignore you, to dismiss you as being archival content rather than being live. We know nobody reads your thesis even though it is in your college library. While getting your Masters or Ph.D. is very cool, what have you done lately?
What are you doing now? What will you be doing next week? Your site can no longer afford to just be brochureware. It needs to become a communications platform, as real, vibrant, and alive as are your offices, as interesting as it would be to grab a drink with you. Because if your site sucks, why would anyone actually want to meet you for a meeting, a meal, or a drink. Since the Internet has commoditized simply everything and anything, you yourself are the only value added.
You are the person—you—who is the difference between a $200, $2,000, $20,000, $200,000, or $2,000,000 engagement. Can your products and services be replaced by a robot? By an offshore or outsourced denizen of oDesk, eLance, or Amazon Mechanical Turk—prove it! And start proving it on your website.
Your site is too dynamic
I do recommend you try a modern, easy-to-edit and engage, content management system (CMS) if you don’t have the ability to support the sort of site load associated with success and many visitors. If you need to go on the cheap, consider static site generators like Movable Type, BlazeBlogger, Jekyll, Phrozn, Hyde, Sculpin, Bonzai, Winter Smith, Pie Crust, Middle Man, Nanoc, Gumdrop, and Stasis. If your website still sucks, then this solution is way over your head—so just be sure you know about these tools and words like Ruby, Python, PHP, and Perl in order to impress your techiest friends at parties.
Your site is stale
Please refer to Your site is a decade old, Your site is too static, and Your site is 5 years old or more.
Your site is broke-ass
Have you checked all of your images and links? Go check out W3C Link Checker or Internet marketing Ninja’s Image & Link Analyzer if you want to check your website for both broken links and images. It’s often worth it to check your own site. It may well be worth it to spend a little money at Pingdom, the industry’s best tool at checking your website to make sure it’s up and responsive. And, if it’s down, you’ll get pinged, or contacted, however you like, immediately.
Your site ignores the robots
People are only awake between 16 and 20 hours a day (and are probably online and looking at your site for maybe a few minutes); however, bots and spiders are machines and are around ubiquitously. Robots really only read text. They understand explicit keywords and phrases and then index them. They follow links and see how things are interconnected, they index entire sites, putting every single word and phrase into the search engine. Are you writing your sites for bots and spiders?
Your site ignores the visitors
Remember, these sites are not about you or your vision, it’s about the visitors and how they experience and perceive you. Do you annoy them? Do you confuse them? Are you too clever? Are you too creative? Is the site navigation clear? Do you make it easy for the visitors to contact you?
Or, are you a total dick by embedding too many CAPTCHAs or impossible-to-decrypt anti-spam prevention strategies that might pretty much keep your INBOX completely EMPTY (because every single spam email is like sulfuric acid in your eyes), because you’ve made contacting you enough of a pain in the ass that your sweet visitors with a $100k budget accidentally puts in the wrong email or CAPTCHA and the email never makes its mark.
And if you post your email addresses as graphic files, expecting your visitors to transcribe the email address from GIF to Gmail, then you’re a total douchebag and have a self-destructive streak that might require a little bit of Jungian therapy.
Your site doesn’t share
Social media is for sharing. Allow every single page to be share-able. Don’t judge. And offer them the ability to send pages as emails. And, don’t limit the sharing, either. Include Google+, Pinterest, reddit, StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, and even Tumblr. More, if you’re really savvy. Some people use their Twitter accounts as a de facto bookmarking tool. You never know and so allow your visitors to please play with the box your website came in as merrily as you want them to play with your site itself. People have their own processes—just give them all the tools they need.
Your site doesn’t tithe (to Google)
You need a fast site, a site that caches, you need a site that’s embedded through Google Analytics and referred to through your Google+ Profile page. You need to give Google that which is Google’s and Visitors that which are Visitors.
Forget Bing, Ask, Yahoo, MSN, AIM, AOL, or any of that stuff. Appease Google and be sure that Google knows who you are, the person behind the brand, and also let Google know the names behind your staff, your associates, and be sure to information architect your site more for Google than even your visitors.
Most visitors have very low expectation for corporate sites, believe me, but Google’s expectations are always high, especially if your one true dream is to make it, organically, to the top of Google search.
Your site isn’t social
See Your site doesn’t share and add to it whether or not you want people to engage you in other ways, such as web-to-voice, web-to-phone, or real-time live chat. Consider adding a blog to your site and opening up comments—and respond to them, too. Finally, do you have an RSS feed? Maybe you should, especially if you update your site regularly or maintain a corporate blog.
Your site is too shallow
You can make your site suck by embedding all your words and navigation into photos and graphic files. Or in a giant Flash blob. However, that’s not the only way.
You can also ruin your site by making it too shallow by emulating the iOS or Android interface too well. Or the Apple.com website. Apple will always be a destination. Apple is a Global Brand, beloved, and also spends billions of dollars on ads, commercials, stores, promotions, and product placements.
We, the other half, need to use asynchronous guerilla tactics. On the web, you need function over form. Like minimalism, it takes a lot of money to do it right. Minimalism isn’t just an empty room. Well, maybe you are more visual than textual. Maybe you’re an artist or designer.
Well, I was a photographer, and guess what Corbis and Pacific Stock, my stock photo agencies, made me do: they made me label, describe, keyword, tag, categorize, and oftentimes things like “vertical” or “horizontal, “dominant blue” or “dominant yellow.”
I couldn’t just take the photos and throw them at my photo editors in New York and expect to get my royalty check. I was the only person who knew where I was when I took the photos as well as what photos I took were of and when. See what I mean?
Your site is invisible
Your site is a blob of Flash, your site is a series of images, your site, for some reason, is blocked from being indexed by a bunch of robots.txt, you have recursive code that confuses visitors and prevents indexing, your caching strategy is broken and you need to purge or refresh the cache.
Your site is overwhelmed from visitors or robots or a denial of service attack, or maybe you’ve forgotten to pay your hosting, your domain name registration fee, of maybe your Internet is broken and you need to reboot your wireless router or call Comcast.
Your site is too graphical
See Your site is too shallow and Your site is invisible.
Your site is fugly
Don’t worry, like I said before, function over form. However, if you’re a designer, you’re going to have to step it up at some point; however, in the world of banking, finance, business, tech, IT, and Craigslist—the ugliest and most functional site ever.
And, if you’ll notice, Wikipedia and even Google.com are pretty fugly and they’re possibly the best sites on the web.
Your site is boring
Ask someone else. Boring people never know how boring they are. I hope nobody reveals how boring I am to me.
Your site is elusive
Unless you’re already rich and you’re just showing off, be sure to learn some very basic user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) usability information. If you want to steal, steal from Amazon.com.
And, if you’re smart, you’ll probably want to make sure that all your most important content is conveyed “above the fold”—what’s that, man?
Come on, you know! Take a properly-printed newspaper, keep it folded in half, and then think about that half as your browser (and assume your browser isn’t a big screen, flat screen, monitor, but a 12.1″-14″ screen on a laptop).
Then, be sure that everything you need to convey is in that window and doesn’t require any (or not too much) scrolling.
Your site is confusing
Your site is pop-uppy
Ok, I know that you really want your visitors to sign up for your newsletter and Like you on Facebook, but most people really hate that popup that manifests when they’re rushing to check your address before coming to meet you.
Unless you’re Brian Solis or Chris Brogan and already superstars, you’re just pissing people off. Well, maybe just me.
OK, that last one was a little self-indulgent but hopefully the rest of them will be useful for you. No matter how social media-centric I am, no matter how I would love everyone to live in the (social media) space in-between, we all know — or should — that your website is where you want everyone to end up.
You want both people you know, people you have yet to meet, and people who bump into you randomly when they’re surfing across the socialsphere to have a very useful, comprehensive, easy-to-navigate destination for all of that and that could be your website or your blog, but somewhere you control.
Remember, at the end of the day that you don’t own your content on any of the social networks — not really. If you can, you need to start spending some of all that time you lavish on other people’s sites (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr, et al) on your own.
And, if you start tracking all the money you’re spending on all the staff and support and tweeters and Facebookers and AdWords and Facebook and Twitter ads and reconsider your website. Reconsider what you can spend, what you can afford, rather than just what you want to spend or think you should be spending.
You’re nobody’s fool. I promise you that the moment you underpaid for your website the last time you really did get what you paid for — admit it to yourself!
And, don’t feel bad, either, OK? When you spent your big money and produced your decade old website ten years ago your website was something pretty nice to have but it wasn’t really something anyone needed. It wasn’t essential services. It couldn’t replace the brick and mortar; it couldn’t change the office dynamic.
Your website was like your boat rather than your car, your minivan, or your home. But not anymore.
In 2014, your website is everything.