|From Here to There:Taking Your Website Where You Want to Be
|Dr. Nikhilesh Dholakia and Dr. Ruby Dholakia
|University of Rhode Island, USA
One consequence of the global growth in telecommunications and computing is the emergence of websites all over the world. Here, Dr Nikhilesh Dholakia and Dr Ruby Dholakia discuss the main challenges involved once the website is up and running. The goal is to not only attract a large number of hits, but repeated visits by targeted individuals and organisations who return because they find the site useful, attractive, entertaining, convenient and personally relevant.
One consequence of the global growth in telecommunications and computing is the emergence of websites in various parts of the world. Until recently, countries, regions, cities, companies, and non profit organisations had difficulty in opening lines of communications even to their local constituents such as citizens, employees, and customers. Today, many are able to build a website and thus reach out to the world. We also see websites being created by regional and trade associations in an attempt to further the economic goals of a group or region. An early instance was the “Electronic Mall Bodensee” in the Lake Constance region of Switzerland and the adjacent German and Austrian federal states. One of the specific objectives of the Electronic Mall Bodensee project was to help small and medium-sized businesses take advantage of the World Wide Web in gathering information about customers and markets as well as to market products and services from local businesses. The connectivity provided by the global telecommunications and computing technologies is also being used by individual entrepreneurs to build bridges between countries and people all over the world. Calcutta online, for example, has been created to “serve overseas Bengalee community and Calcutta lovers all over the world”. It offers current news on India and Calcutta, maintains chat lines for visitors in the US and Europe and offers several commercial services, including classifieds and gift purchase and delivery. The web services are maintained by Bengalees living in the US. China Online Magazine (COM) similarly, has been developed by volunteers living in Japan for “the Chinese community living in Japan, Japanese and other people living in China”. It offers news, opinion and other information services about Sino-Japanese relationships. Key Lessons from Trends With the number and variety of websites available today, and a number that keeps growing daily, it has become a big challenge on the part of users to find sites that are useful, informative, entertaining, exciting, personally relevant and imaginative. For the myriad of individuals and organisations developing websites, the challenge has become to attract and retain visitors to the site. After a website is up and running, getting a minimal number of ‘hits’ is not a big problem; new users are still at the exploratory stages, searching the Web for interesting and useful sites to visit and revisit. The real challenge of electronic communication is the answer to the question: “What to do now that we have a website?” While web-based communications are still in their infancy, some trends are already evident in the best practices of the leading websites, particularly those in the US. Website managers around the world can learn some key lessons from these trends. Content Content is the main reason for visiting a website. It is easy to load, even overload a site with content. From the web managers’ point of view, the marginal cost of adding more information is minimal. Unlike a TV commercial or a print advertisement, where there is only 30 seconds to state one’s case or a single page to communicate the primary benefits, there are no such compelling constraints on the amount of information available on a website. Since the medium is under the control of the user, it is assumed that more is better and that users will be happy to explore the site for additional information. In deciding what and how much content to make available, one needs to consider the following: Ÿ Categorising the content in ways meaningful to the users has become a major challenge; Ÿ As the content available in a website increases, another major challenge is to map out the content in an easy-to-understand way; Ÿ As the content available in a website increases, the site managers have to be creative in enhancing the already popular parts of the website and, at the same time, promoting other strategically important parts of the website; Ÿ Freshness of content is becoming very important, especially for those sections of the site where changes occur constantly; Ÿ Increasing numbers of websites provide links to related information sources, which may be at other affiliated websites of the company or outside; and, Ÿ A major challenge is to bring back the users to the original content after they have followed one or more hyperlinks. Design Design of a website is a major factor in holding visitors to the site as well as attracting revisits. Designers have to incorporate the desired information in easy-to-access ways; they have to also consider the aesthetic and experiential properties that provide the gratifications sought from the multimedia capabilities of the system. The tendency is often to include “state-of-the-art” techniques, which result in complicated web designs. This does not help visitors to the site. Except for sites (or parts of sites) that have explicit goals of creating a powerful multimedia experience, the trend is toward the use of clean and simple designs and graphics. When there is a .trade-off between a fancy design and easy navigability, the leading websites are opting in favour of easy navigability. Navigability Navigability is a major concern in Web design and management. Creating the links that allow individual visitors to jump to different sections of a specific site or to other sites determines navigability. One needs to think through these linking structures. Good sites offer buttons or links for easy access to various key sections of the website on each page, including of course the all-important link back to the Home page. Some sites are taking advantage of the capabilities of new-generation browsers to provide pages that provide full-screen view and permit the display of enhanced graphics and animation. As a contrasting trend, some sites (especially those oriented to transactions or quick information retrieval) are offering a limited-graphics version for speedy access and easy navigation. Many important sites allow the customisation of the site, in terms of content displayed as well as the ‘view’, to suit the needs of regular visitors. Issues of incompatibility between the content and navigation features of a website (such as Java scripts) and the user’s browser and operating systems have not gone away, and in some cases have become worse because of major upgrades made to certain web sites. Interactivity Interactivity is the most distinguishing characteristic of the Web. It is the ability of the user to respond and react to information available on the site, to transform and customise the information in real time, that is fuelling the growth of this new medium. Continuous efforts have to be devoted to facilitate and promote interactivity. Increasing numbers of sites are setting Cookies, with the possibility of customising content to the user. Major relationship partners, such as key customers and suppliers, are being offered customised sites that offer more flexibility and greater levels of interactivity. Transaction-oriented sites seem to have solved most major problems of secure access and secure interactions. Users Users, the reason for building a web site, pose a distinct challenge as the new medium reaches out to more and more people all over the world. The number of users is growing attractively; a substantial amount of exploratory behaviour persists and the profile of the user as an educated, young male continues to be true. At the same time, users are becoming more diverse in their abilities and motivations to visit and navigate sites; and the capabilities of systems are becoming more complex as the kinds and speeds of communication devices multiply. Some sites are able to incorporate these trends more than others. Customising the Site Top sites are no longer catering to a general, undefined public. They are segmenting their potential viewers. Segmentation is done through careful mapping and structuring of the site as well as (in some cases) providing the possibility of customising the site. Intranets oriented towards employees, field personnel and remote workers, distributors, suppliers, and others are being integrated with the general corporate website. As a result of the above, parts of many websites have controlled access through passwords or other means. With increasing Intranet and Extranet integration into a corporate website, the uses to which a website can be put are proliferating, ranging from providing product and order information to managing key human resource programs. Conclusion Building a website seems easy at this point. For many countries and companies, once the infrastructure is in place, creating a presence on the WWW seems natural and inevitable. There also appears to be much goodwill available for “free” and voluntary creation and maintenance of websites. Once the website is up and running, there are many challenges to deal with: content, design, navigability, and interactivity of the website. We can learn from the best practices of the leading websites. At this stage, management of a website has to become more conscious, planned and strategic. As part of this reasoned approach the selection of users – internal as well as external – becomes a key to determining who visits the sites and for what kinds of reasons. The. goal is not only to attract a large number of hits, but repeated visits by targeted individuals and organisations who return because they find the site useful, attractive, entertaining, convenient and personally relevant.