Twelve Things Most Sites Need - Part I

by Mike Cherim — Feb 25, 2008

There are a plethora of Websites out there, each one unique in its design, its content, markup, features, functionality, and in myriad other ways. Yet, despite these differences, there are specific needs that should be met with near consistency, Internet-wide, regardless of the site. Let’s take a look at twelve of these common denominators. Below are the first six. They appear in the order in which I thunk ‘em up. They’re just numbered so you can refer to them more easily.

1. A Proper Navigation Menu

Any domain on the Web that consists of more than one page is a Website and as such needs to be navigable. Now this might seem obvious, but if that is so, why do I occasionally encounter sites with mystery meat navigation? Or, on a deeper level, are inaccessible because they require JavaScript or images in order to function. These must be a upper layers consistent with a progressive enhancement, not a requirement. An easy to use and accessible navigation menu must be available. There are other concerns as it pertains to building a proper navigation menu, as well, such as…

2. A Meaningful, Well-Formed Title

By meaningful title I am specifically referring to the title element — what’s shown on the title bar of your browser. Ideally the content title should come before the site (this helps search users find stuff like your main content heading, instead of seeing your site name over and over again) and, if at all possible, each page should have its own title. This is an example of an effective use of the title element:

<title> Twelve Things Most Sites Need | Web page Design For Designers © </title>

Note: I prefer using a hyphen separator, but the vertical bar or pipe used on this site is fine.

3. A Method of Contact

I can’t recommend putting your email address on your site, even obfuscated unless done in a way that is actually secure (shop around but buyer beware, many touted methods don’t work indefinitely), but offering a means of contact is almost always necessary. It not only lends itself to sense of legitimacy, it’s simply the right thing to do in service to your visitors. To facilitate this, offering a phone number and address is good, if possible, and a contact form is a nice option in lieu of a mailto: email link that not all visitors will be able to use anyway. However, since some visitors are robots or people up to no good, use a secure contact form. It has been argued that client-side spam filtering negates the need to protect your email address on the Web, but your address can still be harvested and put into use. There is no winning this war — not as long as common account names like info@yourdomain.com, contact@yourdomain.com, and admin@yourdomain.com can be put to use as soon as you register a domain name — but it doesn’t mean we should make it easy.

4. A Site Map

Not all site visitors are well served by a site map and not all sites require one. Say, for instance, you have a basic five page site with a clear and consistent, and readily available, navigation menu. You could probably do without a site map. But how many sites freeze at five pages? Experience over time has taught me domains tend to sprawl as new needs inspire new pages or applications. Start your site map as soon as it starts to grow, or consider adding it to your site from the beginning. At first you can link to it from the footer, then later move the link to a more obvious location as the site grows, since more visitors will find it useful. On small sites I will often incorporate the site map into a “site help” or “site info” page, killing off numerous birds with a one stone — accessibility and copyright statements, privacy policy, etc. If you aren’t yet convinced, also know that many users, most notably the blind, will seek a site map first since it gives them a snap-shot of the domain’s offerings, so to speak.

A site map can be as simple as a Web page with an unordered list. Maintaining it can be quite simple: add a new list item when a new page is added. The hardest part is actually remembering to update it. That’s where the beauty of dynamic site maps really shine. Applications such as WordPress, as just one example, afford users the opportunity to create everything from simple to complex site maps with not much more than a simple function call. “Plugins” are also available further simplifying the process for novice users. And if you want to step it up a notch, you can also offer an XML site map but know that an HTML site map is what I am referring to. People should come first, not robots and spiders.

5. Passive Accessibility

I’m not going to bore you with some soliloquy. I will say this, though: Your Website should be accessible. Whether or not you do it for your visitors or for yourself is irrelevant. If you do it purely to satisfy your own needs your visitors will also benefit… can’t be helped. So, it’s all good. If you’re not familiar with the advantages to having an accessible site, maybe this presentation will help explain why accessibility makes sense. If you’re not familiar with Web accessibility, there are helpful links on the last page of the presentation. You can also get some basic info from the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

6. Standardized Markup

This, like offering a proper navigation menu, may seem obvious, but it’s a big failing across the Web. From using tables for layout, to the improper use of breaks, to using a "big-bold" font style instead of a heading. Using the right markup for its designated purpose, without going overboard by stretching it usage, is useful not to not only accessibility and usability, but the practice of using semantic markup helps ensure forward compatibility. Truthfully, if you’re about to build a new Website and you’re planning on using tables and old practices, fuggedaboudit. You won’t be doing yourself or your client a favor if you don’t make peace with CSS and valid HTML 4.01 (for awhile) or XHTML 1.0/1.1. (A little accessibility awareness isn’t going to kill you either.) Web standards aren’t a joke and your cooperation in their adoption is of great importance.

Move on to Twelve Things Most Sites Need - Part II

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