Deciding on the Best Foundation for your Website
We’ve set out this guide using the minimum of technical terms, only adding them where we believe it will help you have a constructive conversation with people and companies available to help you get a website designed and built, or changed to better reflect your needs. There’s a Glossary at the end too, that goes into slightly more detail for any of the terms used.
It’s basic, but there are too many factors to make it short, though it is concise, and the purpose is to give an overview to help companies feel more comfortable when entering the process.
The Digital World is, in many ways, a recently formed planet, and as such, there’s not always a global meaning to all its terms. So, even if you’re familiar with the terminology, it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone you talk to. For instance, this caution can be found on Wikipedia’s definition of a ‘Static Web Page’: “This article may need to be rewritten entirely to comply with Wikipedia's quality standards. (May 2009)”
Source: Wikipedia May 2010.
First Things First
To begin with it’s a pretty simple choice, you’ll either need what we’ll term a ‘Master Site’ (our term), one that only the Design/Programming Company can access to build or change, or an ‘Open Site’ (our term – more correctly referred to as a ‘Web Content Management System’, more often referred to as a ‘Content Management System’ or abbreviated to ‘CMS’ – you see the problem with technical terms?). This is designed and built to allow your own staff to change the site, without necessarily a great deal of programming knowledge.
Then you can have the choice of ‘Static’ or ‘Dynamic’ sites in either a ‘Master’ or ‘Open’ structure. We’ll come back to these additional choices later. Also you can build a ‘Master Site’ using the same code language as an ‘Open Site’, sorry, more of that later too.
The choice of a ‘Master Site’ would be based on one that requires (with one clear exception) few changes over a period of time, once it is designed and built. Let’s define that time period as a year. The exception would be when you want a planned programme of change but don’t wish to assign your own staff (for any number of reasons) to carry those out. Then a ‘Master Site’ would still be appropriate.
The choice of an ‘Open Site’ would be based on one that requires numerous changes over a period of time (again, taking one year as the time-span), and one which your own staff would implement the majority of changes. The exception again, would be when you want a planned programme of change, but don’t wish to assign your own staff (for any number of reasons) to carry those out.
So that’s pretty simple – few changes, or changes to be carried out by a professional company at your behest = ‘Master Site’.
Regular changes to be made by your own staff = ‘Open Site’ commonly referred to as a ‘CMS Site’. The changes are implemented in a non-code format, mainly used for maintenance of existing information or adding new content through a ‘What You See Is What You Get’ editor (normally abbreviated to ‘WYSIWYG’). It displays content similar to it’s final output on a web page and an editor very similar to those found in, for example, Microsoft Word, enabling copy changes, adding images or new content – a relatively simple process.
If you’re not going to implement regular changes then the decision is simple. If you are, then the positive side of a ‘Master Site’ is that you’re free of the worry of maintaining the site. You neither have to assign your own staff or train them, concern yourself with replacing any trained staff who leave, or find the task too onerous, or cutting into their time to carry out their core tasks. The downside is of course the cost implications. Uncomplicated changes may well be able to be implemented more cost-effectively by a member of your own admin staff. Then the choice would be for a ‘Open/CMS Site’.
How do you Define the Number of Changes that makes the Difference Between a 'Master Site' or an 'Open/CMS Site'?
If you have anything like an on-line sales portal with a range of changing products or services, whether you have your own staff implementing those changes or not, you’d build an ‘Open/CMS’ site. This we know seems to contradict the ‘Master’ or ‘Open/CMS’ terms. Welcome to the digital world. Let’s just say that ‘Master’ defines the terms of editing access rather than the type of coding language which best solves the needs of your company.
Probably the easiest way to define your needs is by the amount of regular content changes you will want to make. Putting aside, for example, the occasional need to highlight a period of discount on a product or service, but having a site where blocks of information are liable to go out of date, the detail needs to be refreshed on a daily, weekly or monthly basis or you have new information to communicate monthly (such as press releases or a Blog), you’d pick an ‘Open/CMS Site’ foundation. Examples range from large sites such as the BBC, to smaller ones where you may regularly post a Blog.
In the simplest terms you will probably pay a professional company anywhere between £40 - £80 per hour to implement basic content changes, and you will be somewhat reliant on their ability to schedule those changes in. So it may be possible to define the best solution on a time/cost basis.
Starting to Build on the Foundation
Once you are reasonably clear on the type of editing access you’ll need – ‘Master’ or ‘Open’ (if you are still unsure, go with an ‘Open/CMS Site’ foundation) – then you can examine the next set of options.
Custom, Template or Customised Template Design and Coding
Once it was enough just to have website, but in today’s competitive environment you also have to stand out from your competitors. Dependent on your sector or offer, that may be defined by any combination of the following (in no particular order) – visual style, ease of use, search engine ranking, content, downloads, navigation, relevance, uniqueness, readability and probably most importantly, given that the average time spent deciding whether to explore further on from the first page of a site is around 6 seconds, the ability to hold your viewers’ attention.
Custom Design and Coding
This will deliver a unique site designed to fulfil each and every one of your needs without compromise (we wish). The truth is that there are always compromises needing to be made, due to the ability of the technical side of the web to deliver information in a timely fashion. That said, this is an effective answer that delivers the greatest number of positive combinations, listed in the previous paragraph. Both ‘Master’ and ‘Open/CMS’ sites can be designed and built in this way. Though it can be argued that removing the requirement for a non-technical editing function (‘Open/CMS Site’), allows for even greater possibilities (this site, www.frewindesign.com, is an example of an 'Open/CMS' site, though with a number of more complex attributes). On the proviso that a custom designed site is the best solution, this is the top of the range.
However Custom sites are not the be all and end all of web design. Other types of site do not necessarily restrict the use of ‘Dynamic’ elements, in design, navigation, interaction, animation or video elements, all of which add to the interest and options, through interaction, of the user. This is referred to as ‘stickiness’ (see Glossary).
Static and Dynamic Sites
Let’s just diversify for a moment to consider these two options.
A ‘Static Site’, is, well it’s just that, static. There’s no interactive element, it doesn’t change dependant on the viewers input, beyond the limited choices of basic navigation capabilities. One could also put forward the proposition that it has no moving images, it doesn’t require anything but basic coding, no use of video or animation.
We believe that there are two ways to define ‘Dynamic’. The first being in simplest terms, it makes a site look dynamic. This can be achieved in any number of ways. Some examples being through the use of video, animation and interactive elements, such as changes to the content when the mouse insertion point moves over them, content changes on a mouse click, or the viewer is given a set of options, which dependent on their choice, delivers new content to the page – such as a search function or for instance, Google Maps. The second definition of ‘Dynamic’ relates to any ‘Open/CMS Site’, where even the ‘WYSIWYG’ edit function is considered a ‘Dynamic’ application.
Some times a ‘Static Site’ is the answer to a particular set of requirements, and should not always be dismissed in favour of it’s more beautiful sister ‘Dynamic Sites’, who is not only more beautiful, but also more expensive.
Template Design and Coding
Both with ‘Master’ and ‘Open/CMS’ sites it’s possible to use pre-designed and coded templates. These are not going to give you a unique site. Your competitors may even be using the same template. The analogy is that of two ladies at the same party wearing the same dress, not couture, though it’s happened, but the more likely scenario of both wearing the same M&S outfit. It is a very cost effective option as it removes a lot of the design development costs and certainly the coding development cost. Not least because basic templates can be found for free on the Internet. Though at best, they’re really only suitable for a very small company with a very tight budget, willing to pick a template and accept its restrictions.
Generally these are used for an individual’s personal site, when that person has very little or no design skills, and very basic coding skills. For which they’re great.
Remember your website’s going to be at the party 24/7.
Customised Template Design and Coding
Despite being a Design Company, and well versed in the response levels generated by a unique site, we see a lot of value in taking a well designed existing template with coding, and customising it to fulfil the needs of certain situations. The main difference from the basic templates described above is that these aren’t free. They require far more experience in design and coding to modify, and are far more complex as they’ve been developed specifically to allow major changes and additions in content, coding and interaction.
An existing template, even a high quality version, isn’t designed to solve your needs. It’s designer and coder have taken a set of aspirations, combined it with a certain style and have added certain fundamentals – a navigation system, possibly some animation coding and certain elements of interactivity – a search function, a log-in page, etc. You still require that template to be modified to your needs. And the first thing your web designer, as opposed to the template designer, will do, is define those needs.
He or she won’t even have looked at a template as an option yet. First they’ll define the challenge, gather and consolidate the information, define its order and its relevance in solving your particular challenge. At the same time, they’ll define how the site navigation will be structured and the best use and sources of images, animation and video. This takes time, but it’s time well spent. Going into to a site design halfway through and making major changes is far more expensive and frustrating for all involved.
Aligning all the information above, with the budget parameters set out by your company, they’ll have a pretty good idea of what is now possible. And after working through a concept design for key pages including content, dynamic elements, site structure, and look and feel, a decision can be made between you and your design company on whether it’s a unique design and coding solution, or if there’s the possibility of customising a high quality template.
Certain situations require a unique solution, and sometimes there just isn’t a template in existence to meet your needs, or they need so much customisation that you might as well start from scratch.
A Final Thought
If you’ve got this far then pour yourself a drink. The digital world is pretty complex, but we hope this article helps in your understanding. There’s a lot of other issues, such as cross-browser compatibility, and constantly changing software, and the lack of a single platform standard, but it’s an amazing beast that opens up a whole new way of interacting with your customers and potential customers.
We do understand that it’s difficult to take all this information in, and we’d be happy to answer any questions you have. Please feel free to email Jonathan Frewin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Analytics: What every site needs. Analytics code can be embedded in every page on a website, allowing for feedback to determine the success (or not) of the site. Such as how long a visitor stays on the site, which pages they visit, how long they spend on individual pages, which pages they exit from, bounce rate (see Bounce), even what part of the country (or the world) your visitors are coming from, to name but a few.
Blogs: Articles, comment or opinion regularly posted on your website.
Bounce: Defined using website analytics. It refers to the number of visitors arriving on your site, and then leaving almost immediately, without interacting in anyway, including visiting further pages. This can be for a number of reasons, one being to do with how search engines are defining your pages (see SEO), the other being that your site’s just not interesting them (see Stickiness). Most sites have a Bounce rate of around 50%, which we think is far too high. Good sites can cut that down to 20%.
Dynamic Site: A site that uses video, animation and interactive elements, such as changes to the content when the mouse insertion point moves over them, content changes on a mouse click, or the viewer is given a set of options, which dependent on their choice, delivers new content to the page; such as a search function or for instance, Google Maps. Any ‘Open/CMS Site’, where even the WYSIWYG edit function is considered a ‘Dynamic’ application.
Link: Any image, icon or section of text that when clicked on (or rolled over in certain instances) with your mouse cursor, takes you to a different part of the website, or to another website entirely.
Links are very important in Search Engine Optimisation (see SEO). In crude terms, the more links you have – from other sites to your site – the better your ranking in Search Engines will be.
Master Site: One that requires few or no changes over a period of a year, or one that the Design/Programming Company/Team will implement all changes.
Open Site (Web Content Management System): Also referred to as a ‘Content Management System’ or abbreviated to ‘CMS’. Allows any number of approved users, using a Web Browser (Internet Explorer, FireFox, Safari, Google Chrome, to name the main ones) through a password system, to access a website designed and built with a template (using a simple code such as HTML or one of it’s variations) and database (using a computer code language such as JSP, ASP, PHP, ColdFusion, or Perl– probably to much information). Mainly used for maintenance of existing information or adding new content through a ‘What You See Is What You Get’ editor (normally abbreviated to ‘WYSIWYG’). It displays content similar to it’s final output on a web page, and an editor very similar to those found in, for example, Microsoft Word, enabling copy changes, adding images or new content – a relatively simple process.
Unless you have experienced and knowledgeable staff tasked to do this, it’s advisable to leave any major changes or upgrades to your Web Design/Programming Company.
SEO: Search Engine Optimisation: There are three ways a visitor can end up on your site: 1) By knowing the website address (see URL). 2) By following a link (see Link). 3) Through a Search Engine. Without getting into arcane detail such as Spiders and Crawlers (I’ll never finish this glossary if I go there), Search Engines have the ability to find information loaded onto the web. So when someone types a request, into any of the numerous engines (with Google being the most popular), the Search Engine ranks pages by relevance to the request, through complex algorithms (I get the feeling you already want me to stop). Simply put, SEO is a methodology to improve your website’s ranking, in the Search Engine, against those of your competitors. This can be done in a number of ways, the most important being the actual content of the website. Other factors include the metadata (code embedded in your site that search engines read), the relevance of the website address (i.e. if you make woodscrews don’t name your site www.xyz146.com, name it www.woodscrews.com) and a number of other factors, including how long your site's been there. The other most important one being links (see Links).
Static Site: There’s no interactive element, it doesn’t change dependant on the viewers input, beyond the limited choices of basic navigation capabilities. One could also put forward the proposition that it has no moving images, it doesn’t require anything but basic coding, no use of video or animation.
Stickiness: The ability of the website to engage the viewer. Without it you’ll get a high Bounce Rate (visitors coming into the site, but leaving almost immediately, without visiting any further pages in the site).
URL: You don’t even need to know what it stands for, it means the website address i.e. www.yoursitename.co.uk (or .com or numerous other appendages).
Web Browser: It’s what you use, on a computer or mobile device, to look at a website. The most popular are ‘Internet Explorer’, ‘Firefox’, ‘Safari’ and ‘Google Chrome’. It’s important to use the latest version for a number of reasons, security being the most important, especially on PC’s. And the ability to have as rich a user experience as possible. Web Designers and Coders are always limited by the attributes of individual browsers, and old versions rarely support the latest advances. The Browsers can be downloaded free from the Internet and often prompt an upgrade when a new version is released.
Web Coder: A person skilled in the technical, rather than the visual skills, of web development. Sometimes known as a Programmer, Techie, or Developer. Often works closely with a Web Designer, sometimes also designs the look and feel of the site.
Web Designer: A person skilled in the art and science of communication design. Sometimes from a wider background than just web design, but who has a specific skill as a digital designer and knowledge of the basic operating parameters of the channel. Responsible for the visual look and feel of a website. Often referred to as a UI (User Interface) Designer. Not necessarily the person who actually codes the site.
WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get editor. It displays content similar to it’s final output on a web page, and the editor is very similar to those found in for example, Microsoft Word, enabling copy changes, adding images or new content – a relatively simple process.
Excellent! Thanks for this! Will have a read now!
Posted by Frank McGowan
Why not you promote this into many other groups... there has been quite a lot of discussion going on for for my post... "Is website really required for businesses" ... your points might be of helpful...
Posted by Satish N Kota
Thank you - this is very useful.
Posted by Christine Durkin