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What Goes Into a Website? A lot

One of the biggest problems that I’ve found working in the web industry is that outsiders don’t really get what a website is all about. It’s not just about HTML, a really good design, or content. I’m finding that too many young businesses, or immature older ones, think one web designer  is all it takes to put together a website.  So I’m going to attempt to describe in under 1,000 words what should go into a website. The key word here is should.

Content Inventory and Audit

Pop quiz: what’s the most important thing about your website? The answer is content. People go there for information, plain and simple. So, if you’re redesigning a website, the first step is to find out what content is there. Kristina Halvorson has some excellent chapters on content audit and inventory in her book Content Strategy and the Web. Get a spreadsheet together, map out what you’ve written, note the types of stuff on the page – and call it an audit.

Your audit also means something else: A review of Analytics and collecting User Feedback. You can get web analytics for a price, or for free. Something like Google Analytics is super easy to implement and it tells you a ton about what’s happening on your website. Analytics will tell you what pages users are going to, and how long they stay on the page. For websites with under 1,000 pages, it’s a useful exercise to tie your content inventory spreadsheet directly to your analytics. As for your User Feedback, try a free survey – like survey monkey.

Content Strategy

I’m  not going to rewrite an already well-written book on the subject. So I’m going to send you back to Kristina Halvorson’s book to learn content strategy. But here’s the deal: it’s about knowing what to do with your content. Know what you want to do with your website; don’t just throw up a few pages and pictures and call it it. Content Strategy means writing content, developing your Search Engine Optimization strategy (SEO) and even the brand.

Another big component of a content strategy is Usability and User Experience. Don’t confuse the two. Usability is a very scientific and objective piece; it measures things that Analytics captures. User Experience is something you design.

You shouldn’t build a website until you have a content strategy.

Information Architecture

After you know what you’re going to accomplish withthe content on your site, you need to figure out how to organize it. So think of information architecture as building your navigation. It’s about what types of content you have, how you associate the content, and how you’ll arrange it on the page. Information Architecture takes you to wireframes which are your rough outlines of the site.

Web Design

Weird how web design is the third item on your to-do list for your website. That’s because the guy who’s designing your website has to know what kinds of content he has, and where it goes on the page. The web design is to a website as what the interior decorator is to a house. The Web Design should support your content. The navigation style makes sense with your information architecture. The actual layout follows any wireframes.

Regarding the actual design…I’m a huge fan of Adobe Fireworks. Mainly because it was built to be a web design application – unlike PhotoShop which was designed for……well….shopping photos. This is a heated debate in the design community, so realistically, I’d let it slide if someone used PhotoShop. But I’d be happier if they designed using the application meant to do it.

Your web design should be driven by Usability practices, and you should also keep in mind that you’re designing the User Experience. So make your website easy and simple to navigate; quoting Steve Krug, “Don’t Make Me Think.” Remember that your User Experience is very subjective. You can’t really measure it with analytics, so be sure that your design gets reviewed by your customers. Not your mother, your secretary, or your vice president. Your customers.

Web Content Management

Your Content Management System (CMS) is the first application you should really buy for your website. It should be built after your web design is complete, and you even have the vast majority of it living in some sort of HTML. You’d think it’s a no-brainer, but you’re wrong; your content should be finished, too.

Over on another blog I run, I did a post of ways to manage a church website for cheap. If you’re looking for ideas, feel free to contact me. I’ve worked on both the free and premium sides of Web Content Management Systems.

Keep in mind that this is where HTML, CSS, and JavaScript don’t help. Your CMS might needs languages like Java, PHP, or .NET – just to name a few.

Databases, Servers, and Hosts

To be honest with you, this is not my area of expertise. I don’t build any of the three. Almost every CMS needs a database. Think of a Database as a  three-dimensional spreadsheet. Any website more than 10 pages large needs a database. Most all of your free CMS are written in PHP and run off of a MySQL Database. WordPress is especially good at installing itself and setting up its own database.

As for your servers  and hosts… Well, unless you plan on keeping the server in-house, try using a server/ hosting provider. Bluehost is my favorite. You need something called a name server which actually stores your URL. Then you need a host – which is where your website lives. Life is easier if the same company keeps track of both.

So What?

Websites aren’t just for your neighbor’s cousin anymore. To build a successful one it takes a lot of time and experts. Major corporations often have either departments for each component I’ve described, or they get vendors to help. When looking for a new website, find someone that can help with all of the above – not just a pretty design.