It is hard to believe the world wide web is only 30 years old, as today it seems there is little we can do without it. On 6 August 1991, the first website was introduced to the world. Launched at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), it was created by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee. On it, people could find out how to create web pages and learn about hypertext (coded words or phrases that link to content). By 1992 there were ten websites, by 1994 there were 3,000 websites (after the world wide web became public domain) and by the time Google made its debut in 1996, there were two million. However on 27 February 1995, Clifford Stoll writing in the American magazine Newsweek wrote ‘The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.’ Seventeen years later Newsweek ceased print publication and became exclusively available online.
I built my first website in 2001 and from 2005 – 2018 worked in local government as a web editorial assistant. In 2006 the Cheshire County Council web team appeared in the internal newsletter. It was reported we had scored a national ‘hit’ parade high, with more than 648,000 internet users having clicked on to the Council services online, helping to scoop the coveted ranking as the eighth most visited local government website in the UK. It all seems incredibly wide eyed and innocent now but at the time the world was pretty much changing in real time in front of our eyes, as we encouraged our customers to ‘do it online.’ Websites were cluttered, dis-organised, used outlandish fonts and colours, had background music, guest books and counters to show the number of people who had visited the website and it wasn’t unusual to have text scrolling or flying across the screen.
Why is a digital presence important?
In 2020, Forbes reported that in 2019 alone, there were approximately 3.8 million Google searches conducted each minute, many of which were carried out to find information on local businesses. Today many people will visit a company website and social media pages before they do anything, so a strong online presence acts like a shop window, where customers can browse, get a feel for a business, interact with a business and read customer reviews, with many people watching from a distance before they make contact or part with their money. In turn, websites, social media and other digital platforms allow businesses the opportunity to educate customers about what they do and showcase their work 24/7 to a global audience, who increasingly expect to see all businesses online, no matter their size.
One of the main reasons to have an online presence is to increase your credibility. Without this, many people today will question your legitimacy whereas a strong online presence will help build trust, find potential customers and affect their purchasing decisions. Having an online presence is an opportunity to get the word out about what you do but if people can’t find information about your business easily, they are likely go elsewhere.
Saving you time
An online presence can also help increase internal productivity within your company, reducing telephone calls meaning staff are not constantly being distracted. At the same time, it helps customers find useful information such as your location or opening hours at any time of day or night, which ultimately provides better customer service for them.
Top tips for building your online presence
First impressions count
Websites and other online services need to have a clean, modern and professional looking design, so no scrolling text, flashing images, crazy fonts, flying text, background music or emoticons – those days are gone. However, it is also important that your website is not style over substance, so beyond aesthetics, you should ensure you are providing valuable information to your customers, rather than posting for the sake of it. Sharing news updates about your company or maintaining a regular blog, where you provide original content related to what you do or the industry you work in, is important in bringing customers to you and ensuring they see you as current and relevant. Plan what you want to share ahead of when you want to share it, rather than thinking it and doing it in a rush the same day.
Use branding to clearly establish who you are, what you represent and what you stand for. Think BBC, Coca Cola, Virgin, Marks and Spencer – branding is your identity and should be instantly recognisable to your customers wherever you promote yourself, whether that be online or in printed material.
Ensure you can be contacted
If people are searching for you online they will expect to be able to contact you online too. Ensure your website has a contact email address and/or contact form and make sure these work by sending yourself a test email or asking someone to send one for you. If you are happy to be contacted by telephone or post, make sure these details appear on your website too. Alternatively, you can ask customers to book a call by using a Call To Action (CTA) button on your website or by using an online calendar such as Calendly and if you work from home but don’t want to share your home address online, look to obtain a virtual office address. Where contact information can be added to social media, you should ensure it is added and kept up to date there too.
Identify top tasks
People visits websites with a specific task in mind and if your website doesn’t help them complete those tasks, they will leave quickly and go somewhere that does. Considering the top tasks of your customer will help you identify the pages you need to include, content to feature on your website, page headers and sub headers to help them find their way around and a logical structure to each page’s content. Your website navigation menu needs to be easy to find and all key tasks need to appear in this – having links hidden away where they can’t be found doesn’t benefit you or your customer.
Writing for the web
Writing for the web is different to writing for print, as we read differently on screen than on paper, so before posting anything online, you need to tailor how you write for an online audience.
- Use everyday language and plain English.
- Proof read, sense check and spell check what you write by reading your writing aloud to yourself. It can be difficult to proofread your own writing, so if possible, ask someone to proofread for you too.
- When you’ve finished writing, leave it for a while, return to it and read it through again – you will be surprised how much of your work you can still improve.
- Do not use words and phrases that people won’t recognise or provide an explanation if this cannot be avoided.
- Explain all abbreviations and acronyms, unless they are well known and in common use, for example VAT.
You can learn more about writing in plain English in the blog post ‘Plainly Speaking’ on this website.
Print versus web
Reading a flyer, brochure or book is a very different experience to viewing something on a screen. Printed materials need to be eye catching to entice people to pick them up but people read differently online, scanning what has been written to find information of interest, so anything posted online needs to recognise this. And remember, there may be times when a customer may need to print something from a website and they are not going to thank you if a document is beautifully designed but uses all their printer ink.
Remember, people with disabilities and older people are your audience too. You can learn more about this issue in the blog post ‘Making digital technologies accessible to all’ on this website. And although the number of older people who are digitally connected continues to rise, there are still around 5 million people over the age of 55 who are not online. Don’t forget to design your online services so they can accessed by people of varying ages, abilities and requirements and consider alternative ways to communicate with those who may not be online, to be sure you are not excluding them.
Undertake regular link checks – broken links, regardless of whether they appear on your website or an external website you may link to give a poor impression. Free broken link checkers can be found online.
Learn from experience
What do you find most frustrating about the websites you visit? Don’t fall into the trap of designing the same for your customers.
Keep your website fresh
Remember, websites are never finished, they are not a static thing that you create once and then forget about, they always need updating. The same applies to social media. It isn’t enough to set up pages and leave them – both need to be nurtured and maintained and have life breathed into them regularly. Neither is there is a one size fits all solution, so remember to always consider your target audience, always consider what you want to achieve by having an online presence and if this changes, be prepared to change what you do.
- Canva: Graphic design for print vs web – 15 vital differences you need to know about
- Centre for Ageing Better
- CERN: The birth of the web
- Forbes: Why every business needs a website
- Forbes: Why a strong digital presence matters
- NPR: A Look Back At The Very First Website Ever Launched, 30 Years Later
- The New Stateman: 25 years on, here are the worst ever predictions about the internet
- Warwick University: Writing for the web
- 99 Designs: 6 website design mistakes and how to avoid them
- Nielson Norman Group: Writing for the web
- Science Museum: The world wide web – a global information space
- The Wayback Machine
- Web Design Museum: Web Design History Timeline
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