There are some gorgeous Web sites on the Internet that fail to achieve their purpose. Conversely, there are some average and even ugly Web sites that are big successes. Why? Functionality. Even today, Google.com is about a simple as Web design can get, but it wins the search game because of superior functionality.
If you’re not looking for anything too fancy and just want some basic functionality that just about every other Web site have (blogs, comments, rankings), you may be able to purchase out-of-the box products. Many of them, in fact, are free and are as easy to implement as cutting and pasting a little code onto your Web page.
Blogs – A blog can be a simple way to keep your visitors in the loop. Popular blogging platforms are Blogger, WordPress, and TypePad. These platforms allow you to use templates, customize blogs with your own design, and even blogs host on your Web site.
RSS – RSS (really simple syndication) is a way to send content directly to your visitors or other Web sites. Visitors can subscribe to these content feeds, which offer a great way to disseminate information. (For an example of this, visit the AllBusiness RSS Directory.) Many of the tools mentioned here actually create their own feeds, but there are also tools that will help you monetize your content and offer statistics. Feedburner is the most popular of these services, and offers a bunch of fancy features like rotating your feed headlines (create a news ticker effect with your latest content) or embedding your feed into your e-mail signature.
Widgets – These self-contained mini-applications or small software programs are a great way to offer information to your visitors, such as a “Deal of the Day.” Visitors can download your company’s widget and when you update your daily deal, they’ll see it reflected in their widget application. These have been popular for years offering things like stocks, weather, news, and other information. WidgetBox allows you to create your own widgets, including customized styles. KickApps is another popular site to create your own widgets, and even offers a tool to monetize your widget content with advertising.
Social Network – Believe it or not, there are even tools to help you launch your own social network—for free. Ning lets users customize their own social network including blogs, message boards, groups, individual pages, and much more. For a fee, you can host the network on your own Web site. KickApps offers their own social network tool as well.
If you are looking for more sophisticated functionality, you will probably need to hire a programmer. Programmers, like some linguists, are fluent in multiple languages. When hiring a programmer you’re essentially hiring them on a project basis. Many times you’ll get more bang for your buck by using a company that employs multiple programmers who are experts in their own languages.
Once you clearly understand what you want your Web site to do, ask them to show samples of existing Web sites they’ve built with the same or similar functionality. Also, be sure to shop around and contact the owners of their sample sites as a reference check. If you’re already working with a designer who’s creating the look and feel of your site, ask if they have colleagues who are able to complete your desired tasks. Rarely will you find a single individual who has the design and programming chops to accomplish anything beyond a basic Web site.
On your Web pages, don’t forget to embed online traffic analytic software to track your visitors’ behaviors. Most Web hosting companies offer their own tracking software, but they’re typically very bare bones. For more robust analytics, there are a number of free solutions that should satisfy all your needs.
Google Analytics offers all the standard metrics that you’ll be interested in, such as page views, unique visitors, and geographic location of your visitors. But Google Analytics can also be used to create customized reports, including in-depth information like the type of browsers your visitors use.
For demographic data on your visitors, embed Quantcast tags into your site. Quantcast analytics shows things like average household income, education level, the size of businesses visiting your Web site, gender, race, and more.
Don’t forget about Feedburner (see above) for feed data. In addition to plain text feeds, Feedburner can be used to monitor other feeds like podcast subscribers.
Of course, there are some paid analytic tools that are extremely powerful. With Omniture, for example, you can run A/B tests on the effectiveness of multiple marketing campaigns and run heat maps of the most clicked areas on your Web page. Other analytic providers to check out are: Coremetrics, Neilsen Online, and Webtrends.