Monday, January 21, 2013

Has Your Website Gone Stale?

I’ve been developing websites personally since 1996. Back then, most website were exclusively text. If you used a photo it better be smaller than 100k (approximately 0.1 megapixel, about 1/50th of the resolution of your cell phone camera), because if your pics were larger than 100k it would take the average user several minutes to download your page.

Today websites can stream video. They can display animations, complete with sound and links. Little people can even wander onto your screen and talk to your customers (a fad that, thankfully, is already stale).

Up until about 2 years ago, I could look at almost any website and tell you when it was built and using which technology.

Today, websites are dynamic. Modern Content Management Systems can create virtually any interface imaginable.

The irony is that with today’s multimedia arsenal, many of our most frequently used websites are quite simple in appearance. Facebook, for example, without user content is simply a three column template with a thin blue banner. The number one website in the world has absolute minimal graphic interface.

Today, your website goes stale not based on the web technology you use, the cool gadgets you install or whether or not you have the latest social media button.

Today's websites rely on content for “freshness”. The most attractive websites can still be boring, and the simplest websites can be highly important to their users.

Put your site to the test…

Bring up your homepage please… yes, I’m serious. Ok, if you’re reading this while in traffic, it can wait until you get to the office, or at least pull over.

Now that you have your homepage in front of you, look for a few things to determine if your website is stale.

On your main page, have any features been updated in the past 24 hours, past week, past month? If you answered yes, in the past 24 hours, AWESOME. If it’s been more than a week, you have room for improvement. If it’s been more than a month, you've got some work to do.

Is your content dated? One of the great things about blogs is you can tell how fresh the information is. As I read an article about search engine optimization, which is constantly changing, I need the freshest possible information. If I’m reading an article about how to make Christmas cookies, I can rely on articles written quite a while ago. Depending on your business, your users may absolutely require extremely recent information.

Even if you make frequent changes, if your customers can’t see when they were made, they may judge you as stale. If you only update weekly or less, make sure to include dates. You can use a blogging style, or simply mention the dates in the first paragraph of an article. “Our charity day was a big success, benefiting victims of Hurricane Sandy.” Anyone from Pennsylvania or New Jersey will know your article was written sometime in the past 60 days.

Are you accidentally backdating? Some businesses update content with relative frequency, but don’t need to update their interface. However, they forget that at the bottom of the page it says “Copyright XYZCorp, 2006”. If I see this, and it’s the only date on the website, regardless of how fresh the content, I’m going to wonder if you’re even still in business. 

How often should you update your website? 

Realistically major content updates can be time consuming, and aren't necessary for every business. If your business relies on freshness, such as seasonal industries, highly competitive consumer goods, etc. you need to update at least weekly.

However, if you’re selling concrete to contractors, or marketing a housing development over the period of several years, it’s not absolutely required that you update excessively. However, you can fake it. 

Here's what I recommend for some types of businesses:

Daily - If you run a website as your primary business, a blog, or any news related publication you have to have daily updates.  Most of the best and most well read websites are updated multiple times a day.  

Weekly - Local businesses such as restaurants and music venues need to be kept up-to-date at least weekly.  Any business that relies on the same customers coming back time and again need to constantly freshen their website.  A great way to do this is to publish weekly specials on the same day each week.  Keeping your updates regular will help encourage your customers to keep visiting.  Make it clear that your home page is updated weekly.  Using the words "Weekly Special" or prominent holidays help keep it looking fresh.

Monthly - Some businesses don't change enough to warrant extremely frequent updates to their homepage.  If your website is used heavily by customers, try a newsletter or blog that gets updated once a week or every two weeks.  Then simply keep a running log on your homepage of new blog posts.  If this is to time consuming, read the next section on faking freshness.

Fake it!

Consider starting a Twitter feed. Post links every day or two that might be interesting to your customers. Honestly, nobody has to read the links. You don’t need a Bazillion followers. However, by adding the rotating feed to your website, visitors can tell that you are still in business and “active” in social media. It’s a great way of putting fresh content on a site that is 99% the same month after month. 

You can also use top ten lists such as "Top Ten Products in December".  Even if this list changes rarely, having the month shows that your business is active.  

Outsourcing is also a possibility.  There are many companies and individuals that can create helpful blog posts and add them on a regular basis.  For example, paying a doctor to update her blog may be stressful to her practice, however hiring a college intern for $50 a week to add a 300 word article on some general health topic can be a cheap and easy way to give patients the impression that you're practice is constantly giving back to the community.  You can even work in a little promotional event like "get your flu shot this fall" to generate a little more business.

It’s always better to add real content, but like most of us, you’re probably busy running your business. In that case, fake it or outsource it, and get back to work.
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