What makes a great website?
Forget Hamlet and all that “to be or not to be” nonsense – how to build a great website is the real question that many web designers, developers, bloggers, and website owners have struggled with. There is no magical recipe or a one-size-fits-all solution, as the definition of a “great website” can depend on various factors, like your skills, budget, and niche.
However, there are a few general guidelines and practices that you should consider on your quest to build a great website. I’ve presented them here in the form of bite-sized tips. You can use them as a checklist to help you optimize and launch your first website. If some of these tips seem like common sense, that’s because they are.
A great website is not detached from reality; it makes the most of its platform’s limitations and accommodates the needs of its audience. Here’s what you need to make it:
Clear Vision and Purpose
What’s the purpose of your website? Why are you making it?
Every website planning session should start with these questions, and yield straightforward answers in the end. Your mission should be clear to the visitors of your website.
If you’re selling a service or a product, focus on it. If you’re trying to establish yourself in a niche, implement some tried-and-true ways to achieve that. Creating a personal blog about your interests? Clearly state what they are.
Your visitors should never have to guess what the website is about.
Smart, Content-Aware Planning
While you’re still in the planning stage, think about what kind of content you want to produce, and decide what will be your website’s flagship content. Then, design your website around that choice, so that it adapts to the type of content.
Are you a photographer who wants to create an online portfolio? Build a gallery-style website with support for high-resolution images. Do you just want to write a blog? Don’t waste time building from scratch, use an existing blogging platform like Tumblr or WordPress. If all you need is a simple landing page, you could try an Unbounce, or Pagewiz template.
Dynamic SEO Strategy
Content and design are two fundamental elements of every website. Useful, engaging, and shareable content drives visitors to your website, while attractive, functional design makes it easy and enjoyable to consume the content. But to get to your website, people have to find it first, which is why you have to optimize your keywords, titles and topics for search engines.
The “dynamic” part of the story means that you can’t just set up a plugin and trust it to do everything for you. SEO is a process, an activity that requires effort and a lot of continuous research. Track your traffic, measure engagement and learn what brings people to your website.
Keep up with search engine algorithm updates and keyword optimization trends. In short, make sure your strategy can be quickly modified or changed if it becomes necessary. And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t make your content sound like it was written by a robot!
If you are planning on building your site with WordPress, we have previously published a comprehensive SEO guide for beginners, you should check it out.
High-Quality Stock Materials
The Web of today is predominantly visual, and you wouldn’t be wrong if you said that images are as important as written content. They complement the text, break it up to keep the reader interested, and provide additional information in the form of diagrams, screenshots, and infographics.
While you could always create your own graphics, sometimes you won’t have enough time or inspiration, which is why it’s important to find a reliable source of stock materials. You could try PhotoDune for high quality stock images and GraphicRiver for stock graphics. Another option is to hire a professional for completely tailor-made graphics.
Wherever you source imagery, just make sure to attribute images properly and to check if the license allows you to use them for commercial purposes.
A great website doesn’t only look right; it also works right. Frequent downtime, broken links and server errors can damage the reputation of your website and drive the visitors away. One of the most important steps in the website building process is choosing a good hosting service.
Ideally, it should offer several pricing plans so that you can pick the one that suits you best, and come bundled with handy tools and support for website maintenance. You can also improve the speed of your website by optimizing images for the Web and tweaking the options of your CMS (but only if you know what you’re doing!).
If you would like to learn more about optimising images for the web, Ben Smithett has published a comprehensive post here.
Layout is one of those elements that can make or break the visitor’s impression of your website. It should be eye-catching yet uncluttered, and present your content in a logical way. You don’t have to stick to a traditional top-down paradigm – feel free to experiment and create unconventional website layouts. Grids are a popular choice these days, and they are relatively easy to customize.
If you’re building a website with WordPress, you can choose from hundreds of fantastic pre-made themes with all kinds of layouts. Another solution is to use a responsive landing page template that will look great on mobile and convert well.
You should also consider responsive design. The principles of responsive design boil down to a layout that scales across devices and looks equally amazing on computers, tablets and smartphone screens. By having a responsive layout, you will save yourself the trouble of creating separate “mobile” versions of the website, and maybe a few coins, too.
Navigation goes hand in hand with the layout, so it makes sense to work on them at the same time.
Essentially, menus should not be confusing or complicated. Avoid too many sub-menus with multiple levels, and keep the main navigation visible and easily accessible. When you start creating content for your website, think about how you want to categorize and tag it. Make it easy for visitors to find what they’re looking for by including a search field in a prominent part of the website.
Adding a sitemap is also a good idea. On the other hand, don’t add a footer just for the sake of it – instead, make it contain useful information. Which brings us to the next point…
All the Information
If your website doesn’t contain relevant information about you, your company and/or product, and your mission, it’s not a great website. Who are you? Where is your company based? Which products and services do you offer, and under what conditions? How can people contact you? Remember that all this information is important to your visitors, and it helps you establish your brand.
Visual and Typographic Flow
Throughout this text, you might have noticed that tweaking the visual components of a website has been emphasized as extremely important. The reason for this is simple: a great website is a careful balance of quality content, a functional, optimized backend, and an attractive design. In other words, you can write the best blog posts in the world, but if your website is slow and looks like something from the 1990s, it will be hard for you to reach a wide audience.
Luckily, making a website pleasant to read is not as hard as it might seem. There are many free, online tools to help you build color schemes and learn about color theory. Likewise, it’s not that hard to figure out the basics of .
There are many tutorials and resources that will teach you about optimizing font size, choosing the right line spacing, and establishing a vertical rhythm. In the end, it’s all about flow and harmony – a great website is a whole whose parts fit together perfectly.
Backup and Automation
Let’s say you did it – you’ve created a great website. You’ve poured in hours and hours of hard, creative work, and you’re extremely happy with the result. The last thing you need is to lose it all.
But as you probably already know, accidents can happen, and it’s too easy to lose data. That’s why you have to prevent it by doing regular backups of your website. You don’t have to do it manually; in fact, most website maintenance tasks can be automated, and you should make use of some great tools, plugins and code snippets available for free.
Moreover, similar products exist to help you optimize, clean up, and generate HTML and CSS code, and if you ever get stuck in your web development endeavors, you can consult these handy cheat-sheets.
Of course, you’ll find countless similar advice-dishing lists on the Web. It’s up to you to decide which suggestions you’ll embrace – after all, it’s your website. Perhaps the most important aspect of a great website is that you, as its owner and creator, are satisfied with it.
To get to that point, you don’t have to follow all the rules; in fact, sometimes it might be better to break a few. Just remember what Shakespeare wrote: “All’s well that ends well.”
Over to You
How does your website measure up against these criteria for a great website? Are there any more factors that you would add? Please share your thinking in the comment box below.