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Judging a company by its web site
How can an ordinary customer judge a company, particularly its commitment to quality and good products? That's a very difficult undertaking, and analysts spend a lot of time and earn a lot of money for this, some of it probably undeserved.
However, there is an easy substitute for judging an entire companyjudge only its web site. Everybody can do that, it doesn't take very much time, it can even be entertaining and fun.
Why is a web site a good substitute for the entire company? Because the web site is its ostensible figurehead, it is meant to represent the company in the public domain. So it is sensible and legitimate to judge a company by its web site.
But can it be faked? Can a bad company have a good web site? Yes, that is possible, but in my experience this is exceedingly rare. One reason is that making a really good web site is neither simple nor cheap. Usually the company has to select and hire a web designer or a whole web design company, among which many are bad and only a minority is really good. It is all too easy to pick the wrong one, if the company is not committed to high quality and trying to do things on the cheap.
The contrarian situation happens a tad more often, a good company having a poor web site. However, how could the top management possibly lead a company well, aiming for and achieving high quality, while totally overlooking the importance of its web site? I think that's unlikely, but if it happens, they deserve to lose my business.
All this leaves only the question, how can I analyze a possibly complex web site without being an expert?
The answer is, you can do it, because the web site is meant exactly for you and other people like you, so it should work well for you. Let's look at several details that are easy to check.
One of the first and very simple checks is to drop the www. from the URL (Universal Resource Locator, the web address). For example, if you are checking the http://www.winhlp.com/ web site, enter http://winhlp.com/ (or vice versa) into your browser. Do you still get to the same web site? If not, that's a clear sign for unprofessionality.
If you are doing this on a https://… address and it doesn't work, cut a small company some slack, because they would have to purchase an extra key for the other address, but you should still automatically get forwarded to their https://… site by entering the http://… address (without the s).
Usability on narrow screens
Our next test concerns the usability of the web site on one of the most modern computer types of our timethe tablet PC. A typical tablet, when used in the more popular portrait orientation, has a screen width of 800 pixels.
So put your browser into window mode and narrow it to 800 pixels to simulate the view on such a computer. It doesn't matter whether you hit the 800 precisely, just a rough attempt will do. For example, if your screen has a width of 1,600 pixels, resize your browser window to half that width by measure of your eye.
Is the web site still usable? It does not matter whether some advertisements or other inessential displays are cut off on the right side, but all essentials should still be visible.
HTML, the technology of web sites, has the ability to shrink and grow the width of columns on demand, but the web designer can disable that ability or set limits. If the web designer designs a web site such that it becomes unusable on a narrow screen, then that casts a big doubt on his professionality, and it is utterly stupid for a company to allow that to happen.
Today you can browse web sites even on the still smaller screens of smartphones, and it would be stupid for a company to ignore this class of users entirely. The company will certainly lose some of its business if it employs a web designer who doesn't have the complete overview over his audience.
If you want to test this on a normal computer, reduce your browser window to 800 x 600 or even 640 x 480 pixels to simulate older, smaller screens or those of mobile phones.
A poor web site will show little or no actual content on an 800 x 600 screen. It will be crowded out by oversized secondary information, like useless images or "mission statements", too large sidebars, advertising, etc.
Usability without mouse
Next check whether you can use the web site without a mouse. To move the focus from one element to the next, use the tab key (tabulator, the one with the opposing arrows on the left side of your keyboard).
Some web pages have input fields you have to fill. In this case it would be sensible if the cursor is already present and blinking in the first or most desirable input field. Does the web site do that on its data input pages? Or do you have to press tab a dozen times to get to the first input field?
Two practical examples are the web sites http://imdb.com/ and http://dict.leo.org/. The former is difficult to use without the mouse, because you have to press the tab key many times before you can enter a movie title into the search input field. The latter does it rightfocus and cursor are already there.
Usability with impaired eyesight
Many web sites come with relatively small type. Users with less than ideal eyesight have to use the zoom or font size function of their browser to be able to read the site easily.
Even if the user's eyesight is OK, he may be using a small, but very-high-resolution screen, like those on some modern laptops, on which the type becomes very small not in terms of pixels, but in terms of absolute size when the pixels themselves are smaller than normal, so the user has to increase the font size somehow, to be able to read the text.
Many bad web sites don't do this properly, so it is a good idea to check the enlargement function of the browser and see whether the web pages remain fully readable and functional.
The real professionals among the web designers know this very well, of course, but some young, inexperienced ones seem to be blissfully unaware that not everyone should have everything in the same number of pixels.
Does the web site have a search function? Each web site, unless it is extremely small, should have one, usually a text input field, accompanied by a search button.
A site map should contain links to all pages of the entire web site. On a very well organized web site it is not needed, but on a big site it can be helpful, so score a small plus point if a web site has one.
If the site is very big, the site map should be a hierarchical, foldable tree, so you don't have to scroll down too far to find anything.
By navigation we mean the links, typically on the left side or at the top or both, that lead us into the web site, to other pages behind the home page, that contain the information or functions of the web site.
Creating a sensible navigation for a large web site is a difficult task, and we have to take it that it is not always possible to make it fully understandable for uninitiated users from widely different backgrounds, hence the two backups, the search function and the site map.
But the navigation should lead us clearly and unambiguously to the most important purposes of the web site. You can test that for yourself by pretending that you want to do something the web site clearly should have been designed for.
For example, if you are testing the web site of a big mail order outfit like http://amazon.com/, try to find and order a book. You can, of course, stop short of actually paying, but the way there should make it clear whether the web site fulfills its purpose.
Many web sites, including the one you are reading right now, use advertising to earn a little money. Few people really like ads, and you have to make up your mind of what you can tolerate.
By the way, ads have become less and less effective over the last few years, because ever fewer people still click on them. The suspicion arises that all the earlier ad clicks came from newcomers, who didn't recognize that these were ads. But these erstwhile newcomers have now become experienced web users, who no longer click on ads. So ads on web pages are now becoming questionable.
In any case there are some things that every decent web site should avoid, some of these being:
My take is that a certain small amount of advertising is tolerable, but many web sites go too far and alienate their users. Web designers who do that cannot be true and good professionals.
Check whether the web site contains the normal contact information, i.e. postal address, telephone number, and perhaps in addition to that a way to send a message or email directly from the web site.
Now we are coming to the point that should be most important. But there are no simple, formal rules for good content, so here you are on your own.
But do peruse at least some pages of the web site and ask yourself some questions like the following:
Of course, judging a company by its web site can never be a perfect science, but you may well find that the quality of a company's products and services and that of its web site are closely correlated. So if, for example, you want to buy something on the web and have a few potential vendors to choose from, comparing their web sites is certainly not the worst way to decide.
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