As a digital strategist, I look at a lot of websites each month; websites across all industries, all styles, simple ones, complex ones, and of course, stunningly beautiful award-winning websites.
I, much like everyone else, enjoy admiring beautiful things; be it a sleek website, a serene painting or a thought-provoking sculpture. But what separates websites from pure art is that websites often, if not always, have a commercial intent behind them. Put bluntly, art’s goal is to evoke emotional and cognitive responses, whereas websites are there to advance business goals.
This is an important distinction to understand. When I’m assessing websites, I don’t base a website’s worth on my own emotional response to the website, but on the data uncovered from under the hood that tells me how well the website is performing for the business.
Some of the questions that go through my head when auditing websites are:
• Will the website be found by the target market and how exactly will they find it?
• Will the visitors be engaged and how will the metrics reflect this?
• Will the website increase conversions and what constitutes a conversion to the business?
• Does the website have a clear business purpose in the first place?
The problem with award-winning websites
Every minute, thousands of websites go live on the World Wide Web. Information management would be a nightmare if we didn’t have these clever search engines, like Google, that turned the indexation of online content into their business and made our lives so much easier in the process.
All of us have used Google at some point or another and surely appreciate how fast it gives access to the information we’re looking for. But why are we making it so hard for Google to discover and decipher our own prized websites?
In my audits I keep coming across websites that are visually stunning, but that have absolutely no thought put into the commercial intent of the website, not to mention ensuring that the website is friendly towards search engines, in effect, discoverable and readable. This essentially means that the website serves no purpose and the money and time spent on it is wasted.
From a business point-of-view, in the online environment a beautiful website is simply not enough and we should stop the proliferation of awarding websites that concentrate purely on the aesthetics. If it’s not discoverable by search engines, no matter how sleek, it doesn’t fulfil its core purpose and is therefore a failure, not a winner.
Beautiful web design isn’t the holy grail
The digital space is brutal for website owners, with surfers having the attention span of a goldfish when navigating the online jungle; click here, search there, open in a new tab, view this video, all within seconds. Unlike painters and sculptors, web designers can’t rely on people to pause or stop in their tracks in awe when coming across their artwork.
But wait a minute; isn’t that exactly what we award websites for? Isn’t the purpose of exquisite websites to catch the attention of surfers and evoke an emotional response?
If current website awards are anything to go by, this certainly seems to be the case. The more visually pleasing a website is, the more awards it seemingly deserves. It definitely can’t be argued that well-selected photography and a consistent use of design elements wouldn’t make the user experience of a website a positive one. But in order to determine what exactly constitutes successful web design, we should be looking at analytics, not base our judgments on subjective opinions.
Data scientist W. Edwards Deming put it quite nicely:
“Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”
To determine how well-designed a website really is, we should be looking at:
• Bounce rate
• Time on page
• Number of pages visited
• Customer journey and drop-off rates
• Exit rate
• Site speed
• Video views
• Outbound clicks
• Conversion rates
However, web design is merely one piece of a bigger puzzle.
Web design and search engines can work together
There still seems to be a notion out there that search engine friendly websites are somehow offensive to the eye. This is simply not true.
The modern search engines are sophisticated bundles of complex algorithms that look at over 200 signals when determining the purpose and value of a website. In fact, most of these signals are seeking to replicate human cognition, making them quite smart at evaluating websites from a holistic perspective.
There’s no need to decide between a well-designed and search engine optimised website; these are not mutually exclusive disciplines and never have been. Much like a human, a search engine that’s evaluating websites does also place value on visually pleasing design that engages audiences (as determined by engagement data in analytics).
But in addition to this, it would also focus on the signals that convey the intent of the website, as well as how easy it has been made for search engines to understand this purpose. This is something that current website awards don’t consider.
Why do you own a website in the first place?
Building a website based on the mantra of “making the Internet a little prettier” doesn’t compute with search engines that try to decipher what value the website offers to other people, not to mention business owners seeking to see a return-on-investment on their website.
The biggest secret search engines try to decipher about your website with the help of their bundles of complex algorithms is the purpose of the website. By first understanding yourself what you’re trying to achieve with your website, and then making it easy for search engines to understand this purpose, it will be much easier for the engines to pass on this information to people searching for your business or services online.
Don’t create your website for web design awards, but design and optimise it with utility in mind. Only after that will you stand a better chance of having a successful website; not after you’ve won a web design award.