Golden Touch

We can learn Web success secrets from sites that have won the equivalent of an Oscar—but that's not the bottom line.

In an outlandish and swanky annual ceremony said to rival the Oscars, The International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences makes an effort to recognize the best of the Web. Despite their tone, the Webbies aren't all fun and frolic. Studying the winners is one way to further your e-business efforts (each nominee is evaluated for content, structure and navigation, visual design, functionality, interactivity and overall experience.) But after checking out some of the glitzy, eye-popping winning sites, I made my own list of six rules for a successful e-business Web site.

What's the purpose? Too many sites and Web-based applications fail to consider what the site is for. When managers let developers drive site design, sites often begin and end with tech-HTML, DHTML, CSS, Java, Javascript, Flash, animation and streaming video (Webby winners are replete with this stuff). Instead, Web sites should be about purpose. Begin the design process with a clear understanding of what it is you're building and why. Most usability studies say that you have less than 10 seconds to connect with your potential customer. Users won't spend time figuring out what it is you're offering-it's too easy to go elsewhere.

Content still rules. Content is closely related to purpose. Users look at the content before any other element on the page, so focus there first, not on the navigation bar or distracting graphics. If content matches needs, users stay and want to return. One secret to creating outstanding Web content: Keep it short and lively. Tailor content to both the audience and the media itself.

Build walking tours. Potential customers won't spend much time figuring out how to use your site-they'll either jump right in or leave. A Web site's flow should allow the user to move without thinking about the process at all-to walk through it. Your team's goal should be to transcend the mechanics of the browser, eye flow, buttons, clicks, links and navigation tools.

Keep an open door. The site's design should be inviting, not distracting. Focus on cleanliness, simplicity and polish. Try to make the design invite the next step-a click further into the site. Design can also help establish credibility. What about sites that resemble the Las Vegas strip? Credible? Unless you're a casino, probably not. Make the design represent what your business is about.

Get ready to perform. Functionality comes from the Latin "functio," meaning "to perform." It's the sum total of what your site can do for your customer. All features have to work correctly. The technology on the site enables the functionality-it has to work fast and flawlessly.

Don't be one-sided. Think interactivity. Sites with one-way communication are doomed. Your users have keyboards and mice; let them participate and talk back! Provide intuitive interactivity and community-like tools. That includes an obvious way to contact the site editors and your company, fast and easy purchasing tools and credit checks, a good search engine, chats and discussion forums that let readers talk to each other and to you, phone numbers where you can be reached, and much more. Remember, the Internet isn't TV; you don't want users to just sit back and watch.

Winning a Webby isn't the ultimate in building successful sites; being profitable is. With that in mind, check out the best, borrow freely and start turning your site and Web-based applications into e-business winners. Who knows-maybe I'll see you on stage next year.

Best of Show

No time to check out millions of existing Web sites to see what does and doesn't work? These sites have already done the legwork for you!

And here are some of this year's best Webby award winners:

—L.W.

About the Author

Laura Wonnacott is VP of Business and Technology Development for Aguirre International, and a California State University system instructor.