Bad websites – the perils of offering help

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This post attempts to show that people in difficulty do not necessarily welcome the help that you see – oh so clearly –  that they need. I also want to talk about some of the basic principles of how to construct a site.

I have a friend who has built a website which has become over a period of time what I call a dog’s dinner. It is easy to see that different pages have been added at different times for different reasons. If you were reading a book, and each chapter was written with a different layout and a different typeface, you would not find it a comfortable experience to read. Referring to dogs dinner,  that phrase is more relevant to the United Kingdom. However,  the origin of this phrase is not clear but may have referred to a cooking mishap with results fit only for the consumption of a dog.

I do try to help people on many occasions but unfortunately in most cases people go on the defensive and do not absorb the essence of what I’m trying to say. Very often the advice is  unrequested and unprompted but I say to myself ‘If I don’t tell them then who will?’

I don’t think that a website bears the whole burden of reputation for a firm or an individual. However, for first impressions, it is very important that the impression is unambiguous. It should ring like a bell. The major problem is that people who write the website or design it have a clear picture in their mind on what the back story is. Who the people are, why they started the firm in the first place, where they are on the journey etc. and it is vital to make this clear to the reader. People love stories and there is somewhere a need to know where something started and why.

just plain chaotic

Free website building sites abound and the promise is that without any HTML knowledge you can have your site up and running in a few minutes. In other words, the whole process has been dumbed down. The result  is that you have restrictions on what you can do outside the format that the designer has presented you with. Therefore, if you want to change anything, you stand the risk of interfering with the basic infrastructure and ruining the whole site.  If you look at code, it is a fearsomely unfriendly procession of numbers, characters and symbols of all types but every single one is necessary and if one character is missing, the whole will not work or only work in part.

So let’s talk about a person who doesn’t know anything about websites, say the secretary of the small gardening club, and seeks help. They have no money to spare but a high need for perceived need. This could turn into a worst-case scenario where someone who knows nothing about computers accepts an offer from a friend to make a website. Although the development goes well at first and the site is produced, it gets more and more awkward when the site owner wants changes made and is essentially asking someone for a favour or to be blunt about it, begging. If they are busy with paid work you will be well down on the list. At the very very worst, they will have registered the website themselves, and registered their own name with the Internet service provider and had somehow lost or mislead the details or they have gone off sick leaving you completely powerless to change your own site.

The essentials of a website in this fiercely competitive market (there are after all over 1 billion registered websites there are probably only about two thirds are active) but you still have to get people’s attention. From the many many sites I have seen, most all the smaller amateur sites assume knowledge that the public does not have. They do not ask an impartial person to check the results before publishing it, and they try to do too much in one site. Site content is a supreme example of “less is more” be more effective. All you’re trying to do in most cases is to get people to make contact by phone or e-mail. Don’t undersell and don’t oversell.

A person with a weak site, and I’m thinking of a person that I’m trying to help at the moment, is on the defensive with their backs into the wall because the site is not working and they don’t really want to hear anything that constitutes criticism even if it is well meant. It is very difficult to say to the suffering person in a way that is acceptable ” Look, your website is not able to convince anyone. It lacks authority, information and coherence, and you really need to start again”. This is just too much for people to take especially as they’ve invested their hearts and probably their money in putting together the site.

As I write, I have not solved this diplomatic situation. If your comments are so bland as to be meaningless, you will not communicate any relevant information as in saying someone ‘does not look very well’. This is no help to man nor beast. The only thing I can think of is to say, “I think it’s a very good site but I think you could do with one of two tweaks”.

Unless you the owner of the site are very lucky with your friends, at some point along the line you’re going to have to pay for service provision and maintenance. Amateur websites look like it. When people visit, you may have five or 10 seconds of someone’s time if you’re lucky and during those fleeting moments you have to make an impression that is so positive that people want to go beyond the home page. The question you should be answering is, ” how can the visitors see that they will benefit?”

As if this were not complicated enough, websites of the traditional variety compete with Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. This means people’s attention span is even shorter. There may be a case for using Facebook as the first port of call, referring to the website for detailed information and procedures. The nature of a Facebook page is that there is so much crowded into it that it can scramble the mind just by looking at it. In fact there was very recent articles, sample included,  plus an ex-employee of Facebook discussing the deleterious effects on mental health.

The only short to medium term answer I can think of is to get the trust of the person to establish your bona fides and then make gentle comments from then on. In this very insecure world, full of fear, it doesn’t take much to rattle someone’s cage so ‘gently does it’ I would suggest.

As for the names of domains, a very brief mention. Don’t be self-indulgent by making long named websites which could be prone to mis-spelling. it’s crystal clear to you what it is that if it’s not to others then they will not remember it and if they do will write it down wrongly.  there is nothing wrong with using your own name as a domain name providing it is fairly short. My name, the name of this site, just about passes muster.

Anyway before I rattle on more I better publish this.

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