Last week, I wrote about what I think makes the Web what it is: where its true identity lies, and what its key qualities are. I identified four main points:
- Content (primarily the sheer volume that is available)
- Indexing (how easy it is to find information)
- Community (how it brings people together)
- Connectedness (how any web page can be linked to any other)
I’ve been thinking about this some more, and I’ve come to the conclusion that these four qualities are also the cornerstone of all good web sites. The properties that make the web as a whole such a successful medium are exactly the same as those that determine the strength of its building blocks.
Content is what makes someone visit a web site in the first place. This can be content in its classical form, such as news stories, articles, or fiction. But it can just as easily be a product: a book to order and have delivered to your home address, or piece of software to download.
Note that the strength of a site’s content lies not just in its quality, but also in its volume, its freshness, and its speed of delivery.
A web site is generally useless if you can’t find what you’re looking for when you go there. “Indexing,” in the context of a web site means more than just a list of keywords, hyperlinked to the relevant pages. It means more than just a site map, or a search box, or an outline tree, although these are all useful elements. It means findability in general. It means that you must have some way of mapping your visitors’ content desires onto the structure of your web site. This is where Information Architecture comes into play.
Information Architecture draws on library science and cognitive science to bring people and information closer together. It helps make sure that when you arrive at a web site, you leave with what you were looking for.
An on-line message board, where a web site’s patrons chat with each other, is a very simple example of community. More generally, though, community is about being and feeling in touch with a web site’s owners, as well as its other users. An email newsletter brings the web site to you, even when you haven’t visited it for a while. On an e-commerce site, showing feedback from customers can build a sense of community.
The great strength of the web in general is also a great strength of individual web sites. If you’re showing a visitor a particular product, you can instantly hook them into related or complementary products. If you’re presenting classical content, keywords can be hyperlinked to useful definitions, references, or more in-depth material. The web it determinedly non-linear, and people will jump around at the slightest mention of something interesting.
Successful web sites turn this to their advantage by making sure that these connections add value to the user’s experience, therefore ensuring that the user will come back for more usefulness!
Combining the principles
When I’m talking about the “success” of web sites, I’m talking about the success of the sites themselves, not of the businesses that may underlie them. It is quite possible for a successful web site to be a lousy value proposition for a business running it. Conversely, just because a web site is poor, doesn’t mean that it can’t be making heaps of money for its owners.
A successful web site is one that is recognized within the ecosystem of the web as a whole as a strong entity. In a Darwinian sense, it is one that is capable of survival.
Numerous examples of strong, successful web sites spring to mind: Amazon, IMDB, Ebay, Slashdot. All of these score highly on all four of the principles I’ve outlined above:
- Amazon’s product reviews build both content and community. It cross-links to an almost obsessive degree, and few would fault how easy it is to find stuff there.
- IMDB is the place for information about movies. It has a strong reviewing community. You can search on almost anything, and once you arrive at a given movie, or actor, you can hop around to your heart’s content (or at least until you’ve found the link to Kevin Bacon)
- Ebay may seem like it has little community on board, but it concentrates this into its user ratings. On Ebay, as well as in real life, the community is what determines your reputation. Ebay scores relatively low on connectedness, but interestingly I have seen it taking steps to improve this aspect, by doing things like showing your recently viewed items under new searches. Its low connectedness also indicates where it could potentially reap large benefits.
- Slashdot has good content, good community features, and excellent linking to external web sites. Its indexing is poor, because the only way to get at its old content is through a relatively primitive search box and search page. Slashdot could improve its holistic web “strength” according to my ratings by working on this aspect. On the other hand, it is primarily a news site, and being able to find things in their archives is of less importance to the site’s visitors.
I think that these four principles (dimensions?) are a decent way of classifying a web site’s strength. It doesn’t make for a perfect analysis, but it’s allows for quick identification of a site weaknesses, and where resources could be applied to improve it. Of course, using these success criteria is only of use if you want to increase a site’s Darwinian potential within the social ecosystem of the Web. The criteria say nothing about a site’s commercial prospects.
I suppose I need to work on the commercial aspects of this classification system…. It’s fine and well improving your web site in an abstract sense, but most businesses are probably more interested in how it can make them more money.