Put out the Welcome Mat

When a visitor finds your site, the time you have to make a good impression is... Five seconds? Two seconds? The claim keeps changing, which is fine; the point stays the same: You've got a ridiculously short time to make a good first impression before the visitor clicks on and away, possibly forever.

This page is mostly about looking good. Let's straighten the tie, slick back the hair, and work that digital chive out of our teeth:

Be a unique entity

Get a domain

First: Before gussying yourself up, be a yourself. Site-building and SEO mavens everywhere shout it in unison: Get your own unique domain. Part identity, part unique brand, that domain creates a one-of-a-kind "you" – site, email, and other services – that won't change even through wild reworkings of your site structure, hosting service, CMS, etc.

Domain registration services are everywhere, and a year's registration for a .com, .net, or .org domain shouldn't cost more than US$10.

Be real

It's up to you whether your site lives behind an anonymous identity, or whether you're up-front with your real name, location, and so on. The former is fine for hobby sites; the latter is definitely required for a business site wanting to make a professional impression. (Ask: Would you give your credit card information to an e-commerce site with no identifying place or persons?)

It's said, too, that the search engines are more favorable when a site and its domain (WHOIS) registration offers real identifying information. 

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Look good

Be a beauty

"Beauty is only skin deep." So? Beauty still makes visitors more comfortable spending time on a site. All else being equal, there's no reason not to put some effort into making your creations beautiful as well as functional. Electronics company Apple gets this, and it's doing wonders for their bottom line. 

However you create your site's appearance, make it look good. For a CMS, that generally means picking a good theme, or modifying/creating one. Fortunately, we site creators are awash in great, low-cost or free themes to work with.

Be your own beauty

The first time I saw the Drupal 5's default Garland theme, I was really impressed. It looked sharp on any simple site. And it still does... though the first impression has quickly lost its luster. That is, there are so many sites sticking with Garland that, even with the theme's chameleon-like color-changing powers, those sites now resemble the monotone bland output of an assembly line. 

Make your theme your own. At the very least, get an original logo!

The Drupal Connection: "Themeing" is a huge part of Drupal site creation, whether you want to just find and install a ready-made theme, modify one, or create a new one. It's a huge topic, and not the focus of this Book, but stay tuned for more info and links.

Appeal to your audience

Tailor your look to your known (or desired) audience. Not much needs be said about obvious things, such as how colors, layout, and text for Extreme Bungee Surfing News should differ from those for Dentists Against Bank Bailouts. Likewise, white text on a black background usually sends me fleeing, but certain groups seem to actually like it. If you know your audience perversely enjoys the eyestrain, then go for it.

Beyond the obvious elements, a little searching will turn up fascinating research into site features, color combinations, and so on favored by demographic groups like men, women, youths, seniors, and so on. Start Googling for some crunchy design insights – though take claims with lots of salt, and supplement them with feedback from other experts and, most importantly, your own site visitors.

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Be a good host

Provide the big picture

An under-rated but vital element of a good site is an overview of itself – the meta-info that lays out for the visitor what the site is all about. Whether it's a brief blurb in a header or a fully-detailed About page or FAQ, good points to address include:

  • What is the site's purpose or goal?
  • Who is the site aimed at?
  • Who is behind the site?
  • What are the opportunities for visitor participation, and the related policies?
  • Are there any disclosures that should be made? (Example: If you discuss stock trading, do you have positions in the stocks you discuss? If you discuss politics, are you a supporter of certain parties/candidates?)

The above is only a suggestion for many kinds of sites, such as general information sites. Your goals might suggest something pretty different. For example, savvy marketers suggest that anyone selling something clearly state three pieces of info:

  • Here's what I have
  • Here's what it'll do for you
  • Here's what I want you to do

If there's any sort of action you want visitors to take, whether product purchase or petition signing or user registration, that's a great format for info to present, probably on your landing page. But visitors will appreciate your answering the other questions as well – who you are, what's your big goal, and so on – even if you move those to an About page. 

Add an About page

There's not much to say here, just a suggestion to have an "About this site" or FAQ page that addresses the above items. Visitors generally expect to find such a page, and to do so easily, usually via a link in your site's main menu.

The Drupal connection: There's no particular function within Drupal for setting up an About page. Just create an appropriate node, and set an easy-to-see link to it in a site menu (such as the primary menu).

An FAQ page can take the same simple form, though if you want to try something fancier, tools like the Frequently Asked Questions module can help.  

Greet your visitors

An About page is a tried and true way to tell visitors what your site is about, but of course it requires that they make another click to get to that page (and even before that, find the link to do so). It's best to have something on your landing page as well! Some common options:

Site name

I'm stating the obvious, but you can let your site name state the obvious too. The site I Will Teach You To Be Rich is a fine example. You'll still need to check out the site to fully understand what it's all about and what stance it takes, but the name alone gets you much of the way there.

Bonus points if your domain name matches the site name!

Site slogan or mission statement

If the site name alone isn't enough, a simple slogan or mission statement at top, or otherwise in a visible spot, can explain a lot to visitors. 

The Drupal connection: Drupal supports input of both a site slogan and mission statement at admin/settings/site-information. The same form lets you create a site footer too, another place where you could briefly explain your site (though often it won't be readily visible).

Whether or not your Drupal site actually displays those info bits, though, depends on your Theme's settings. Most Drupal Themes support slogan, mission statement, and footer, letting you decide whether or not to display them, but some themes might not support one or more of those at all. 

Sidebar info

Plenty of "About" info will fit into a little explanatory block in a sidebar (or whatever location works for you) on the landing page. That saves a visitor the extra trouble of finding and visiting a separate About page. The drawback, of course, is space taken up on the landing page, but it's valuable info, and that's what the space is for!

For a best-of-both worlds approach, have this detailed info appear only for new visitors. Newcomers will see the info only on their first visit (or first several visits, if that's how you set things up); returning visitors don't see it but still have your About page to turn to should they want the info. That's a technique I use a lot: copy the same info (or at least key info) from a site's About page into a sidebar block that greets visitors only for their first few visits.

The Drupal connection: The What Would Seth Godin Do? module makes the above technique easy as pie. I swear by this module!

Representative posts

While I like to see a nicely-written "About this site" overview, another option is to simply provide a selection of links to representative articles. The above I Will Teach You To Be Rich site (as of this writing) takes that approach: there's no helpful About page or block, but there's a "First time here? Here's a quick guide to get started" link to a page full of links to posts in key categories. The titles of those linked posts, the category titles, and the very self-explanatory site name all make it plenty clear what the site is about.

Welcome contact from visitors

If visitors want to contact you, can they do so easily? Contact info is a great thing to add to the site, whether a simple email link in your About page, site footer, etc., or a sidebar block or full page with detailed profile info and means of getting in touch.

The Drupal connection: Drupal has a core Contact module that makes creation of site-wide and personal contact forms easy.  

Disclose other key information

Casual hobby sites can possibly skip ahead here, but an online business may need to disclose key information such as terms of service, fair usage policies, copyright notices, and product return policies. Moreover, any site collecting information from users should set out its privacy policy.

Generators like the below are fine for simple purposes, but ecommerce and other commercial sites should seek professional advice.

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Stay up to date

Once you've got all that meta-info posted, check regularly to make sure it's still correct!

Be open to all

Serve all browsers

There's no excuse for greeting eager visitors with a whiny "Internet Explorer only". It's not only annoying and unnecessary, it's chasing after a browser with an ever-shrinking share among web users. Make your site accessible to as many browsers as possible.

Browser ecumenicality. It's more than just a good idea; it's a really good idea.

The Drupal connection: Drupal itself offers no cross-platform issues that I'm aware of. That may not be the case for a given Drupal Theme, though. Like web sites everywhere, most Drupal Themes jump through the necessary hoops to patch over the weaknesses in specific versions of Internet Explorer, yet problems can remain. Test a Drupal site on as many browsers as you can. Services like BrowserShots let you test multiple browsers and platforms remotely.

Stick to standards

Related to the above: A site whose page markup adheres to W3C standards is more likely to please every browser (as well as search engine crawlers). True, there are handicapped browsers which can choke on standards-compliant pages; testing may reveal that you have to build in some workarounds to accomodate. (On the other hand, depending on your audience, you may be comfortable asking visitors to put up with minor imperfections caused by a truculent browser, while urging them to switch to a better browser.)

The Drupal connection: Drupal is said to produce valid valid XHTML code – but, as I understand it, the chosen Theme can make or break that. Take care. (And if you're not a stickler for perfect compliance, you might feel fine ignoring a few minor deviances that don't seem to cause trouble in major browsers, yet would require lots of work to fix.)

On the topic of browser promotion, there's an IE Destroyer module that will urge visitors using Internet Explorer to switch to Firefox instead. Use your judgement in deciding whether such a message will be accepted (even appluaded) by your audience, or whether it'll just confuse visitors. 

Welcome our new mobile overlords

They are coming. No, wait; they're already here. Visitors on mobile platforms are making their way to sites everywhere, and site owners will want to adapt to their needs.

Users of "full browser" mobiles, like the iPhone, can view your site as-is, without your taking any special steps. Yet they'll still have to zoom and pan a lot to really get at the content, all over a slow mobile network. Low-bandwidth versions of your site, even for full browsers, can make sense.

Adapting for the mobile world generally entails detecting a mobile browser and directing it to a low-bandwidth site (even just your RSS feed, as one simple solution). Software aids and online services are springing up to assist. Some that help create sites for the iPhone are Intersquash and iWebkit. Technologies like PhoneGap even offer to help create mobile apps featuring your site's content.   

I haven't yet looked into the topic in detail. Stay tuned for upcoming reports.

The Drupal connection: Two modules to get started with creation of mobile sites are Mobile Theme module and Accessibility module.

Build for accessibility

Site visitors with visual or other disabilities may rely on technologies like screen readers to access content. These, in turn, rely on properly-constructed site features in order to work well. 

Accessibility is a huge topic of its own. A few quick items:

  • Use ALT tags on images, with important keywords in the text
  • Use the A HREF TITLE attribute to tell visitors where a link will take them

An overview with links to additional resources:

Consider international visitors

Serving the needs of international visitors is another big topic to be explored in depth later. You can always focus on one language, like most sites, but a few considerations can greatly expand your potential audience:

  • Create multilingual content. (I didn't say these would be easy considerations!) If not the whole site, at least consider an "About" or similar page for additional language(s).
  • In lieu of real translation, there's the option to post content translated by services like Google, or create links that will perform such translation for the reader. However, understand fully that such machine translation will often be wildly inaccurate. (Insert "I want to massage your grandmother" joke here.)
  • Even if you don't go multilingual, you can help global readers a lot by writing clearly in your language. Clean, succinct English, low on jargon and slang, will be understood by a huge number of readers worldwide. It'll improve machine translation results as well.
  • Consider international standards when creating content, instead of (or in addition to) regional standards: metric vs Imperial measures in text, A4 size paper vs US Letter size paper for downloads, etc.
  • If you accept form input from multiple regions, make sure the forms can handle it. That is, don't anger visitors by asking for country and address, and then using a form that rejects addresses not in US address format (with a required number of zip code digits, etc.). E-commerce sites can lose a lot of customers this way!
  • If your site has to refuse registrations, e-commerce orders, etc. from certain markets for business or security reasons, tell visitors up front before they spend time filling out forms! 

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