9 Things You Need to Know About Building Websites that Probably Aren't in the Project Plan

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I love building websites. I got my first opportunity to be involved in a website project back in the dark ages of the World Wide Web (circa 1997) and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to experience the process from a variety of perspectives: on the corporate side working with an agency, completely in-house from soup to nuts, and on the agency side. I’ve built sites for startups in stealth mode, for global enterprises, and everything in between. I’ve seen many design and technology trends come and go. But some things are constant. Here are nine things I’ve learned along the way that aren’t in any standard project plan – but that can help you keep your website project on track whether you’re using an agency or doing it yourself.

  1. The devil is in the [pre-launch] details.

    There are a lot of moving parts in a website. And there are a couple that I’ve seen people forget time and time again, only to have to scramble after launch. Add these items to your pre-launch checklist:

    • Tracking code (Google Analytics, Marketo, etc.). You don’t want to add the code prematurely (you don’t want to track what happens during development and QA as that will throw off your stats) but do make sure it’s there for launch so that you’ve got data from day one.
    • 301 redirects. This is important to preserve SEO equity from your old site and to prevent people from hitting “page not found” when using an old link or bookmark. (If you need an intro or quick refresher, here’s a great article.) Create an inventory of your existing website pages, and then map them to the relevant new pages and set up the 301 redirects at launch.
    • Campaign landing pages. If your company uses landing pages that aren’t part of the main site, make sure you bring them over with the new site. Too often, I’ve seen companies completely forget about these landing pages until Google starts disapproving AdWords ads because the links no longer work.

    Got any others? I’d love to hear about them – drop me a note in the comments.

  3. Don’t get so caught up in the details you forget the important stuff.

    As you get into the throes of developing the new site, you’re dealing with a million little decisions – Do the buttons have square or rounded corners? Does the image go inline or below the text? Does all the copy go on one page or do we break it up? – and it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees. Every step of the way, make sure you remember:

    • The business goals. What are you trying to accomplish with your site? The number one goal for many B2B companies is lead generation, but it’s not uncommon that when the new site goes live, all the calls to action are buried. For every page on the site, determine how you can drive visitors to take the desired action(s) that support your goals.
    • The user experience. You know your site, your company’s messaging, and your workflows inside and out. Visitors don’t, however, have the benefit of that knowledge. Make sure you review every aspect of your site from the perspective of someone without that context. Better yet, get people who don’t have your intimate knowledge to take a look. Start that process early and continue throughout development so that you can make adjustments as you go. And don’t fight what they tell you. You may feel like they’re getting it wrong, they don’t understand. That’s human nature, but it’s also a path to sub-par usability which will affect the site’s ability to achieve the stated goals (see note above).
  5. Respect the process – it exists for a reason.

    There is a tried-and-true process for developing websites that includes information architecture, wireframes, design, content, development, and QA. It can sometimes seem arbitrary, especially if you’re new to the whole process. It can be frustrating to want to make changes “out of order” – for example, revising the site map when you’re in the middle of development – only to be told you can’t without blowing the deadline. Each of the steps in the process is important, and the decisions made will have an impact on the final site. I know many people are uncomfortable with some of these steps, particularly the site map and wireframes, but it’s important to understand that this process isn’t arbitrary and that each step plays an important role in the final site.

  6. The biggest deadline-buster (by a long shot) is content.

    Some of the websites I’ve been involved with have launched on time, but many have not. And here’s the thing – for the websites that were delayed, 100 percent of the time it was because of content. I’m sure there are websites out there in the world that missed the launch deadline for other reasons, but in my personal experience, it’s content that’s always the problem. Here are some tips to help avoid a content rat hole:

    • Develop the copy deck in logical sections. It can be daunting to have to review the content for the entire website at once. On the other hand, getting individual pages piecemeal can be overwhelming.
    • Determine up front who your key content reviewers are. And share the project timeline with them in advance so they know when to expect the content and by when it has to be finalized.
    • Determine who has final say on content. By all means, get input from everyone you think should provide input, but to avoid a never-ending spiral of edits, select one person to be the final arbiter.
    • If you are rolling out new messaging as part of the new website, make sure you have sufficient time baked into the project plan to fully develop that messaging (see point # 5 below).
    • If you have a hard launch deadline due to an event or some external factor, get started on the content as early in the process as possible. If you don’t have a hard deadline and you want to spend the time to get the content exactly right – especially if you are updating the messaging – be flexible with your go-live deadline.

  8. Don’t confuse operational challenges with website problems.

    Sometimes issues arise that affect the website, but they’re not actually website issues. Because the website is a single, public-facing view of your company, it can surface behind-the-scenes business challenges. For example, one company had grown very quickly through acquisition, and as a result, had a lot of phone numbers and email addresses – and which one you used depended on a number of different factors. So when it came time to build the new website, the “Contact Us” page was a huge challenge. But it wasn’t a problem that the Web team could solve. We needed to get a different set of stakeholders involved to address the overall business problem in general and figure out what do with the “Contact Us” page in particular. When this type of challenge arises, it’s important to recognize what the real issue is and get the right people involved, which may require going outside the core team involved with the website project.

  10. You have to strike a balance between the desire to be bold and the fear of not doing what others are doing.

    One important conversation at the very beginning of any website project is to discuss the overall look and feel of the site. One thing you never hear people say is “I want our new site to look exactly like the competition.” But in a lot of cases (too many, in my opinion) that’s exactly what ends up happening. What they do say is “We want to be bold and different.” But when they see a design that really is bold and different, they get nervous and start to water down the design. There’s nothing inherently wrong with “safe.” And there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at what others are doing to get some ideas of what does and doesn’t work. But if you really do want your site to stand out from the pack, don’t let competitive FOMO drive your design and do be willing to try something a little different.

  12. It’s the Web – you can still make changes after launch.

    Ideally, you want your site to be 100 percent ready and perfect at launch. Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, and that’s OK. You can keep making adjustments after launch. Can’t get a couple of PDFs redesigned in time for launch? Instead of pushing the date, you can go live without them and then get them posted when they are available. Still working out the final messaging for a particular page? Go live with something that’s good enough for now and then update the copy when the messaging is complete.

  14. But some things shouldn’t be after the fact.

    There are some things, though, that you do need to build in from the start – and you want to get them right before going too far down the development path. I mentioned some of the foundational/architectural elements above. But there are two areas that are tempting to put off: SEO and responsiveness (i.e., making your site mobile-friendly). Don’t give in to that temptation. Don’t say, “let’s just get the new site up and then we can go back later and layer it in.” When it comes to SEO and responsiveness, there’s no such thing as “layering it in.” The effort is significantly larger when you try to tackle these after the fact, and the quality won’t be as high. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing up front.

  16. Launch isn’t the end; it’s just the beginning.

    It’s exciting to launch a new website – it’s shiny and new and everyone’s excited about it. And then you go back to focusing on your day job and it’s no longer a top priority. If you don’t have a plan – and the right resources in place – the site will go stale. It’s effectiveness will decrease and it won’t present the image and message you want to portray in the market. Make sure you have a strategy for keeping the website maintained on an ongoing basis. Know who will be responsible for adding new content, updating existing content as needed, and generally making sure that everything still looks and works exactly as it’s supposed to.

And one final bonus tip.

Building a new website is fun (at least I think so!) but at times it can be stressful. Hopefully these nine tips will help you reduce the stress on your next website build. And here’s one more bonus tip: throughout the process as changes are made and issues are fixed, don’t forget to clear your browser cache!

Building a new website is fun, but at times it can be stressful. Hopefully these nine tips will help you reduce the stress on your next website build.

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