Fall 2006

It seems downright anti-capitalistic, but one key to a simple website is to limit the choices you offer your website visitors.

Creating an Effective Website:
An Exercise in Simplicity

When it comes to writing copy for the Web, the oft-repeated mantra is "keep it short."

Way back in 1998 (when The unCluttered Communiqué debuted), we quoted a Jakob Nielson Alertbox study regarding how people read websites. According to the study results, 79% of the test users "always scanned any new page they came across; only 16% read word-by-word." The results also showed that reading from screens takes about 25% more time than reading from paper, and that users don't like to scroll.

Writing for Scannability
Therefore, conventional wisdom dictated that web pages should adhere to a format that would make them more scannable. That is, they should make use of shorter copy, broken up into smaller paragraphs; highlighted keywords; meaningful subheads; bulleted lists; and hypertext to split up information into multiple pages.

And the conventional wisdom still holds.

But for those of us who have struggled to whittle down web copy, here's a thought: maybe, just maybe, we're forcing too little copy to do too much.

Keep It Simple
Rather than focusing solely on how short our copy is (or isn't), perhaps we should focus on what this copy—or the web page itself—is meant to do. According to Seth Godin, author of the free (yes, free) e-book, Knock Knock: Seth Godin's Incomplete Guide to Building a Web Site that Works, "many web pages are compromises, designed to do three or six or a hundred different things."

Godin urges us to think of a web page as just one step in a process. Whether the final goal is to get the user to buy your product, subscribe to your newsletter, or attend your conference, "the purpose of this step is to get you to the next step. That's it," Godin says.

So, instead of "keep it short," perhaps a better mantra would be "keep it simple."

A Few Simple Tips
MarketingProfs.com offers a few tips when it comes to making websites simple. Among them:

Stick to one topic. "If you can stick to just a single topic, product, or service per page, then you simplify the experience for your visitors," MarketingProfs.com reports.

Keep your message simple. "Too many times copywriters bring in all kinds of 'related' information into their sales copy," MarketingProfs.com explains. "If it is tightly related, that's fine. But when it is not directly relevant to the one topic and one purpose of your page, it can be distracting."

Make your subscription forms simple. "The longer the form, the lower the conversion rate. It's as simple as that," MarketingProfs.com states. "So ask only for the information that is essential to completing the desired action. If you would like to collect additional information from your subscriber or purchaser, ask on the confirmation page, or with a follow-up email."

When Choice Is Bad
Finally, it seems downright anti-capitalistic, but one key to a simple website is to limit the choices you offer your website visitors—especially on your home page.

Godin warns that "choice is a bad thing. Time and again, studies have demonstrated that when faced with too many choices, people flee." MarketingProfs.com notes that, particularly when it comes to offers, "Too many choices result in uncertainty and inaction."

Consider Google. According to Fast Company, "Google's research shows that users remember just seven to 10 services on rival sites. So Google offers a miserly six services on its home page. By contrast, MSN promotes more than 50, and Yahoo!, over 60."

Simplicity As Competitive Advantage
But maintaining such an appearance of simplicity can be an ongoing battle. For companies that have already established the look of their home page, "paring it back to look like Google's is impossible," says Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer web products, as reported by Fast Company.
You have too many stakeholders who feel they should be promoted on the home page."

MarketingProfs.com concurs, stating that "someone within your company or development group will always come up with good reasons for adding elements to a page
—whether words or graphics—that are not central to the topic or message." Their sage advice? "Resist them if you can."

"Simplicity in every aspect of your site, on every page, will increase your conversions and revenues," MarketingProfs.com states. It could even be a competitive advantage. As Mayer tells Fast Company, a secret to the success of Google's home page is that "it gives you what you want, when you want it, rather than everything you could ever want, even when you don't."

Sources: Jakob Nielson, "How Users Read on the Web," Alertbox: Current Issues in Web Usability, October 1, 1997.
Seth Godin, Knock Knock: Seth Godin's Incomplete Guide to Building a Web Site that Works, Do You Zoom, Inc., 2005.
Nick Usborne, "Six Ways to Keep Your Web Pages Simple and Increase Sales," MarketingProfs.com, October 10, 2006. (Registration required)
Linda Tischler, "The Beauty of Simplicity," Fast Company, November 2005.

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