Boris Mann

Open Source. Community. Decentralized Web. Building dev tools at Fission. Cooks & eats.


Questions for Backbone Magazine - Fixing a stale web site

Back in September 2008 I got contacted by Backbone Magazine to answer a couple of questions about, well, corporate websites and business usage of the web in general. I forgot all about it, until my friend Laura in Ottawa was reading it and saw my name. It's apparently in the current issue (which I haven't seen the print version of). It's on the site as "Fixing a stale web site", by Andrew Rideout. Below are the original questions and my answers. I've added a few notes in parentheses and added links to things.


1. What specific things do you think separate a good corporate website from a bad one?

  1. Not built in heavy amounts of Flash - Flash is also essentially invisible to Google, so you're not doing yourself any favours here
  2. On the front page, have a way for people to stay in touch - that means subscribe by email AND an RSS feed
  3. Don't use stock clip art of smiling diverse people - if you MUST use such stock photos, then buy the rights so those same people don't show up on other websites hawking other businesses

2. What type of applications or coding languages are out there that you think are underused by traditional business or SMBs?


We're currently undergoing a dramatic shift. In the past, the entire web has been composed of individual, static pages, that a third party web designer or PR agency would manually update on behalf of the company. Today, every single page is being shifted to run on top of a content management or blogging system. Every page has interactivity and personalization. We're still at the very start of this phenomenon. (NOTE: I have lots more to say on this, but I haven't boiled it down into an article yet) (BM: I still haven't written this article :P)
The other shift is the use of many distributed online services. As I mention in the doing more with less section below, there are many applications you can now access online. Take this a step further and think about what parts of your business you can outsource or distribute. One company I was talking to was thinking of working with stay at home book keepers in PEI to process bills and accounting overnight in time for west coast clients to access first thing in the morning. Another company dramatically reduced the size of their office to mainly a customer and company meeting space, gave everyone laptops, and had a happier, more productive team that had the flexibility to work from everywhere. (BM: the former company is QCDocs, the latter company is Aaron Gladstone's team at 2Paths)

3. What three things do you think every company's website needs to accomplish?

  • Communicate
  • Engage
  • Sell!

4. Can you name a web element or application that irritates the piss out of you every time you see it?


Autoplaying music. Enough said.

5. Seeing as though start-ups more often than not have to do more with less, what type of things do you think traditional businesses could learn from web start-ups?


Spending time on web-based / digital media and marketing has a much lower cost (or rather, a much higher ROI) than offline PR. And it can also serve two purposes: connecting with customers and potentially helping you define your product / service through that interaction.
As well, there are a host of web-based services that range from free to low monthly costs that can replace expensive internal IT investment, or just work better and more simply than a roll your own solution. Everything from shared calendars and document collaboration (Google Calendar & Docs) to invoicing (Freshbooks) can easily be setup and used securely from anywhere you have an Internet connection.
If you're a small business, you could even consider that expensive self-hosted website that you pay someone else to maintain, and switch to a hosted blog solution like WordPress or Bryght (BM - this was September 2008, before Bryght, er … went away).
One tool that I've been falling in love with more and more is Get Satisfaction. It's a hosted service that lets you run a space for customer feedback and problem resolution. (BM: another really awesome tool that both Mobify and Strutta use is Tender for support / feedback / knowledgebase)

6. If a company has an e-mail newsletter, how can they make it stand out from the rest of the crap that piles up in people's inboxes?

  1. Archive it! Every piece of content you create should be available as a separate piece of content on your website, with its own unique URL. This will allow you to build up more content over time, which is great for natural search engine ranking that will make it easier for people to find you / your product online.
  2. Publish to the web first: allow "subscribe by email", but publish articles, how tos, customer case studies and other material to your website directly. It's a single point of contact that people can come back to.
  3. Natural tone: just like people are allergic to "PR speak" in traditional press releases, many newsletters can suffer from the same thing. The advent of social media like blogging has led to a much more natural tone, that people respond to.

7. What type of small things do you find enterprises and SMB's generally overlook when putting together their sites?


Websites are not something you redo every 2 years. They are a major channel for engagement. What is the #1 hit for phrases related to your business? To your business name itself? Design for search as well as for "human" visitors.
Give ways to give feedback -- if you don't provide a place for it, someone else will, and it's better to control / monitor / be aware of that feedback.
Back to the "websites are not a project that finishes". Always be thinking of what you can do to improve your web channel. And actively track metrics related to it. If you can't sell directly through the web, track where your leads / hits are coming from. How many contacts through your "web channel" turn into either positive PR or an actual sale?