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Best Practices
Defining a Quality Website
05. 11. 2008

Quality, as it pertains to the assessment of a website, can be defined in many ways.  Appearance is an obvious factor as quality is often attributed to sites that are visually attractive.  Yet even in this instance, looks can be deceiving.  Once you remove the value of a brand image or the site data itself, my criteria for defining website quality, from most to least important, is as follows - user friendliness, engineering, business logic, design, and search engine friendliness.

Results, or Return On Investment (ROI), were intentionally left out of my list to help us focus more on the quality of the site rather than the results generated.  ROI is also based on external factors, such as the price of product the good or service itself, and any marketing efforts. Here is how I define the top factors that contribute to website quality.

User Friendliness

The manner in which a site takes a visitor through the path of achieving desired objectives is paramount.  Clear navigation, legible content, simple instructions, clean page layouts, and professionalism all contribute to a site's user friendliness.

Engineering

For the longest time, the Volvo was a car recognized for strength and safety, not its aesthetics. The hallmark of quality for the Volvo was its build, not its look.  In the same vein, solid website engineering starts with proper planning of how the site will be strategically constructed and how its parts will fit together to make it run smoothly.  Proper architecture is essential to accommodate a website's requirements, to ensure structural scalability, flexibility, security, and to meet performance demands - now and in the future.  Using Object-Orientation (OO) modular programming practices will help to achieve these to some extent.

The intent of OO is to improve website performance, scalability, and management by eliminating duplicate code.  If your site is programmed in the open source programming language PHP 5, or greater, Object-Orientation is already built in.  However, just because your site is programmed in PHP 5 doesn't mean it's programmed using OO.  The programming language, ASP.NET (read ASP-dot-net) on the other hand, is more object-based, but lacks enforced structure. I find that ASP.NET makes it too easy to re-write rather than reuse code. At best, a completed site should comply with accepted programming standards.  The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an organization committed to creating programming standards for HTML, XHTML and CSS.  You can easily conduct a W3C validation test online.  Although many large web properties don't comply, W3C at least is a benchmark.

Other known web programming standards extend to accessibility compliance and security best practices. A website relies on its server's hardware, software, and infrastructure. While programming style helps, a website's server or hosting environment can contribute to the site's security and performance.

Business Logic

A site needs to function well between the design and code.  The way the visual component, logic, and database integrations work will improve the efficiency of future additions and updates.

Design

Not only does a site need to make sense visually, it should read the same across all computer platforms (PC and Mac) and all web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Opera).  Effective site design should communicate an image/brand and help to achieve the site's goals and objectives. Good design should make a site simple to use. However, some aspects of good design are subjective and it's only through continual testing that you will figure out what works best for the intended audience.

Search Engine Friendliness

Believe it or not search engines are important to your websites success. At the very least your website should be search engine friendly. Search engines should be able to easily extract all the content you want made public online and display relevant pages from your site within their search results. Many in the SEO industry argue against any standards since major search engines have their own way of defining relevant search results for particular keyphrase.  The three major search engines (Google, Yahoo, and MSN) have joined efforts to create some standards related to the most effective way to crawl a website.  This collaborative initiative is sitemaps.org, which outlines the protocol for a website site map and instructs each engine on which pages to crawl, how often to crawl them, and how relevant they are.

There are other common best practices for redirection, avoidance of deceptive tactics like cloaking and hidden text, as well as labels for important content, and linking tactics. I'm not a programmer or a designer - I’m a marketer, so it’s difficult for me to say that one quality is more important than another. However, having consulted on many website projects, I can say that approaching website design and development in the order that I have outlined has lead to many successful website projects, ones that have established and sustain industry leaders.

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