It can be hard to know where to start when designing a website. There are so many options and it can seem complicated. Well don’t fear, in this post I’m going to show you the key elements that every website needs to set itself up for success.
What really annoys you on the web? I ran a survey last year that found out we get most frustrated with websites that don’t present information clearly (unexpectedly playing music was up there too). My personal bugbear would either be ads that cover most of the page or content that jumps around as the page loads, making you lose your place. Ugh.
There aren’t really any design laws for the web, but there certainly are best practices. People learn to expect certain things from websites and if you’re not offering these, potential customers or fans could be left frustrated.
Fortunately, the reverse is also true. As Braden Kowitz said:
“Trust increases when we get the details right. Customers judge online credibility by evaluating the visual design, copywriting and interactions. If trust matters to your business, then design details should matter too.”
How people see your website will affect how they see you, so the question to ask yourself is whether you’re are proud of your website? Does it show you in the best possible light, while remaining honest? Is it helpful? Presenting online in a way that’s clear and helpful can do wonders for how people perceive you.
If you only remember one thing from this post it should be this: don’t make your visitor put in unnecessary work. Your job is to make it as easy as possible for them to find valuable information and act on it.
So in that spirit here are the 17 most essential features that every website needs:
1. A strong value proposition upfront
When people land on your website for the first time they’re not necessarily super invested in you or what you offer and can bounce out again really easily. Don’t make them put in work to find out whether or not your website will be worth their time.
Grab your visitor’s attention in the first two seconds to convince them you have something worth their time with a value proposition. This isn’t necessarily your slogan, but it’s a simple statement of the value you offer, ideally closely accompanied by a call to action like a button or link.
Examples of some value propositions:
- Built on the ethos of Personal Service and Transparency, Clarity PPC runs advanced and profitable Pay Per Click campaigns. [ source: Clarity PPC ]
- Helping people communicate clearly online and in print [ source: Lucid Rhino Web Design ]
- The 1 Billion Mission: Teach one billion creatives how to make money doing what they love… without feeling gross. [ source: The Futur ]
- Mindfulness for your everyday life. Stress less. Move more. Sleep soundly. [ source: Headspace ]
This should be visible at the top of your homepage in the area that visitors see before they scroll down. This area is known as “above the fold” from the top half of newspaper front pages that remained visible to people passing by a rack of newspapers. It’s the first thing that people see so may be the most important part of your website, and should be the most concise thing on your website.
2. A homepage that acts as a dashboard to the rest of your site
When people land on your site they won’t yet know all you have to offer. Although you’d probably be wise to include a brief welcoming intro, your homepage should help them out by acting not as a final destination but as a portal for other content. You can do this by linking to blog posts, products or pages describing your services using boxes, buttons, sliders or text etc.
Of course, an exception to this principle is for single-page sites. If a single page site requires users to scroll down they should then provide helpful navigation so the users can see where they are on the page and jump around at will.
3. A quick summary of your services
Your homepage is a good place for this but it’s a great idea to create dedicated pages for each of your services, product types or themes too.
You should also describe the main elements of our offering in a clearly presented main menu. The titles of pages listed in your main menu should be concise and can be shorter than your actual page titles – for instance, you may have a page titled “Business Branding and Logo Design” with a corresponding main menu item that just says “Branding”. This gives your visitor less information to sort through when they’re looking for one page among many items in your menu.
4. Obvious calls to action
The aim of a website is to turn casual visitors into customers, fans, users or readers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve loved what I was reading on a website and wanted to get in touch, buy a product or get a price but not known how to. It should be easy.
So you should give visitors a little nudge to take action at the precise point they will be most convinced of the value you’re offering.
This is what we call a “call to action”. It could be a prompt to buy a product, request a consultation call, subscribe to a newsletter to get a freebie, complete a quiz to get a free quote, add an event to a calendar or download an e-book, to list a few examples.
5. “Contact us” and contact details
It makes sense to offer visitors a variety of ways to get in touch, for instance via email, phone call or by visiting or writing to your address. As well as being featured on a contact page it’s a good idea to list your physical address in your general website footer (albeit discreetly) as this will help convince search engines of the location of your business operations, giving you a little SEO boost in your local area, especially in searches conducted on mobile devices.
People sometimes prefer to fill in a contact form as it takes less effort to fill one in than picking up the phone or starting an email. You can also control what options people have to submit, which can be helpful to you. Just keep it as simple as possible to keep the bar low and you’ll probably pick up a few more leads.
6. A way to stay in touch
We can say that websites are “pulled,” but you need to be able to “push” to interested visitors too. What I mean by that is that visitors generally have to choose to load your website in order to see your content (pulling it onto their screen), but media like email, social networks and smartphone notifications push information to them at your initiative, not theirs. Of course, this should always be done in a non-spammy way, with users opting in, not nagging them but genuinely offering value.
A few ways you can do this:
- Include links to your social media accounts or embed your social media feeds
- Allow users to subscribe to an email newsletter with a subscription form in your website footer, blog sidebar, at the footer of posts or offer free downloads in exchange for a subscription
7. A blog, news or articles section
This is great for providing helpful, comprehensive and timely information to your customers. It’s also great for SEO.
Whether you call it a blog, news section or articles, it’s important to have somewhere to regularly publish fresh content. If you write and publish regularly search engines will start showing your site to more people in search results. Then if your content is genuinely helpful your visitors will linger and post links to your website online. Search engines will then pick up on all that good activity and list your pages higher in search results, creating a positive feedback loop.
8. Portfolio, case studies or success stories
Anyone can make mighty claims online but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If you’re a service-based business it’s essential to be able to demonstrate the results of your work with success stories. The portfolio is often the first place people go when looking for a designer. Projects in a portfolio are usually more visual whereas case studies typically include a more in-depth writeup of the development process of a project.
9. Social proof
Imagine you’re walking along the seaside looking to buy ice cream. You see three ice cream vans, one with a queue of ten people and the other two empty. What would you assume? The popular van probably has the best ice cream.
This is the compelling power of social proof to persuade casual visitors that you’re worth their time.
Build social proof signals into your website by drawing attention to your previous or existing customers, web traffic or statistics about the results you’ve achieved. You can present this through testimonials, ratings, reviews, or infographics.
It makes the most sense to present social proof at precisely the point that visitors need to be reassured, like when you’re asking them to commit to something by clicking “buy” or “subscribe”.
10. Onsite search
If visitors can’t find what they’re looking for in your page content and menu they’ll probably want to search for it. If you don’t provide a search feature on your website they’ll probably reach for a search engine which will show content from other people’s websites, taking them away from yours.
The best place to put a search input field would be wherever people naturally turn to search for things, so in the main menu, at the top of sidebars and/or at the top of content listing pages.
All the elements I’ve listed so far have been focused on website content, but now for some more technical “must-haves”:
11. A short, relevant web address
People find short domain names more memorable, so search engines therefore prefer them too.
Shorter domain names sound more authoritative too; for example, would you naturally prefer to take legal advice from a solicitor who uses the domain name legaladvice.com or www.get-good-advice-from-experts-in-the-legal-profession.com?
The words used in domain names should be relevant to the main topic of your website as search engines take them into consideration when trying to understand what topics to rank websites for. If you mention “graphic design” in your domain name the website will appear in more searches for graphic design services.
- The experts say that as the load time of a web page increases from 1 second to 7 seconds, the probability of a mobile visitor bouncing (leaving again right away) increases 113%. [Source: Think With Google].
- The BBC found they lost an additional 10% of users for every additional second their site took to load. [Source: Google Developers]
- The average time a mobile web page takes to load on a 4G connection is 14 seconds. The average on a 3G connection is 19 seconds. [Source: Google DoubleClick blog]
So it’s important for your website to be fast. Here are 25 tips to make your WordPress website faster.
13. A secure hosting platform
Apart from taking your site offline the quickest way for your search engine rankings to tank is for it to get hacked. Plus, if you store any user data you have a legal obligation to store and handle it securely. While we shouldn’t consider any system to be 100% secure there are steps we can all take to avoid the wrong people getting access to things they shouldn’t.
Strong site security relies on everything from choosing appropriate underlying technology to using strong passwords. The code that the server runs (e.g PHP, Java, Ruby, Python…) and the plugins that your site uses shouldn’t be allowed to go out of date.
Some content management systems require more work than others, and there’s usually a tradeoff between being able to do a lot and not needing to do much security maintenance. As a very rough rule of thumb the more freely you can hack a tool around to make it do exactly what you want, the easier it is to break it and create security loopholes. So that’s one to watch out for.
14. Spam protection for contact forms and comments
Unless you want your email inbox to be full of spam, that is.
If you allow unmoderated spam comments on your website it will put off your visitors, slow down your website and probably eventually attract the suspicion of search engines who will label your site as a cesspool of spam.
A few suggestions to reduce website spam:
- Add honeypot fields and captchas to contact forms to weed out bot submissions
- Turn on content moderation by default, especially for comments that include links
- Install a comment spam filter like Akismet for WordPress
Obfuscate any email addresses listed on your public-facing website using a plugin like Email Encoder
15. An XML sitemap for search engines
A sitemap is a file stored with your website that lists all the pages, posts, images and videos on your website to help search engines. Search engine “spiders” can usually manage to find everything without a sitemap just by following links on your website from one page to another, but having an authoritative sitemap achieves the following:
- Ensures nothing gets missed out
- Cuts down the time needed to find everything on your website
- Makes it easier for search engines to find new content and see when content has been updated, therefore in need of reassessment
If you have a static website you can either create a sitemap by hand or using an online sitemap generator. Just check it to make sure the tool hasn’t missed anything.
However, if your website is running on a CMS (Content Management System) you’ll get more SEO benefit by using a dedicated SEO plugin like Yoast or Rank Math to create your sitemap. These will automatically update your sitemap whenever pages are created or updated.
16. Submission to Google Search Console
Google Search Console is a dashboard designed for website owners to allow them to see how Google perceives their website and how searchers are finding it. You’ll be able to fix any issues Google has with your website, which is really important.
Registering a site in GSC doesn’t in itself boost your search engine rankings but acting on the insights that the tool gives can certainly have a massive impact.
I suggest setting up your website in GSC and submitting your sitemap. Google will then take a few days to aggregate data, after which you can check back to see if there are any crawling errors, and to assess all the keywords that people are using to find your website.
17. Content shaped around basic SEO principles
SEO can seem a bit like alchemy – it’s all very technical, no one really knows the secret and if you could crack it you’d be rich.
But the basics of SEO are actually very simple. Forget trying to hack or game the system, the basic principle is this: make a website that adds genuine value to the people you want to serve and people will start to like your website. Search engines will pick up on that and start showing your website to more people. And on it goes.
Everything beyond that is just about helping search engines to understand why your content is relevant to your audience, and there’s a lot that goes into that. After providing your audience with what they’re looking for you can write your content with SEO in mind using the following principles:
- Talk about the topics that interest the people who will be helped by your website.
- Write how your audience searches. Don’t be too technical but remember to weave in the words and phrases that your potential audience will use when searching for the information you’re providing. If you want to attract people searching for “vegan dog food” don’t write about “meatless canine gastronomy”.
- Write often and keep it focused on your audience, not on yourself. Be helpful, not all “look at me”. I’m really good at this one (jokes).
- It’s good to include pictures and a few links to your own web pages and external web pages, where relevant.
You should expect SEO to take time as there are few quick wins.
So there you have it. Those are my 17 key things that every website should have. In summary, your website needs:
- A strong value proposition upfront
- A homepage that acts as a dashboard to the rest of your site
- A quick summary of your services
- Obvious calls to action
- “Contact us” and contact details
- A way to stay in touch
- A blog, news or articles section
- Portfolio, case studies or success stories
- Social proof
- Onsite search
- A short, relevant web address
- A secure hosting platform
- Spam protection for contact forms and comments
- An XML sitemap for search engines
- Submission to Google Search Console
- Content shaped around basic SEO principles