If you have been using computers and surfing the Internet for some time, as is likely the case since you're visiting a site for webmasters, you would probably have acquired a large number of skills that enable you to find things on the Internet, navigate a site, deal with the annoyances that some sites pose, and the like. The problem with such proficiency is that it is easy to lose touch with how a large portion of Internet users actually operate on the Web, and thus design a site that does not take advantage of the special needs of these "average users".
I realise ("realize" in US English) that some of you will probably take exception to my use of the term "average user". After all, it is difficult to pinpoint what an average user is. The "average user" in the computer industry is vastly different from, say, the "average user" in the agricultural sector.
My use of "average user" here might appear to some to have the connotation of "novice user". I refrained from using "novice" because many of these users are not exactly new to using a computer yet their level of competence in surfing the Internet and their knowledge of the use of the computer are at best rudimentary. With the explosion of the Internet reaching into many homes in the world, it seems to me that such users are continually increasing in number. Where once upon a time when we think of a computer user we imagine a nerd, now, just about everyone uses a computer, even my elderly parents. This widespread use of computers also means that the computer is no longer the province of an elite few who actually understand the innards of a computer. The average user is no longer that computer professional, but the large number of people who treat the computer as an appliance, somewhat the way we regard our toasters or television sets.
This in turn has implications on the things you can do on your site and the things you might want to avoid.
If I were to give you a web address ("URL") like "thesitewizard.com", how would you visit that site? Typically, you would type it into the location bar (also known as the "address bar") in your browser and the browser would immediately retrieve the page from the site.
It's amusing to watch how the "average user" actually handles a URL. Take my mother for example. After watching a TV show which gave her a URL "oprah.com" to visit, she went to her browser, typed "oprah.com" into the Google search engine form, and sent the query to Google. When Google returned the search results, among which was a link to (what else?) oprah.com, she would click the link to finally visit "oprah.com".
She's not alone in this. According to a report from Metacrawler, some of the top search engine queries were for terms like "hotmail.com", "www.hotmail.com", "google", "yahoo" and the like! It looks like many people do not know that they can directly access the URL by typing it into their browser's address bar.
The lesson here is simple. Even if your site is a local site that advertises its URL via local TV, calling cards, printed newspapers, etc, it pays to have your site listed in the search engines. Otherwise, some of your "average users" will come to you and complain that your site cannot be found.
I find it educational to watch others search the Net and then navigate the web sites they find. One of the things I notice among these "average users" is that they really read the title of the pages returned on the searches.
For example, when you search Google for, say, "chicken recipes", Google returns a list of pages with the titles of the pages hyperlinked. My observation is that most people review the list carefully and only click those hyperlinks which have titles that appear relevant to them. In this regard, I'm fairly confident that most experienced searchers do the same too.
Lesson: make sure your pages have an appropriate TITLE tag. The TITLE tag should contain the keywords that you're targeting in the search engines so that people who search for those words will see the relevance of your page and click on the link. The TITLE should also be more than just a string of keywords strung together - it should make sense and sound relevant.
Where the design of a web page is concerned, the KISS principle ("Keep It Simple, Stupid") may actually help you to keep your visitor. A cluttered page with too much information tends to confuse visitors, and cause them to think that the information cannot be found on your site.
It doesn't mean that your site has to have the spartan appearance of the Google search engine or thesitewizard.com. It can be decorated with colours and images, etc. But if there is some central information that you want to convey, or product that you want to sell, making it appear prominently on the page helps the average user zero in on what he/she is looking for.
There are two conflicting views regarding how newbies or perhaps even the typical web user deal with pop-up windows.
Some webmasters say that when they put their newsletter subscription forms in a window that pops up automatically when their site is loaded, their subscription rates rise markedly. As such, they recommend that you do the same, suggesting that your newsletter subscription rates will soar when you do so.
My experience with watching a few people surf the Internet was quite different. One of them got confused by pop-up advertisement windows appearing, and being unable to figure out how to go on from there, closed all the windows (which alas also terminated his dial-up connection) and had to start all over again. Another person was faced with a site that opened a hyperlink in a new window. After that person was through with that window, she found she could not use the BACK button to return to the original window. (She could not go back using that button since the original site was in a different browser window!)
In general, these people did not appear to do too well when confronted with multiple windows appearing. In fact, although they use their computer often to do word processing, play games and surf the Internet, it looks to me like they do not know how to run multiple programs simultaneously and switch between them.
These observations (which are fairly recent) presents a problem for me as a webmaster. Although I make it a policy never to introduce pop-up windows in my site, I used to code all my off-site links to open in new browser windows. However, in view of this discovery, it looks like I have the massive job of removing this "feature" from all my sites, since it is possible that the "typical" user doesn't know how to manage more than one window at a time.
As for the pop-up advertisement and newsletter subscription windows, all I can say is that if you really think you need that, you should do a test run on your site before you implement it site-wide. What works on one site might fail in another because the latter attracts a different crowd with a different level of expertise. If you can, try to garner visitor feedback as well as check the impact of those pop-ups on your advertisement click throughs and subscription rates. You should also see if it hurts the number of people visiting deeper pages on your site — this might be an indication that they got lost after they saw your pop-up.
The average user seems to rely on his start page which is usually set for him by default by his ISP. Since such users learned to access the Net from that page, and they access a search engine from that page, that start page becomes the launching pad from which they access the Internet.
Some sites apparently realise this, and thus try to get visitors to change their start page to point to a page on their site. This is easy to accomplish for visitors using Internet Explorer ("IE") since the start page can be changed with a script in IE. They provide a link to the script which the user merely has to click to change the start page.
If you are planning to create your own start page for your visitors, my suggestion is that you also put links to search engines on that page or perhaps even put a search box directly on that page (some search engines even provide you the HTML code to do this). This makes the page more useful to those users, thus increasing the chances that they will stick to your start page. That is, don't just stick your advertisements onto that page. Make it useful as well.
Note that the fact that they rely on the start page does not mean that they stay an inordinate amount of time on it staring at it. Bear this in mind before you persuade all your visitors to use your start page. You might end up paying for the bandwidth each time they log on without correspondingly gaining from the advertising revenue.
It is possible to take advantage of the idiosyncrasies of the "average user" in the planning and design of your web site. Doing so not only produces a user friendly site, but also helps you accomplish the goals for your site.
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