8 tips for small business homepage designs that actually work

I admit it. I love to argue. I love to debate. I love to pick apart someone’s reasoning point by point. And the truth is, I am extremely annoying. Partly because I’m really good at it. But I think mostly because I don’t know when to quit.

But you know, underneath the thrill of the fight is a good, old-fashioned, honest desire to see the truth win out. So in this article, I don’t mean to pick a fight. I’m just genuinely concerned about all the terrible advice I see on the web. I worry that people who don’t know better will follow it and end up sinking instead of swimming.

Take this piece for example: 8 Tips For Small Business Homepage Design by Stephanie Buck. I don’t know who Stephanie Buck is, since unfortunately there is no author bio. You know, author bios are just for authors. They let you know who you’re reading, so you can judge whether they know what the hell they’re talking about.

Anyway, this article is largely wrong from start to finish. It has some generally good points, but the actual implementations it commends and recommends are…terrible. I’m gonna go through point by point and correct them—so by the time you’re done here, you’ll have eight tips for small business homepage page design that actually work.

1. Start a conversation

Stephanie recommends keeping your homepage simple. “More than anything, your homepage should elicit a positive reaction from your visitors, not confuse them with flash and clutter. Think of your homepage in terms of cities: It should be an Oahu, not a Las Vegas.”

This is true. But you shouldn’t be thinking of your homepage in terms of cities at all. You should be thinking in terms of offices or stores. The homepage is like the reception area of your website. It is where you meet your prospects, welcome them, give them a reason to stay, and then guide them to wherever they want to go. Of course you want a positive reaction—but you want more than that too. A positive reaction can still end with prospects hitting the back button. You need to engage them and give them something to do.

Stephanie says, “The page should communicate your product or service either with a stand-out image or a simple slogan.” No, no, no, and again no! The homepage should communicate your value proposition using headlines and body copy. An image conveys nothing without context in which to understand it—it is just as likely to be misinterpreted as understood correctly.

And do you take slogans seriously when you see them? Of course you don’t. Slogans are mental masturbation. They are entirely about the company that came up with them. Using a slogan to get prospects interested is like a greasy playa at a bar talking in clichés about himself to get a woman interested. Prospects are interested in their problems; not you. You only enter the equation when you tell them how you can solve those problems.

Now, a homepage should have a tagline—a simple, one- or two-sentence explanation of what you do, using language your prospects would use. Put it in your masthead to help orient visitors to your site. If they don’t understand what the site is about, they won’t stick around to find out.

2. Say as much as you need to, then stop

One of the most pervasive myths of usability is that you must not make people scroll. The reality is that users have been quite happy scrolling since 1997. Apparently, however, Stephanie “panics” when the scroll bar on her browser shrinks “faster than light”.

Well, no one is suggesting your homepage should be dozens of pages long. But Stephanie’s advice that, “although your homepage can create opportunities for product promotion or special offers, it should read less like a 20-page Applebee’s menu and more like a classy prix-fixe place card,” is simply misguided. For one thing, a homepage is not like a menu. It is more like a lift letter crossed with a space ad. (In other words, there is no real-world analogy, Stephanie, and you’re just confusing people.) Your navigation is like a menu, and in that regard, yes, the simpler the better. No more than seven main categories. No endlessly-scrolling sidebars. (But it’s also different to a menu; it should use simple, common terms for entries—not the confusing branded names you’ll find in most restaurants!)

For another thing, there is no hard and fast rule about homepage length. You should say just as much as you need to say to enter the conversation your prospect is having in his head—and direct him to the most likely places on the site. You know, the places that will get him to fulfill whatever objectives you have set for the site. The actions he can take that will ultimately produce revenue for you. (Strangely, Stephanie never talks about revenue goals, even though that’s the reason for the site to exist at all.)

3. Display the right offers

Stephanie suggests that “you’ll still need to include the links to relevant information” and that “these tabs are a good place to start: about, product, news. In other words, people need to know what your business is all about, how they can participate and what’s current.”

While I disagree with news—have you ever been tempted to find out what’s new with a company through their website?—an about page and product page are certainly crucial on most business websites. But this advice seems to be more along the lines of: “include navigation on your homepage”.

I think that’s so blindingly obvious that to even say it is insulting. If you don’t have navigation to other pages, people literally cannot go to those pages.

What is more important, however, is calls to action. Prospects want to know what they can do on the site—what actions can they take, and what actions do you want them to take? It’s just a simple psychological fact that prospects don’t want to have to think about using your site. And it’s just another simple psychological fact that unless you ask people to take certain actions, they usually won’t.

Therefore, it’s of extreme importance to work out what actions your prospect is most likely to want to take on your homepage, and how you can use these to start a logical thought sequence that will end in him hitting those revenue-generating goals you’ve already decided on. Remember: your prospect has only just arrived. He doesn’t yet know Jack Squat about you. So asking him to buy something, or to hire you, or to trial something, or to get a quote, is not logical. These actions require far more investment than he’s currently willing to make. You need to take baby steps. In the words of the copywriting legend Eugene Schwartz, you must “gradualize”.

4. Display featured products only if most of your prospects are actually interested in them

Remember that while “photographs that pop off the screen,” as Steph puts it (can I call her Steph?) are big attention-grabbers, attention does not equal action. In fact, very often by stealing your prospect’s attention at the wrong time, or with the wrong element, you sabotage yourself and prevent the action you wanted them to take.

There’s nothing wrong with featuring products on your homepage—if most of the visitors to that page are likely to find them interesting. But don’t feature just one, and don’t feature more than three. That’s basic psychology again. Presenting yes/no choices will always result in some percentage of your prospects choosing no. Presenting more than three choices (four at the very outside) will result in indecision, and no action at all. So if you have a lot of products, and if your analytics software shows that people are interested in going straight into viewing these from your homepage, then pick the top ones from your three most popular categories and display those.

Displaying them above the fold is fine, especially if they’re important. Just make sure they’re not so dominating your copy that they smother the conversation you’re trying to have with your prospect.

5. Make it relevant—to prospects and to your site goals

Steph notes that “many website hosts offer a live feed of your recent posts, or you can make your own widget on Twitter and embed the HTML on your site. That feed will update on your homepage every time you tweet or share.” True enough. But how many prospects care about what you’re saying on Twitter or Facebook? If it doesn’t matter to them, why would you include it? That’s just self-indulgence, which seldom wins anyone over.

More importantly, the more you display on your homepage, the more divided your prospect’s attention is. If a page element is not actively contributing to getting prospects clicking the calls to action that will ultimately generate revenue for you, then that element is actually preventing some clicks by serving as a distraction. So ask yourself how showing a Twitter feed is going to encourage people to start the sequence of action that will lead to your revenue goals. If it won’t—and in the vast majority of cases it won’t—don’t include it on your homepage.

Every page on your site can only fulfill one primary objective. You have to be ruthless in deciding what that objective will be, and then culling elements that are detracting from it. Maybe some visitors will want to see a Twitter feed somewhere. That’s fine. Create a separate page for updates, and let them go there. But for the vast majority of businesses, with the vast majority of prospects, being “current” is simply irrelevant.

6. Create a homepage that strengthens your brand

Steph advises creating a homepage consistent with your brand. That’s not bad advice. Your brand is one of your most valuable assets. Perhaps your most valuable asset, if you listen to Drayton Bird (which I do). It is, in essence, a “package” representing your value proposition. It is what convinces customers to pay twice as much for the same thing. It can see you through a recession. But it can also lead to homepages that are severely compromised—because someone thought that “brand” actually meant “existing print materials”.

You must create your homepage on its own terms. You can’t force it to look like a print ad or flier or business card. You also don’t want to be so uncompromising with color that you use reversed type for your website: light on dark. That would reduce your readership by at least 50%—and people who don’t read don’t buy. You must dig down until you have figured out what your brand really is, and what represents it—and then reflect those elements on the homepage.

What I mean is, a brand isn’t just some graphical element. It is what people feel when they see something that reminds them of you. So if it turns out that what they feel is a sense of quirkiness, it makes no sense to focus your homepage copy on quality, even though quality is doubtless consistent with your brand. Focus on quirkiness. That will reinforce your brand. Furthermore, if it turns out that the way people perceive your brand is not through the colors you use, but through the shape of your logo, there’s no sense in using colors that work well in print but not online. You’re free to adapt. Conversely, if colors are the important thing in people’s minds, rather than shape, you’ll need to get creative with your design so you don’t compromise usability.

7. Avoid any image that doesn’t forcibly convey your value proposition

I said before that your brand is like a package representing your value proposition. That package can be extended, and one of the most effective ways to do that is with images, because human beings are such visual creatures. Steph says that you should make sure your homepage pairs with a compelling image when people link to it (as on Facebook)—the click-through rates will be much better. This is true, to some extent. A logo can work well for this, since it reflects your brand.

But the best kind of image to use is one with story appeal. An image that, when people see it, they think, “What goes on here?” Then they read your copy to find out. Once they’ve read the copy, they clearly understand what is going on, and how it relates to the particular value you offer. And of course, from then on that image conveys that value to them.

If an image does not have story appeal, it must instead demonstrate very clearly something that can’t be better said with copy. It must be self-explanatory. For example, a before-and-after shot works brilliantly for conveying value. So can charts and graphs.

Unfortunately, most websites use all kinds of flashy graphics and images that convey no value whatsoever—let alone unique value. All they do is steal your prospect’s attention away from your copy and reduce readership rates. And as I’ve said, reduced readership means reduced revenue.

8. Be boring. Really boring

Steph’s final advice is to “be quirky”, and she uses the examples of Salt Films, Design of Today and Incredibox. I’m actually linking to them here precisely to show you how completely appalling they are in terms of usability.

Contra Steph’s parting advice to “give the online visitor something to remember”, let me tell you this with certainty: if you break the standard interaction model for a website, your prospects will not interact with it. People will not be frustrated with a website. They will not take the time to try to figure it out. Even if it is a genuinely interesting or funny or enjoyable way to navigate the site, and even if it suits what you’re selling perfectly, most people will hit the back button rather than take the time to even try figuring it out.

Websites that try to be clever sell virtually nothing. If your website is intended to generate revenue, its design must match the conventions your visitors expect it to match. Masthead at the top. Self-explanatory navigation underneath. Image with story appeal below that. Then the headline, entering the conversation in their heads. Then the copy, helping them to understand where they are, what they can do there, and why they should do it. Lastly, the calls to action, asking them to do it. Remember what advertising research guru and direct-response expert David Ogilvy said: “It’s only creative if it sells.”

D Bnonn Tennant
‘The Information Highwayman’

D Bnonn Tennant, ‘The Information Highwayman’, signs his name to this