Lessons learned reviewing 300 websites in 2 weeks (how to build a decent website)

I’ve been on a bit of a website review binge for the last 2 weeks. It started on the Smart Passive Income podcast where I volunteered to do a quick review for the people in Pat Flynn’s audience. Turns out, quite a few people were keen! We are up over 600 comments and I’m well behind in the reviews.

I also caught up with Chris Ducker and offered to do an in depth 8 page website review for people who signed up via his page. Again I had many more people than we expected, so I’ve spent a good chunk of the last few weeks reviewing websites.

“In the last 2 weeks I’ve reviewed 300+ websites and found some consistent areas for improvement.” – CLICK TO TWEET

Here are the top things I’ve noticed. You can use these to review your own site. I’ll also share my review template at the end of this post.

1. Think like a brand

uber_branding

One thing that has really stood out reviewing these sites, is people seem really keen on taking the advice of internet marketers. However they don’t look at what top brands are doing, and model off that.

If you want to build an internet marketing business then that’s cool. But creating something of real, significant, and ongoing value requires you to build a brand. This seems to be completely missed in almost all of the reviews I’ve done. 

I think there’s a bit too much guru worshiping going on and too little of observing with the best brands are doing. Designers who work for the top startups do not have time to release info products. So for that reason, you won’t learn this stuff from internet marketers. Instead you have to observe what they do.

A lot of the following comes from me observing top startup brands.

Related: How I ‘hack’ excellence with 1 simple trick

To make this real I’ve chosen 6 random, relatively new, high growth startups for comparison. Throughout the rest of this post I’ll come back to these as best practice examples. The startups are airbnb, Uber, Campaign Monitor, Udemy, MailChimp and Slack.

2. Have a simple logo or no logo 

People have been obsessing over having a complex logo, getting 3 versions, choosing something meaningful and something that stands out. Often the logos have been huge, or centered on the page, unnecessarily complex or out of alignment. Usually poorly designed, blurry, pixelated, dated or just plain ugly.

What I notice about modern startups is they don’t use complex logos, in fact some don’t use a logo at all!

brands

As you can see above, 5 out of the 6 startups I chose either have no logo or an extremely simple one on their site.

MailChimp is the only one that has more than a basic simple vector shape, and they go back and forth on whether they show that logo (often they just have the words Mailchimp despite their logo being so recognizable). Simple always wins in design.

2 out of the 6 don’t even have a logo on their site.

My recommendation would be go go without a logo if you can’t run through a proper design process for your brand. This is the option we chose with WP Curve when we got started. We still don’t have a logo and will only get one when we can afford a designer who can go through a proper process, to come up with a world class design. Until then what we have works a lot better than the average competition-designed logo.

3. Tell people what your site is about

This seems crazy but I’d say almost half of the sites I reviewed or perhaps more, didn’t even mention to the visitor what the site is about. At the very least they didn’t do it in a prominent location.

The top brands did it 6 out of 6 times. Every single one had a headline, and a subheading both above the fold. None of them said ‘Welcome to my site’, none of the skipped the headings altogether. Some went a step further and explained (sometimes subtly) who the product is for and even addressed some objections.

Here are the levels you can achieve with a headline and a subheading. The first 2 are essential. For businesses who are specifically targeting certain groups I’d also include ‘Who it’s for’ as a nice inclusion.

  1. A headline that captures attention
  2. A subheading that explains what the site is about
  3. How you are different (Unique Selling Proposition or USP)
  4. Address any objections

Let’s break down some of the startups.

airbnb (1, 2 and 3 covered)

airbnb_headlines

Campaign Monitor (all points covered)

campaig_monitor

4.  Go easy on the popups!

Most of the sites I have looked at have been aggressively going after the email optin. They had popups coming up before I could understand what the site was about. They had “hello bars” that locked to the top of the screen, hurting real estate and making it feel cramped and difficult to read. There were scroll boxes that came up over the content that I had to click to hide.

Most of them had really weak calls to action like ‘Subscribe to my newsletter’ and most weren’t accompanied by any evidence that would make me believe I would be better off if I did opt in.

They made it almost impossible to do what you want people to do, which is read your content. Its obvious to me from that approach that the owners of these sites don’t care as much about their content as they do about getting the email opt in. This is what I predict would happen in most cases for these sites:

  • Their optins would be slightly higher than if they didn’t have a pop up.
  • Everyone who visits the site would be annoyed because popups are universally annoying (brand takes a hit).
  • The people who do subscribe aren’t really that committed to your content, they have been pushed onto the list. My guess is they will churn off the list fairly rapidly and because the site owner isn’t showing any regard for content quality over conversions, the content in the emails probably isn’t good enough to keep them engaged anyway.

Quality content and a regard for the end visitor is what builds trust and loyalty over time. Popping up opt in boxes before people even know what you do, erodes trust.

To illustrate the point further, let’s look at the 6 startups.

  • Every single one had a prominent blog with regular high quality content.
  • None of them used popups on the homepage to build an email list. The only place I saw a popup was on the Udemy blog which was for signing up to Udemy. None of them used one on the homepage or any other page as far as I could tell.

Building a brand takes time, it can’t be hacked. If you are a small business, no one knows who you are, you don’t explain it on the site, you don’t provide great content on the site and you just hit people with popups to subscribe to your newsletter, you are doing yourself a disservice.

I’m not going to say that you should never use popups or more aggressive techniques for building an email list. But you should consider the impact on your brand, and consider the contextual factors around the offer before you blindly throw a popup script on every page of your site.

5. Don’t have ads

ads

I was really surprised to see that a lot of the sites, particularly in Pat Flynn’s audience, containing ads. Here’s why you should not include ads on your site:

  1. Ads are often contextual to the user which means the content probably has nothing to do with your site. This means they work against everything you are trying to achieve on the site. I saw ads for Infusionsoft, our competitors even ads for WP Curve!
  2. Ads are built to generate attention so they kill your conversions. They are specifically designed to get people to focus away from your website. Why on earth would you want that?
  3. Quite often the ads themselves were well designed but the rest of the site wasn’t, so it really showcased the poor design of the site.
  4. The ads were often forced into the theme and looked totally out of place.
  5. My guess is these sites generally had very little traffic and therefore made hardly any money from the ads. This was confirmed by a few people who commented on the reviews.
  6. They slow the site down.
  7. It’s one of the worst ways to monetize a website.
  8. It shows that you have no confidence in your business and therefore erodes trust and credibility.
  9. Sometimes the ads I saw were really spammy like the kind of ones you see on Pirate Bay (not that I’ve been there). That kind of thing destroys any trace of credibility.

It goes without saying that none of the 6 startups here, or any non-news startup that takes itself seriously, has disruptive ads like this on their sales pages.

6. Care about design

Most of the sites I saw had very poor design. There were a few exceptions, but generally I felt that design wasn’t something that people valued too much.

Of course it could simply be an affordability issue. Designers are expensive and to go through a proper design process is hard, expensive, risky and even then finding a great designer is difficult.

Still, I think some basic design principles could really help the majority of sites out there. Here is a presentation I gave recently that covers off some of these fundamentals.

Most website owners could implement these things for free and go from a horrible design to an acceptable one.

7. Use excerpts and consistent featured images

This is one really easy, high impact change you can make to how you are using WordPress. A lot of the sites I reviewed just let WordPress cut off the intro message to blog posts to use on the homepage. In addition, they had all sorts of other design elements cluttering up the page.

All you really need on a blog homepage is a simple excerpt, a headline and a featured image.

A typical example

excerpts

Best practice

No clutter, nothing unnecessary, consistent featured images, excerpts instead of big long cut off paragraphs, lots of padding.

curveblog

The WP Curve blog has simple consistent featured images, lots of white space and consistent excerpts of 2 short paragraphs.

airbnb use beautiful featured images, no clutter, only headings.

airbnb use beautiful featured images, no clutter, only headings.

Campaign Monitor have consistent custom icons, short same size headings and short same size excerpts.

Campaign Monitor have consistent custom icons, short same size headings and short same size excerpts.

8. Optimize images and check speed

A really common problem was poor website speed. This can impact on SEO, conversions, credibility and brand, usability and in some cases my ability to review the site at all!

More often than not the culprit was huge images. I usually try to keep whole websites to under 1mb. I came across some that were as big as 8mb.

As a general rule for individual images, I like to keep them under 100kb. In my reviews I came across individual images that were up to 4mb.

This really is a skill you need to have on board if you want to have a website.

The Pingdom site check tool is a handy quick reference.

Best practice is 1-3 second load time and under 1mb in size.

Best practice is 1-3 second load time and under 1mb in size.

Generally images should be under 100kb. If you sort by file size on the Pingdom site checker you can see this one image is 2.6 mb.

Generally images should be under 100kb. If you sort by file size on the Pingdom site checker you can see this one image is 2.6 mb.

Related: WordPress speed – How to reduce your load time to under 1 second

9. Optimize for readability

I think this one comes back to the intention of the site owner. There seemed to be way too much focus on ‘Get them to convert’ and not enough on ‘Get them to consume’.

Font sizes were small, often background images hurt the readability, there were large paragraphs, often grey on grey or similar issues with colour and not nearly enough padding.

Full width text was another issue, it’s difficult to read any text wider than about 800px.

The 2 sites I came back to as best practice for readability and focusing on content were Medium and MarkManson.net

This level of readability was fairly common.

This level of readability was fairly common.

Mark Manson uses big font, black on white, lots of paragraph spacing, nothing wider than 850px.

Mark Manson uses big font, black on white, lots of paragraph spacing, nothing wider than 850px.

10. Have 2 CTA’s

Another common problem was people who had a call to action somewhere towards the top but not at the bottom. The bottom of a web page is an underrated place to grab the attention of the visitor.

If they made it that far, they must be at least the slightest bit interested right?

In the startup examples I’m looking at here, 5 out of the 6 had a clear call to action at the bottom of the page. In all cases it was very similar, if not the same as the call to action at the top of the page.

slack_cta

11. No proof

chimp_proof

Finally one of the big issues I saw was a lot of talking and not much proof.  You can say what you want, so people will rightfully take what you say with a grain of salt in the absence of proof.

Examples of proof could include:

  • Testimonials
  • Facts about your business
  • Awards or recognition
  • Places you’ve been featured
  • Number of people who are customer or on your list
  • Social likes or shares
  • Trust seals
  • World class design

In most cases, the sites I reviewed had no proof, which is a conversion killer.  Established startups probably don’t need to worry that much about proof because 9 times out of 10 people come across their site via word of mouth. That means they come to the site with all the proof they need (their friends use and love the service).

Still, in the startups I’ve looked at in this post, there are regular elements of proof:

  • World class design in each one
  • Community / stories (airbnb)
  • Worldwide support graphic (Campaign Monitor)
  • 7 million customers (MailChimp)
  • 4 million students, 20 million courses  and showing numbers enrolled (Udemy)
  • Testimonials (Slack)

What do you think?

Let me know in the comments below. If you have any questions, feel free to ask too. If you want a copy of the template I use to review websites, enter your email below you will also get our weekly email with our best content.

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About

Dan Norris is a co-founder at WP Curve and a passionate entrepreneur with an obsession for content marketing.

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