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The Most Effective Websites Start with This

Person drawing a website wireframe

What do Google.com, WSJ.com, and Amazon.com all have in common? They each have a clear purpose that is the cornerstone of the site’s success.

A well-defined purpose serves as a “north star” guiding decisions about your website. It becomes the criteria you use to evaluate technology, determine what content to create, and, ultimately, how to measure success. For example, Google.com’s purpose is straightforward. They, “connect you to the most relevant, helpful information.” The site’s purpose has been the same for over 20 years and there’s never any confusion about what goes on the homepage, and users always know what to expect. Google can also measure how many relevant connections were made as a key demonstration of the site’s effectiveness.

If you’re looking to improve your website, start with defining its purpose. That may seem like a small detail, but a lack of clarity about your website’s purpose has far-reaching implications that impact its effectiveness.

External audiences visit your site with a singular purpose in mind – they want to learn something, or make a transaction, or be entertained, etc. If their need is unmet, they will likely go elsewhere. Some organizations try to mitigate this by offering something for everyone. This is a reactive approach that can backfire. What typically happens is the website becomes cluttered and ultimately overwhelms visitors with too many choices. In addition, the site becomes unwieldy for internal staff. Their resources are stretched as they continuously push out more content or deploy new technology. This increases complexity and triggers frustration at the inability to demonstrate meaningful results. New stuff is constantly added to the site, but for what purpose?

Your next site redesign should start with defining the purpose. The process isn’t necessarily complex, but it’s important you apply insights about your audience and where their values overlap with your organization. For instance, if your audience is seeking knowledge to advance their career, and your organization provides continuing education, then “a destination for learning and professional development,” may become your site’s purpose. Based on that definition, you can more easily decide what content to include and what infrastructure you need to support the site. You can also identify key metrics such as inbound traffic, course registrations, and revenue to measure how well the site serves its purpose.

Avoid ambiguous language that could leave your purpose open to interpretation. The goal is to arm your staff with a clear basis for decision-making. It helps to set direction by thinking in terms of choices. For instance, will the site be an online publication that pushes out information based on editorial decisions, or will it be more of a community platform where site visitors can contribute? Is the site a destination where visitors are meant to linger, or is it a hub that will route people to another stop?

Choosing between a set of options will help you set parameters for your site's purpose. Think of it as a series of dials or levers you can fine tune and set the right mix.

A site like WSJ.com may have something like this:

web purpose sliders

Your list of criteria may be somewhat different, but the practice is the same. Ask questions that will help clarify what kind of site you’ll build then summarize that in a statement. “This site is the U.S. authority for heath management certification” is more definitive than, “This site provides information for health managers.”

Once you articulate your website’s purpose, you’ll find it’s increasingly easier to make decisions about content, technology, and resources. You will also have better metrics to measure the site’s effectiveness.

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