Stop Thinking in Pages: A Web Developer’s Perspective

In the early days of the web, when it consisted mostly of academic papers and newsletters, it made sense to call the things we built “pages”. It was a much simpler time, but those days are long past and, frankly, that’s outdated thinking. Today’s web is much more dynamic than the big online filing cabinet envisioned twenty years ago. The content management systems we use to build sites now can twist our content into all manner of shapes, limited only by our imagination.

I need a web site for my company. Just something simple…” the email began.

I took a deep breath. Here it comes.

Only four pages. How much?

Yet, it amazes me that I still see requests from prospects defining a site by the number of pages. That sort of thinking can cause serious problems:

• It doesn’t tell the whole story
• It artificially limits the site’s scope
• It could hurt your search engine ranking

It doesn’t tell the whole story

Your web developer’s first response to that email should be “What’s on those pages? What do they need to do?” I’ve found there’s usually a disconnect between what a developer considers a “page” and what their client expects. To many people, the home page, “about us”, and a searchable product catalog are all “pages”. To your developer, a “page” probably means an unchanging piece of content, lacking any interactivity — like the pages of a book. Anything else is “functionality”.

If you’re concerned about your budget, it’s better to spend a few extra minutes clarifying your requirements to prevent a costly misunderstanding down the road. Let’s revise that email to be clearer:

“I need a web site for my company. I’m looking for four pages: a home page describing us, an “about us” page with more details, and a searchable product catalog. No e-commerce, but I do need a form for people to contact our sales team for more information.”

It’s a good start, but still thinking small. Let’s look at another way thinking in “pages” affects your site.

It artificially limits the site’s scope

If you think of your site in terms of four pages, it will only ever be a four-page site. Why limit yourself like that? Instead, think in terms of content. “About Us?” Content. Products? Those are content. Blog entries? You bet those are content. And today’s content management systems make it easy to create and manage it all.

Think of your content like a stack of children’s building blocks. Some blocks are red; some blocks are blue. They can be stacked on top of each other like a wall, or used to build a pyramid or even a castle. And if you prefer, you can make your masterpiece with just the red blocks alone.

Likewise, your developer just needs to build a few basic “content types” and displays, and you’ll be free to add five, fifty, even five thousand more “pages” yourself whenever inspiration strikes. Your content is the building blocks used to grow your web site. And, that same content can drive a mobile site for smart phones, feed inventory & prices into Google’s Product Search database, or even automatically post updates to Twitter.

Instead of asking your developer for four pages, ask them to build you a site that can grow with your business:

“I need a web site for my company. We currently have a handful of products and need a searchable product listing of them. But, we need the flexibility to grow anywhere up to 5,000 products as needed.
We’d also like a blog for daily updates, and the ability to add basic content like an “about us” page. No e-commerce, but I need a form for people to contact our sales team for more information, and we should be able to add new fields and options to that form as our business needs change.
We’re also interested in a Google Product Search feed, and would like Twitter updates sent our for every new blog post. Please feel free to suggest other ways we can leverage our content to drive sales.”

Your humble “four pages” have blossomed into a more modern, dynamic web experience! And, by being more up-front about your requirements, you’ve enabled your developer to provide a more accurate estimate of the work involved. If they can’t build the site to meet your budget, your new content-centric approach lets them build a basic site now and add features around your content later as your budget allows.

There’s another way a “simple” four-page site could cause problems:

It could hurt your search engine ranking

Everyone’s always talking about SEO these days and for a good reason. Every day, Google makes little changes to how it does things so the best, more relevant web sites rise to the top of their search results. Their business depends on it, and your business depends on it. The best way to tell Google you’re more important than your competitors and the pretenders is to give them lots of relevant, changing content to chew on. In a lot of ways, Google is like your customers: if you don’t keep things interesting, they wont visit as often and it’ll take longer for them to see your latest changes.

If your site is built in a content management system, you have an easy way to create fresh content for all of your visitors: people and search engines alike. Commit yourself to regular updates. If you don’t think you can post something new every day, try every week or even every month. Also, talk to your web developer about options for displaying your Twitter or Facebook feeds on the various “pages” of your site. Use these opportunities to highlight trends in your industry and keywords you want Google to see.

Let’s take one more look at that email:

“I need a web site for my company that communicates with Google as clearly and powerfully as it does with people. When people need my products or services, they should be able to find me.”

We currently have a handful of products and need a searchable product listing of them. But, we need the flexibility to grow anywhere up to 5,000 products as needed.

We’d also like a blog for daily updates, and the ability to add basic content like an “about us” page. No e-commerce, but I need a form for people to contact our sales team for more information, and we should be able to add new fields and options to that form as our business needs change.

We’re also interested in a Google Product Search feed, and would like Twitter updates sent our for every new blog post. These might be beyond our budget right now, but please make it possible to add these features in the future.

How much? Also, please feel free to suggest other ways we can leverage our content to drive sales.

This new message gives your developer a lot more to work with, and will help them better estimate the work involved. It also sets an expectation for how you plan to grow the site over time, and makes it clear you want the content and features to expand with it.

(1 Posts)

Dave Ross

Dave Ross is the Lead Developer at straightnorth.com, a Chicago web development company that specializes in Internet marketing services including Web design, search engine optimization, PPC management, social media and e-mail marketing.

Comments

  • nickg823

    Disregarding another important aspect of a website build, the design. If you don’t discuss number of pages ALONG with getting an understanding of what the site is meant to do, you can’t properly quote a project. If you’re a developer/designer hybrid you are already aware of this. It only takes one time to find that you’ll end up paying if you don’t properly understand the client website’s goals and how many page layouts they are going to need. Go in with just the developer’s point-of-view discussed in this post and you’re going to resent not asking them how many pages they are expecting.

  • Guest

    Good point, Nick. But

  • Moi

    Any web designer or developer out there will empathize with the point of view you’ve presented. This post adds great fodder to the type of briefing that would greatly improve the process. One thing you’re missing is that most clients are not that sophisticated to understand what you’re asking them to tell you. The best way you can get this information is by asking them questions about the content, the interactions, the Google search. As the expert, they’re relying on your expertise to guide them through the process.

  • csixty4

    Good point, Nick. I don’t disagree at all that the number of page layouts is critical when you’re estimating a project. At Straight North, we start every engagement by asking what exactly the site needs to accomplish, and from there we create a site map & wireframes based on those goals. The number of unique layouts comes out of that wireframing process. If the client starts the conversation with a site map or a set number of pages in mind, like the one who inspired this article, we either have to throw away the work they’ve already done or compromise on our design to meet their preconceptions. Starting the process together from square one allows us to deliver a better product driven by our web marketing experience.

  • T K

    This still won’t change the fact that certain areas of a website will be displayed as a “web page” but it has a different meaning. I agree though, the “how many pages for a website” aspect died a long time ago.

  • Designers and developers do need to spend time educating the client so they don’t feel cheated when they learn of alternative features from a competitor and not their contractor.

  • Zack263

    Fleshing out the expectations sounds like a great way to increase perspective.

  • Very smart post! Unfortunately though new prospects will often ak for pages and as a hungry Web designer, we oblige. Thanks for some clarity.

  • A great post. The key point is extracting the real business requirements. Way too many people/organisations still think that if you have a website customers will arrive. There needs to be a structured dialogue with the professional guiding/educating the client. Sadly too many clients think of a website like a fire and forget missile, rather than something that needs be nurtured and incorporated in their business activities.

  • Captain Kickarse

    good article. it’s about educating people in order for them to be asking the right questions…

  • Michael Butlin

    Multi level viewing of content needs to treated as the standard.
    Consider an article or policy covering Highway requirements the reader may have additional questions that they wish answered immedaitel rather than waiting to reach the end. In the same went attending a presentation questions occur during frequently need answering at the point of the question occuring.
    The ability to jump out to other content in order to answer “the question e.g. what colour a cycle lane is marked with and why” then return back to the original jumping point