Technical and Non-technical Requirements for Successful Websites
Everybody knows that a good website is nowadays of crucial importance for the success of a company, for example for any supplier of photonics products. Nevertheless, so many websites exhibit substantial deficiencies of many kinds. Of course, that includes many of the companies listed in our RP Photonics Buyer's Guide – mostly those who also don't care to utilize our ad package. Having seen a lot there, and of course having heavily worked on our own website, I have accumulated substantial expertise in this area over the years.
A while ago I have offered a comprehensive article on this topic; here, I briefly summarize some important points, so that you can (e.g. as an employee of a photonics company) quickly identify certain points which your company should be working on.
The quantity and quality of content is obviously of crucial importance – directly for the users of a website, and indirectly because of the impact on search engines, through which one can hope to obtain substantial incoming traffic. I think the most important aspects are
- to provide the users with the information they need (e.g. to clarify certain questions concerning products or their application),
- to do this in a convenient and helpful manner,
- and to leave an overall good impression of the company as being both able and willing to be helpful with its products and services.
In the technology sector, it often seems to be a challenge to produce product descriptions which are useful and exhibit a comprehensive technical competence. For example, I often see data sheets of laser and optics products, from which I can quickly see that the authors are uncertain about or unaware of certain aspects; many other readers may also notice such things. The trouble is that the awareness of such deficiencies cannot be there as long as certain technical competence is missing. Many companies would be well advised to that some external experts (or even just test users) go through their data sheets in order to improve their quality. It is often of high value to get an external perspective.
Technically accurate information is not automatically helpful because it can still be presented in a way which is hard to understand, address details which are too special to be normally relevant, or lack required details. By the way, I am always very aware of such aspects when working on my encyclopedia articles; for example, I am happy to omit various too special details (which you might find elsewhere), while working harder to properly explain the context and the central issues.
With usability we usually mean technical aspects, although the actual usability of a text may well depend on non-technical aspects as discussed above – for example, having a clear understanding of what type of people the users are, what they need etc.
Some typical deficiencies which I often encounter are:
- Page speed: surprisingly many websites are extremely sluggish to load, taking several seconds until one start reading something. Many potential readers are already lost in those seconds. By the way, page speed is not so much a question of using powerful web server hardware, but much more of having an efficient software concept for the website. Therefore, many companies could achieve substantial progress in that area only with an essentially new website, based on better technical concepts. As this can take a substantial amount of work, many accept a nastily slow page speed year after year.
- Navigation: this is not that difficult to properly design for a photonics supplier website of limited complexity. Still, there can be non-trivial questions concerning how to organize the pages in order to well serve visitors with different aspects in mind. For example, some may want to find different laser diodes ordered by wavelength, while others prefer to select a certain category of laser diodes (e.g. diode bars), and still others want to learn about the technology used by the supplier. Users want to quickly find the required information, and to be able to quickly find it again as necessary.
- Mobile devices: many websites are still not well suited for use with mobile devices. For those, one should have an adaptive design, where displayed elements are rearranged such that it works well with narrower screens.
- Cookie consent banners: it is a plague which I think all Internet users hate. On so many websites, you are first nagged to give your consent to using at least certain cookies, of course without knowing exactly what that will mean for you. Websites presenting photonics companies and products, for example, could easily do without such cookies, only giving up certain ways of tracking users (which many users also hate, of course). I know that the RP Photonics website wins many sympathies simply for not using such cookies throughout and consequently not having to ask about that.
- Broken links: broken links often arise when a page filename is modified, for example during the reorganization of a website. This makes the bad impression particularly if it is a link within your own site. Therefore, I regularly use a tool to check such things. I also check external links, particularly in order to locate broken links in product descriptions of suppliers using our ad package because the advertising value is of course degraded by broken links.
Transfer Encryption with HTTPS
Many people still believe that traffic encryption is not required for websites only presenting public information such as product data. That is because they don't know that their users, particularly when surfing the Internet over insecure WLAN, are vulnerable to certain attacks when encryption is not used. For such reasons, web browsers more and more visually indicate that such web pages are problematic.
A few days ago, I again checked all suppliers listed in the RP Photonics Buyer's Guide for that. Specifically, I tested for all those where the website address is still registered with the outdated HTTP protocol (URLs starting with “http://”) whether they also work with HTTPS (using “https://”). Although I could again switch many dozens of them to HTTPS links, surprisingly many still don't support that, leading to nasty security warnings in your browser when you try it.
Other Security Issues
There are many ways to attack websites and website users with a technique called cross-site scripting (XSS). While it is rather difficult to completely avoid such vulnerabilities, which often arise from quite innocent looking code, there are at least ways of largely suppressing any exploits. Specifically, you can implement a strict Content Security Policy, which can be rather effective, although you may have to deal with some side effects until your website is again fully working. Anyway, substantially lowering the risk of your website or its users being hacked, potentially causing substantial downtime and/or a disastrous reputation hazard, should be considered as a substantial value, definitely worth some efforts. However, this topic is still badly neglected by many. I recommend checking this by entering your own website URL (and possibly others) into a convenient tool for checking various security aspects: the Mozilla Observatory. Today, I verified that we (www.rp-photonics.com) have the excellent grade A+ (as we had for a long time), while our competitors photonics.com and optics.org both get the very poor grade F.
As mentioned above, we have a more comprehensive article on quality websites, which you may now want to read.
As always, feedback is welcome; I would be happy, for example, to address other important aspects which I may have overlooked.
Is that you are specifically interested in search engine optimization, you may also want to read the RP Photonics Marketing News article of 2021-03-02.
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