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Follow the 10 ground rules, or fail on the web

When you work with the web, there are a couple of basics you really need to get right. These are things I see people misunderstand over and over again, with a varying degree of failiure as a result. Not only individuals make these mistakes, even really big organizations make them, and suffer as a result. So lets get at it.

1. Everyone is anonymous on the web, if they want to

If you depend on trying to identify who a particular user on the web is, you will fail in every way possible. This is what lots of law firms try to do, especially in the context of file sharing. You will never ever be able to know who someone online is, if they don’t want you to.

Technical reasons: IP-numbers are easy to fake, but using proxy servers of different sorts. New services are constantly popping up, that makes this available for unexperienced users. Just push them a little more, send a couple of more cease and desist letters and even ordinary home users will start to cloak who they are. It’s possible, it’s easy.

Social reasons: It’s very easy to surf using someone else’s internet connection. Ways vary from just connecting to an unencrypted wireless network, to just using the free connection at a library or school. And it’s getting worse: people are starting to move around while using the web (mobile), hopping from one connection to the next as their geographic position permits. The link between internet connections and users are getting blurrier as we speak.

Despite the above, there are things you can identify and use. One of those is categorizing users into user types. This is what Google (and lots of others) are successfully doing with their advertising system. “Based on what you’ve showed interest in previously, we think you will like this”. This enables you to personalize and customize your content to a particular user type, something that holds lots of economical value (if that’s what you’re after).

2. Give your content away for free, or watch someone else do it

The web is a gigantic content creation machine, and except for very niched content, you can find anything on it. If you are in the business of selling content online, you will see your profits steadily decline. The competition is just too intense when anyone can create content.

How do you tackle that? Well, put your previously costly content online for free, to drive people to your site. If the content is good, your will see a massive surge in number of users. Well on the site, you will need to figure out how to make money of them, either by showing them ads or getting them to buy something physical.

Industries that depend on online content creation are really living on the edge right now, and for a future prediction, just look at the music industry. You still have some time to rethink your bussiness model.

3. Linking is the core of the web, make people want to link to you

It’s called a web because of the links. Trying to limit or control other sites linking to you is fundamentally breaking the web. It’s also downright stupid, since every external link is a vote for your site, and a sure way for people to find you. Having an “link policy”, controlling how people may link to you, is a sure way to make a fool out of yourself online. Not to say that people won’t care one bit about it.

Instead, you should encourage people to link to you. How? By first giving every piece of content a linkable address. Many flash- and frame-based sites miss this fact, and instead require users to click through your frontpage to find the content they want. This is a sure way to turn users away. Just make your content linkable, it’s not hard.

Then, make sure the content is in such a high quality that users want to link to it. This rules out saying what everyone else is saying, in the same way everyone else is saying it. You need to be different, and have genuinely interesting content, that no one else has. This is hard, but a problem you need to solve to make it on the web.

4. Link to external sites with good content, it’s all about servicing your users

There’s billions of sites a user can go to, and you need to work hard to servicing your users if you want their attention. Sometimes your content is so extensive, that no matter how hard you work, users will still want more. This is a perfect situation where you should link to external sites and give your users what they want.

Many newspaper make this mistake, and end up with users leaving their site for Google, trying to find more information about a particular piece of content. They have instead linked to good follow-up content directly, given the user what they wanted, and be accessible via the most used button on the web, the back-button. Happy users that have easy access to your site, or annoyed users that leave for Google, your choice.

5. People will copy your content, and there’s nothing you can do about it

Some people are worried about the copying of their content. And if they see that as an issue, they better be worried. You see, each time someone reads your texts, or looks at your media, it’s copied from your server to the users computer. Web browsers are really effective copyright infringement machines, and by just clicking a link, you copy that page.

So if you are worried about users copying your content, please don’t put it online at all.

Other people think that they can have their content on the web, and still prevent people from copying it. This is pure lunacy, and all ways to prevent copying have failed. People even miss the most obvious way people can copy, by hitting the “Print screen” button on their keyboards. When it comes to video and audio it’s a bit more annoying, but everything that comes out of your speakers, or is displayed on the screen, is recordable. So stop worrying about copying, you can’t stop it.

Instead, know and accept that people will copy your content, and just ask for a simple link back if they do. That way, small pieces of your content on other sites will act as marketing for the whole site.

If you want this formalized as a license, there is the creative commons attribution license, which I use on this site (see footer).

6. Use the web to communicate with your users, or watch your impact fade

Almost everything is moving to the web, including most of your business and private life. This of course has implications for web sites. Back in 1999, a couple of smart people sat together and tried to formulate how the future would look for businesses. One of the fundamental truths they found was “Markets are conversations“. In essence, this means that you sell stuff by talking about it with customers. It can be through marketing or through recommendation, but it is talking. When that communication moves to the web, you too better start talking on the web. And quickly.

This movement of websites for two-way instead of one-way communication has been given the techy name Web 2.0. And it turns out, this new web is a terribly effective way of communicating. The more people realize this, the more of the conversations will move to the web.

The question is, when hoards of people come to your site to talk to you about your product, are your ready? Or will you give them: “Sorry, this store is closed, but we have this nice brochure you can read…”

7. Communicate with your users in natural language, marketing speech has no place on the web

It’s easy to find marketing speech about products today. Companies compete with each other to make sure as much of your field of vision as possible is filled with their message. When people are subjected to that much information they have no interest in, there are consequences. On the early web, the consequences were banner blindness, people simply started ignoring some banner formats. On the modern web, people have started ignoring marketing language use instead. The words “Best”, “Revolutionize” and “Cheapest”, instantly makes people stop reading.

Why? Because companies writing about their own products don’t have anything to compare to! They can’t say what’s best, because they don’t use their competitor’s products. They don’t know if the product will revolutionize the users life, because they know nothing about the user. And any user can look up how cheap they are on a price comparison site.

So what to do? Talk to them like you would to a friend, in the afternoon, after two beers. This will make sure you don’t turn customers away by trying to push to much crap on them. You wouldn’t do it to your friend? Then don’t do it to potential customers. Just changing your language has huge positive implications, but let me just sum it up like this: it builds trust.

8. Be honest about what your strengths are, liars are easily uncovered

Never has it been so easy to look up facts. Liars are easily uncovered by a couple of soft tappings on a keyboard. What’s even better, is that even subjective things can be checked. If someone yells: “Our product is the best one!”, you can find out if that’s the case in a few seconds. Just read a couple of reviews, look at comparison charts, and you will know.

Lying in person is rather bad, but lying on the web is worse. All the facts are so close. A customer is literally seconds away from finding out if you’re bullshitting them or telling the truth. This makes it vital not to lie on the web.

If you want to brag anyway, make sure your add a “we think” before all your bold claims, and back them up with solid arguments. Because if you say “We’ve found no cheaper product than our own”, and I find out there are others that in fact are, you’re not a liar, you’re just badly informed.

9. Care about search engines, and double your number of users

You are not the only site on the web, and people will spend most of their time on sites other than your own. This means, that if you don’t think about how people find your site, all your content work is in vain.

So how are people found? I have yet to see a customer of mine that gets less than 50% of their users from search engines. Usually 60-70%. People tend not to understand the implications of this. A e-store could potentially lose over half their sales by misbehaving in Google’s eyes. This is huge.

You need to care about search engines. Luckily, they are well synced with the ground rules you’re reading. If you make your content linkable, unique, interesting, and talk to them in a language they understand, you will be successful. All serious search engine optimization guides will say the same.

The last step, and what many miss, is to keep track of how people find you, and what they find. Then feed that information back to your content producers. That way, you can produce content that people actually like.

Or, you could lose half your sales. Your choice.

10. Encouraging and acting upon feedback is currently the best form of marketing

Asking for feedback is unfortunately still uncommon. Unfortunate because there are so many out there that could benefit from knowing how they can do better. It’s also fortunate, because it means that you have a chance to be different, and stand out, just by asking people what they want.

Dell IdeaStorm is a great example of this. They are simply saying: “Hi, we want your feedback”, and instantly they have media coverage everywhere. Additionally, they get great feedback on how to improve their business.

Of course, this means you need to act upon feedback too. Telling people that you listen, and then don’t is a much worse offense than not listening at all. So find yourself a good chair, hand out the megaphones, and listen carefully.

Where to now?

Thanks for reading this far. This article comes from a frustration over how some companies, and individuals, think the web is still a place were they can makes their own rules. I would therefore like to set the foot down, and tell people what I’ve learned about the web, about what works and not.

I also know that there are other people out there that needs to read this. Do you know some of them? I then appreciate if you could send them the link. More people need to read this.


Friendly Bit is a blog by Emil Stenström, a Swedish web developer that occasionally gets ideas of how to improve the internet.