Stories to touch the heart and mind
Michael W. Davis
Copyright 2010 by Michael W. Davis
of the year
of the year
The main purpose of this article is for those in the class that wonder “Does the way you design your website have any affect on sales.” Before we start,
we need a few basics so bare with me.
Like most newbie authors, when I got that first call I figured, “Piece of cake. I’m home free now.” Talk about naïve. I had no idea what was in store for
me in terms of the amount of effort associated with being a published author OTHER than actually writing. My first shocker was the statement in my
contract that required “the author will create and maintain a presentable website.” OMG. You mean the publisher doesn’t do that? Oh no, no, what have I
done (g). I’ve talked with many authors across multiple publishers and never found one yet where the author wasn’t responsible for their own website.
After hyperventilating, I settled down and addressed the first decision: pay someone or build it myself. Now understand, I’m not a tech weenie at all. I’d
talked with about a dozen authors and it was roughly 50/50 which choice to build theiir site themselves. Problem was not so much one of cost rather the
horror stories I’d heard, like:
- The web designer selects the host and the construction package, unless you do it yourself which can cause problems down stream.
- If the designer goes under, you’re stuck trying to find someone experienced with the software they used.
- You always have to wait for their schedule to make changes, which can be a long time.
- Host companies go in and out of existence like the spin of flip flop politicians. The construction software can often be specific to the host itself.
To that end, I decided to bite the bullet and build my own. I looked around, talked to author friends and decided to go with an established company that’s
been around (and should remain) forever: Yahoo. Yeah, I was surprised to learn they hosted websites. Note that I have no money in the company so these
are honest views. They use a design product called Sitebuilder which is a basic drag and drop operation (like many user friendly presentation packages).
Took about a day before I was comfortable and two more before I felt proficient. They also have help support where you can actually ask a human on the
phone. What’s it cost? For both my domain name and hosting charge its $13/month which is reasonable to me for security of mind that I won’t have to
learn a new tool. There are freebie services (like “Web”) but you end up with an ad banner which I don’t like at all.
Basic site characteristics
I’m not about to write a book on how to design a website, but we do need a few concepts to establish common grounds. In my mind, the following
represents the minimum characteristics of a site you will have to deal with in deciding how you want it to look and function for the visitor.
- Background : You can chose from literally hundreds of color schemes, header designs, etc provided by your host company.
- Template: each page within the website is build around a common template which includes the color background and how its laid out
(buttons at top, on side, etc)
- Page contents: the builder (e.g. you) can insert text, videos, images, and links (e.g. click the words or image and the visitor will be sent
elsewhere in the site or to some other site on the web).
- Site layout: You have to decide what each page does (excerpts, bio, links, etc) and how a visitor navigates around the site using buttons
- Embedded code: For more advanced applications, site building software allows you to embed HTML code (lines of computer code) to
accomplish special tasks (e.g. insert a video from YouTube that runs a book trailer, send visitor hit data to a stat counter company, etc) but
you don’t need this for the basic design so don’t sweat it.
There's more, but for this discussion, those characteristics are what I'll reference in order to discuss the main goal (e.g. does website design affect sales.)
My original design
Given I knew squat about building a website; I searched for and evaluated the appeal (in my eyes) of several author sites. I combined what I liked and
ignored what I did not. Now when ya read the elements below, you’ll wander, “Why in the world did he do that?” In my defense: seemed like a good idea
at the time, and I had no experience in what worked and didn’t, until the 2nd design, of course.) Accordingly, my first design consisted of the following:
- Navigation buttons: I constructed eleven pages, each assessable by a button positioned horizontally near the top of the each screen, including home
page, bio, calendar of events, author buddy news, contests, reviews, excerpts, trailers, contact, and buy sources.
- Background: The websites I considered that used a bright red, neon green, yellow, orange or any other loud color overloaded my visual senses.
Instead, I selected a mild shade slightly darker than sky blue, then over laid black letters for the narrative.
- Home page: the main entry into the site is called the home page (sometimes referred to as the “index”, why I don’t know). I elected to fill it up with
each cover art of all my books, accompanied by the associated blurb and displayed vertically down the page. This meant that only about one
novel/story appeared on the screen at a time requiring the visitor to scroll down to view more books.
- The excerpt page exhibited three hyperlinks for each book (one for each insert).
- The “fellow author” news, schedule of upcoming events, and contest page contained details associated with each of those topic.
- The HTML code I added to the site was a free product called STATCOUNTER which records hits into my site and where they came from, along
with a few You Tube videos of trailers I made for my books.
My 2nd design
Two years into my writing career an author friend suggested I consider simplifying my site. We had shared stats of our visit records and our promotional
plans, other than her heavier reliance on social networks, were about the same. She made several recommendations (and given she had more experience
under her belt), I decided to listen to most of them. I also studied the visit history to each of my website page across 24 months and included those results
in my redesign decisions. The following represents what I did and why:
- The background color and general layout (buttons across the top) stayed the same.
- I reduced the number of buttons from eleven to six. Why? (1) My author budette suggested I had too many, and (2) I’d come to realize the visitors
became overwhelmed with too many choices.
- I eliminated the “Fellow author news”, “My calendar” and the “contact” button. Why? Over about 14 thousand site hits I could count the number of
visits to those three pages on two hands combined.
- I added a link page that contained redirection to author friends, useful articles I’d read on writing (good, bad, and ugly of the process), and
links to data sources useful in research for a manuscript (firearm references, CIA world data base, language translator, name origin tables, etc).
- I simplified the home page significantly. How? I no longer provided book blurbs along side each cover art image. Instead, I added one or two brief
bullets (6 to 9 words) encapsulating my 4 and 5 star reviews. End result was that instead of only one book fitting on the screen at once, now eight
stories were displayed in two vertical columns on one screen.
- I eliminated the separate except and review pages and linked each image of cover art on the home page to its own separate page containing all 4 and 5
star reviews for that novel (summarized in two to four lines) atop the book blurb followed by two or three excerpts. Why? Much more conceive and
the visitor didn’t need to bounce between separate pages for the same story (yeah, now it seems obvious how stupid that was, a big da for me, g.)
- I added an Awards page. Why? (1) I was proud of the recognitions I’d worked so hard to receive, and (2) I felt such accolades might be important
to some visitors.
- I removed all narrative and graphics that did not relate to my books (e.g. festivals I attended, book signing I participate in, etc). Why? Way too
Bottomline – the ultimate affect was a trimmer and simpler layout with more upfront reference to my reviews.
My method for assessing the affect of the new design
To evaluate how useful the changes were, I selected three metrics:
- Any increase in deep hits (defined as a visitor who stays for more than two minutes and visits more than just the home page). This implies the
hit wasn’t an accident and the viewer’s interest was tweaked enough to stay around and read more about a story.
-The fraction of deep hits that resulted in a visit to the buy page.
-The buy page visits that translated into actual sales. This was estimated by comparing my royalty statements to the number of buy page visits.
Why chose those three stats and not all visits to the site? For this experiment I made no changes in my meta tags or promotion activities, thus it was
unlikely anything I did to the design of the website would improve the overall number of visits per week. The key factor was “did a visitor stay longer”
(more deep hits) and “were they more interested in checking out the sources where my books were sold on the buy page”.
Data based results of my analysis
Across the six months I recorded data comparing the two designs, there was a definite and significant improvement to the performance of my website in
terms of getting visitors more interested in considering my stories, specifically:
- Deep hits increases by 65%, on average, a week.
- The fraction of visitors that went to the buy page went up 110%
- The number of buy page visits that resulted in actual purchases increase from 25% to 60%, however I could only base this observation on 3 months of
data vs six like the other two results. Why? My publisher ran several sales during the other three months which made it impossible to distinguish between
the affect of the site design and the co affect of the publisher sales on my actual revenues.
Was it worth it?
You bet ya. I spend roughly sixty hours redesigning and rebuilding my site. The improvement, in my opinion provided a major return on investment. Will I
do it again? Don’t think so given I’m not sure what to change now that might enhance performance.
Does website design affect sales?