Recently, I asked a half-dozen Web developers whether they were starting to see common features show up in all of the sites they built.
You'd have thought I was pressing them for a murder confession. What else would you expect from creative types who thrive on doing things differently?
For the past four years, the field of Web development has upheld no standards, adhered to no rules. Too often, however, the result has been brash, startlingly unique Web sites that are missing many of the essential elements Web users have come to expect. What good is a commerce site, for example, without a prominently placed "Order Now!" button?
Eventually, I did find a few designers who didn't blanch at the notion that today's most successful Web sites share some of the same building blocks.
According to one designer: "It's like book design. Over the years, people decided the preface should be in the front, and the page numbers here, and the index there. It benefited the reader and the publisher. Three or four years ago, when you built a Web site, it took a whole strategy team to figure out what it should contain. But now, people have settled into some basic grooves, and that lets them -- and us -- focus on some of the higher-level aspects of developing sites. You can spend more time writing the book."
Acknowledging that many Web pioneers still feel the medium is changing too quickly to allow rules to be written, I propose the 12 items below as must-haves.
1. A "What's New" section
Too many Web sites seem to have sunk into a state of suspended animation. Either nothing's been added since the day they were launched, or you just can't find it.
Look at the site for Oakley Sunglasses (www.oakley.com), which really contains two "What's New" sections: one called "R&D Department" and one called "New Inventions". Oakley's trendy customers want to stay on top of all the latest fashion ripples. At Virtual Vineyards (www.virtualvineyard.com), wines move through the site's inventory every six weeks. Customers want to know about the vintages in stock, so the site has a prominent "What's New" page.
The Web thrives on newness. Whether you add new content to your site daily or annually, make sure visitors know where to find it.
2. A search engine or site map
Big sites need a search engine that produces meaningful results. Apple Computer site (www.apple.com), for example, turns up a bevy of relevant results when asked about the company's new iMac. Smaller sites need a site map or table of contents that clearly lays out what content is where.
If you choose to make it difficult for users to find what they're looking for, users will choose to look elsewhere.
3. A feedback mechanism
Despite all the jabbering about the Internet being the first true two-way medium, not enough sites offer a simple way for customers to make their voices heard. The majority offer a simple "mail to" link, which opens up a blank mail message, usually addressed to the webmaster. Even better is a pull-down menu that lets users route their feedback to a specific place (sales, service, engineering, the CEO). An automatic response, which lets users know that their message was received, is also a good idea. And the most successful sites read all the feedback they receive and respond to much of it.
4. Consistent navigation
Navigation needs to tell users where they are within a site, as well as where they can go from there. Visit Backroads (www. backroads.com), a company that runs biking and hiking tours, for an elegant example. The navigation never abandons you, no matter where you go.
5. Security information
Until consumers become more comfortable with submitting credit card information over the Web, commerce sites need to include an explanation of their security protocol and indications of when a transaction is secure.
6. Location, location, location
Does your company cease to exist in the real world once you launch a Web site? Unlikely. But you'd be surprised at how many sites neglect to include the company's address and phone number in a prominent place.
Think about also posting driving directions and a map. While some may argue that putting a phone number on the site will generate dozens of annoying phone calls, the map will doubtless eliminate dozens of annoying requests for directions.
7. Linking instructions
Want more traffic? Why not encourage other sites to link to you and provide the HTML code to help them do it?
The first place I saw this feature was on Yahoo Yahoo.com, and it remains the leader. Initially, it offered up downloadable logos and a few lines of HTML that let visitors install a graphical Yahoo link on their own sites. Now, Yahoo.com has a whole section called "Yahoo to Go" (www.yahoo.com/docs/yahootogo/index.html) that provides searches, maps, stock quotes and weather reports that users can put on their own pages. Yahoo.com is the most popular site on the Web for a reason. Follow its lead.
9. Affiliate program
Amazon.com invented it, but other commerce sites are following suit. The idea? To attract more customers, start an "affiliate program" that rewards other Web sites for helping you generate business. Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has dubbed the practice "syndicated selling," and Amazon.com, eToys and online music store Music Boulevard are all prospering from it. Hundreds of sites build links to their storefronts and are given a small percentage of any resulting transactions.
10. Easy-to-use tools for updates
On the back end, hidden from the visitor's view, Web site operators need good tools for managing their content. It shouldn't take an eagle-eyed HTML expert to add a new management bio to your Web site or post a press release. But few Web design shops offer such tools; they'd rather have clients rely on them to do updates.
11. Style guide
If you leverage the people within your company -- and not just your Web developers -- to add content to your site, you'll need a style guide. How big should the headlines on your product spec pages be? Does there need to be a "feedback" link on every page? The style guide codifies that sort of thing.
12. Simple traffic reports
Gauging the effectiveness of a Web site requires solid reporting. Sites need to pick a set of metrics and stick to them -- are you tracking page requests, unique visitors or orders?