How to make sure Web visitors get the right message
- By Vic Powell
- Feb 23, 2000
The range of responsibilities falling to Webmasters becomes wider each year,
and the rapid expansion of technical matters means that they must race just
to stay informed of new developments.
Technology, demands by management and pressing security issues can scatter
a Webmaster's concentration. The latest technologies and code can keep a
World Wide Web site secure, but maintenance of a site involves making sure
it meets customers' needs.
When a site is being developed, a group of managers decide what elements
should be on an agency's Web site. Presumably, such decisions are made periodically
to update the site.
However, once the site is online, responsibility for maintaining the
technical aspects and presentation of information often is deposited on
the Webmaster's desk.
Even if the site has a staff that attends to online sections, it is
difficult to know if the information serves the interests of the agency,
its programs and its customers.
Webmasters can employ several methods to check whether a Web site is
fulfilling its mission. Reviewing logs and output of other software programs
can indicate where customers access information. Surveys conducted by outside
organizations using focus groups of users and employees are useful measurements,
but they require budgeting and oversight.
One of the most effective methods is free and uses information already
at hand: listening to users of the site. Feedback can be invaluable.
Customers who detail a complaint are providing pure gold and can provide
guidance Webmasters may not have considered.
Although I started this column railing against all the matters that
devour a Webmaster's time, it seems contradictory to be asking Webmasters
to consider setting aside time for listening to customers. But gathering
information from users may be the most helpful way to improve your Web site.
Webmasters need to listen to users passively and actively. Passive listening
includes reviewing statistics, reports about comments from customers or
listings of most requested information. The information can be helpful to
making Webmasters aware of links that need to be relocated to change visibility
or to improve navigation, or when a page needs to be redesigned.
Active listening makes the Webmaster look at the site from a customer's
perspective. Answering a user's e-mail request often requires the Webmaster
to navigate through the site, noting the steps necessary to move from the
home page to an information source.
It is an educational process that helps to familiarize the customer
with the site. The task of clicking through links on pages can reveal a
need for improved layout, highlight navigational difficulties and locate
inoperative links. If finding information is difficult for the Webmaster,
it is an indicator that the operation is not likely to be any easier for
Agencies should consider a site's main audience when deciding how to
present information. A Web site designed for users having access to high-speed
equipment and fast connections can offer material — such as audio and video — that exploits those resources. But agencies should remember that most
users will be accessing government sites using telephone lines and consumer-grade
A Java-laden site may load quickly on the Webmaster's high-powered machine,
but to users in millions of offices and homes, the wait for pages to load
may be intolerable. Those individuals missed your agency's message. Ask
yourself if your audience really needs all the Java, large images or other
multimegabyte offerings. If the users of your Web site can quickly retrieve
information, your agency likely has a successful site.
— Powell is the Agriculture Department's Internet and intranet Webmaster.