Link all you want, but unless your site helps visitors find what they want while enjoying the process, they won’t stick around long enough to buy anything. The big secret is creating a well-designed Web site. That’s easily said, but difficult to accomplish. Quality sites have fresh, interesting content; easy-to-understand organization; visual appeal; and affiliate links that are relevant and attractive.
We asked five very successful affiliate sites to share their tricks for designing a hard-working, pleasing site that keeps users coming back for more. Each site exemplifies a key principle of good Web design.
Build a solid foundation
Thoughtful planning of the structure and content before design began has helped Kitchens.com to fulfill its aim of being the Web’s most comprehensive consumer resource for kitchen design and remodeling. Today the site ranks as the fifth most visited affiliate site in Alexa’s Home Improvement category. Click the site’s “shop” link and you’ll find a sizeable custom storefront linking to dozens of merchants.
Kitchens.com wants to walk its visitors through complex projects (such as kitchen remodeling) while making it look easy and fun. The site is minimalist, with only a few links on any given page. Like a recipe, the site breaks projects into easily digestible steps.
Editor Kate Schwartz stressed the importance of planning when it comes to building a successful affiliate site. Schwartz said the founders spent a full year analyzing the kitchen industry and determining what users would expect from a kitchen design and remodeling Web site before launching Kitchens.com.
“It was expensive, in that one designer and the original editor spent an entire year working on it,” Schwartz said. But the careful planning paid off in reduced maintenance costs, because the site worked well and really did provide just about anything anyone would want to know about kitchens. The structure also allows for updates to be made as new products or styles evolve without the need for adding new sections or reorganizing. Now, said Schwartz, “Basically, we tend to add rather than modify or change.”
Find the right style
A site must appeal to its target audience by developing a unique style using color, typography, arrangement and voice. PowerBasketball.com, a resource for youth basketball coaches, manages to seem friendly and yet professional. Guy Power launched the site in 1998 as a personal project. It’s now the fourth most-visited site in Alexa’s Basketball category. PowerBasketball is an Amazon affiliate, and book and video sales can earn four figures each quarter during the basketball season, which is not bad for a one-man show.
Power wanted visitors to be pleasantly surprised to find a site that offers so much without charging a monthly fee. A self-taught designer, he went through several iterations of site design. “I have spent so much time searching the Internet and studying design, layout, and color schemes,” he said. “You name it, I have tried it. I always liked the look of simplicity and subtle color scheme – the newspaper look.” Power replicated that look by laying out stories in relatively narrow columns on a white background, and adding only a minimal amount of color.
Indeed, visiting PowerBasketball.com gives one the feeling of being on the inside, privy to the knowledge of professionals. The design is a sharp contrast to the amateur look of the site’s competition. Power feels that the current site design will satisfy his visitors for some time to come.
Organizing content and distributing it across the site was tricky. “The hardest part of design has always been to position chunks of content on the main page that will allow the visitor the opportunity to find information that appeals to them without weighing it down.” He wanted to offer enough content on the main page to reassure visitors that the site was substantive, while encouraging them to wander through the rest of the site. Power achieves this by highlighting a small selection of recent stories in the center of the home page but also offering a number of other jumping-off points around the primary content in smaller type. By mimicking the design of more established media outlets, PowerBasketball gets to play with the big guys.
Let content rule
BaseballProspectus.com was launched in 1996 by a group of baseball insiders and sports writers to become an online resource for updated information in conjunction with the group’s annual Baseball Prospectus books. The site, in effect, complements the books.
The Site’s Spartan design makes sense for baseball enthusiasts, who expect endless statistics and reports without much fanfare. In fact, many of the pages look much like the typical stats page in a newspaper’s sports section where sports junkies find their data.
Expect that to change, though. The demands of ever-increasing content are driving a re-design. “We’ve got thousands of paying customers, dozens of stat reports, huge databases filled with player information, moderated chats and as many as 35 new articles per week from a large number of writers,” said co-founder and executive vice president Gary Huckabay. “We have too much stuff for our current design.” The goal of the second-generation design is to make more content accessible via the home page while keeping load time down.
For Baseball Prospectus, content is king. “Promote and spend all you want, but at the end of the day, you absolutely must have the best content in your business,” said Huckabay. “We work very hard to go find the best analysts and writers we can, and that’s the key.”
Kendall Holmes launched OldHouseWeb.com in 1998 to be a repository of information, he said, “for homeowners and contractors about living with, working on and restoring old houses. We also sought to build a community of enthusiasts, so old house lovers could connect with each other and share ideas and techniques.”
Old House Web sells a variety of merchandise through HomeStore.com, Rockler.com, and Amazon.com. The site’s biggest sellers on a daily basis are books focused on restoration and remodeling.
Holmes said the basic design concept is to keep it simple. “We try to fit with our audience like an old, comfortable pair of shoes or blue jeans,” he said. That simplicity extends to terminology and navigation. The thousands of pages of information are divided into logical chunks with common-sense topic names, such as “doors,” “cabinetry” or “flooring,” rather than more technical or cutesy terminology.
To simplify navigation, the site employs “breadcrumb trails,” a textual representation at the top of the page showing where the user has been. For example, someone reading an article on waxed plaster finishes would see a bar at the top of the page reading “Home > Walls > Plaster,” making it easy to retrace steps. “But we’re also realistic that no matter how logical the layout is to us, most users aren’t going to be able to follow our logic,” Holmes said. “So we put a search box on every page.”
Attention to design extends to affiliate relationships as well. Said Holmes, “With anything we sell, from anyone, one of our requirements is that we need to maintain our look and feel, so that we can deliver our user experience … even if the final transaction takes place elsewhere.”
Holmes credits the flexibility of the Web services system at Amazon.com with dramatically boosting sales of Amazon merchandise. Old House Web uses the e-commerce giant’s XML feed to brand its own version of the Amazon sales pages, putting its own look onto the design. Rather than just linking to a book page on Amazon, this service lets Old House Web seem to have its own information page with pictures, reviews and samples. People may not even realize they’re using Amazon until they check out.
Help visitors find their way
Ron Hornbaker, founder and editor of BookCrossing.com, struck upon the idea for his site one day in March 2001 and pulled the basics together in one all-nighter. The site is a radical take on an online public library. Anyone is free to join and trade books simply by leaving the book in a public place. Books are tracked online using serial numbers registered on the site and pasted inside them. Members frequent the Web site to write reviews, discuss books via message boards and follow the travels of the books that they “release into the wild.”
Today, the site boasts over 160,000 members and 26 million monthly page views. BookCrossing.com generates up to $2,000 a month in commissions from book sales, and, for good measure, it also sells groceries, ink jet cartridges and gifts that bring in several hundred dollars per month.
When it comes to design, Hornbaker has few hard and fast rules. He stressed that navigation is more important than a hip or modern look. “I’m more concerned with offering a consistent, intuitive navigation interface, combined with a clean, readable content section, that works at all browser window sizes down to 600 pixels wide,” he said. In other words, don’t exclude people just because their monitors are too small.
“The charter is a little place in my head that knows what looks good, and what looks bad,” he said. He’s a fan of simplicity, so he lets text do double-duty for information and navigation. At the same time, he likes to keep a lot of information next to the main content. The deluge of data added to the site each day makes for cluttered pages. For example, each book listing offers seven purchasing links to affiliate sites. He minimizes the clutter by keeping design consistent from page to page and by using small fonts to make these links easy to navigate and easy to read.
“Growing a community Web site is a lot like growing a garden,” Hornbaker said. “You’ve got to lay it out with the right spacing and structure, plant the right seeds, build appropriate trellises to guide the growth, hope for some luck with the sun and the rain (or buy water and fertilizer), and then maintain vigilance in pulling weeds and keeping out pests most every day. The neat difference in this analogy is that a well-planned Web site can continue to grow if tended by only one or a few people, whereas you’ll probably lose control of a backyard garden before it covers your entire block.”
To use another analogy, just try to imagine a library that gets larger and larger without a good index.
CHRISTOPHER NULL is a longtime technology, business, and entertainment journalist. He founded the popular Web site FilmCritic.com in 1995 and is currently editor in chief of Mobile PC magazine.