Evaluating and Benchmarking – how does your site measure up?

Think of your favourite website. Now think of six reasons it is your favourite. Now think of your own website, assuming it’s not your favourite, and ask yourself how it ranks within the six criteria you chose.

We all do it – judge websites. But most people rely on their first impression (see: Business Requirement Interviews and Gut instincts vs. data – What would you rather present to get intranet buy-in? ). Interviews and focus groups will reveal problems and provide invaluable suggestions for improvement, but understanding where a site goes wrong and what direction it should be going in can be best ascertained through a thorough evaluation and benchmarking against competitive sites.

Evaluation and benchmarking criteria for a good site

What are the best practices that make up a good evaluation? According to “How visitors rate sites” by Larisa Thomason on Netmechanic here are some things to look for:

  • Visual design or a “professional look” is the first test of a site’s credibility and first impressions have the biggest impact on a user’s overall impression.

    “Choose a color scheme that reflects your audience’s preference not your own,” writes Thomason.

  • Typography: use safe fonts that are common to standard use.

  • Images and Multimedia:

    dazzle but don’t annoy. Photos should be real and, where possible, action oriented – they should tell a story. Multimedia should have a purpose and should be quick to load.And you should always have alternative information for those who don’t want to go the multimedia route.>

  • Layout

    includes the overall structure and bullets and headings as well as the placement of information. (Plan where your information goes – don’t leave huge blocks of white space).

  • Content:

    according to Netmechanic “sites should be designed to deliver information to visitors.” Never forget that “content is king”.

Indeed, content is very important (see: Intranet Design Melds to One) and so is planning – which is why Prescient Digital Media double weights these categories when conducting evaluations and site benchmarks. If you don’t have a plan, it often manifests itself on the site in the form of poor information architecture and usability. Intranets are especially known for getting out of hand with multiple “micro-sites”, lack of standards and no governance model. The poor person in charge of posting information (yes, most don’t even have a qualified webmaster and some don’t even have anyone with web responsibilities listed in their job descriptions), is told to “just put it on the intranet” without instructions as to placement, inter-linking, or archiving. Consequently, the site is a hodgepodge of materials without a plan to support and standardize what, where and how information is available.

Aside from content and planning, Prescient also evaluates sites based on look and feel, usability, layout, and tools and innovation.

Some basic criteria we recommend:

  • Content: needs to be current and frequently updated to be considered trustworthy. It should be written for the web, in scannable chunks with lots of headings to break up content – not just print material that is posted.
  • Planning: “most intranets in a mess lack a common vision for what the intranet should be,” according to Jerry Stevenson in “Taming a Chaotic Intranet” in an item posted with IABC. Does the site have a mission, vision and goals? Are content owners identified? Is there a governance model? Are metrics being recorded and analyzed?
  • Look and Feel:

    consistency is vital – set and follow standards and guidelines. If you find microsites popping up using every colour scheme imaginable, your site loses credibility.

  • Usability:

    all sites should have a sitemap, breadcrumbs (path trail), a good search engine and a taxonomy that works with your audience. Avoid using acronyms and non-descriptive words that don’t tell the user what content can be found under that category.

  • Layout:

    scrolling should be kept to a minimum and white space should be part of the design, not an indicator that you ran out of content.

  • Tools and Innovation:

    can people do what they need to do? A good search engine that provides forgiveness for misspelling is one standard tool. Consider collaboration tools like wikis, communication innovations like blogs, and applications like calculators. Make sure that if a page is likely to be printed, it prints well or has an alternate format. And if you have online forms make them easy – the best are forms that can be completed and submitted online. It is not innovative to make people print a form, fill it out in ink, and then send it somewhere.

Once you evaluate your own site and give it a score, you should do the same to about four other competitive sites. Granted, it is difficult to benchmark against other intranet sites, which is why it is best left to professionals who have the expertise and relationships to get permission to look at intranets for various organizations. But you should still be able to evaluate your site with best practices.

Best practices are good ideas that work: when you see a good idea put it to use on your site and track it to make sure it works for you. You should evaluate your site on a regular basis; after all it is a work in progress and should be continually updated to meet the changing needs of your organization. Don’t leave your evaluation to phrases like “it sucks” it might be easier to improve then you think.

Prescient Digital Media is a veteran web and intranet consulting firm with 10+ years of rich history. We provide strategic Internet and intranet consulting, planning and communications services to many Fortune 500 and big brand clients, as well as small and medium-sized leaders.