Bells and Whistles for Your Web Site
Dennis Kennedy (DK): Even though it’s often said that on the Web "content is king," it’s important to remember to pair substance with style and form with function. There is a place for flash, especially if it adds functionality. Let’s talk about some of the ways you can add "bells and whistles" to your site that also provide great functionality. The key word to remember is "interactivity."
Jerry Lawson (JL): Interactive features provide some subtle, but not insignificant, benefits. They send a subliminal message: "We are more technically sophisticated than law firms that rely on static pages." Some law firms try to send a similar message by using gimmicks like Flash animation, but that approach is dubious. Especially with the economy tightening up, do you want potential clients to get the impression you view technology as a way to be frivolous, instead of providing substantive benefits? Shun mere marketing gimmicks and give preference to features that add substantive value.
Brenda Howard (BH): That’s enough theory, now let’s get down to the how-to-do-it part. We are going to be a little more technical than usual this month, not because we think we can teach you computer programming in one column, but because as a lawyer you need to be able to talk to evaluate the various options available to you as a consumer.
JL: This sounds like "techie" stuff, but it has real world consequences. For example, because CGI scripts consume server resources and are favorite hacker entry points, many web site hosts do not allow them.
DK: There is now a fourth method that is especially attractive to non-programmers, the Application Service Provider, or ASP, model. In the ASP model, the interactive features are hosted on a third party’s web site. Think of these features as pre-packaged and pre-programmed modules. In some cases, all you need to do is cut-and-paste pre-written code onto your web page. A few examples: Moreover.com, which allows you to add newsfeeds to your site, giving you up-to-date content and the Amazon Associates program, which allows you to add e-commerce (the sale of books and other products) to your site without trying to create or program the whole range of e-commerce functionality.
The ASP model definitely has
some attractive features in this context. Now that we understand the main
ways to add bells and whistles, let’s look at some specific examples,
starting with search engines. There is research showing that just as some
people prefer finding things in books through using the table of contents,
while others prefer using the index, some people prefer to navigate the
Web using hypertext links, while others prefer search engines.
I agree with Nielsen on just about everything, but there is a danger that others who don't have his great depth of experience and understanding will misunderstand and misapply some of his ideas.
BH: Definitely. If your web site has much content at all, a search engine is a very nice addition. It makes your site more attractive to people in that second group. Traditionally, the most common way to operate a search engine was by a computer program called a CGI script. Many of these are free, or in the public domain.
BH: It’s not something that can be learned in one week – although there are a couple of books indicating that you can learn something in 21 days. Even when a script is written for you and comes with instructions, it isn’t easy.
JL: The prospect of installing even a simple CGI script will be overwhelming for many, probably most lawyers. Search engines hosted off site are attractive for many law firms. Atom z and Picosearch are two of many that offer this feature.
DK: There are also some security questions that can arise with CGI scripts, so you will want to be careful. But, back to Atomz and Picosearch. I am a very satisfied user of Atomz. My site has a lot of content, so a search engine became necessary for me, just in terms of making the site usable. In fact, I think it was Jerry who first prompted me to get a search engine. For simple and small sites, Atomz has a free version. As you get bigger, there are pay options that give you more control and flexibility. In my case, Atomz "spiders" my site once a week to catch new content. I’ve pasted code supplied by Atomz onto my pages and, voila, I have a search box that searches only my site. When someone types in a search term, the search is run by Atomz and the search receives a results page only for my site. The search results page has a small logo for Atomz, but I don’t mind that.
BH: Placing a logo on your site for a free script is truly a small price to pay for all that programming, server space and functionality. It’s easily worth it from an economical perspective.
JL: I agree that it is a great trade-off for nearly all law firms, but I suspect that a few large firms with well-lined pockets will resist using ASP search engines that require such a link.
DK: Another feature of Atomz that I like is the monthly e-mail report that lists the most commonly used search terms. This information can help you improve navigation or refocus your site as you see patterns. As a side note, it will also show you some unusual searches that people are running. What are some other interactive features that make sense for law firms?
JL: Some law firms find online calendars to be useful. One of the better calendars uses a CGI scripts from Matt Kruse. It is easy to customize and install. Do you see any uses for a calendar on a law firm web site, Brenda?
BH: It depends on the size of the law firm, but a calendar is a good way to present a centralized schedule for all the attorneys. This way, you can take a look at the web calendar and see if everyone is free for a meeting without having to incur additional man-hours just to set up an appointment.
DK: If you can commit to using the calendar regularly, then, for certain lawyers and certain practices, the ability to do online scheduling of appointments and even setting up "online office hours" may work well. However, my suspicion is that for most firms the use of online calendars makes the most sense for handling firm seminars and registration and the like. On the other hand, if you have the tool, you often find reasons to use it.
JL: Greg Siskind makes very effective use of posting most of his calendar at the public Yahoo web site, where others in his firm and clients can access it.
Another nifty niche application is the Universal Currency Converter service. It is an ASP; all you do is build a link to the service, and it appears in a window at your site, as if it were your content. It is free. Robinson & Cole’s Businessvisalink.com site illustrates a good use for it.
BH: I’m a fan of iSyndicate.com’s program that delivers the current news or categorized content right to your site. You only have to make a few selections, copy their generated code and paste it onto your web page. The content appears in the area you’ve chosen and in the format you’ve chosen. They charge a monthly fee for some of their content, but there’s some excellent content that is still free.
DK: As I mentioned earlier, the Amazon Associates program is a great example of a third-party e-commerce feature. In simplest terms, you add a code to a hyperlink on your site to a book at Amazon.com. If someone clicks on that link and buys the book, or anything else in the same Amazon session, you get a percentage of the sale price. It’s easy and it’s transparent. Amazon also lets you use graphics and has other special features. It’s a great way to point people to useful books and earn money doing so.
JL: The Amazon Associates program is a great example. Unless you have a site that gets an extraordinary number of visitors, the revenue to the law firm will be insignificant. Well, why am I such a big fan of such programs? Two reasons:
- If well-executed, they make your site more attractive by adding value for clients, letting them know where they can go for more information.
- They send a subliminal message: Our lawyers are experts who know the best references.
DK: Good point. Another way to add some bells and whistles is by using the MS FrontPage software. It includes "idiot proof" search engines, discussion groups, and other features. Just remember that your web hosting provider must have FrontPage extensions installed and enabled. The FrontPage functions take the place of the scripts we talked about earlier and save you from programming.
JL: Some professional web site designers like to disparage FrontPage, and one of their favorite ways is to point out that there are many poorly designed pages created by using FrontPage. It’s true that there are many poorly designed FrontPage sites out there, but this is emphatically not because the tool is poor. FrontPage is so easy to use that it attracts many people who don’t have any idea what they are doing. They produce a lot of bad sights, and they are often recognizable as FrontPage sites, because the less-capable designers don’t know how to get away from the basic FrontPage templates. What is less obvious is that many good and excellent sites are produced with FrontPage. The ease with which FrontPage allows adding some key interactive features is one reason it is so attractive to many experienced designers, not just amateurs.
BH: Using the scripts provided with FrontPage is a good way to get started. Keep in mind that they are "canned" scripts and you really can’t personalize them. As long as you’re willing to have just the basics, then the FrontPage tools work well.
DK: You may have noticed lately that on more sites you are seeing great interactive features, newsfeeds and the like. The secret is that many of these are available from third parties and are easy to add to your site. They are great ways to improve the look and functionality of your site. Don’t go overboard and load up your pages with scripts, but a few well-chosen "bells and whistles" can greatly improve your site.
BH: My favorite place for a multitude of free scripts is Bravenet.com. You can get a chat room, bulletin board, newsletter sign up, stock ticker, search engine, etc. They have about 30 tools and all of them are free. All you do is cut and paste the code on your web page and the script runs on their server. If you want to pay $90/year, you can get all those tools and not have to have their logo on the tools. It’s a great deal and a good way for a non-programmer to dip their toes into the "scripting" waters. Of course, Dennis is right that too much is not a good thing.
JL: How do you tell what is "too much"? The best test is probably returning to the standard stated at the beginning of this discussion:
Are you adding substantive value for visitors to your web site?
As long as you are adding value, it’s hard to have "too much." On the other hand, if you are just adding flash for the sake of flash, even a little may be excessive.