21 Ways Websites Communicate with Visitors

One of the most important responsibilities of a website is to communicate with its visitors. Regardless of whether the site is a blog, a portfolio site, a corporate site, or an e-commerce site, it exists to communicate with visitors.

The communication in some cases is two ways (blog comments are an example), but in many ways the website is communicating to visitors before they even offer their feedback. In order for the site to communicate effectively the designer and site owner need to clear purpose of what messages should be evident to visitors.

In my opinion, improving the communication is an ongoing process. As I evaluate my own sites, or those of clients, these are some of the factors that I consider.

1. Headlines

The headline is an obvious starting point for the subject of communicating with visitors and readers. Headlines should tell readers what they’ll find on the page or the article if they continue, and they should be drawn in to the content as a result of the headline.

Regardless of whether the website is a blog, a portfolio site, an e-commerce site, or any other type of website, the heading is a key component of online communication with visitors. The quality of a headline can have an incredible impact on how many people continue on to read the content, but many of us don’t give headlines the attention they deserve.

2. Sub Headers

One of the keys to effective communication online is breaking up the text in order to make it more readable. One of the ways to improve readability and to make content more user-friendly is to include sub headers. Readers will have an easier time with quickly grasping the nature of the content, as well as seeing how it is structured.

Most bloggers have become accustomed to using sub headers, but they can be used in other situations as well. Any time there is a sizable chuck of content that’s broken up into paragraphs or lists, there are probably opportunities to improve the readability by using sub headers. When using sub headers, use them in a way that will essentially outline the content and create interest in particular sections.


3. Text on Page (Content)

The text on a page is obviously one of the major forms of communicating with visitors. Copywriters pay great attention to the details of wording, but many websites don’t do an effective job with text. The amount of text and the general approach will vary greatly from one type of website to another. For example, a blog, like this one, will include a great deal of text and this will be the main form of communication with readers. On the other hand, an e-commerce site will have a small amount of text with the primary purpose of communicating details about the product to visitors. The content needs to be descriptive enough that it will help to make sales, but too much content could discourage or hinder sales.

4. Taglines

Not all websites use taglines, but some do so very effectively. A good tagline will be short, descriptive and memorable. It needs to quickly communicate something about the company, the product or services. Taglines are great for branding purposes and for helping to control the impression that is given to visitors.

5. Branding/Logo

Some websites will include a well-known and recognized company logo, but many will not. Regardless of whether a website is using a professionally designed logo or simply some text for the title of the site, there is a message being communicated in terms of branding.

Why are companies willing to pay a lot of money for a quality logo? Because a well-designed logo will help the company to communicate something basic with customers, something that helps to determine how people view the brand.

6. Colors

Color schemes are a critical aspect of web design, not just because they impact how a website looks, but also because the colors are capable of communicating subtle messages to visitors. In certain cultures colors have very clear meanings and representations, but in others there are often more subtle impacts on readers and visitors (see Find the Perfect Colors for Your Website).

7. Images

We all know the saying “a picture is worth 1,000 words,” and it certainly can be applicable to web design. With the impatience of the average website visitor, interesting images can help to retain some attention, not to mention that images can simply improve the overall appearance of the website.

When working with images in web design sometimes you’ll be faced with the choice of using photos provided by the client or using more professional photos, such as those purchased at a stock photography site like iStockphoto. It’s important to think about the purpose of the image and what it needs to communicate with visitors, because there is a time for using each.

For example, if you’re designing a church website you may want to use a professional photo for major areas of the homepage, but you’ll probably want to use actual photos from the church for the majority of the images on the site (such as photos of specific events within the church) because these photos help to communicate who the church truly is.

8. Page Title

Page titles are not only important for SEO purposes, but also for communication with your visitors. While visitors are on your site they’re likely to pay more attention to the headers within the pages, as opposed to checking the top of their browser to see the page total. However, many visitors will be coming from search engines and page titles play a critical role in communicating the contents of the page with searchers.

In addition to search engine visitors, those who come to your site through links from other sites are also likely to be impacted by page titles. In many cases the other sites that are linking to you will use the page title in the anchor text, which communicates what the page is about to those who may consider clicking on the link.

9. Layout

A website’s layout is important for a number of reasons, and communication is just one of them. The layout can communicate by showing visitors what parts of the site or the content are the most important. Typically the site will be laid out so that the most important content will be given the most attention. This shows visitors what you want them to see the most. (See 20 Websites with Unique Layouts.)

10. Style of Design

Of course, there are any number of different styles of design, and the chosen style can communicate certain messages with visitors. Some styles create certain impressions with many visitors, and this can help or hurt the overall communication of your site depending on the impression being given.

For some examples, see 25 Incredibly Artistic Websites. The sites featured in this mini gallery are all sending a message to visitors based on the level of creativity in the design of the site. You’ll notice that many of the sites featured are portfolios of designers or are somehow design related. Obviously by showing creativity in this way a designer can show potential clients that they are skilled in creating unique and attractive websites, so the style is helpful in terms of communication.

11. Icons

Many websites and blogs make use of icons. These icons aren’t being used strictly to improve the look of the site. They’re also intended to communicate something quickly to readers. For example, the standard RSS icons used by blogs immediately tells visitors that they can subscribe to get updates. A home icon is also common for navigational purposes.

12. Navigation

The links that are provided and where they are placed can also communicate to visitors which pages are important and where you want them to go. Typically, the most important pages are going to be included in the main navigation of the website, and other pages may be linked within the content of the page or in a sidebar or footer.

Web designers have a great deal of influence on which content is emphasized because of the impacts of the navigational scheme. Be sure that the most important parts of the site are easy to find and can be accessed quickly from just about anywhere on the site.

13. Video

Online videos have obviously become far more common in recent years, and this trend seems certain to continue. Video provides an excellent opportunity to communicate with visitors. Videos can be used for entertainment, blogging, product demonstrations, and more.

With video communications can sometimes be a bit easier. You can have a greater level of certainty that the messages is going to be communicated and received as it’s intended. Sometimes with text the communication can be limited, or it could be interpreted in different ways.

14. Audio

In addition to video, audio is another form of adding media to a website for communication purposes. Sometimes audio can help, and sometimes it can hurt. In general, audio that starts playing without being prompted by the visitor will be seen as annoying an obtrusive.

15. Ads

Advertisements are typically an accepted part of websites today. However, the products and services being advertised will send messages to visitors in terms of the content of your website, how you view your visitors, and what is really important to you.

Most website owners wouldn’t want ads for Viagra on their website, because it could send a message to visitors that is not intended. If the ads on a site are relevant to visitors they’ll feel more at home, even if they’re not interested in clicking through or buying anything, because they’ll feel like they are the intended audience of your site.

Ads can also communicate based on where they’re located. Personally, I’m not a big fan of ads within the content of a site because I get the impression that the ad is more important to the website owner than the content and the reader’s experience with that content.

16. FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions pages are used by many websites because they can improve communication with visitors who often have the same types of questions. Rather than letting those questions go unasked and unanswered and rather than requiring a personal response to common questions, the FAQ page can be a helpful and convenient way to get visitor’s questions answered.

17. Ease of Contact

Some website visitors are going to want to contact the owner for one reason or another. How easy or how hard is it for the visitor to find a way to contact them? If you have a contact form that’s easily accessible from any page you’ll give the message to visitors that you encourage their input and that you are interested in their thoughts and opinions. On the other hand, a website that has no contact information, of contact info that’s buried somewhere and difficult to find, will indicate to visitors that the owner does not care what they have to say and does not want to be bothered.

18. Testimonials

Testimonials are used extensively in sales letter websites as well as on sites of service providers. A statement from a happy customer can be a powerful way of communicating to visitors. Rather than just presenting the message yourself, you’re letting someone else build you up, which can be more credible than your own statements.

19. Outbound Links

The websites and pages that you’re linking to throughout a website can tell visitors what your website is about and what is important to you. You’re not going to provide outbound links unless they add some type of value to your site and visitors, so the items that you’re linking to can tell visitors a lot about your website.

Because of the message that’s being sent to visitors, be sure that you’re careful with the sites that you’re linking to. Linking to “bad neighborhoods” can be bad for SEO purposes, but it can also damage your image in the eyes of visitors.

20. Meta Descriptions

The meta description tag doesn’t really communicate anything to visitors when they are on your site, but it can communicate an important message to searchers as they are trying to find something specific. Many search engines use the description on the SERPs, so it is an opportunity to tell people what the page is about before they even visit, and it can help to improve your CTR from the SERPs.

21. Accessibility

If a website is inaccessible to someone, it gives them the impression that they are not considered important by the company or the creators of the website. If they were important they would be able to access the site. Be sure that you consider the potential impacts of inaccessibility if your considering a design or a site that will not be accessible to a certain audience.

What Else?

Feel free to add your own thoughts on the subject of websites and communication.

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40 Responses

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  • Brandon Cox, November 6, 2008

    This is a very comprehensive and thought-provoking list. I’ve passed the link on in hopes that people will realize the scope of thought required for a quality online presence. There are a lot of bases to cover!

  • rosie, November 6, 2008

    Brandon is right. This article must go viral. I am going to share it also.I get concerned about broken links on a site. When it happens on one of my sites I am thankful when someone lets me know. But usually it is because I was rushing and did not take the needed time to make sure the post was working. Hence, if I see a lot of broken links on a site it communicates that same kind of hasty approach.
    In addition I think that the TONE of the site should be evaluated. It radiates a culture in the tone that can include or exclude visitors.

  • David Shaw, November 6, 2008

    Nice list mate.

    Very complete!

  • Vandelay Design, November 6, 2008

    Rosie,
    Nice additions, thank you.

  • Ben Requena, November 6, 2008

    You might also consider adding “Alt text” and “Error pages/handling”. (1¢ a piece)

  • Andy Press, November 6, 2008

    To me the most important aspect of communication comes in the first five seconds of a visitor coming to your site.

    Make sure they know within that timespan just what your site is about.

    Now if you have say a more abstract site, such as a arts-based endeavor, then this doesn’t matter so much…

    But for the rest a couple sentences above the fold are a must for good communication

  • leslie, November 6, 2008

    I second “Tone” as suggested by Rosie. Especially with the online culture becoming more and more casual, many popular sites (twitter, google) try to be witty and unique with their status messages. Sometimes this is humorous, however sometimes this can come off as unprofessional or even condescending (a message asking the user to upgrade to IE7/FF3 because it is time to stop living in the past). Wording really needs to be analyzed.

  • Nature's Sunshine Girl, November 6, 2008

    I always think of my websites as plants. I nurture each one with a different approach because I believe that each one has different needs. I cannot hasten their growth but I can ensure my rewards for careful maintenance in the form of fruits and flowers. The rewards that I get from taking extra care for my websites are stability and good traffic. Thanks for identifying each steps on how to take care of websites. I’ll surely share this link. :)

  • Rebecca, November 7, 2008

    Excellent list! This is one to print out and post on the bulletin board.

  • viil, November 7, 2008

    Good list!
    I would add language… not only language in the context of national languages, but language in the sense of the terminology used by the intended users of the website. If its targeting young people you can use certain expressions and even grammar that would not work if you are targeting more mature users. The same goes for the expected level of tech skills, etc.

  • Danh ba web 2.0, November 8, 2008

    Great post. Thanks you very much !

  • Dainis Graveris, November 9, 2008

    I cannot agree more, really good written post.

  • Melissa Donovan, November 9, 2008

    I think there are a few widgets and plugins that can help improve communications (recent comments comes to mind), but I’d say you’ve covered just about everything here. Very comprehensive :)

  • Marketing Professional, November 10, 2008

    I appreciate the way you took the time to break down all the relevant components to illustrate your understanding of the subject. Very nice article.

  • New Website owner, November 12, 2008

    Good information for me. Thanks.

  • Michael Aulia, November 14, 2008

    Well, basically, every single thing “happening” on your site/blog communicates to your readers. Styles, contents, layouts, designs, logos, etc

    and you did mention about comments (commenting/replying to your reader helps a lot too)

  • Shane Sheibani, November 14, 2008

    One thing that you mentioned is true to an extreme, and that is the importance of the right colors in your website.
    I saw one that stood out called purple wren
    Robin’s wordless wednesday
    The coloring was very easy on the eyes, and the site was very well designed (pretty) the effect was that you wanted to read everything on that site, and even comment!

  • Pokin, November 14, 2008

    Just stumbled on this site today. Great thought provoking list of items to consider. It’s funny how small details can make a big difference on the impression that is made. Since you mention a FAQ, I’d also say an About Page is also a communication point. If I want to know more about a site, that’s usually where I go.

  • Jenny, November 22, 2008

    Awesome list. I think every webmaster should see this, and try to apply it. I know that Im going to!

  • guitar teacher, November 24, 2008

    we’ve started adding video to our site and have seen an immediate increase in traffic.

    It takes time to video, edit and post, but it is worth it!

  • Online Videos Producer, June 7, 2009

    WOW! Excellent list. Thank you for posting this. Also, I would like to add that it is now becoming more important to fully validate your html and xhtml web site pages. Why? Because having fully validated html and/or xhtml pages is now becoming even more significant with Google’s recent embrace of html 5. And if any of your site’s pages or not fully valid, then they could generate parsing errors and the bots will skip that page altogether, leaving your new page out of the index. We have tested this and, believe me full page and full site html/xhtml validation is very important these days. Thank you again for your above post.

  • Mike Grace, January 20, 2010

    Some websites are really communicating with their customers across the web on many domains that aren’t their own using Kynetx. http://www.kynetx.com/

  • toni birdsong, January 20, 2010

    Good stuff. Now if our clients just understood the depth and scope of a “simple” site they needed yesterday! :-)

  • Cliff Tyllick, January 23, 2010

    Great list! In fact, I’m going to make items 1 through 3 required reading for the bloggers on my website.

    I would add to what you’ve said about FAQs: These truly should be questions from real people, and they should be so frequently asked that it makes sense to give people answers right away. Too often, an FAQ page becomes an unending list of questions following someone’s rambling presentation of the site’s content.

    Organize your FAQs by topic. Add subheads to show that organization. And make the answers short. In other words, give the take-home answer on your FAQ page and link to the corresponding content elsewhere on your site for the full details.

    If you do that, your FAQ page will not only serve your customers better; it will also improve your site’s ranking with search engines.

  • Website Design Bristol, March 18, 2010

    the site has to have a purpose, to lead the visitor through to then take some form of action, purchase, make contact, leave their name and email etc .
    great list

  • Sara, June 19, 2010

    I like the new tool bars they have that display at the bottom

  • Jennifer Mahler, June 25, 2010

    Great List. Packed with excellent advice and know-how! This article should be read by all webbies.

  • Judy Hill, August 3, 2012

    I am a freelance copywriter and I enjoyed reading your article. I agree with everything you said…but may I add that I don’t think editing, spelling, grammar or other careless errors should take a back seat when creating a website. I know you would agree.

    I have seen a lot of copywriting errors on websites lately…and I know they’re easy to make…but I think it’s crucial they are found before you make them a part of your website…especially if you’re a copywriter yourself.

    Not to be a smart aleck, but I found one error in the second paragraph of your article. It starts out…”In order for the site to communicate effectively…the designer and site owner need “a” clear purpose…not “to clear purpose”…I know this was an oversight because that was the only error I found. Woops…I saw one under the “Audio” paragraph.

    Thought you might want to know:)

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