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Appeared in Architecture, Business and Economics magazine. (And the information herein is very dated.)

Is Your Firm’s Website Helping You or Hurting You?

by Stephen Morrill

Having an office website is almost a necessity these days. An office website is one of the best marketing show-and-tell tools an architect can have. It is available to existing and potential clients 24/7. And it always presents the office’s best features. An architect can place certain project pictures and notes on his or her office website and save the time and money it takes to print, package, and mail these documents to the 20 project participants who need them. Many people expect you to have a website just as they expect you to have a fax, email address and cell phone. You can create an attractive website yourself for free and keep it going with no monthly or yearly fees. Or you can pay a website designer to create and maintain your website, pay monthly fees for a hosting company, and pay yearly fees for a custom website name.

A website can increase sales and get your name before the public in a cost-effective way. But while this is relatively inexpensive advertising, there are hidden expenses, rules to follow, and traps to avoid. Architectural websites are not always effective. The best way to avoid website pitfalls is to develop your website properly and be an informed consumer.

Domain names and registration

It is helpful to have a catchy domain name. That’s the “http//www….” thing we know as a website address or URL (universal resource locator). It is best to have your own and try not to have one hosted by Yahoo or Geocites. Those websites are often viewed as better for personal use, not businesses.

Getting an original architectural related domain name is like winning the lottery. Any combination of “architect” is taken, rest assured. But your company name is probably not taken. If it is, you have a big problem to discuss with a lawyer.

Domain registration is easy. You type in a name and the system tells you if it’s taken. If it’s not taken, you may buy it. After you buy it you then have a short time to start using it, by hosting the website somewhere. All domains are administered by InterNic, and nearly 100 companies, called registrars, are licensed to register domains with InterNic. Because you are a commercial architectural practice, you probably want a “.com” name, but there is no law against reserving the .org, or .net or even some of the newer extensions such as .biz. Each will require at least one hosting page and you will have to pay for those, but those do not cost much and you can refer visitors from those pages to your website. This is a common trick used to deny other companies the chance to set up a website with a name confusingly similar to your own website’s name.

Avoid “license-plate” names or email addresses that have combinations of letters, numbers, hyphens, etc., (for example 2GR8Hites.com) that average people have trouble remembering or typing in correctly. Be as mnemonic as possible to make it easy.

Search Engines

Do not expect your phone to start ringing off the hook after you post your new website. It may take some time, weeks or even months, for all the popular search engines to list your website. Search engine “spiders” browse the Internet constantly, looking for new websites. Your website will be listed automatically with some search engines. All you have to do is wait. You can speed up the process by filling out a form at each search engine website. Every time someone connects to your website it is considered a hit. While most search engines companies are free, try to avoid companies that will charge you per hit to list your website.

Try to avoid seemingly helpful people on the Internet whose help can be disastrous. They offer to list your website on 200 search engines for a low fee. They do what they say, but most of those websites are places that list email addresses and then sell the lists. You will then be swamped by "spam" (junk email) shortly after your deal.

Even when properly listed on search engines, your website is only part of your overall advertising plan. Add your website address to your business stationery and business cards; refer to it when you can. It’s already made. But none of that will work if you create a website people cannot reach or use. Let’s look at how a website is built.

A website consists of "pages" that contain navigation buttons or links, frames, text, images and links to other pages. The index or “home” page is usually the opening page on your website. Users might actually come into the site by way of inside pages, and we will address this in a moment.

Your hosting company can set up email boxes for you — as many as you wish, so that your email address and your URL look similar.


Understand that no website will look good all the time to everyone. The more fanciful the page, the greater the potential for viewer problems. There are three popular Internet browsers today: AOL (America Online), Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and Netscape’s Navigator. Here are statistics from one website, showing the web browser programs used by visitors. It is typical:

MS Internet Explorer - 67.8%
Netscape Navigator - 12.9%
AOL - 17.3%
All others, less than two percent.

Each browser displays your website a little differently, usually displaying different borders and some spacing. Do not assume that because your website looks good on your computer that it looks good elsewhere. Use different browsers yourself to check. Never miss the opportunity to look at your website on your friends' computers. A related issue is the version number of the browsers. Older machines run older versions that may not display your overly complex website well. Plan on making a website that can be read by browsers two or three versions old. Both of the most popular website page creation programs will help you to determine the backwards-compatibility of your material.

Who will host the website?

You may host your website yourself if you know enough about computers and servers, and if you have the needed high-speed Internet access. Most small companies hire a hosting site. Look for a company with a server that places no limit on your storage with them, that has good security, both physical and virtual, seems likely to be around in six months, and that has an eager and cheerful staff a phone call away.

Be sure to ask about their Internet access. Is it via T-1 lines? Cable? DSL? The T-1 lines are best. Becoming more available, they are "large-bore" and can handle tremendous traffic loads. If you host your own website, it’s okay to have cable or DSL because you will be receiving traffic only for your website. But forget about hosting a website with a standard dial-up modem running at 56k. Experienced and inexperienced Internet users will not typically wait on servers using dial-up modems.

A serious hosting site will have levels of service, and a moderate commercial level is usually sufficient. Your website will not receive many visitors compared to some, and your uploads and downloads will be small compared to others. But your statistics can be good, comparatively, to other architecture websites depending on how you market and use your website.

Who will maintain the site?

One reason to learn the webpage programs is to keep maintenance in-house. Your website will need to be updated from time to time, perhaps often. This will be costly if you pay an outside designer to do it.

Website Design

Your website designer or hosting company may be able to help you with the domain name registration and website hosting creating a package deal for your convenience. But that is only the easy part. You still have a website to build.

Architectural firms do not sell goods or services to credit card customers, so the "shopping cart" systems are pointless for us. What you want to do is show off some of your past work and tell potential clients how to begin a dialogue with your firm. "Soft" or "positional" advertising means putting your firms name on every page of your website to help you keep your name in the potential client’s mind. Also, make sure you list important information like where you are located and what you consider your firmís specialty areas of design. If you are not doing at least this much, you could be hurting your chances at acquiring potential new clients.

Look at some websites, architectural or not, to get a feel for what you can do. We have seen websites that cost tens of thousands of dollars to design. Others cost no more than a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. We cannot see any obvious correlation between money spent and result gained, and the old adage about hiring a high-school techno-geek to do it remains as valid as anything. You may even do it yourself if you are willing to learn how.

Sketch on paper some rough diagrams of what webpages you will have and how the webpages will link to one another. Remember that your website can link to other websites too. Get this sitemap laid out before you start the serious work. This is your schematic drawing, so to speak. If you give this to a website designer and later want something different, you are creating change orders. You don’t need to be warned about change orders.

Websites are flexible and essentially bottomless, but you need to make your major sales pitch on that first page. Links from there can lead potential clients to more pages. Tempting as it may be to list the firm’s staff or toss in meaningless phrases like "We specialize in quality work," (as if anyone would say otherwise), cut to the chase. Your home page or index page introduces your main selling points and titillates the viewer to click on some of the links. While vertical scrolling is okay, it's still best to have your main points, or at least links to them, visible on the top of that first page.

A special problem that architects may not understand is screen resolution. Most architects have large screens and can run AutoCAD on 19-inch or 21-inch screens at high-resolution. You may also have your screen set to display 1280 x 1024 pixels, or even 1600 x 1200 pixels. Few potential clients have these expensive monitors. If you create a website that fills your screen, all they will see is a postage-stamp portion of the site. On websites, scrolling up and down is okay. People are accustomed to that. But making your website scroll side to side is not acceptable. You may reset your resolution to a lower number to check on your website. A resolution problem can drive away website visitors and potential clients. You should size your webpages to the 800 x 600 resolution. Here are some statistics of a typical monitor-resolution of a website visitor:

640x480 pixels - 6.5%
800x600 pixels - 53.7%
1024x768 pixels - 27.0%
1280x1024 pixels - 5.4%
All others - less than 8% percent.

The main advantage of designing the website yourself, or at least being a part of that process, is that you can learn how to change things at need, without paying someone to do it for you and waiting for them to have time to do it.

The most common design programs are Microsoft FrontPage (PC and Mac) and Dreamweaver (PC and Mac). There is a learning curve, to be sure, but not as much as you might think. These programs eliminate the need for you to learn the HTML coding used to create the webpages. You point and click and the programs generate the code. You will learn some code along the way, and can actually change things once you know how.

Using a Website Designer

Discuss this with your website designer and look at a lot of examples online. You will be discussing frames, colors, how many, if any, graphics to display and how to display those. This is not the place to discuss these in detail but plan to spend some time, over several meetings if necessary, with the website designer.

Technically, a website designer creates the basic pages while a website developer adds in more complex functions, known as "back-ends." One person may do both, and architectural-firm websites will have only limited need for complex back-ends. Here’s a link to a full discussion of this.

(Note: link removed as it no longer works. Another good reason to be able to maintain your own web sites.)

Keep a tight rein on the website designer. Website designers, who habitually use the latest high-speed equipment, are happy to create whiz-bang websites. But you do not want whiz-bang. You want a speedy-loading and to-the-point website. Photos take time to load. Music and bouncing or flashing graphics are pushing the limits of both taste and viewer patience. It’s okay to have photos or drawings, but put them on a secondary page and link to it. Don’t make the viewer plow through slow-loading pages to read the important points you are trying to make.

Remember this: You have perhaps twenty seconds to convince the viewer not to click the mouse button and vanish from your life. If that user has a DSL or cable modem, make that five seconds. To a user with the standard 56k telephone modem, twenty seconds is a lifetime to wait for a screen full of pretty photos to load. High-speed access loads your website faster but the viewer has higher expectations too. We have seen architectural webpages that took more than two minutes to load on a 56k modem. And when the home page only has photos and links to other pages that each take two minutes to load, someone has possibly wasted money on their website and it's hurting them.

Put up a website that shows what you can do, tell the viewer how to reach you for more information, make that website accessible to the vast majority of viewers, and don't expect them to be patient. Do all that and your website can be an important part of your advertising and operational mix.

- end -



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