Types of Websites: Choose Carefully
Some co-workers of mine went to a website usability session conducted by a director from the Mequoda Group and came back with some materials that I've been perusing. This material has some good descriptions of the types of websites that exist today that I've combined with my own observations in the following descriptions.
A membership website is one where all or some of the content is gated. To get passed the gate and access the content, a user must register and possibly pay a fee. This model is similar to subscriber-supported print magazines or newsletters. The fact that a membership site is user-supported doesn't preclude it from also seeking revenue from advertising. These sites are often thought of as being similar to a book, encyclopedia, or even a library of information. However, the online, always available nature coupled with frequent updates give the membership website a distinct advantage over its more traditional counterparts. A publisher with a large quantity of searchable an well-organized content is an excellent candidate for a membership website.
Membership sites are relatively expensive to build because of the infrastructure needed to support a large amount of content and the inter-connectedness of this content. However, once set up with a good content management system (CMS), they can become an excellent revenue opportunity for the site owner. The best ones include forums to help establish a loyal following that can communicate with like-minded people to share news and do research on topics of mutual interest. Even if you have a print product with similar material, users are often willing to pay for the ability to search archives.
This model of website is architecturally unique compared to other archetypes. However, despite having a unique structure, the commerce-based classified website is becoming more and more popular. This is actually becoming a problem for the traditional classified vendors i.e. newspapers. The bulk of the classified sites advertise jobs, real estate, or cars. In the usual model, the seller pays to list a product for sale or an available job. A less-common model is where the buyer or employer pays for listings.
Some classified sites such as Monster.com, are discovering alternative streams of income. For example, the online nature of such sites means that they may be able to collect and then sell user information e.g. resumes. These aspects of classified websites make them sponsor-driven and user-driven.
Directory sites are another variation of the classified archetype. The directory version is a list of resources, similar to yellow pages. Often, every company that qualifies receive a basic listing for free, but those that want an enhanced listing must pay a fee. However, these slight differences are transparent to a user.
Product Marketing Website
Product marketing websites feature either a single physical product or very small number of products which. As such, these types of websites are commerce-based and user-driven. Often, the products are CDs, DVDs, and books. In much the same way that direct mail operates, visitors to a single product marketing site is presented with a landing page where the pitch is made. Ideally, the user is converted to a sale through a single and simple order flow, without any distractions such as "browser more products".
Publishers often mistakenly build a catalog marketing site thinking that because they have multiple products to sell, they need to provide shopping cart functionality. This line of thinking leads to an overly complicated site that doesn't necessarily convert better. In fact, a single product marketing site can perform 29 to 50 percent better in terms of conversion rates.
Catalog Marketing Website
This model of site is much more complex than a single product marketing site. The advantage of such a site is that it offers multiple products or services for sale to a targeted group of users. Like the single product model, the catalog model is commerce-based and user-driven. It is, after all, where the idea of a shopping cart is most prevalent. While it shares some aspects of a print catalog or a brick-and-mortar business, catalog sites that sell information products (books, reports, periodicals, music, etc.) have a compelling competitive advantage in that they can allow shoppers to sample products at any time of day from the comfort of their home or offices.
In the case of a publisher, a catalog site may be overkill because visitors are not shopping for multiple products. Instead, they're likely shopping for one magazine, one book, or one report. However, other businesses such as Amazon.com have proven that this model can be extremely successful when a company deals with hundreds or thousands of products.
Lead Generation Website
A lead generation website is commerce-based, but information-rich. It's business model is fairly simple in that it earns revenue by generating leads for other businesses. The lead generation site attracts users who are interesting in buying a product (e.g. mortgage, insurance) and are willing to fill out a free online application with detailed, personal information. The application is then forwarded to a number of companies who each pay a finder's fee to the lead generation website owner.
Brand Building Website
A brand building site is content-based and sponsor-driven. It involves site visitors by telling them about the company's products. Media companies usually don't have brand-building websites. Such decisions might be short-sighted because a brand building website can build traffic which in turn can build brand loyalty through the use of things like newsletters.
Although products are rarely sold on brand building websites, there is no reason that they can't direct users to retail stores and catalogs be they online or offline.
Brochure sites are very common. Their purpose is to act as an extension to a company's sales and marketing efforts. They usually "don't do anything" other than provide information to prospective buyers or clients with the hope that the company will be contacted by e-mail or phone for more information. In my case, this site is an extension of my ongoing efforts to sell my custom software development services. On this site I include copies of my resume, samples of my work, and descriptions of some software tools I have created, but, as with all brochure sites, this site "doesn't do anything".
E-commerce sites are those whose primary purpose is to sell you goods. One of the most widely recognized sites in this category is Amazon.com. These sites are often the most expensive to build, but can also be the most lucrative for the owner. Those with small budgets can opt for a pre-packaged e-commerce solution such as those offered by Amazon.com and Yahoo.com, but these often fail to distinguish your company from the 100 other companies selling the same product. I'm clearly biased, but in my opinion you're better off having some custom software development done to meet your business' specific needs.
Visitors to e-commerce sites often know what it is they want and so it behooves the e-commerce site to help them find it. At the same time these sites want to show you information about other products (referred to as up-selling and cross-selling) so that you'll spend more money. Because of this need to show you what you're looking for while at the same time sell you related items, e-commerce site employ some of the most sophisticate search engine technology available. Don't believe me? Next time you have a chance visit Amazon.com. Search for anything you want. The search engine will almost always find something that matches. If you've ever searched for or bought anything at Amazon.com you've probably also noticed that related products keep showing up on the screen. That's the search engine at work.
Web communities come in all sizes, but in all cases they bring together people that share a common interest. I'm part of several software development communities. Years ago when I owned an aquarium, I visited aquarium related websites for information and tips on how best to care for my fish. Sometimes web communities are run by people who are also looking to sell products or services. However, if the community doesn't contain useful and timely information, then any sales pitches will be likely fall on deaf ears. Tricking people in to buying something might work once or twice, but it's more effective to build trust and provide value.
Portals, as the name implies, act as gateways to information from various sources. The goal behind a portal is provide relevant information to user's without requiring the user to spend a lot of time searching. Ideally the information gathered is tailored to the visitor.
An example of this type of site is a corporate intranet portal which brings together documents and resources from many departments within the company. This can be particularly helpful when a company has many offices around the country or world. Employees of the company are then able to search for company related information that other employees have published. This information can be simple things like a phone directory or more sensitive information such as market research reports. A good example of a public portal is Yahoo.com although some might argue that in recent years Yahoo has grown beyond just being a portal.
Search engines are probably the single most useful tool on the Internet. Without them it would be next to impossible to find anything. By many accounts, the best search engine is Google.com. With a few clicks you can usually find answers to questions or, at the very least, a good starting point for where to look. Chances are you won't build a search engine, but it is important to know about them and understand how they work. Businesses should be particularly concerned with the details of how search engines work since they can be used as an inexpensive advertising tool.
The architecture of a hybrid website is much more complicated than any of the single archetype models. It is possible to build a good hybrid website if it is limited to not more than two or three archetypes. Combining four, five, or size models in to one interface will make website navigation too difficult for the users.
When a hybrid site combines both free and paid content in a single interface, it is important to have a clear delineation between the two models. Otherwise, it will be confusing to the user and is likely to generate consistently high levels of complaints.
So Now What?
There you have it. Most websites fall in to one of these five categories. Do you know what kind of website you want? Read How to Build a Website for a high-level look at building a website.