Your Company's Information on the Web

On the most basic level, you must decide what information you should publish about your company on the Web. That is to say, you must discover what information your customers expect you to publish on the Web, and what is most important to them.

First Step: The FAQ

The first step to internet publishing is to create an FAQ - a collection of frequently asked questions. In need not ultimately be published in question-and-answer format, but it should be used as a guide to indicate what information you should publish, in whatever format you choose.

The traditional FAQ was developed for the Internet as a primer to preempt new participants asking elementary questions by providing the answers in advance. In much the same way, developing an FAQ for your company helps you to be proactive in providing the information your customers want.

Again, it's information "your customers want," not what you may wish to tell them - hence, a FAQ that is created internally is seldom of much use to the customer. Instead, you will need to conduct research - whether it is formal market research, or merely scheduling a time to sit with your phone service reps to discover what questions the customer is asking most frequently.

You must also consider the roles of the customers: there will be a different set of questions for a person who's never heard of your product, one who does know of it but wants top know how you compare to your competitors, one who wants to order the product, and one who has already ordered the product.

Aside of customers, you may wish to consider other audiences: what questions would be asked by a supplier? A journalist? A legislator? A prospective employee? All of these audiences will visit your site - and while serving their needs is less important than serving your customers, they should also be considered.

The author provides some tips for developing an actual FAQ page, which is often a good start for companies that have no Web presence at all and are just putting together the basic information.

I'm skipping that, as it's far too primitive (and largely driven by common sense).

Next Step: Search

The author suggests search as being requisite to all Web sites of a "sizable" Web site. I'm going to skip over that, as it's generally accepted that search is a navigation of last recourse.

Search is only needed if a Web site is so poorly designed that a user cannot find the information they want via the site navigation - and in those cases, Web site searches tend to be put together with just as much (or more aptly, as little) consideration of the user as the navigation was, and suck just as badly.

The Truth, But Not The Whole Truth

The author offers a little more bad advice: he suggests that you do not want to publish unflattering information about your company - that there are other sites that will criticize your company, and your own should be universally positive.

This has proven to be a bad practice: a company that ties to sweep bad news under the rug and pretend it does not exist appears to be dishonest. And users who are searching for controversies will find those "other sites" where your critics tell their side of the story (and you have no input).

The better approach is to be straightforward and honest, especially when information is unflattering. Admit your sins and shortcomings, and do what you can to make amends (or at least tell your side of the story), and do all of this in plain sight, on your own Web site.

Setting Expectations

In some instances, customers may be less than delighted with your best possible solution - you simply cannot avoid it - and it has been found that the best method for addressing this problem is to level-set with your customers.

The example given is the hours of operation for a retail store: if a company does not publish its hours, customers will drop by when the store is closed and be disappointed. If the hours are published, a customer will know in advance that you're not open at two in the morning. The disappointment they might feel at this is a great deal less poignant than if they had shown up in person and found the shop closed.

The same principle applies when merchandise is on back-order, when there's a backlog of custom orders and it will take longer than usual to deliver, etc.

Regarding your Web site, level-set with customers about performance. Tell them that they are on step two of a four-step ordering process. Tell them that it will take a while for a video to load. Give them a sense of how many "clicks" they are away from information deeper in your site.

When the news is bad, mitigate as much as possible - but remain honest and open.