NB: This is a guest post by David Soskin, former chief executive and now non-executive director of Cheapflights Media, and author of Net Profit: How to Succeed in Digital Business.
Running a web business can be very different to running a "real world" company. I should know. Back in the '80s, I spent six years working for a building products company.
It was very well managed and highly profitable - but the competitive landscape for bricks and aggregates does not change on an almost daily basis.
So not like internet travel. Nor is a website really critical to the success of a building products company - probably important, but not critical.
In stark contrast, for any travel internet startup, first consideration goes to the product - the website.
Cheapflights' websites will receive about 100 million visits this year. That has not happened by accident. Good website design is at the core of Cheapflights success. Ever since the company was founded in 1996, it has always taken website design very seriously.
I can offer ten top tips on website design which should have resonance for everyone thinking about an internet travel startup...
1. Make searching easy.
Searching should be as easy as possible for users, presenting clear user paths labelled with clear use of the language.
2. Ensure your pages are visually appealing.
Keep them simple and well-structured. Being flashy on the internet got old really fast. Make it easy for users to scan your pages very quickly.
3. Give every page a single purpose and focus.
Understand what that is and what you require that page to do.
4. Optimize your download times.
Users are getting more and more demanding. Websites are getting faster. Users don’t like to wait anymore and the likelihood is that they won’t!
5. Optimize for search engines.
But do this in a smart way that works for the users. Most websites understand the need to create ‘search engine- friendly’ pages (to attract the traffic that companies like Google, Bing and Yahoo! can send them). But don’t look spammy - really there is no need.
6. Spend time thinking through the navigation of the site.
You need to put yourself in the mindset of your user. Also, user test it: ask family and friends if they can complete certain tasks. Do include digital neophytes.
Remember the Aunt Agatha Test - Aunt Agatha has never heard of Eric Schmidt or Jeff Bezos but she does like her new computer.
7. Write for the web.
You should use short paragraphs and write to the point.
8. Make sure your website works in all browsers.
Consider users trying to access it from small screens like iphones.
9. Watch carefully what your users are doing.
Make websites changes based on facts, not gut feeling and personal choice! Website analysis is critical.
10. Place accessibility at the heart of website design.
Take into consideration the visually-impaired, users with motor impairments and those with reading difficulties.
I would add an eleventh rule: Make the home page as simple as possible.
Never, ever present a homepage with a tiresome over-complex design involving animation with the legend "Skip the intro". If you can skip the intro, you should abandon it altogether.
The commercial internet is not even 20 years old but the opportunities, especially in the travel sector, have never been greater. But unless the design is at your core, even the best business plan and the smartest team will fail.
NB: This is a guest post by David Soskin, former chief executive and now non-executive director of Cheapflights Media, and author of Net Profit: How to Succeed in Digital Business. The book is published by Wiley & Sons in September 2010. Buy the book.