I started my first full-time job right out of college in May 2000. I landed a position with a local web development company. It was awesome! Web design/development was a new industry and the company was made up of a bunch of early 20-somethings who were eager to make their mark and to have some fun along the way. Days were a mix of meetings with some of the biggest and best companies in town combined with periodic team breaks to play QUAKE or a game of 500 in the back parking lot.
It was a close-knit team and since the industry was relatively new, we were all just figuring it out together. There wasn’t a playbook to follow - we were blazing our own trail.
Back then, there were no content management systems so all content updates needed to go through our team. Believe it or not, we had a fax machine that clients would use to send us printed pages of the website, complete with handwritten notes of changes that they wanted our team to make. We’d book it into our schedule and then send them a bill for our time.
Testing meant making sure that the website worked well in IE (Internet Explorer) and Netscape. That’s right, Netscape.
Pretty much every client we were working with was building the first ever website for their business. Most of the strategy revolved around coming up with a great design and then figuring out how to get our hands on the content that was on their printed brochures and marketing materials. Then we had to make that content flow within a website.
Design was a big differentiator. Sites didn’t prove their worth by providing great content, so they tried to do it by being the most creative. In those days, the designers called most of the shots. I can still remember sitting in planning meetings creating these fancy, drawn-out flash intros. Remember those? Can you even imagine making a modern user watch a 30 second animated Flash intro – and making them download a plugin first? Not only did we do it – but we thought it was awesome!
For companies that could afford to spend a little more money, we developed a proprietary tool that would allow them to update the content in a specific section of the website. No images, no links . . . but they could magically update text on the website without sending in a fax. It became a joke in every team brainstorm - every client needed a "what’s new" updater.
As far as finding those sites we built, search engines existed but they were nothing like they are today. Make sure you have some keywords added to the site and you are golden - that was our motto. I still remember the day that one of our young developers figured out a way to embed 1,000 keywords within a period on a page. We made the period the same color as the background of the website and nobody was any the wiser. It was gold. (Note – that was a long time ago, you don’t want to try this now.)
Fast forward a few years and content management systems arrived on the scene. They were a game changer. They were the "what’s new" updater on steroids. It really was the best of both worlds. Our team could focus on creating a great design and providing a sound structure for the website and our client could now take control of the day-to-day maintenance of the website.
By now, many companies were now building their second generation websites and able to take the lessons learned (good and bad) from the first website and combine it with the advances in technology. Clients could now plan and make changes to their schedule. No more sending a fax and waiting to see where it fell on the schedule.
Like all things, it was a blessing and a curse. Many clients didn’t know what to do with this new found freedom. Having been locked out of the back end in the past, they now wanted control over everything. With great power comes great responsibility, and some clients just weren’t ready to handle it. Remember visiting sites that had every other word in a different color, bold, underlined? You know, so it stands out.
The advent of content management systems also opened up the world of needing to help users find ways to crop and resize images because the CMS would display images at whatever size (dimension) each image was when it was uploaded. So, third-party image editing software was often needed. I have a coworker who probably has image resizing flashbacks even now.
At about the same time, some savvy clients started to care about their website statistics and the savvier ones started to wonder how the search engines worked and why some sites show up higher than others. More on that in a moment.
Fast forward another handful of years and another big game changer enters the picture: smartphones. It was obvious this audience needed to be addressed. But what was the best way? Should we build a standalone mobile site or should we build a new responsive website? I don’t miss the days of trying to explain to non-technical people why a website isn’t just automatically mobile friendly. Or, why you can’t just take any existing design and make it work perfectly on a phone.
Those issues aside, it was another great time to be in the web industry. Most businesses knew they needed to keep up with the mobile trend, and the right way to do it was to build a new responsive website. Content Management Systems had gotten better and more flexible. Gone were the days of being limited in design capabilities so that the site could work in a CMS. Users had become used to managing text, images, and links, and the tools now allowed them to graduate to also managing assets like photo galleries, blogs, calendars, image sliders, etc.
Most businesses were building their 3rd or 4th website during this time and they had their own lessons learned to fall back on. Yes, it was important that the site looked great and was easy to use. For the record, in 18 years I’ve never had a client ask for a site that was dated or challenging to navigate. Instead, conversations shifted to what can be done to help the new site perform well in the search engines. How can I make sure my site is properly optimized?
We started to incorporate more web statistics into the planning of the new website. We spent more time trying to figure out the target audience and the goals for the site. We started to get better at directing traffic and making sure users were able to find what they were looking for on the website. The wide world of web started to transition to be less about the technology and the design and more about the content and the experience of using the website.
Around this time, people started to dabble with social media and wanted to know what the best practices were in terms of integrating these platforms with their website. Where should they be spending most of their time? What are the best practices?
At that time, there weren’t really best practices. Once again, for the most part, we were all just figuring it out.
So, what exactly is the point of this little trip down memory lane? In the world of web design and development, we have tackled a lot of ground in the last 18 years. We have created a strong foundation. We have learned lessons and created best practices that allow us to be light years ahead of where we used to be at the start of any project.
Fast forward one last time to today. Yes, everyone still wants a website that looks great, is easy to use, is responsive, and is easy to maintain. However, for most companies, it no longer stops there. The website needs to be a tool to drive traffic and generate leads.
In order to do that it needs to be part of a more comprehensive strategy. Do we know who the audience is? Do we know how they make purchasing decision? Have we done key term research that is part of a coordinated content strategy both on the website and social media? How does this all work together with paid ads and paid social? What can I learn about all of this from looking at my website statistics?
The transition from jazzy Flash splash pages to current web development best practices has been a colorful journey, to be sure. I can't wait to see what comes next.
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