The secrets of a well structured website

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 October 2014
How to create a well-structured, low maintenance, highly competitive website

A chunk of my time is spent each week on website consultancy. Whether your website uses a content management system (CMS) such as Wordpress and Joomla, or an e-commerce package such as Magento or Prestashop, I am about to share with you tips and best practices for structuring and running your website to ensure that your website is always up-to-date, minimal maintenance, highly competitive and Google friendly.

This guide is aimed as a checklist for and business owners and web designers alike to make sure you maximise your website's potential.

1. Harness the power of a CMS

Traditionally websites were built by hand ie. a web developer built the site from scratch. This is generally a lengthy process, with the main advantages being a light weight site, and full control over how the website works. However, CMS software has improved and modern CMS software are hugely powerful and will generally be more than enough for your requirements.

There are lots of CMS software on the market to fit your purpose. Before starting out do your research and ask the opinion of a professional designer. Make sure you use the best on the market (be it free or commercial), and make sure there is a large forum/ online community (this will prove useful if you ever run in to problems or need to ask questions).

In my own experience, the best open source CMS on the web at the moment is Joomla, followed by Wordpress. Whilst Wordpress is easier to set up and use for a non-web expert, Joomla is far more flexible and powerful in the options it gives the web designer.

Why use a CMS?
  • Content Management Systems are extremely powerful
  • CMSs have an easy to use admin panel. Once set up, non-web experts should be comfortable adding new content such as blogs and photos, allowing you to be independent, keeping costs down.
  • CMSs come with a huge array of Addons, Modules and Plugins. So for example, it is relatively straightforward to add a comments section, a blog or even e-commerce functionality to your website.

2. Use Overrides - the smart way to build a website

All new websites should be built in override. end.

Template overrides are a way of changing the way your website looks without ever changing the basic or core CMS system. Most modern CMS have some kind of file override system (known as child-templates in Wordpress). Unfortunately due to either a lack of knowledge or poor habits, a proportion of web designers still do not use overrides.

The advantages of using template overrides:
  • Overrides offer a quicker and a more efficient way to produce and run a website
  • The core system files are never edited and so the CMS system remains intact and cannot be "broken" - this leads to a more robust website.
  • The CMS software, can be updated regularly without losing the customisations made to the website. Consequently your website will always be running the latest version of your software.

3. Be compatible and safe - keep your software up-to-date

Your core website software and any Addons, Modules or Plugins should all be the very latest version.

All modern CMSs have easy "click to update" options. Whenever a new version of your CMS, Addons, Modules and Plugins are released, you can generally update from your CMS panel quickly and easily. Before updating your website, check with your web designer that you are using overrides and that the updates will not cause any problems.

Why update your website?
  • Your website will have the latest code, styles and layout.
  • Software updates are frequently made to fix security bugs. Keeping your CMS up-to-date will help prevent hacking and other malicious attacks.
  • If your website becomes more than a few years old, it can be hard to find help with any questions you have or changes you want to make, as forums and product developers will only provide support for the latest version.
  • Compatibility - new website Addons, Modules or Plugins generally do not work on an out-of-date CMS software. Consequently you will not be able to add new functionality to your website, which will become increasingly out-dated and less competitive.

4. Use responsive design

Make sure you have a responsive design and/ or a mobile version of your website.

Why use responsive design?
  • Over 25% of web traffic now comes from mobile. If your website does not adapt to mobile screens, mobile users will leave your website immediately for a competitor site offering better mobile browsing
  • Search engines will send less traffic to your site if you don't have a mobile version

5. Are you autonomous?

With the rise of content marketing and semantic search any modern website serious about growing their online business must have a blog and be creating new, high quality, share-worthy content regularly (preferably at least once a week).

Assuming you are using a CMS, a blog is straightforward to set up, and if you have any knowledge at all of text editors, you should be able to blog autonomously without any problems. And I cannot say this enough - .

Why blog?
  • Blogging is essential if you want to compete online, and the arrival and development of Semantic Search is only going to further increase the importance of your blog.
  • The main purpose of a blog is to drive visitors and clients to your website.

6. Use a socially integrated commenting system

With social networks, content marketing and SEO all seemingly converging at some point in the near future, it makes huge sense to use a commenting system that is integrated with one or more social networks. We use Disqus which is very good, though I would strongly recommend a system that is integrated with either Google Plus or Facebook.

Comments Evolved for Wordpress bridges the gap between your website and social networks brilliantly by integrating Facebook, G+ and Disqus comments on your website.

7. Backups - a website's life insurance

This one is massive, often overlooked, but you may just thank me one day (a beer will be fine).

Ensure that either your hosting company or web designer take a regular backup of your website and databases and (crucial this bit) store them on a separate server or locally on a hard drive.

Doesn't my hosting company keep a backup?

Not always. Servers can, and do occasionally break or succumb to attacks, and can lose all data. If you don't have a backup plan, you risk losing it all.

8. Offer a lightweight mobile version of your website

Your website must have a simplified mobile or responsive version that loads quickly on mobile phones. Remove larger images and slideshows on mobile websites to ensure quicker loading and easier navigation. Tip for web designers - use PHP to remove content and not CSS. CSS will still load the content in the browser without actually showing it, so you don't actually get the improved page speed advantage.

Why reduce website content for mobile users?
  • As a rule of thumb, keep it simple for mobile. The screen is so small, your actual page content can get lost between headers, sidebars and footers.
  • The average user will decide within 5 seconds whether to stay on your website or not - so it had better load! Reduced content for mobile will help the website load quickly.
  • There is evidence that Google favour faster loading pages in search
  • Pay as you go mobile users will be happier as they don't have to pay for heavy graphics and images to download on their phone.

Final thoughts

Follow these guidelines to ensure that your website is built on a rock, allowing you to develop the website quickly and efficiently in any direction and compete effectively.

If your website is up and running, definitely take 20 minutes right now to run your website past our hugely popular website health check - a list of free tools to quickly test how well made your website is.

Mike Fitzpatrick

Mike Fitzpatrick is the founder and web developer at Jeyjoo web design. He works with both individuals and companies to grow their businesses online.
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