12 Essential Web Site Building Blocks

Whenever I take over responsibility for a new web site, there are a number of core things that I like to ensure have been set up. I call these the ‘building blocks’ of a web site — the fundamental elements that should be in place on almost any site. They include:

1. Web Analytics

The first thing I do is to make sure a good web analytics solution is in place.

It’s essential to have a baseline against which to measure any improvements I make. For most sites, Google Analytics is more than sufficient.

2. Cross-browser Compatibility

Corporate web teams can be some of the worst for checking that their sites display and function properly in non-IE browsers.

Using web analytics it’s easy to see which are the top 3-5 browser/OS combinations that you should test your site in. Common quote:

“Opera?! I don’t test our pages in it. Not enough visitors use Opera. They do? That much, huh?”

3. Good Title Tags

I’m amazed by how many large-scale and otherwise well-designed web sites have paid no attention to their title tags, even (especially) for the home page.

Maybe I just like to see my sites rank well on search engines, but who wouldn’t want more traffic? When you run a commercial web site this is the equivalent of leaving free money on the table.

4. Custom 404 Page

It’s just the right thing to do for your users. I also make sure that my 404 page is being tracked by my web analytics tool so that I can identify on- or off-site broken links.

If any off-site broken links are sending too much traffic to my 404 page I will also set up 301 redirects to point this traffic to the right place.

5. No Broken Links

It’s not fun or glamorous, but the easiest and best way to improve your site’s user experience is to fix all your broken links.

If you run a large site, it’s also a great way to find all the really old content that the team forgot about and should be retired.

6. Canonical Redirects

In order to create a single, persistent URL for your site (the canonical domain) you should redirect mysite.com to www.mysite.com (or vice-versa) using a 301 redirect.

The primary benefit is that you help search engines out by only providing one version of your site. It doesn’t matter if you use ‘www’ or not, you just need to be consistent.

This will also clean up your web analytics reporting.

7. Sitemap

Almost all sites will benefit from a sitemap. There’s really no downside to creating one, as long as you remember to update it.

8. Clear Links

I like to make sure that links are easily identifiable and have a separate and distinct visited state. It’s an easy CSS change and can be a big help to your site’s visitors.

9. Good Typography

I’m big on making sure that the content on my sites is easy to read. That means using a reasonable font-size and a color that provides sufficient contrast. Again, an easy CSS fix to make.

10. Site Search

Is there one, and if so, is it working properly? Like a sitemap, a good site search is just something that a web site of any reasonable size should have.

The downside is that it takes a lot more work to get it working properly.
However, if it’s integrated into your web analytics reporting it’s a great way to see what your visitors are looking for, which pages are being returned, and (even better) what they are looking for and not finding.

11. Valid CSS

This is more of a secondary building block, but it’s a lot easier to validate (and fix) a site’s CSS than its HTML. These types of site-wide fixes make ongoing maintenance and troubleshooting that much easier.

12. Google Webmaster Tools

Most of my search engine traffic comes from Google so I like to add a Google webmaster tools meta tag to be sure the site is being indexed completely and regularly.

It’s a secondary building block, but so easy to add, why wouldn’t you do it?

This has helped me in the past when server configuration issues and over-reliance on JavaScript for navigation has prevented sites from being indexed properly.

Well, these are my main web site building blocks. How about yours?