If your website is not a mission-critical tool for your business then you’ve missed the boat.

An AMP Agency study revealed earlier this month found that nearly one-half of consumers, an average of 43%, report doing some type of research before they buy. A whopping 94% of consumers said that research positively influenced their decision to make a purchase, and nearly four in ten (36%) said they bought a product because of the research they found. The most common and prevalent research tool is the Internet; the first website they visit is yours.

Your organization's website communicates important information about your brand, services and culture. In 2011, your customers are more demanding and more insatiable for content and tools than ever before.

There's often an expectation that your site will be as intuitive, easy to use and informative as those of major organizations (think Google). Fortunately there are some key lessons and universal truths about the best-of-the-best corporate websites that most organizations can learn from and apply to their own websites.

For many organizations, conversations about improving their corporate website almost always begin with design. It's the first thing people notice, the first thing people complain about and the last thing that should be changed. Contrary to popular belief, a few bright colors, flashy photos or other design fads do not make the websites of industry leaders the best-of-the-best. Design must be strategically driven, built upon solid information architecture and usability practices that have been developed in consideration of the user.

However, of all the things the Amazons and Microsofts do best, here are the six most critical ingredients of a website:

1. Simplicity

Less is more. Tired of hearing this over-played cliché? The reason why the cliché is played more frequently than a Lady Gaga single is because it’s true, and it’s largely ignored. Your users want a simple website, with minimal text, high-impact visuals -- but not too many -- and easy to read and intuitive links and buttons. Last but not least, simple, contained navigation. Don’t provide multiple levels and areas for navigation, users demand one neatly arranged row of tabs or buttons.

Winners: Google and eToys. Losers: Nearly any design agency (e.g. Razorfish).

2. Speed

Speed kills on the road; speed wins on the Internet. Customers want to find what they want, as fast as possible. Make them wait for more than 8 or 10 seconds and you risk losing them forever (many won’t even wait that long). Pages must download quickly; orders must be processed quickly; the search engine must return results at lightning speed. Speed = sales.

Winners: Fidelity Investments and IRS. Losers: Mashable and United Technologies.

3. Ease of Use

Closely related to its cousin, speed, ease of use is the usability or learnability of a website. If it’s easy to use, the user has few or no problems or questions. If it’s difficult to use, they give up and go elsewhere, and rarely return. Usability isn’t always easy -- that’s why there’s a consulting industry built on worth many millions of dollars per year -- but it can be achieved by a healthy application of common sense, an understanding of your user’s behavior and psychology, and an intuitive design and navigation schema that does not violate the other five rules stated here.

Winners: Google and PayPal. Losers: Digg and Abercrombie & Fitch.

4. Detail

The devil is in the details: product information, service information, customer service information. Make it as simple as possible to find the information I need, but then give me lots of detail when I find it. Users hate scrolling -- they despise it! Unless it’s the content they’re looking for, and then they want detail, lots of it, particularly with product purchases. Too many organizations treat their websites like a marketing brochure, which is exactly what your customers do not want when they’re researching a product or service, at the expense of product details. This is in fact one of biggest and most common mistakes by website designers and managers.

Winners: IKEA and Amazon. Losers: Almost any airline; almost any electronics store (I’m looking at you Best Buy).

5. SEO Content

To use your website, and to buy from you online -- or at least contact you about a purchase -- your customers and potential customers first have to find you. If they don’t know the URL, they’re going to Google or Yahoo (and for the truly uninformed, Bing). If Google and Yahoo don’t rank you highly on key terms and phrases (SEO content), then you’re not making the sales you could, and worse yet, your competition is getting the sales. SEO (search engine optimization) content delivers users via search engine results; valuable SEO content is highly ranked and is returned in the top page results on a given query on Google or the other search engines. Determine the top 5-10 phrases and keywords used by your customers and potential customers when performing a search query, and deliver content based on those keywords and phrases.

Winners: Amazon and Gap Inc. Losers: The big banks.

6. Multiple Feedback Channels

Buyers want to conduct research online, but they’re more prone to phone you. The minute your website impedes their research, and they can’t find something, they better be able to find your phone number, quickly. Failing a phone number, an email, a live chat link, a discussion board or access to other social media tools. In short, the website should be great, but it should also showcase other channels that allow the user to contact you.

Winners: Microsoft and FAO Schwartz. Losers: Walmart and nearly any of airline.
 

Attend my webinar on March 1, 2011 Learning from the Best-of-the-Best Websites (participation is free) where we will showcase some of the very best websites on the planet, and the why and how they’re the best.