What is a website? Where does one website end and another begin? These questions about what defines a website are basic and may seem inconsequential to some people, but I have observed that the answer has a major impact on website usability and performance management. I have seen countless times in my career that the inability to define a website leads to organizational confusion, poorly conceived web strategies, en-user frustration, and lack luster performance against business goals.
Consistency Across Four Elements
A website is a group of web pages, content, tools, and features with a consistent experience across the whole of it. What defines a given website is its consistency in four areas: 1) domain (or sub-domain) 2) Site ID or Logo 3) Menu or main navigation and 4) the design, style, look, and feel. These four areas serves as a quadruple redundancy to help users know what site they are on, a foundational element in web usability. Without knowing what site they are on, users get uncomfortable and confused about what they can accomplish and how they can navigate to where they want to go.
This doesn’t mean that sites can’t share design elements and it certainly doesn’t preclude sub-branding. In fact, well designed sites can maintain the integrity of what is a website, per the definition above, while at the same time sharing interaction elements and design styles to communicate familiarity and consistency across a family of websites when that is desired. And in fact, by adhering to the definitions of a website, families of websites get the best of both worlds: clean boundaries, usable interfaces, and the comfort and assurance that comes from an umbrella brand and style.
An Example of Well-Defined Websites
These principles of what defines a website are perhaps best illustrated through an example. I am no longer, but at one time I was, the product manager of the two websites: the LDS Seminary website and the LDS Institute website.
- Domain or sub-domain: The Seminary site is located at seminary.lds.org while the Institute site is located at institute.lds.org. These sites are similar in that they are both websites for programs of religious education for young people in the LDS Church. But the programs and assoc
iated website have two different audiences: Seminary is for high schoolers, roughly aged 14 to 17, while Institute is for young adults aged 18 to 30. All Seminary program and related content and features is located on the seminary.lds.org sub-domain and Institute stuff is, of course, on the institute.lds.org sub-domain.
- Site ID or Logo: Every site needs a unique site ID or logo. Using the same site ID on two or more different websites is sure to confuse users. Site IDs tell website visitors at a quick glance where they are and how to return to home, or the highest hierarchical page on the site. With the Seminary and Institute sites, each has a unique site ID. Both also share the site ID with the LDS Church logo. This is an efficient and effective way of communicating that both sites are sub-domains of LDS.org, yet they each have their own unique identity as well. They are children sites in the LDS.org family.
- Main menu: The website menu is a road map to the content, tools, and features on the site. Since the content in each website is unique, every website should have a unique menu, structured to help visitors find content quickly and easily. In the case of the Seminary and Institute sites, each has its own distinct menu options.
- Design, style, look, and feel: The last element of a unique website is the design or styles. The Seminary and Institute sites’ main differentiation is there color: Seminary = Green and Institute = Blue. Besides that, the sites share most styles and interaction elements, and that’s okay. Again, they are sister websites, and that is also communicated through the design.