Vague websites with hidden menus, confusing sliders, irrelevant stock photography and long texts that no one wants to read… And many websites are stuck in the 90s with introductions such as “Welcome to our website”. We think you can do better! We’ll share our best practices so you can make your website & homepage useful and inviting to your visitor.

Your homepage is the summary of your website

On your homepage you want to summarize who you are, what do you, what you offer and why it’s relevant to the visitor. Because the homepage is not a unique page with a specific topic, you can give a short impression here of what can be found on the rest of your site and entice people to dive further into your website. But be aware that nobody is going to spend hours browsing your website if they do not know who you are and why you’re relevant to them.

Questions your visitors always want to know

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • What problems do you solve?
  • Is the information on your website relevant to me?
  • Why are you the right person for me?
  • How do I know I can trust you?
  • What should I do on your website?

With these questions – and their answers! – in mind, you can make sure your website content is relevant and useful.

Questions to answer on your website

  • Who is the main audience for your website? Who do you want to reach primarily, and who could benefit from your knowledge?
  • Who are you and what is your main end goal or mission?
  • What do you do, and what don’t you do?
  • What problems do you want to solve? (From personal problems to global problems.)
  • How does the information on your website serve a need in your main audience? How can it help them? What can you offer them?
  • Why are you the right person to give them this solution?
  • What makes your approach unique?
  • How do people know they can trust you? What is your credibility?
  • What should visitors do on your website? E-mail you with a question or to collaborate? Subscribe to a newsletter? Change their habits?

Explain what you do in 5 lines

We think your audience shouldn’t need more than 5 seconds to know if they’re on the right website, what you do, and how this is relevant to them. You don’t want to frustrate your visitors with vague anonymous texts, news (unless it’s a news site) or long pieces of text. Summarize in 5 lines what you do, why you are unique and what you have to offer. This is the core of your website, and will later help you to better organize the rest of your website.

The first words on your website is a short elevator pitch that explains the core of your business or research.

This first text also contains your ‘tone of voice’. Ask yourself whether you want to appear informal or professional. Put your personality in that sentence and make sure that people recognize you in it.

Sometimes it’s also a good idea to tell them what you’re not doing. If you often hear that people have misconceptions about your work, than clarify that immediately. Sometimes people think we’re a science news platform for example. We tried our best to make clear we are not.

Examples of great intro texts

There are a lot of ways to make this first text engaging. One is asking a question. After all, research is all about asking questions. And a website can also be the start of an actual conversation. So that’s what we did for the EVICT project. This is perfect for projects that do not have results yet.

Does the international right to housing prevent people from being evicted? The EVICT project wants to understand if it does, and how.

Another way of introducing yourself is to give away your thoughts on a topic. A quote can be very powerful and leave people curious to find out more. This works well with websites that want to inspire people to think differently. We used this for the DRIVE project:

“Radicalisation isn’t just about ideology. It’s also about numerous social problems, specifically the cracks in society that young people fall through.”

However, if you’re offering services, you usually write an elevator pitch. That’s about 5 lines of text where you explain what you do, who you are, why you’re credible, and how you’re relevant. Together with Renate Schepen, a philosopher that gives lectures, we wrote an inspiring statement:

I connect people, ideas and worlds in lectures, training and dialogues. By traveling the world, meeting people and as a doctor of philosophy I connect academia with the real world. I do that with my company Doordacht. Explore obvious ways of looking at the world with me and refresh your world view.

In this statement you can read exactly what she does (lectures and training), why she’s credible (doctor of philosophy, and traveler), what’s unique about her approach (connecting academia with the world), and she’s inspiring you to shake up your world view, making it clear what she can do for you.

Call to action: What do you want people to do on your site?

We always ask our clients what the purpose of their website is. Usually the answer is something like “Informing people about X”. But when we dive deeper, it turns out that this is never their real goal. They want visitors to change behavior, get inspired, fill in a contact form, or follow them on social media. Make sure it is clear to the visitor what you want the visitor to do. Because as a visitor, it’s nice to know what’s expected of you.

Make sure that the call to action is clear. Make it a button in a contrasting color that appears on every page. Now, don’t go crazy with 10 different buttons with all the things you want to promote, that won’t work. Provide focus on your website with one clear action, otherwise visitors will probably not click on any buttons. So choose one or two important actions and keep it simple.

Example of call-to-action phrases

If you have a call to action, be very specific. Just “contact us” is not enough and a bit too vague. It doesn’t invite people to really take action. ‘Contact you for what?‘ It’s much better to clarify what they can contact you about. So try out other phrases such as “Ask us a question”, “Collaborate with us on sustainability”, “E-mail us to receive our white paper”, or “Leave a message with your thoughts”.

Tell your story in a clear menu

Your homepage is the gateway to the rest of your website. When visitors look at your navigation menu you want to give an impression of who you are and what you do. So if possible, try to come up with more interesting menu than:

Home / Projects / About / Services / News / Contact

This could be the menu of a plumber but also that of an international research consortium. Vague words that say nothing about you or your work are best avoided. To make it better, the navigation item should make clear what’s behind it. The About page could mean anything. It can be the history, people, mission, etc. So let’s try something more interesting:

Home / Our research team / Expertise in sustainability / How we work / Collaborate with us

By just reading this menu, a visitor immediately knows what you do and who you are (researchers that work in sustainability), and what action they can take (collaborate). They’re like the headers of a text about your organization.

Don’t outsmart your visitors!

Conventions on a website are there for a reason. People expect a menu on the top left or right of a website. Make sure it’s there when they look (because they are probably in a hurry and don’t want to be slowed down). Practical information such as contact forms, privacy information and general terms and conditions are best placed in a separate menu or in the footer at the bottom of the website.

Design your website within the framework of your visitors’ expectations.

Sometimes a menu is hidden behind the ‘hamburger menu’. That is nice for a sleek design and perhaps practical for mobile phones, but many people will think that your website consists of only one page. They look no further and never find out that you also have a blog and portfolio on your website. So don’t make it too difficult for your visitor and follow the conventions. (The other extreme is scientific websites with dozens of massive drop-down menu’s, which is also not user-friendly.)

Don’t give people too many choices early on

Another reason why we try to keep you away from large drop-down menus, is that this gives people too many choices early on. We see a lot of websites where each paragraph has a dedicated page. Under the About menu-item, there is a large drop-down menu with mission, vision, senior researchers, junior researchers, approach, consortium, partners, related projects etc.

What if someone is actually interested in all of those topics (which we doubt). Then they have to click trough 8 pages of content! That’s a lot of work. So we usually create crossroads pages, where a lot of information on a single topic or theme is combined.

For example, if you have 6 projects that you’re showcasing, don’t let people decide beforehand which ones to click on. But create a crossroads page where the projects can all be seen, with some more information about each of them. This way they can either just have an overview, or get interested in one project to learn more about. We’ve done this with our Workshops page, where we show an overview so people don’t have to choose early on.

Too many items in a drop-down page!

Make your visitor’s frustration or problem explicit

The focus of many, many websites is who the sender is. It’s all we, we, we, and our, our, our. Let’s turn this around, and make the website about the visitor! We’ve written another blog about it, that drives this message home.

So ask the visitor a question, or talk about problems they are having. Make them feel welcome. Otherwise, your website is just as annoying as a conversation with someone that only talks about themselves and never asks you a question. Or start with a shared frustration. If visitors recognize themselves in the description on your website, you show that you understand your target group very well, and there can be no misunderstanding about the need that is being filled here.

Credibility: why are you so good?

People don’t believe you on your beautiful blue/green/brown eyes. You have to tell them why you are so good at what you do. Showcasing the logos of all the University partners is one way to do it, but also a bit boring. Maybe you’ve been featured in the media, or you can link to a TV show that talks about your work. Or maybe you can tell how internationally oriented you are, or how many papers you’ve published. It all helps to show that you are an authority that is credible.

Who is behind the website?

Do you remember the time we thought it looked more professional when a website was filled with corporate stock photos? When you assumed that everything was written by a robot? Wake-up call: visitors no longer want impersonal websites. They want to know who they are talking to on the website. So show a picture of yourself (or the team) and write more informal texts. For personal websites of researchers we usually put a picture of them prominently on the homepage (if they’re not too shy or humble).

For a consortium or company it is a good idea to create a team page and introduce all the people. Don’t just leave people with official titles and roles. Make it a bit more fun and let everyone write a quote that’s related to their work. Such as “I work in sustainability so that my children can grow up between trees”, or if you can be a bit more frivolous “My favorite food is banana with peanut-butter”.

Little touches like these makes you look more personal and accessible. Just make sure to be personable in all the texts on your website. So don’t let people email an anonymous email address such as info@myproject.eu. But tell them who is on the other end and write “Sophie can answer any questions you have. Send her an email at sophie@myproject.eu”.

Make things easy to find

Your visitor is now convinced that you are great and you can help them with their problems. Perfect! However, then they are excited about working with you cannot find any contact information. Make sure that what you want the visitor to do on your site is very easy to do.

For complex content-driven websites you sometimes want to create multiple paths to the same content. For Sport Data Valley we’ve created a documentation website with a lot of blogs on how their software works. To make sure there is something for everyone, we’ve created 5 ways to find information:

  1. A search form, for people who know exactly what they need
  2. A menu that helps visitors find information related to the task they are currently working on (e.g. data collection, sharing or analyzing).
  3. A link to an introductory page explaining the basics, for people who are new to the software
  4. A tour for different types of audiences showing how they can use the software
  5. A tag cloud with specific topics, so people in a hurry can immediately find the topic they were looking for.

Summarize and get people excited to browse

The most important thing is to be brief, and get people excited to browse your website. The homepage is like a menu from which they can choose where to go next. We usually create homepages that mirror the navigation menu and underlying pages. So each section on a homepage points to an about-page, project page or blog. With short texts this makes it easy to give all the information to your audience, so that they don’t have to do all the work figuring out where to go.

Are you going to create better websites with this blog? Or do you need some help with creating a good structure and strategy? Let us know!

About the Author: Liesbeth Smit

Liesbeth combines her knowledge of science communication, technology and design to explain difficult topics to a wide audience. You can use her practical tips immediately in your presentations to create a bigger impact. She developed dozens of websites, e-learning modules for The Online Scientist and published a best-selling book about nutrition science.

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