It turns out authors make lots of website mistakes.
by Gill Andrews
You didn’t sign up for this.
Writing and sharing your ideas with others – sure. But this website thing? You just wanted more people to read your stories. But now you spend hours agonizing over blog post topics, looking for free images, and figuring out why that widget on your website refuses to work.
It wouldn’t be that bad if it at least would bear fruit, but this damn website isn’t even doing its job! Where are all the new readers and book sales?
I have no idea how to write a book. But I know a lot about websites and how people view them.
And now, after we’ve bonded over how frustrating this is, I’d like to tell you something important: Your website sucks, but I’ll show how to fix it.
“But you haven’t even seen my website!”
You wish! Preparing for this post, I’ve analyzed 50 author websites that belong to the regular readers of this blog (and I have a huge Excel sheet to prove it). I spent 10 minutes on each website noting down the mistakes to then uncover the most common ones.
Today, I’d like to talk to you about 5 of those mistakes – the cardinal sins of an author’s website that alienate your readers – and show you how to fix them.
Important note: If you’re happy with your website, you can stop reading right here. Why change a working system? Yet, if you’d like to improve your website and expand your readership, read on.
Mistake #1. A messy homepage with no direction
or “The main reason your website visitors flee to never come back”
Raise your hand if you’re a proud owner of a homepage that looks like this (don’t be shy; I can’t see you anyways).
Such layout seems to be common among author websites. Which is surprising, because the main purpose of an author’s website should be to attract new readers. Yet, this layout is very hostile to anyone who’s never heard of you.
A first-time visitor of your website doesn’t know what you do or what kind of books you write, let alone their titles. They check your homepage to learn more about you and your work, but you greet them with:
- A cryptic website tagline that doesn’t tell them what you do
- No author’s image (often: no author’s name)
- Countless images and links that pull their attention in all possible directions
- No or unclear calls to action
Want your website visitors to read your blog posts and check out your books? Start with a clear homepage.
How to create a clear homepage that makes your visitors stick around
Add your name and your photograph
State your name and place your photograph prominently on your website, close to the top. Don’t rely on your visitors to visit your About page. Show your face right on your homepage.
Make your website tagline is clear
Tell your visitors what to expect from your website. Are you an author? State your name and your genre or niche. Anne Brooke does a good job with her tagline:
“Anne Brooke. Poet and contemporary fiction novelist.”
So does Kaye Dacus:
“Kaye Dacus. Humor, Hope and Happily Ever Afters.”
Although she doesn’t say she also writes books (which is fine if one doesn’t want to emphasize that) she clearly tells her website visitors what to expect. Does your blog go by its own name? State your blog focus.
“Writingale. Web writing tips for busy creatives.”
Does it sound too simple? Maybe. But when it comes to your website, simple but clear always trumps creative but vague.
Define your goals
Think about it. What else would a new visitor find useful on your homepage? For example, your latest blog posts and books, and more information about you. What would you like every visitor to see? For example, your books, selected reviews, your featured services.
Based on your goals, remove everything that pulls your visitors’ attention in the wrong direction:
- Kill your side bar on your homepage (kill it with fire). Your visitors can’t concentrate on the important information in the middle of your page while endless links and images are screaming for their attention from the sidebars.
- Remove your followers’ avatars, social network widgets and other links leading outside your website (more on this in a minute).
- Remove irrelevant badges.
The hard truth about awards and badges
Did you know that when you add badges a la “Liebster Award” to your website you help other websites rank better in search?
When someone tells you they’ve nominated you for an “award” or included you in some list they also ask you to mention them on your website, right?
This creates a backlink – a link from your website to theirs – which helps them rank better in search, while you’re cluttering your website and alienating your readers.
But even without a backlink, your readers can tell between an “award” and a real award.
Add relevant information
Add clear sections with the most relevant information for your visitors. For example:
- “About me” section
- Featured books / services / blog posts
- An opt-in for your newsletter
- Reviews, testimonials or other meaningful social proof
Add calls to action
Show your website visitors what they can do next. After every section, add a visually prominent call to action link or button. For example, “Learn more”, “View all books”, “Read more posts”, etc.
Mistake #2. A hot mess of a navigation
or “The main reason why people don’t visit many pages on your website”
Navigation was another major pain point on the author websites I looked at. Here are the most common problems I discovered.
Too many navigation items
Have you ever heard of decision fatigue? It’s the reason you scream “Screw it! I’ll do it some other time!” and close the browser when Amazon shows you 200 images for “black leather pumps”.
This is what happens to your website visitors when they see a gazillion of the navigation labels: Too many options make them feel so overwhelmed that they rather not chose at all.
Unclear navigation items
Anti-examples: Media, Policies, Challenges, Prompts, Flashback Friday.
Navigation should be the last place to exercise your creativity muscle. Your website visitors won’t read your navigation but scan it for the familiar labels, like About, Books or Services. If they don’t find or recognize them hidden behind a creative phrase, they won’t click on it.
Too granular navigation items
Anti-examples: Interviews, Why I self-publish?, Recent releases.
Your readers won’t care for your interviews before they know more about you. And as the space in the navigation is limited, you need to prioritize. Think of your navigation as a big picture of your website that instantly tells your website visitors what to expect from it.
Your visitors expect your navigation to be at the top. If they don’t find it there they may not find it at all. Also, your visitors don’t expect multiple row navigation and may overlook the orphan labels in the second navigation row.
Here’s something counter-intuitive: Your visitors find your drop-down menus irritating. Plus, they are more likely to skip the “mother” navigation label (and less likely to check the page it leads to).
How to improve your navigation
- Place your navigation at the top of your website in one line.
- Don’t use more than 7 navigation items (the maximum number of items we can hold in our short-term memory).
- Make sure the labels are short and descriptive.
- Make sure the labels have almost the same level of granularity presenting your website visitors with the main entry points to learn more about you and your work.
- Unless your books are famous and people are coming to your website in herds just to read updates about them, don’t put book titles in the navigation.
- Avoid drop-down menus and reorganize your content to only have top-level navigation.
Mistake #3. Poor formatting
or “The one that makes you look unprofessional.” This is really unfair: You may be a bestselling author, but your website visitors will think you’re a clueless amateur if you make these formatting mistakes:
- Too long paragraphs (or too many one-liners after another)
- No text highlights (or too many highlights)
- Too small font size
- Confusion around clickable elements where links don’t look like links and text looks like buttons
- Poor contrast between background and text
On the other side, even a newbie author or blogger will get extra brownie points if their content is flawlessly formatted.
How to format your web content to appear professional
Avoid visual monotony
- Vary the length of your paragraphs between 3-, 2- and 1-liners to make the text more scannable and keep your visitors’ attention longer.
- If you’re using bullet points in your text, add space between the individual bullet points (here’s how to do it). Otherwise, you’ll end up with a wall of text with some dots on the side.
- Use bold and italic highlights for words or short phrases, but not multiple lines at once.
- Use uniform spacing between the paragraphs.
Make everything easy to skim and read
- Use font size big enough to read without pain, also on mobile.
- Make sure the background and the text color have enough contrast.
Make things look like they function
- Don’t make links look like images. Your visitors don’t expect an image to be a link and won’t click on it.
- Make in-text links stand out from the rest of the text. For example, here’s a link that stands out. Here’s a link that your visitors will also notice. And this link is hard to spot, so it won’t be clicked often.
- Make your important calls to action look like buttons of a color that stands out.
Yet, don’t make plain text look like a clickable element. For example, your headings should look like text and not buttons.
Mistake #4. Meaningless words
or “The one where you’re wasting your readers’ time”
You know this computer game where you’re driving a car but running out of petrol, so you need to collect bonuses to refill your tank?
The driver is your visitor, and the petrol indicator is their time. If you don’t constantly refill their “tank” with valuable easy-to-read content, it’s game over.
Before adding a sentence or an image to your website, ask yourself: Is it relevant and valuable to my readers?
Don’t tell your visitors “Welcome to my website” or “I’m happy you are here”. They don’t care. What they care about is clear and relevant information they can easily find. Don’t tell your visitors to “check out your side bar”. If you want your visitors to take action, include a link on the spot.
Meaningless words are especially damaging on your About page. Approach it the way you would approach the final draft of your novel: Remove meaningless words.
Mistake #5. Prominent social icons and links to other websites
or “The one where you ask your visitors to leave”
The “follow me” social icons have no place in your navigation. Nor your side bar. Nor anywhere else where they jump in people’s faces. Your visitors have just got to your website. Why are you asking them to leave this place that is 100% about you for the world of cute babies, cat memes and cake recipes?
Where to place the “follow me” icons?
Place the “follow me” icons in the footer. If someone genuinely wants to follow you on social media, they will look there. And everyone else should stay on your website and read more posts.
Also, make sure to include only the relevant social networks (unless you are equally active on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, LinkedIn and StumbleUpon).
You are a member of a writer’s alliance? Great. Don’t link to it but mention it by name (if you must).
You tweet a lot? Congratulations! But don’t even think of embedding your tweets on your website, unless Twitter plays an important role in your book sales.
You have 1000 followers? Wonderful!
Mention that number next to your email opt-in inviting people to “join 1000 readers” and remove their avatars from your website.
The only type of external links you should include
…are the links to the places that help you sell more books, for example, the corresponding Amazon or Goodreads pages, or a social network where you regularly meet new readers.
Phew. That was a truckload of tips!
Want to see me using them to transform a real author’s website?
A Real-Life Website Make-Over
I asked Anne to find one author who will agree to have their website critiqued in public. My special thanks to Debby Kaye who was brave enough to come forward. Below, I’ll discuss the current state of her website and then show you how to apply the advice from this post to improve it.
Debby’s website: Original state
You can view Debby’s homepage here. I wanted to include a screenshot in this post, but it was impossible as the homepage is very long. It has 10 featured blog posts and 41(!) widgets in the sidebar, and you would need to scroll 16 times to get to the bottom.
As a homepage, it lacks structure (see Mistake #1 above). So, I’ll look at it and provide improvement suggestions as if it was a Blog page.
This is the current website header:
The problems I see with it:
- Header image is taking too much space.
- Name and tagline aren’t visually prominent. It took me about 15 minutes to realize that the text in the header image is actually a name and a tagline.
- Unclear tagline. Your visitors won’t guess you are a writer.
- Too many navigation items.
- Make the header image smaller so that more content is visible right away.
- Make the tagline and the name visually prominent.
- Change the headline to clearly reflect who you are and what you do.
- Reduce the amount of the navigation items and make the labels clear.
The main section of the page currently looks like this:
It’s visually cluttered. The website visitors don’t know where to look and what’s important.
I would suggest making it look something like this:
Overall page design:
- Remove borders around the sections
- Remove date and author’s name from the blog snippets. Leave only the number of comments because it’s social proof.
- Add more white space between the sections.
- Remove unnecessary information (hashtags, author name) from the blog post titles.
- In the opt-in widget, make sign-up button visually prominent and remove irrelevant text.
- Remove all widgets that contain links to other websites (followers, social profiles, etc.) that don’t help you win new readers.
- Leave only widgets that encourage your visitors to explore more content or take action: Opt-in, search, “Latest posts”, “Categories” (while reducing the number of categories), “Review my books on Goodreads”.
The current footer is a collection of images one doesn’t know what to do with.
Don’t underestimate your footer. It’s an area your visitors see on every page, which makes it an ideal place to draw people’s attention to important information and help them navigate through your website.
- Remove all images
- Add “About me” section and “Learn more” call to action
- Add “Top posts” section
- Include links to the main pages
The improved page
The improved page would look something like this:
Now it’s easy to skim the page as the relevant information is divided in clear sections. Strategically placed visual highlights show the visitors the clear paths to more content.
It is, of course, not an optimal solution. I didn’t talk to Debby and don’t know who her ideal audience is and where she finds new readers, and she may want to leave more things on the page.
The point of this exercise was to demonstrate the difference between a page with and without a direction, and how even small changes can drastically improve your website.
Final Words of Wisdom
I can almost see you shaking your head. Relevant. Clear. Simple. Won’t these boring concepts make your website boring turning you into some business person?
You are an artist! You want your website to be different. To speak directly to your readers. To reflect your creative personality.
And it should, because this is what your readers love you for. But if you allow creativity to take over your entire website you are shooting yourself in the foot.
Want more people to read your blog posts and books? Tame your creativity. Make things that are supposed to be easy, easy. Say things that are supposed to be clear clearly. Free the paths that lead to your main assets. Your writing is a treasure.
Yet, navigating your website shouldn’t be a treasure hunt.
by Gill Andrews (@StoriesWithGill) March 11, 2018
What about you, scriveners? Are you making any of these website mistakes? Obviously we are. 🙁 But I love our sidebar! Sigh. Do you find sidebars distracting? I realize that if you are using Blogger, you don’t have the choice of changing a number of these things: they come with your theme. But it’s good to be aware of clutter and clean up where we can.
Do you have any questions for Gill? She’ll respond to all your comments, but she’s in Germany, so there will be a time gap if you’re not in Europe.
About Gill Andrews:
Gill Andrews is a content creator and web consultant who turns underperforming websites into reader magnets and slick lead generating machines. To tune up your website, get her ultimate website checklist. You can also connect with Gill on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Struggling to get more readers for your blog and books? Feeling overwhelmed with your website? Let me help. I’ll thoroughly review your website, point out the main problems and offer actionable, easy-to-follow suggestions on how to fix them. Click here to learn more.
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