Ok, so you have a website. I’m sure you’re proud of it. You probably spent quite a bit on it. You may have hired some hot-shot web designer that kept droning on about something called “vertical rhythm.” But what exactly does your website really do? Is it just a pretty face sitting idly, waiting for people to notice its beauty, but offering nothing besides looks? Or does it really perform, giving visitors not just static information, but dynamic content and tools to carry out tasks that help them get more out of your website?

This isn’t to suggest that looks aren’t important at all when it comes to your website. The better designed your site is, the easier and faster it will be to navigate and the more trust visitors will put into it. But taking the extra step of giving your site brains as well as looks will increase the engagement and satisfaction your visitors have with your site. And more engagement and satisfaction often translates into more sales.

The Right Tool for the Job

The most basic technique to make your website smarter is through interactive tools. These tools enhance the user experience, and do what the simple presentation of information can’t – the ability to compare, contrast and manipulate information in ways that the user, rather than the website owner, defines.

For example, if your website sells planes, giving visitors the ability to use interactive range maps to determine the best plane for their particular needs is a feature that could help drive the visitor towards the sale. Similarly, the ability to compute operating costs from within your website allows the visitor to make judgments quicker than if they had to perform the calculations themselves.

Knowing what tools make the most sense for your site is half the battle. And to this end, nothing is more important than watching people interact with your current site and listening to what they have to say about it. Ask users to list the factors that would go into their decisions regarding the products or services on your site. The most important of these factors will form the basis of your tool’s content. Then begin thinking about how users might want to display that data. Charts are very common, but sometimes a more visual solution, as in the range maps described above, would be more appropriate. Finally, determine all the methods by which your users should be able to sort or manipulate the data. Try to strike a balance between giving the user too many options and too few.

Once the tool has been decided upon and prototyped, conducting user testing during development and before launching the new feature will allow you to fine tune the tool and perhaps think of additional features you might not have otherwise. And once the tool is in use, it’s still important to get user feedback in order to keep up with changing demands.

Getting to Know You

Another way to make your site more intelligent deals with knowing what individual visitors are doing on your site, and tailoring content to fit their habits. This practice is a bit controversial as it involves using cookies, which are small text files stored on the visitor’s computer that can be used, among other things, to track their movements through that website. Some people view cookies as an invasion of privacy and take measures to block them. But the majority of commercial sites that do use cookies do so in the hopes of making the visitor experience better and more rewarding. Think of this use of cookies as the waitress at your favorite restaurant who knows what you like and who makes suggestions based on that knowledge.

Here are a few of the many ways visitor tracking can be used:

  • After completing a newsletter signup form, a visitor is no longer shown that form, but another piece of content, such as a form to get more information about the company.
  • If a visitor frequents a particular area of a website, the home page of the site could include copy that highlights the latest news in that area of interest, as opposed to general information for those visitors without a particular interest.
  • Tracking data can be used to automatically send promotional emails based on what products the visitor is repeatedly looking at.
  • CRMs can use tracking data to flag certain visitors as prospects that should be pursued, based on the frequency of their visits or their level of interest in the website.

Looking Towards the (Potentially Scary) Future

While your website is getting smarter, the rest of the Internet and all the devices connected to it are getting smarter as well. The advent of voice-recognizing personal assistants like Siri has changed the way people access online data. Think back to the last time you visited a particular movie theater’s website instead of using Siri, or Google Now, or any of the other methods to aggregate showtime information. If you’re like most people, it’s been a long while.

The increasing intelligence and popularity of these tools will make it less and less likely that actual human beings will want to visit websites with any regularity, and more likely that data-gathering bots will. At some point Siri could conceivably understand and accurately respond to the question “What’s the best plane for my needs?” If that happens, you better hope that your website is smart enough to be serving up the right information to the non-human visitors. Marketing departments can start sweating now, as carefully crafted marketing messages give way to cold hard data. At least for those willing to trust decision making to their phones.

Training Your Website’s Brain

Making your website more than just an online brochure allows your visitors the ability to actively take part in the information you present, rather than just be a passive viewer. The added functionality in offering online tools and custom content will make a difference in the amount of time spent on your site, and its overall perception with the public. While these features do add quite a bit to the final cost of any website, the rewards far outweigh the costs. The extra user data you gain by visitor tracking alone can increase sales in a very real way.

Put Your Smarty Site to the Test

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This column ran in the April 2 issue of BlueSky Business Aviation News.