Web Design and SEO

Category: Design

If I Was Google for Just One Day

This is one of the huge welcoming signs for Go...

Welcome to Google

Let’s play a little game.  Let’s pretend that just for today you could be Google.  You can do whatever you want to the algorithm, any Google products, the Google brand, Googleplex, all 26,000 Google employees, everything Google, it’s yours to toy with.  Oh one other thing, you get to keep all the money Google makes today.

So here’s what I would do.

1. Set my goal – Make money of course. So how do I do that? by offering searchers almost exactly what they are looking for in the natural search results and offering them exactly what they are looking for in the paid ads.  By offering almost exactly what the searchers are looking for I know I can beat out the Yahoo!s and the Bings and the Lycoses and even the Altavistas and Hotbots of the world wide web.  Then by giving them exactly what they want in the paid ads I know I’m going to make at least a few cents off of every visitor.

2. Gather the data – I have the Google toolbar that could gather the browsing habits and history of every user that has it. I have Google Analytics that shows me detailed information about the what visitors are doing on a huge chunk of the websites out there. I have Gmail where I have access to a great deal of the communications going on out there. I have Google docs that helps me organize all the things that people feel strongly enough about to create a spreadsheet or text doc.  I have Google calendar that helps me know when people are doing what.  I have Google maps and free API access to a ton of location based services that I can use to build shopping and spending patterns of individuals.  I even have Google voice that is trying really hard to figure out what people are saying in my voicemail. I have the fastest growing browser out there.  I’ll even have my own OS where you won’t be able to hide ANYTHING from me that is on your computer. And of course, and this is my favorite part, I have Google+ user accounts to tie all these services/things together so I can nail down all that information about YOU.  I’ll know where you live, work, shop, worship, recreate, vacation, and visit. And I’ll know what you do online, how long you stay there, if you’re reading or not, if it has to do with your job, if you spend money doing it, and if you’re likely to spend that money anytime soon. Today for example.

3. Tweak the search results – Now that I know everything there is to know about you I can tailor the algorithm specifically to you.  I’ll give you local search results when you are looking to buy things that you don’t usually have shipped.  I’ll remember who you have visited over the past few days and make sure that you see their ads on my affiliated adsense sites in hopes that you are ready to make that purchase today, or at least click the ad today.

There’s probably a lot that I’m overlooking but I only have 1 day to run Google, I need to get going.  I’d say that’s a pretty good start.  We’ll see how the bank account looks tomorrow and I’ll let you know how I did.

How Not to Do a Critique, and Then How to Do it Right

The Backstory

After I had been designing professionally for about 6 years I decided to go back to school and get a degree, and possibly learn a thing or two.  I ended up in Jim Godfrey’s Intro to Web Design because it was a prerequisite for the advanced class.   It was horrible. Jim made me use… (*sobs) Dreamweaver. And I wasn’t allowed to include javascript or anything dynamic.  Talk about torture. Jim turned out to be  an amazing teacher so I swallowed my pride and followed the rules.

The real fun started at the end of the first assignment when we all put our designs up on the big screen for a classwide critique.  By the time we were about 5 designs into the critique I knew one individual in particular would be my arch nemesis.  We’ll call him Larry.  I sat where I could see Larry’s screen as he worked but he couldn’t see mine.  I knew that Larry’s work was typical for a beginning class but his opinion manifested itself as rude and overbearing during the critique and just made me want to punch him.  Larry talked like he knew what he was talking about to those who don’t know better and he made everyone feel horrible for even trying to attempt the assignment.

Soon we came to mine.  I couldn’t wait to see what Larry would say. Surprisingly he didn’t say anything.  But as soon as the next design went up he was right back at it.  I began to stew.  I didn’t even notice the quality of work that was on the screen, I just noticed how wrong Larry was.  I put together my plan.  I knew what his project looked like and I planned my comments.  Making note of many of his comments that applied to his project as well.  I couldn’t wait to throw it all right back in his face.

Finally the moment came.  His design went up.  A few people raised their hands and offered praise on how well it was laid out, good white space, blah blah blah. My hand went up.  I’m normally not a harsh critic but this day was different.  This wasn’t a critique, this was war.  So I calmly began to go down my list.  Everything I said was right.  He could have paid attention to fonts, consistency in border widths, leaving a single point of interest, etc. etc.  I went on for a good 2 or 3 minutes.  As I spoke I could see the heads of all the intro students begin to nod and see that this was indeed a very poor design. I could also see Larry slide down lower in his chair.  This was supposed to be an anonymous critique so no one knew whose design we were looking at but I knew.  And I think Jim knew.  He gave me that look of “I wish I could get away with saying what you’re saying. Except I’m not that mean”.

By the time I was done I think I had destroyed Larry’s self esteem.  He didn’t offer up any more advice for the remaining few design projects.  He just slouched in his chair and sulked.  I had won.

I should have felt the joy of victory but I didn’t.  I felt sick.  Never before had I singled out an individual and systematically whittled down his work until it was a festering puddle of goo.  I had done what I had wanted to never do.  Sure I put him in his place but I think I could have handled it a lot better.  If I were to go back knowing what I know now what would I do different?

How to Critique

First acknowledge what they have done right.  Every designer, no matter how novice or how inartistic, starts with good intentions and for some part at least they accomplish it.  Start by finding what that is and give it a nod.

Second, ask questions.  Find out what they were going for.  Maybe they wanted to use so much white space that it would leave an unsettling feeling and make the viewer take a specific action.  Design isn’t about being pretty, it’s about solving an issue.  So find out what problem the designer is solving, it might not be what you are expecting.

Third, make suggestions.  Don’t tell them what they have done wrong. Suggest that they go back and try approaching it from this angle or that angle.  Try giving a little direction rather than just pointing out errors and mistakes.

Finally follow up all the advice with some more praise.  I don’t remember who told me this in school but you should treat a critique like a sandwich.  Keep all the meat in the middle and sandwich it in between two good pieces of praise.  I have used that philosophy since I got out of school and it has always worked well.

So what works for you? And what good critique horror stories do you have?

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The Three Types of Designers – What Level are You?

I attended a seminar a few  years ago where the owner of one of the states largest design firms gave a really interesting presentation where he kind of mentioned this fact as a sidenote: “There are three types of designers; Technicians, Artists, and Problem Solvers.  The technicians make up about 70% of the field, artists about 20% and problem solvers are only 1 out of 10.”  I remember being really impressed with all his work but this is the main thing I took away from listening to him.  I’ve worked with all types of designers over the last decade and here’s my thoughts on who’s who.

The Technician

In school I was taught all the tools and not really pushed to create anything that special.  Had I not worked as a designer before I decided to get the degree I probably would have been one of them.  You know the type.  They can explain how to use all the tools in Photoshop or Illustrator.  They understand the printing process and know how to do spot checks.  They can even code a little HMTL.  Technically they are designers. Technically.

They can take your mockup or sketch and turn it into something that is well… less like a mockup.  Some people will even be convinced that it will be something you could be proud to present to your customers.  They are really good at punching a clock and generally stay on task without much complaining.  They can take your idea and put it into the chosen medium as well as you can explain your idea.

When to hire the Technician

If you already know what you want but don’t possess the time or ability to produce your design you probably need a technician.  If you are the type of manager that loves looking at everything through a magnifying glass you might want to hire a technician.  A technician take instructions and doesn’t worry about adding their own style or applying their own market knowledge. In other words they won’t use their artistic ability to mess up your already brilliant ideas. Technicians are cheap.  You pay them for their time and their ability to memorize those keyboard shortcuts. And in the end, you get what you pay for.

The Artist

When I went back to school all I really wanted was a piece of paper that would open more doors.  I already thought I knew it all so I wasn’t really expecting to learn anything.  Well surprise surprise, I did learn a few things.  One thing I learned well (in photography and not in my design classes) was how to push yourself and explore artistic expression.

First off artists are technicians, and then some.  They have learned the tools and can design circles around the technicians but this has never really been proven because they wouldn’t every really stoop to that level. The artists are the designers that win awards.  They have a flash website that shows their great portfolio.  Many of their examples are quite visually striking but leave the viewer a little confused as to what is the exact purpose of the piece they are looking at.  They can make you feel like you are in an art gallery of sorts.  They charge a lot more than a technician and don’t really need you to give them a lot of direction.  In fact they don’t want much direction.  You don’t usually keep one of these guys on staff, they either work as a freelancer or for an agency.

When to hire the Artist

When you need to impress clients or competitors with your marketing budget, a good way to show them that you have money to throw around is to hire an artist.  When your only goal for your product is to be eye catching and get some attention you need an artist.  You hire an artist when you don’t have specific conversion goals or when you have goals but no metrics to track those goals.  You have a great deal of faith in your artist and you will need to give them some space to work their artistic magic.  You can expect the artist to deliver something mind blowing and unexpected.  If that’s what you are after you can’t get that from a technician. You’ll need an artist.

The Problem Solver

Something that they really didn’t teach in school was the ability to solve problems. They tried, but mostly they failed.

In the truest sense, a designer is a problem solver.  They must have mastered the technical aspect.  They must have the artistic flair.  But they also have something that the other two types of designers are lacking.  The have the ability to understand why their client has come to them in the first place.  Even in cases when the clients doesn’t understand why they have come to the designer.

The problem solver has the ability to figure out what the client is hoping to accomplish by having something designed and then finding the best solution to accomplish the goal.  The problem solver uses goals and tracking metrics to measure the success of their efforts will come back and tweak things until they know they have it just right.  The problem solver has considered and in some cases pursued a career in some field of engineering.

Problem solvers are going to require a bit more time than the other guys.  They are going to spend a lot of time up front  getting to understand your industry and business.  They’ll really get to know your company and your goals.  They will also be a little bit pricey but not really that much more than the artists.

When to hire the Problem Solver

When you know what your goals are and have them well defined you are probably ready for a problem solver.  You understand that you have your expertise and the problem solver has theirs.  You are going to rely on their expertise but not just on faith. You want to work closely with them so you can understand how to work better them but you don’t want to try to manage them or dictate what they do.  The problem solver will help you understand who your target market really is (not just who you think they are) and help you reach that market.  They’ll take the time to understand the mindset of the target market and develop a plan to really connect with them.

The problem solver is also an artist but they understand that a design must do more than blow people away.  It must connect with your customers on a conscious level as well as on a subconscious level.  It also goes without saying that the problem solver is also a master technician.  They not only know the tools, they have tweaked and customized the tools to streamline their work and many times have developed their own tools to accomplish what the industry standards don’t quite pull off.

So I have to back up a little.  I don’t really consider Technicians to be designers.  I also don’t really consider the Artists to be designers.  But if you ask them if they are they’ll t respond affirmatively.  I’d call them aspiring designers maybe. In my mind a designer is someone who can find the right balance between form and function to solve a problem.

So Who Are You?

Which type of designer are you?  Are there more types of designers that I am missing?

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An SEO Experiment – What Is Mesothelioma?

Someone asked me not long ago what would be a really good strategy for building an MFA site.  Personally I have never liked them. I think they make the Internet a NOT-better place.  But I knew this was someone who wasn’t planning on launching thousands of lame sites so I indulged.

Me: What is your domain that you want to do adsense on?

Them: Oh, I don’t have one yet. I was wondering what domain I should go get.

Me: Ok, do you care what subject your site is on?

Them: No, not really. I mean as long as it’s not porn or illegal or something like that.

Me: Ok, I would start out by researching the value of the ads that your site will be placing.  You need your site to naturally rank for the keywords that your advertisers will be targeting.  Let’s do a quick search.  (searching…) Ok, here’s a good list.  Number 1 keyword: Mesothelioma.  Do you know what mesothelioma is?

Them: No idea.

Me: Mesothelioma is a cancer that is caused by asbestos.  There was a few big class action lawsuits a while back and basically if you come down with mesothelioma you can get a big chunk of this money.  Lawyers are dying to get in front of you if you have mesothelioma so they are paying big bucks to get that keyword.  See, look at this. Keyword number 3 “What is Mesothelioma” They’re spending $50 a click to get that keyword.  Now keep in mind, they are probably not paying for non-Google domain searches.  That means that your won’t be getting the $50 clicks on your site. But that’s still a pretty good indicator.

Them: So let’s say I want to have my site be about mesothelioma.

Me: Ok, so next thing you want is to see if you can get a domain with one of these keywords in the domain.  So let’s see what’s available… wow, look at that! is available.  A .biz is no .com but still, that’s a pretty good domain.

Them: Ok register it right now before someone steals it.

Me: Oh you must have done this before on GoDaddy and come back the next day to get the domain that you wanted just to see that someone else had registered it hours after you had looked it up.

Them: Yeah. How did you know?

Me: I’ve heard that story many times.  That’s why I don’t use GoDaddy. (typing and clicking…)  Ok, so now it’s registered.  You have two choices at this point.  You can either develop your own unique content (which is better) or you can just put up a page with links and some easy copied mesothelioma stuff and not worry about it any more.

Them: I think I’ll develop my own content.  How do I do that?

Me: First, go research Mesothelioma.  Make a list of sites you want to link to.  Make your own notes and write some unique content about it.  I’ll setup a WordPress blog and you can just come add content when ever you want.

So the story doesn’t end there.  The site cleared the sandbox in less than 2 weeks.  It got its first real visitor about 3 weeks later.  And finally 2 months later it’s ranking for the keyword “What is Mesothelioma”.  Granted, it’s on page 31 but it’s still ranking.  With less than a total of 5 hours of work on it.  And it’s getting clicks.  It’s best click so far has been $2.94. That’s not too bad but you can’t make a living on it without traffic.  Now we’ll just see how much it really gets.

**Note: I also recommend going through the process of measuring potential traffic. We just didn’t happen to do it on this experement.

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RAD (Rapid Application Development) with WordPress

I can hear the developers screaming for my head on a platter already and I haven’t even began to explain.  Please sit down and put away the pitchforks, I think it’ll make sense.

WordPress is not a development platform. It’s a blogging platform, right? Right. It’s also pretty flexible.  With a little creativity it can do a lot.

Screenshot of the WordPress 2.9 adminstration
WordPress Admin Screen

I’m not going to suggest that you could use it for most web applications but I just had an idea Monday, and today it’s live in WordPress, for the most part anyway.

The Story:

I have always run into times when I wanted a page printed out with some sort of lines or graph or something that Iknow I could buy at Office Depot but I only want 3 copies of it so I sit down and crank it out in Illustrator in about 5 minutes.  I have amassed quite the collection over the years.  Then Monday my son brought some blank sheet music home from piano lessons and I caught myself thinking “hmmm, I could have created that in like 3 minutes.”  Then I looked closer.  It had a web address on it.  His teacher had just gone tothis website and printed out the paper templates for free. In less than 3 minutes I’ll wager too.

The Development: (and I use that term loosely here)

So that got me thinking… “Why couldn’t I take all my paper templates and launch a similar site.  I would like it to have the ability for random people to come submit their designs too.  But I want it to be a kind of community site, not a shopping cart.  And I want contributors to be able to just upload their stuff.  And why not run adsense on it to see if I could get it to make a little money.  Hey, I could do all those things in WordPress.  Right?  Yeah, I think I could.”

So I did it, I say down for 2 hours and did it all; register the domain, setup the host, install WordPress, install an appropriate theme, install some necessary plugins, setup a twitter account.  And presto, I have a new site where people can come contribute their paper templates and anyone can come download and print them for free.  In one night.  I’d call that rapid wouldn’t you?

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Naming Conventions as a Marketing Tool

No, I’m not talking about including your keywords in your files names, though that is a worthy subject for a blog post.  I’m talking about the designer being organized enough for someone else to make sense of their photoshop layers.  How is that marketing you say? Let me explain.

Shawn Borsky recently wrote a really good article covering the basics of design that help the designer excel and shine.  One of his suggestions is that we stay organized in our naming conventions and organization.

Stop and think about this for a minute.  Who is ever going to see your PSDs?  You typically send a flattened jpg or png to the client or if you are really serious about your image you present it to your client in person printed in high res and mounted on mat board.  You don’t show them your PSDs.  You will see your own files again some day down the road when you need to make a design change but don’t remember what you named the layer containing the clients logo.  Quite possibly the developer who takes your design and HTMLizes it will see the PSD but the client’s decision maker isn’t going to see them.  Or will they?

I’ve spent a lot of time working in both roles, designer and developer.  As a developer there have been numerous occasions where the decision maker has come to me and asked “What do you think of these guys?”  And usually I just answer without giving it much thought.  I base my answer not on how the designer has been able to handle them self in meetings and conversations, I judge by how easy they are to work with and how well they get the job done.  I have received PSDs with 20MB of layers that aren’t even being used.  That’s not saving me any time because it’s hard to tell at a glance which layers are really needed because they are named “layer 57” and “copy of vector smart object”.   The time spent sorting out the layers and figuring out what is supposed to be there can really add up if the designer hasn’t taken the time.  No one knows the file like the original designer so it takes the designer a fraction of the time it would take the developer just to figure it out.  I have also received files where the layers are organized into folders and cleanly labeled. It’s rare, but where it happens it’s a breath of fresh air.

So I respond to the decision maker, “Oh, these guys over at this agency really have their act together.  They are worth twice what we are paying them.”  And typically I have worked with decision makers that know when to take the developers advice.  They base 80% of their decision on my advice.  The organized designer gets the job, the raise, the additional contract.

Then in the last few years there have been the times that I have been the decision maker.  I always ask for the PSDs because I am looking for good designers with which to form long lasting relationships.  There’s a lot more to it than just having your files organized.  Organizing bad work doesn’t make for a good designer. But a good designer can often lose the bid if I can find one that is almost as good but keeps things organized.

So in a way, your organization skills are your marketing.  Any time you create an advocate within your client’s organization you have your marketing taken care of for you. It’s word of mouth, only better.

Sketching – The Forgotten and Most Important Step in the Design Process

Although I have been doing SEO since 2001, I was a web designer first. I just read a really good post on whether to sketch or not to sketch in your design process. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the designers block that so often accompanies the non-sketching option or to take up the pen and paper against the seas of frustration and just get those ideas down on paper and out of your head.

I thought I would give our readers some details on how it works for me.  Keep in mind, this is an individualized process and you should tweak it to suit you.  This is just how I do it.

First I start out with thumbnails.  The idea with thumbnails is to get design ideas onto paper.  I use blank paper, sometimes graph paper, never ordinary lined paper.  When I have a bad idea come into my mind I can’t seem to keep it from effecting my others ideas until I get it on paper.  Once the idea is on paper I can move on without worrying about the previous ideas, good or bad.  I try to keep the sketching for each thumbnail under 10 seconds.  I also try to keep them smaller than 2 inches sqare. This doesn’t leave time or room to make them detailed or fancy but then, that’s the whole point.  Usually I find that I don’t find the idea that ends up being the final design until I have been sketching thumbnails for 20 to 30 minutes.  Not that the first ideas are bad, I may even come back to them and use them on a future project.

Of course there are the times when I can already visualize the perfect design in my mind before I sit down at the computer or to sketch. I still sketch anyway because even from one single idea, I get 5 to 10 very different sketches.  And even if I end up keeping my original idea, the sketching makes it much stronger than it would have been without it.

Sometimes I know it the second I finish the thumbnail. Sometimes I have to weigh the options and use the ol’ calculatus ellimatus to narrow down which ones are worthy of exploring further.

That’s right, thumbnails is just the beginning of the sketching process.  Next I move on to create roughs of the ideas that show potential.  Sometimes there’s 4 to explore, sometimes there’s 20.  I will try to get at least 4 roughs on an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper.  I spend a little more time on them but not that much.  The idea here is to add some detail and explore options within the idea. From each thumbnail I’ll sketch 2 to 10 roughs, depending on the current flow of the creative juices.

Once I feel like I’m done with the roughs, I go over them all and mark the things I like. One, two, or even three stars.  Usually if I give something three stars, I have found my final concept.

From there I go to a full sheet of paper. I take all the ideas I liked and see what works well together. I might even break out the colored pencils if I am feeling it.  Most of the time I can visualize the right colors with a simple B&W sketch in front of me but if you are going to show it to someone (a client maybe) the colors can help a lot. *NOTE Sketches are not usually for clients. But there may be some that you know will respond well and understand the design process.  These clients are usually recognized by their budget. Clients that pay more are usually much easier to work with.

Once I have found my final concept, the PhotoShopping goes quickly.  There’s little exploration on the screen and there doesn’t need to be. I know how I want it to look and I know how I don’t want it to look.  From there it’s a matter of picking the right font and images to accompany the design. But that’s probably better left for another post.

The Page Footer – an Indespensible Tool for SEO and/or Conversion Rate

There’s some fantastic information in a recent article on WebDesignerDepot.  I was just discussing this concept with a  client the other day.  The subject at hand was “How do you get the most mileage out of your footer?”

The footer of your site is one of the most critical and overlooked parts of the site.  The article at WebDesignerDepot offers many good points from a design perspective but I prefer a good combination of SEO and user-centric features.  Examples like the White House and Apple are what most SEO firms will recommend.  They’ll tell you to make sure you have links there to all your important pages and make sure you load your keywords into them.  That’s all good for the search engines but don’t forget about the user.  Mail Chimp takes the space in the footer and uses it to repeat its sales pitch. Chances are, if someone has read all the way to the bottom of a page, they are predictably going to be more interested in what you are doing/selling on your website than people that never make it to the footer.  But Mail Chimp also loses some SEO value.  So which is the right strategy?

At this point I would say take a step back and look at your analytics.  What are your users doing with your current footer.  Maybe it’s time to try some A-B testing with your footer and see if adding the sales pitch without the links makes a difference in your conversion rate.  I’m betting it will.  But every website is different.  It could be that you lose a couple spots in your rankings and the difference in traffic isn’t worth the gain in conversion rate. But then again, maybe it will be.

There’s also pretty good odds that you are using social media in your marketing.  You are right? You should be.  Social media icons and links could fit very well into your footer strategy.  But again, consult your analytics and do some testing.

Above all, remember the first rule of SEO.  If it’s useful for real users, the search engines have figured it out or will figure it out. Eventually

Do Flash and SEO Mix?

This has been on ongoing issue since the late 90s. Traditional graphic designers love to push Flash because it allows them more creative flexibility. Flash doesn’t have the same technical limits as HTML.

Sites that are built in all flash can still rank well in search engines but not as well as a similar page built in HTML. The reason? Google has over 250 parameters they take into account when indexing and ranking websites. Flash can still accommodate some of these parameters but not most of them. Even with the Google/Adobe announcement that Google would begin indexing flash files, they don’t behave the same way that HTML files do and are still treated differently.

Industry Leader Rand Fishkin (who loves flash) has come up with a great list of 7 reasons why you shouldn’t have a site created in ALL flash. (

  1. Different content is NOT on different URLs
  2. The breakdown of text (not formatted by importance like HTML)
  3. Flash gets embedded
  4. Lack of testability for flash optimization
  5. Flash doesn’t earn external links like HTML pages do
  6. SEO basics are missing
  7. A lot of flash still isn’t crawlable

Vanessa Fox of Nine By Blue has given the following reasons to be cautious when considering Flash:

  1. Search engines are still based on text, not Flash
  2. Even using XML to populate your Flash, you miss most of the SEO benefits of HTML
  3. Google can’t index javascript called from Flash (a common practice)

There are also many opinions about the correct way to use flash. Some say not at all, some say Search Engines don’t really matter. The general consensus is that flash is best used as a page element in an HTML based site. Even if you will have the bulk of the content be Flash. This is the best way to accommodate the edgy designers and the search engine sceintsts.

The big issue here is what really matters to companies concerned with reputation management.

To these companies, Search Engines do matter but not for the same reasons that one might expect. The main SEO push at these companies is to get good positive content on the 1st page of Google. They probably already have the top position, but also want the big detractors to not appear on page one. That will be accomplished by building SEO value in other web properties. Building the new company site(s) all in Flash will not help that endeavor, it will hinder it. Here’s why.

Links are widely accepted as the most heavily weighted factors in search rankings. Google doesn’t do well finding links from flash to other sites. The company needs to get its secondary properties to rank on the 1st page of Google for the main keyword (the company name). For example if had a flash link to, it wouldn’t get picked up by Google and MonaVie would be losing one of the most valuable links for that secondary domain. By putting the content and links in HTML, they gain those ever important links from to their other properties AND they also gain latent semantic keyword value by having the page text associated with the links on the page. Both of those benefits are lost in the use of an all Flash website.

How companies should use flash

Companies definitely need to keep flash, but done right. Flash isn’t the only way to accomplish the premium look and feel that they need on the website but it is very effective from a design perspective. What needs to be done is to use flash as a page element that is embedded into HTML. They also need to make sure to incorporate content into the design. Every page – especially the homepage needs to have textual content.