I'll get right to the point: what makes a great Web site is focus and clarity of purpose.

A great Web site is unpretentious. It doesn't pretend to be what it is not. It never wastes your time, because it always gets to the point. A great Web site helps you to act.

Microsoft has a great home page. It has a classic three-column layout that looks like millions of other Web site layouts. This is great, because Web design is primarily navigational. Good navigation seeks to reduce uncertainty and increase familiarity.

Every student of Web design should carefully study the content on the Microsoft home page. It is so sharp, so lean, so action oriented. It is a Web page that means business.

The center of the home page is the lead story. It is easier to get the eye to focus on one lead story than multiple stories of equal importance, where the eye tends to skim. The lead story acts to anchor the readers and helps lead them deeper into the Web site.

On the day I visited Microsoft, the text of the leads story read:

  • Mydoom virus alert
  • Important information
  • Be cautious about opening files attached to email
  • Actions you can take

This story is relevant, important, useful, urgent. It matters. The tone is active. You learn something: don't open email attachments. It ends with a call to action. When you click, there actually is a set of actions you can take. (You'd be surprised how many times links don't deliver on their promises.)

Many home pages are a mess, a political compromise between competing interests. Some managers think that their organizations are so big and complex that it is impossible to create a lead story and reader segmentation on the home page. Such managers are often avoiding making difficult decisions.

Microsoft has made some difficult decisions. It has segmented its marketplace into three distinct segments:

  • Home and entertainment
  • Technical resources
  • Business agility

It makes three offers to each of these segments. Not 33; just three. People have a limit. If you bombard them with too many choices, you overload them and they turn off.

On the surface, it looks like more work to put 33 choices on a page. It is more manual work. However, it requires more intellectual work to choose the top three from the 33.

All the text is active on the Microsoft home page. It uses words such as make, watch, prevent, check, get, how, try, see. There is not a word wasted. The text is not just written in an active voice. Practically all the text is linked. The whole page is alive with calls to action and the ability to immediately act on those calls.

There is no redundant text such as “click here,” “more” or “download now.” The text creates its own momentum. Read the following:

Make money management less taxing: Try Money 2004.

You don't need to be told, “Click here for more.” It is obvious from the text that this is something you can click on. The text itself is compelling you to click.

This is how Microsoft sells and supports its products, and how it builds its brand on the Web. Specific. To the point. Concrete. Selective. Opinionated. Always focused on driving actions.

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image of Gerry McGovern
Gerry McGovern (gerry@gerrymcgovern.com) is a content management consultant and author. His latest book is The Stranger's Long Neck: How to Deliver What Your Customers Really Want Online, which teaches unique techniques for identifying and measuring the performance of customers' top tasks.