In 1995 I had a job interview with a company about which I knew very little. A good friend used something called Mosaic (an early Web browser) to access and print out the company’s website. It had five pages. Those pages most definitely helped me as I prepared for the interview and ultimately got the job.
Nearly 20 years later, visiting company websites is part of my day-to-day work for this magazine. What does a typical geospatial company homepage look like? Does it provide the information a visitor seeks? Does it provide a message and identify a competitive advantage over other companies in the same arena? I explored 11 company homepages to see which met my expectations as a visitor.
What Should a Homepage Do?
The homepage of a website is its front door. What makes a good front door for a home or business?
confirmation you are at the correct place
A house typically has the street number and the resident’s name: “15 Central St, The Steins.” A reputable business, in anything but stealth mode, has the name of the business prominently displayed and a clear statement of what’s on offer. Why is this important? Visitors should feel confident they are in the right place! If not, they’ll be reticent to ring the bell and/or come in. On the Web many companies have similar names and logos, so it can be worth the extra effort to make clear this is the website of Atomic Fireballs (the candy) and not Atomic Fireballs (the band from Detroit).
a welcoming atmosphere
A locked gate or a sign that says “Beware of Pit Bull” is not welcoming. A homepage that does not reach out to greet a visitor has a similar feel. In the language of the Web and communications, that welcome is a call to action. It’s the online equivalent of “come in and have some lemonade and cookies.” In short, it invites the visitor to interact with the company behind the website.
easy access to information
People visit a home or a business for a specific purpose. They might be attending a dinner party or planning to purchase a dining room set. A visit to a GIS website also has a specific purpose: The visitor might be looking for software pricing or what phone number to call for tech support. (N.B. Only journalists are looking for the latest press releases!) Effective websites make the most in-demand information easy to find.
When you visit a friend’s house or a business, you get a message. Hopefully, the friend says, “So good to see you!” Most businesses ask, “How can I help you?” or “We have a special on this product or service running this week!” A company homepage should also send a clear message, be it a simple “Hello!” or “Here’s what we want you to know today!”
These are the key expectations I had in mind as I explored the homepages of 11 geospatial companies. I’ve given each homepage a grade:
A - ready for visitors
B - room for improvement
C - plan for renovations
Refer to the slideshare deck below as you read the evaluations of each company.
Esri’s website features a rotating series of messages at the top. This is common practice in our industry and elsewhere on the Web. This “carousel” can make it hard to determine exactly what the company offers as the topics march by.
The homepage offers several calls to action: learn about hotspot map creation, see how Wendy’s saves money with Esri technology, consider open data, see the latest offering for the Mac. These are welcoming and prompt interaction, but do not help a visitor determine what the company does.
Menus at the top and bottom of the homepage guide visitors to details on products, industry areas and answers to questions such as, “What is GIS?” One or more sets of menus appeared on every homepage I visited. They allow a visitor to quickly jump to content of interest.
The challenge in identifying Esri’s area of expertise and the lack of a clear unified message left me a bit unsettled.
All the changes to Intergraph, part of Hexagon, in recent years make the relationships between Intergraph, Hexagon, Intergraph Process, Power & Marine (PP&M) and Intergraph Security, Government & Infrastructure (SG&I) rather confusing. The Intergraph homepage aims to guide the visitor to the appropriate section of the website.
The rest of the homepage includes “Features” and “News and Events.” The former are links to articles, product fact sheets and company published magazines. The latter are press releases. I know that in these times “every company is a media company,” but the volume of text links is overwhelming and precludes any focused message from coming through.
The good news on the Intergraph site is that once a visitor selects a path (either PP&M or SG&I) things get better. Over at SG&I, the visitor learns:
Intergraph Security, Government & Infrastructure (SG&I)is the leader in smart solutions for emergency response, utilities, transportation, and other global challenges. Intergraph Government Solutions(IGS) is an independent subsidiary for SG&I’s U.S. federal business. Intergraph SG&I is one of two divisions of Intergraph Corporation. Intergraph is part of Hexagon.
On this SGI homepage Intergraph shares information on how it can help the visitor in different industries, shows all of its customers, and details its products. And, the calls to action at the top of the page are few. Together they define a unified message of what the division offers: benefits, saving time, next generation solutions.
My suggestion to Intergraph: Simplify the Intergraph homepage to make it a fork in the road to quickly push the visitor down the correct branch.
PCI Geomatics’ homepage suggests, rather than announces, what the company does. There are maps and imagery, rather than icons and symbols, in most of the rotating graphics.
A chat tool (which is only available live during certain hours) is welcoming and prompts immediate interaction. Four simple menus at the top of the page direct visitors to the specifics they may need. The single message I took away: Take this software for a spin! This message was reinforced several times via text and clickable buttons: Try Before You Buy, Get Geomatics Now, GLX - Learn More.
Static buttons below the rotating sentences highlight two options: Try It for Free and How it Works. The few short sentences in the rotating graphic make it clear to me that Mapbox offers tools to design computer maps for a variety of uses.
The message is clear, too: Please try our tools! It’s included not once but twice “above the fold,” that is, before the visitor has to scroll down the page.
Once the visitor does scroll down, the page features some of the company’s users: foursquare, Pinterest, GitHub. I find the list very welcoming; it confirms that a visitor (and potential user) is “in good company”!
Pitney Bowes owns the MapInfo brand and product line. The company relaunched the MapInfo site in June 2013 (Directions Magazine coverage). Pitney Bowes, like Hexagon, has the challenge of owning multiple brands and product lines. I think giving the MapInfo brand its own website is wise.
The MapInfo homepage is welcoming; it includes the red MapInfo logo (complete with a period after it, aka “MapInfo.”) and what the company offers: [software for] desktop, server, Web and data. The term GIS is nowhere to be found, but maps and the term map are on screen during every moment, even as the graphics change. And, MapInfo has a leg up on explaining its offerings; it’s a truly great brand name! While in place, the calls to action are bit weak: Learn More about the contest, data offerings and Download Free Trial of MapInfo Professional.
Scrolling down reveals details about the data packages, resources and noteworthy customers. I appreciate that the Pitney Bowes logo appears, just once, at the very bottom of the page.
Is there a message? There is; it’s very subtle. After all the changes and a limited Web presence that led some MapInfo users to feel the brand was missing in action, this website simply says, “MapInfo Lives.” That was a valuable message for the portal’s first year. It may be time to re-craft it for year two.
Pitney Bowes is retooling its brand (see Directions Magazine coverage) and the MapInfo homepage is a solid start.
Planet Labs: B
The static graphic has two sentences over it: “WELCOME TO YOUR PLANET” and “Planet Labs delivers the most current images of our entire Earth.” The homepage explains, in simple terms, what the company offers.
The page and menus don’t address what I expect are common questions: What imagery do you have? How do I get it? Instead, the text Towards daily imaging of Spaceship Earth (Read More) graces the center of the image. That’s a link to the latest blog post about the August 7 launch of the Gallery.
The rest of the homepage addresses the company’s three expected types of customers (businesses, developers and everyone) and invites visitors to “Meet the Dove,” the company’s remote sensing satellite. That’s the call to action, I suppose. Is it the appropriate call to action? I should think visitors want to know about “the most current images of our entire Earth.”
Planet Labs is just beginning to capture and deliver imagery. I’m hopeful it will better address its visitors’ questions about its products and services.
There are hints but no clear statement about Skybox’s offerings. The hints are “Explore data” and some breaking news about first imagery available from Skysat-2. The company offers satellite images and video collected from its satellites. The calls to action include “Learn more [about the Google acquisition]” and “View Gallery.”
If this is a company that offers imagery, what makes that imagery special? Scrolling down, there are three answers to “Why Skybox?” See if these are compelling: Focus, People, Flexibility. I think Skybox is innovative, but these terms could be used by any company in any industry.
The main message in August was clearly the Google acquisition. While it’s important to know that Google owns Skybox, as I’ve suggested with Hexagon and Pitney Bowes, it’s not that important over time. I think three months after the acquisition is the proper time to offer a fresh message.
Skybox offers pretty standard menus including Products, Company and Technology. I note these since the details of each category were not as clear as I’d have liked. I fear the writers were just trying too hard to be clever.
Products: We empower global businesses to make better decisions with timely, high fidelity imagery and infinite analytics.
Company: Pioneering a more transparent world
Technology: End-to-end technology stack translating photons into information
Under the images is the call to action: “Learn more about our product lines & powerful enabling technologies.” The changing images are all that suggest what those product lines and enabling technologies might be. I was hoping for a clearer statement of “what this company does” or “why WorldView-3 matters.”
Below the images, the company details its four products/service areas: data, information, insights and platform. Those terms likely have meaning for those familiar with satellite imagery, but I’m not sure how well a novice would understand them. Press, Social Media and Image of the Day resources, along with investor information, round out the page. These resources did not help me find a message.
Caliper lists more than 20 uses, what it calls “solutions,” for its Maptitude software on its homepage. They run from A-Z, from banking to world mapping. Some of these are packaged industry products (Maptitude for Redistricting) but most are indications that Maptitude out of the box can be used in the industry (banking) or technology area (3D, satellite and aerial imagery).
The terms Caliper uses on the page make it 100% clear what the company offers: “Geographic Information System,” “Mapping Software,” “Transportation Planning Software,” “Traffic Simulation Software.” Still, a single message is hard to identify. It’s either “Live Demo Request” or “Buy Now.”
Caliper wisely keeps news, tweets and other distractions from its homepage and focuses 100% on its products and solutions. If anything, there’s a bit too much crammed on the very dense homepage.
Finding Boundless’ message takes some energy. A visitor patient enough to read through the text on the rotating images will see the terms “open” and “open source” a few times. And the term “geospatial” is used quite a bit, too. A single strong statement about the company’s relationship to open source geospatial software might be helpful.
Prominent “Customer Support” and “Ask a Question” buttons are a welcoming way to engage the visitor. I would like to see a single non-rotating reiteration of a single call to action.
Below the images, Boundless offers different paths into its content. There are paths for developers, analysts and managers. In reality, the links all point to the same page where there’s a breakdown of products and services for each category. Blog posts and tweets are pushed down to the bottom of the page, along with key customers.
Safe’s introductory text reads, “CONNECT. TRANSFORM. AUTOMATE.
Create harmony between data and applications.” Also front and center are the company’s three product options: for the desktop, for enterprise automation and for the cloud. Interestingly, FME, the product name and its logo are there, but the acronym is not expanded or explained. The phrase “create harmony” is perhaps meant to explain what the company’s Feature Manipulation Engine products do.
The rest of the page is dedicated to “media” including news and blog posts. There’s no list identifying users, but there is an impressive number: 10,000 users rely on FME technology.
The gory details of the FME product are available, if you look carefully at some tiny text that reads “FME is a unique data integration platform with built-in support for location that gives you the power to make different data and systems work together to derive new information for your organization. Connect all your data and applications with FME's unmatched support for 325 formats, advanced data transformation tools, automated workflows, and more. FME technology ensures data is readily available to everyone in the format they need so tasks can be achieved more efficiently.”
My guess is this wordy statement is kept small and hidden because it’s not meant for human visitors but for computer visitors, that is, for search bots. The page itself is not as welcoming to humans as it might be. I’m not sure visitors would know they’d reached the correct destination, especially if they were expecting a tool that manipulates geodata. The call to action, a small green Free Trial button is not a focus; it’s “out-colored” by orange, yellow and blue product icons.
The message is about harmony, but it’s not backed up in any way. And, while access to product information is front and center (the colored boxes noted above), access to information about the nature of those products, the “data integration platform with built-in support for location” is not.
Some Observations and Suggestions
I think it’s worth the time and cost to create a concise description of what an organization does. Further, it’s worth the space on the homepage to make it prominent. A homepage with this information confirms that the visitor has successfully reached the Web address of the organization sought. It’s exactly akin to putting balloons on the front porch when hosting a party. Both “front doors” reinforce a strong positive feeling. In both cases the visitor might reflect, “The hosts think enough of me to confirm I found them.”
It’s also worth the time and cost to regularly (monthly, quarterly, etc.) define a single message for visitors to an organization’s homepage. Is it a request to download and evaluate a new product? Watch a video? Participate in a contest? I suggest marketers determine what that single thing is and provide a strong call to action. And, plan to measure the success of the call to action: How many people downloaded the product? How many watched the video? Participated in the contest? The homepage campaign may combine with other marketing methods (social media, phone calls, etc.) to drive these results, but these drivers can be easily distinguished.
While I agree that “every company is a media company,” not every company needs to put news on the front page. Hosting a press release or tweet that is several months old ensures it’s probably no longer “news.” That is akin to welcoming guest to a messy house; the host has not taken the time to prepare for the visit.
If at all possible, keep the company Web address and name in sync. Safe Software was smart (and a bit lucky) to grab Safe.com years ago. If it chose to use the actual format that launched the company, SAIF, things might be far more confusing. Planet Labs now owns both Planet-labs.com and Planet.com. Boundless’ Web address is Boundlessgeo.com. I, for one, am already referring to the company as Boundless Geo. Why? There is an education company called Boundless.
Rotating images and headlines on homepages do not work for me. Others suggest they have limitations. It’s time to reconsider the use of the “carousel.”
I like to see a list of well-known customers on a homepage. That screams credibility, especially from a start-up.
If more than a handful of companies offer the same products and/or services (satellite and aerial imagery is heading that way) consider sharing the organization’s distinguishing characteristic on the homepage. Are you cheaper? Faster to deliver? Higher resolution?
Finally, it’s worth asking the question if homepages really matter in 2014. The Web is roughly 20 years old and it’s possible the idea of the homepage as front door is passé. With the power of search engines and links shared via social media, it’s possible many visitors bypass the front page altogether and dip directly into the content of interest. Marketing experts have suggested companies no longer need to host a website; they can do just as well, or perhaps better, with content hosted on LinkedIn.
Originally published Sept 29, 2014 as "Geospatial Companies! Is Your Homepage Doing its Job?"