If someone told me they were going to design a car, my first question would be "what sort of car"? There is no generic car, there are sports cars, saloon cars, hatchbacks and commuter cars. The same goes for websites. And if you are thinking of designing your own site you need to make yourself aware of the kind of sites that are on the internet and the kind of information and content they represent.
The first thing you should do on deciding to design your own website is to look at other websites on your topic. For example, if you have decided to design your own gardening website then do a Google search on gardening and take a look at all the sites that appear on the first page.
What you will immediately realize is that each site is doing a different job, and each "job" requires different design considerations. For example, if I type the word "gardening" into Google search, then start clicking to view each site that appears in the listings. I find sites for a gardening association, a guide to gardening, a home and garden shop, a blog, and many others; and each of them takes a different approach to their design according to the kind of site they are and the kind of job they are doing.
Here's what I mean: the first site is for a gardening association. This site looks almost like a newspaper front page but in colour. It has a grid format, it looks tidy, but there are some nice photos of gardens and flowers, and some short article introductions which look interesting to read.
There is a clear menu in a column on the left side and some colourful but unobtrusive classified ads on the right. There are some icons which act like signposts to special pages or areas and, overall, the feel is colourful, warm, inviting and informative. Many of the topics in the menu seem to be about activities and people; there are dates and forthcoming events advertised.
Now I'll take a look at the "home and garden store" website and compare the two. The first thing I notice about this ecommerce website is the popup; the popup tells me there is a special offer available for this month only and do I want to go to the special offer page and find out more? I close that and take a look at the front page. It's very in my face. There are all sorts of adverts telling me this one is free or that one is cut price; some of them are animated. The format is similar to the gardening association front page but this one is more like a magazine front cover than a newspaper - it has a grid but a lot of images and titles break out of the grid to fight for my attention. As a gardener, I am already getting my wallet out.
Now let's take a quick look at the gardening guide website. The first thing I notice about the gardening guide site is that it seems to have the best navigation of them all. As soon as the page opens I can see some big navigation tabs which tell me exactly what categories of information are available and if I click on any of them I get to a page which then gives me a series of subcategories on that main topic. Also on the front page, very prominently, there is a search box which allows me to just type in my keyword and it will tell me what pages have relevant information to that keyword.
There are colours and some pictures on the front page but they are really secondary to this navigation. This site is clearly about giving me the information I need in the simplest and quickest way possible. The only additional elements I notice are the Google Adsense advertisements. Many information sites make money this way because these adverts are context sensitive; which means the adverts that appear on the page will be relevant to the information on the page. This is perfect for an informative site like this one. If I click on one of the adverts the site owner will get paid anything for a few cents to a few dollars.
Finally, we'll take a look at the blog. What is immediately noticeable about this blog is the photo in the header; which looks like it has been taken by an amateur, and I assume the person in the picture owns the blog, since they are planting a shrub and smiling at the camera. The other feature of this blog is that it has only two columns: a big wide column with articles in it and a narrow column on the left which contains a series of menus.
The titles of the articles are all different in nature to the titles of other sites, here they are written in a conversational way and some of them aren't even particularly informative about the content of the test that follows. Finally, there are hyperlinks in the blog to "recommended products"; which, in everyday language means Affiliate Programs. Many bloggers make some pocket money with Google Adsense, but many also make a good income from promoting products and getting a commission on sales.
Knowing who your competitors are is the first step towards designing an effective site. But knowing what sort of content and information your site will contain, and how best to present it is essential - now go ahead and search under your own topic and begin taking notes; this is where your site design begins.