Let’s start at the very beginning of building a web page.
Why are you expending all of this time, energy and expense to build a web site and put it on the Internet? Obviously, you want other people to see these pages. You are attempting to communicate, through your web pages, a specific message to specific people. Ideally, you should be able to sum up the purpose in a succinct tag line. At “Elements of Web Style”, we want to convey “The Fundamentals of Professional Web Sites.”
Now write down what your message is and who the people are you’re addressing.
No, no, really, write it down. This isn’t an idle exercise or one of those warm, fuzzy, pop-psych, inspirational tricks. This is the purpose of your work. This determines everything else from format to content to navigation to promotion. Your web site is a tool to communicate your message to your target audience. And the purpose defines the tool; the tool does not define the purpose. True, anything can be a hammer, but the purpose of the tool — to hammer something — defines the object, whatever the original name and purpose of the object. I speak as someone who has turned numerous objects (Corning Corel cups, shoe heels, barbells, wrenches, and so forth) into hammers on occasion.
Philosophical meandering aside, defining the purpose, the goal if you wish, of the site and each page is essential to a successful professional site. What message are you trying to communicate and to whom? Don’t be distracted by how you’ll reach your audience or what you tools you’ll use to convey your message. Define the message and your audience correctly and the rest becomes easy.
An architect can’t design a building without knowing how it will be used and by whom. Once you clearly and succinctly know the purpose of your site, you can figure out what you need to build it. You can also determine the right tool for the job. Or a reasonable substitute, if the right tool isn’t available. And you can determine what tools can’t be substituted.