Successful Art and Artist Websites
Do's and Don'ts
How to Build a Website that Works
The mantra for a successful art or artist website has been and continues to be "Keep it fast, simple, easy and organized." Navigation and content must be straightforward in order to attract visitors in the first place and keep them on the site once they get there. First-time visitors to any artist website should know as quickly as possible where they are, who the artist is, what their art looks like, what it's about, why it's worth seeing (and hopefully worth buying), and how to move around in order to get wherever they want to go. Sites that lack these basics or make other common errors won't be able to attract and hold visitors, and will likely end up lost in the vast morass of nonfunctional and confusing art websites that overpopulate the Internet.
Before we get going here, and in the interest of you who think artist websites are no longer necessary, that having a social networking presence is all you need, the sad truth is you have no control over your content on social networking sites because they're the ones in charge, not you. They can change the rules at any time, remove posts they deem inappropriate, become outdated, disappear off the Internet, completely change direction, or at worst, kick you off altogether. Regardless of how fabulous you think social networking is or how large your following, YOUR WEBSITE IS THE ONLY PLACE ONLINE WHERE YOU CONTROL THE SHOW and no one else. You and only you decide what to post, when to post it, how long it stays there, when to change it, where to put it, when to move it or when to take it down. You can gamble all you want on social networking, but always remember-- having your own website is a sure bet you never lose. So in the interest of better artist websites everywhere, here's a list of what to do and what to avoid in order to assure yourself maximum visibility and an effective web presence online:
Get your own domain name and avoid free web hosting services. Free web hosting is never free and it's always lame. "Free" websites torture visitors with all kinds of distracting advertisements or other obtrusive text and graphics. At worst, maybe half of the screen shows your art while the other half, controlled by the host site, looks like a circus. Your art often ends up in direct competition with all kinds of commercial crap and hardly any art looks good under those circumstances. Furthermore, free sites give the impression that either you can't afford your own website or domain name or worse yet, that you don't care enough about your art to bother buying your own domain in order to make it look its best online. The good news is that basic websites with good functionality hardly cost anything these days.
Don't use third-party advertising on your sites, especially for goods or services unrelated to your art. Sure, you may make a little pocket change from click-throughs, but any advertising is distracting to visitors and your art will suffer for it.
Make sure your website looks the same on Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox and Safari. The same website can look great on one browser and terrible on another, or worse yet, work on one browser but be completely nonfunctional on another. Test yours on all major browsers before going public.
Your website should also be mobile-friendly. More and more people are browsing the web on mobile devices, and the number is only increasing. You want your art and website to look its best no matter how people are viewing it.
Link your website to all of your social networking pages (and vice versa) so that visitors can move freely between them with as little effort as possible. And when you post on social networking sites, link over to images or pages on your website as often as possible. Social networking sites have evolved into one of the best ways to drive traffic to your website, and they're only getting better but for all their benefits, their one major drawback is that they control how you get the word out about your art, not you. Your website is all about your art and how you want to present it, and not how a third party requires you to present it on their platform.
Another great advantage of social networking is not only can it be all about your art, but it's also an excellent way for you to introduce yourself personally and allow people to get to know the artist behind the art. The better people know and understand you, the better they can understand and connect with your art. When people can see and appreciate your art as well as get a sense of who you are, what you stand for and what your artistic life is like through social networking, they're more inclined to head on over to your website to get better acquainted and learn more.
Present yourself and your art so anyone can understand what you're up to. Think of it this way-- you're like the curator of your own museum; make sure your art is organized in a way that's easy to understand and navigate. People who already know you or who are familiar with your art know how to navigate your website and get wherever they want to go. So they're all taken care of. It's the complete strangers you should be most concerned about, those who hear about you for the first time and what to take a look around, and especially those who land on your site by chance, accident or happenstance. The Internet is all about exposing your art to unfamiliar audiences, welcoming new visitors and broadening your fan base, so whenever someone lands on your website who knows little or nothing about you or your art, you want to do your absolute best to get them oriented fast and over to wherever they want to go.
Make your site easy to navigate. Some website formats are far too confusing, have dead-end pages, or have gallery sections that seem more like medieval mazes. Visitors get lost, and lost visitors mean lost sales. Make sure every page on your site is linked back to major pages like your homepage, bio, resume, contact information page, purchasing information and your image gallery main page or pages.
Keep your main menu options to a minimum. Some artist websites have so many menu options that visitors have no idea where to start or where to go and are overwhelmed with choices almost before they click on anything. A website with too many menu options confuses people and gives them a perfect excuse to leave. The most important main menu categories are:
1. Your Gallery or Portfolio link (dropdown options as necessary).
2. Your Artist Statement or "About the Art" link.
3. Your Bio or "About the Artist" link.
4. A link to your Resume or CV.
5. Purchase or Buy--complete ordering information for potential buyers.
6. Your Contact Information.
Text explanations and introductions to your art are extremely important, but keep the word count to a minimum. This includes your statement, bio, descriptions of bodies of work or mediums or techniques, and so on. Being brief with words gets people into your galleries as quickly as possible. Overwhelm visitors with words and you'll bore them right off your site. Quick concise introductions and descriptions are best; anything over 300-400 words can get tedious (unless there's a strong cognitive component to your art); the fewer words you can use, the better. If you can say it in a couple of sentences or paragraphs, that's perfect. Do it. If you want to provide detailed information about either yourself or your art, link to pages where people can read more there, rather than putting boatloads of text on high-traffic areas like your homepage. People who want to know more will click over to the text pages; those who don't can click right over to your art without getting bogged down by oceans of verbiage. Remember-- people visit your website to see your art, not to read your life story.
Organize your art into groups or series of related works. If you show too many different kinds of art on the same gallery page, you'll only end up confusing people. This "something for everyone" approach often backfires and instead becomes more like "nothing for anyone." Think of your website as a museum, and think of yourself as the curator. Just like in a museum, make sure that similar works of art are all on display together, each group in its own gallery.
Think seriously about accompanying each series or body of your work with its own explanation or introduction. Again, keep the content brief-- perhaps two or three paragraphs at most or even less if you can do it. Briefly explaining or elaborating on your art deepens people's understanding and experience of the work. Also keep in mind that Google and other search engines cannot search images, but they can search text. Providing textual explanations of your art, either accompanying groups of similar works or even of individual pieces, increases the chances that they'll come up in online searches, be seen, and hopefully clicked over to. To repeat-- image pages with no text will not come up in online searches.
Make sure each and every page on your website, including every image of your art, is searchable on Google and other search engines. The more chances that people have to land on your website as a result of online searches, the better. The way you do this is with text, especially on your image and gallery pages. Search engines cannot search images alone, only text. So always include the title, medium, dimensions, a brief description (if necessary), and other essential details about each and every work of art pictured on your site.
Use informative page-specific title lines. The title line consists of keywords that accurately and specifically describe a page's content, like a news story headline tells what you're about to read. Many artist websites completely waste title line opportunities using the exact same line on every page of the site, like "Mike Miller art" or "Judy Smith artist." The title line, in case you don't know, usually appears at or near the top of your browser window outside the page, on index tabs or tab bars, not in the content of the page itself. It's one of the most important lines on a webpage and often the line that appears in search results, like on Google. Each title line on each individual page of your website-- even each image page-- should be unique, specific and descriptive of the contents on that page. This way, each page will have a slightly different appearance on search engines, meaning more keywords searchable on search engines, and most importantly, more opportunities for your website to appear in search results, which will hopefully translate to more visitors to your site.
Keep image sizes reasonable and don't put too many images on a single page. Large detailed images of your art may look great as they download over high-speed connections, but remember that many people still have slower connections. Long downloads frustrate visitors and force them off your site, so use images no larger than 100K-250K, preferably smaller. Photoshop and other digital imaging programs have formatting options to reduce image sizes for websites or emails without significantly compromising their quality. Learn how to use them. The same holds true for image pages. Too many images on a single page can a long time to download, longer than some people are willing to wait.
Don't put links to other websites on your site. Some artists think that links pages are a good idea, and put links to their favorite artists or galleries or art pages, etc. What this does is give visitors perfect excuses to leave your site and explore other sites that they might end up liking better. Once people land on your website, you want to do everything in your power to keep them there, not invite them to leave and go elsewhere.
NEVER require visitors to join, register, get passwords or fill out any forms of any kind in order to see your website. Forcing people to identify themselves before they can see your art is a horrible idea. Imagine if people had to show their driver's licenses or other types of personal identification in order to visit bricks-and-mortar galleries or artist studios. If it doesn't happen in real life, it shouldn't happen online.
Don't overuse "cookies" (small files that attach to computer hard drives, track people's movements around your site, and collect personal data). Cookies are occasionally necessary when filling out certain forms, when buying art using "shopping cart" services, or for purposes like tracking visitors around your website to see which pages they visit the most. Again, if people want to contact you, they will. Don't overdo efforts to extract personal information without people knowing it.
Avoid plug-ins, special effects, audio, complex visuals, and similar gimmicks that have nothing to do with your art. Websites that use these often take a long time to load, require special software or, at worst, crash visitors' computers. Unless your website is designed to be a work of art or a performance piece in and of itself, and exists primarily for entertainment purposes, avoid the fancy stuff. Web designers may push for special effects, but when you get right down to it, they're totally unnecessary, counterproductive to your ends, and mainly about web designers showing off their technical skills rather than you effectively presenting your art. Remember-- people visit your website to see your art and see it fast, not to sit through your web designer's masturbatory fantasies.
Provide adequate contact information. The more you tell people about yourself such as your cell phone number, email address or other details like your studio address, the more accessible you appear. Don't give potential buyers the impression that you're hard to communicate with by showing nothing or just your email address, and not even telling them what part of the country you live in. Some artist websites provide absolutely no contact information whatsoever, but rather have these awful feedback or comments forms that you fill out and submit. People who fill them out have no idea where they go, who gets them, if they even go anywhere at all or whether they'll ever get replies. The questions that always go through my mind on these sites are, "What is this artist trying to hide?" or "Why are they making themselves so inaccessible?" The overwhelming majority of people who buy contemporary art appreciate a sense of knowing who they're buying it from, so don't be a stranger; anonymity is not a selling point.
If you have no consistent long-term gallery representation, price every piece of art on your website for sale, assuming you have no conflicts with galleries or others who periodically represent or sell your art. If you have representation, ask whether they'll allow you to put prices on your website, or at least on art they're not representing. If they don't want prices, don't price (hopefully they're selling enough of your art to make up for not wanting you to sell it on your own).
For those of you who are independent or who have no representation, not pricing your art on-site, but rather asking people to email or otherwise contact you for prices, is always a big mistake. Not all buyers and collectors feel comfortable asking and you don't want to miss out on sales to them. You don't have to put a price next to every single piece of your art, by the way; do like the galleries do. On the "Purchase" or "Buy" page link from your main menu, have a price list available where people can easily see how much everything costs. Or if you price according to size or subject matter, have all of that explained along with corresponding prices. You'll only lose potential sales if you don't price your art... guaranteed.
Just like in real life, many people prefer to shop for art quietly by themselves, decide whether they can afford it based on the price, and then make contact. People are reluctant to ask prices when they're not posted for a number of reasons-- they think that doing so will obligate them in some way, that the artist will give them a hard sell, that they'll get a barrage of emails, that they'll be embarrassed if they find out the art costs much more than they can afford, that artists will quote as high a price as possible just to see how much they can sell it for, and so on. When you're out shopping, do you like having to ask how much something costs or do you prefer to see the price in advance? Do unto others...
Be able to justify or explain your selling prices if someone asks. Everyone likes to feel they're spending their money wisely-- especially these days-- so either provide basic information about how you price your art on your site, or be prepared to field questions about value when people call or email you. People who don't understand how you set your prices or why they're as high or as low as they are much more reluctant to buy than people who do understand. So make your pricing easy to understand.
Offer approval, return and refund policies. Online art shoppers may want to see art on approval first and be able to return it for complete refunds (less shipping costs) if it doesn't look like they thought it did when they saw it online. No approval, return or refund policies mean fewer sales. The more willing you are to work with buyers, the greater your chances of selling art. FYI, in conversations that I've had with people who sell art online, very few people return it once they buy.
Provide clear concise instructions on how to buy. Tell people what payment options you accept (accept as many as possible), how you pack, how you ship, how long they have to view the art on approval, and so on. The more professional you appear, the more comfortable people feel about buying from you.
Offer art in a variety of price ranges. Online shoppers tend to start slowly, tend to buy less expensive pieces from artists they don't already know, and will likely get discouraged if every piece they see costs thousands of dollars or more. This is especially true of people who visit your site for the first time and like what they see. Offering art at a variety of price points gives all of your fans a chance to own something no matter how familiar they are with you. So make sure pretty much anyone who likes your art enough to want to own it will be able to buy something regardless of their budget.
Don't mix art that's already sold with art that's for sale. Some artists think showing numerous sold works of art on their sites alongside art for sale makes them look good and will incite some kind of buying frenzy, or give people the impression that they better buy now "before it's too late"-- but the effect is often the opposite. Potential buyers instead get the impression that the best pieces are already sold and all that's left are the crumbs. They get frustrated when a selection is too limited or when all the "good stuff" is gone or when their favorite piece is already sold. It's kind of like going to a garage sale at the end of the day and picking through the leftovers.
You can still show sold works if you want, but put them under a separate category of the "Gallery" or "Portfolio" link titled "Select Past Works" or something similar. Here you show the best of the best-- art that's won prizes or has been exhibited at established juried shows; art that's in private, corporate or institutional collections; art that's been featured in reviews or pictured on websites or blogs or in hard-copy publications, and so on. Showing past works in this way acts as sort of a pictorial resume and speaks to your experience, success and credibility as an artist.
Don't show every work of art you've ever created. Nobody needs to see experimental pieces that didn't quite work, one-offs that you don't intend to follow up on with additional related works, older pieces that have little or no bearing on the art you're making today, student works, and so on. Too much art and too much variety is confusing to visitors because they can't get a sense of who you are or what your art represents or is intended to signify or communicate. Remember-- people rarely buy from artists whose art they can't understand. Keep it simple; keep it current; keep it related.
The absolute best way for you to get the word out about your art is through your website. Make sure yours is working on your behalf and that anyone anywhere who lands on it-- whether on purpose or by accident, whether they know you or not-- can get up to speed about where they are, what they're about to see and experience, and be able to click on over to your galleries as quickly and effortlessly as possible. Do you want more people to see your art? You can start immediately by putting together a welcoming website that's easy for anyone to understand and navigate.
Do you need help with your website? Would you like more traffic? Do you wonder whether your website can be better than it is now? I do website consults with artists all the time. I'll go over your website with you and make specific recommendations on how to make it better. I'll also talk about how to increase the number of visitors. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 415.931.7875 if you have any questions or are interested in making an appointment.
(art by Ara Peterson)
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