Focusing on Feedback

Stephen Yagielowicz

Are your Web site's visitor's satisfied with the content that you're giving them? How do you know? Feedback forms and surveys are the answer, and today I'll show you how to build, implement, and enhance these valuable marketing tools.

The more that you know about the visitors to your site, the better off you are. This information allows you to tailor and improve your site's appearance, approach, and content. Running polls and surveys are one way to accomplish this goal, but an all too often overlooked tool is the basic feedback form. Flexible, practical, and easy for Webmaster's of all levels to employ, these tools should be a part of every web site. Here's an example of the most simple type of feedback form, one that provides room for comments, plus allows the Webmaster to contact the respondent for follow up if necessary (this is only an example):

This is one place that you do not want to be too fancy, since the feedback you want to receive includes comments pertaining to your site’s ‘availability.’

Ensuring Relevant Feedback
While you could make a basic feedback form that was simply an opportunity for any respondents to submit comments in a free-form environment, getting surfers to focus in on relevant information is essential, and is also an opportunity for you to tailor the results that you collect. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive goals, when you consider the flexibility of HTML forms.

Consider the type and amount of information that you will wish to collect from your site’s visitors. Remember that a feedback form is not meant to be an in-depth survey, but is really a way to provide visitors with an easy to use contact mechanism. Try not to make the questions that you ask mandatory for the completion of your form. Or in other words, don’t require the respondent to answer a lot of questions just so that he can tell you you’re doing a great (or not so great) job.

I like to place a limit of four questions on a feedback form. This is because these forms are used by surfers to send you comments, not because they wanted to take a quiz, but since they’re now communicating with you, you might as well realize some added benefit. Because I do not want them to think too hard (or they won’t bother), and because I like uniform responses which are easier to process, I use ‘drop down’ boxes offering pre-selected answers. I also tend to limit these to four possible answers for each question. For example, one question might be "How often do you visit this site?" with the possible answers being "Daily," "Weekly," "Monthly," "This is my first visit." Of course, the questions, and possible answers, will be unique to the needs of each site that uses a feedback form. Avoid asking ‘personal’ questions (if possible), and be sure that your Privacy Statement covers your use and dissemination of the collected data.

Technological Tips and Typing Tricks
I have seen fancy ‘Flash’ based forms, and ones that used other ‘exotic’ technologies that might limit their availability to surfers. This is the biggest technological mistake that Webmasters make with feedback forms. This is one place that you do not want to be too fancy, since the feedback you want to receive includes comments pertaining to your site’s ‘availability.’ In other words, if a statistically relevant segment of your site’s visitors cannot fully access your features, wouldn’t you want to know? How else would you know?

This is where JavaScript comes into play. While you wouldn’t want to use a JavaScript based feedback form due to the reasons listed above, a JavaScript ‘enhanced’ form would be gracefully degradable, and provide a number of useful functions; such as allowing you to ‘pre-select’ the possible responses through the use of drop down menus, validate email addresses, and convert upper case characters to lower case, among other uses. There are many resource sites such as The JavaScript Source that offer these types of scripts, free for you to use.

You must also consider the type of ‘form handler’ you wish to use. Simply, this is the heart of your feedback form, and determines how the submitted data is processed. There is no handler attached to the form example above (which is why you cannot submit information with it). Form handlers may use your Web server’s mail package, a database interface, CGI script, JavaScript, ‘mailto:’ command, or other mechanism to send the information to you in the format you wish to receive it in. Your ISP can help you determine the best form handler for your specific application.

I personally like to use cgiemail, but FormMail seems to be a more popular method of sending form output via email (which is the way that I prefer to receive it). Feedback forms that write their output to a Web page for public display are typically known as "Guest books" – although their use in this application may not be in your best interest... Don't want to get your hands dirty by building your own form? Then Click Here.

No matter how you build it, or what questions you ask, having a feedback form is a great idea!