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Raising the Mark!
By Terrance "TnT" Emerson -- January 15, 2000
A Qualitative Approach . . . It wasn't that long ago that I first committed to Internet site design and development. My background in communications engineering, graphic design, writing, publication layout, photography, and programming lent themselves perfectly to the task. But I had the small catch 22 of establishing credibility as a new web site designer and developer in an increasingly competitive and demanding market.

Terrance "TnT" Emerson

It occurred to me that I might be able to earn an award that I could post to help qualify myself. So I began to search on "award winning web design" trying to find out what the best designers were doing to win awards. I imagined that there was probably an established "Academy" Internet award at the top. To my amazement, there wasn't. There simply is no Academy, Emmy, or Grammy equivalent for the Internet.

The Internet awards programs are all over the place. Four out of five are meaningless giveaways intended only as hit makers. And while the hit makers are entitled to give away their awards for whatever reasons they choose, they simply weren't suited to my goals.

Many prospective clients and design firm human resources managers are prejudiced by the hit makers when they think of Internet awards. If you think this isn't true, try getting yourself hired as a site designer with a major Internet firm by sitting through three hours of interviews telling them your best achievement is a set of Internet awards. A few do recognize the highest level awards, but most just raise a jaundiced eye. So if Internet awards are ever to be broadly accepted as meaningful, the mark definitely has to be raised.

Meaningful Awards

Then I discovered the Focus Award Sites' rating program. Awards are rated from 1 to 5, roughly according to their difficulty to earn. And through a Superb! 100 Award graphic posted at Willie Otto's excellent site, I found Don Chisholm's World's Top Awards listing. And just as I had hoped, there is a clear difference between "earning" awards and "winning" awards. The giveaways are basically meaningless wins, while the truly meaningful awards really do have to be earned.

And since my purpose was to gain design achievement credibility, I became compelled to earn Don's Superb! 100 Award, but with a twist. I decided to see how high I could make my Focus rating average for 100 sites, and how many of Don's World's Top Awards I could earn in the process.

My intention was both to make a statement of accomplishment for myself, and to throw down a gauntlet of challenge to raise the standards of Internet Awards achievement. I made some mistakes and in retrospect I could have done somewhat better. Still, I ended up with a respectable average. Here's how I did it and here's what I learned.

Averaging Awards

Before discovering the Focus Award Sites' rating program, I made the mistake of submitting for awards through a mass engine. The result was an initial mess of low-level awards, all of the hit maker variety. Don Chisholm noted that 60% of the submissions for his Superb! 100 award are from mass submissions, and not one of them ever qualified for the award.

So when I committed to earning the Superb! 100 Award, I had to decide how to place the low-level hit makers returned by the mass submission results into the average. There was also the problem that unrated awards like Martin Rothchild's and Willie Otto's were truly meaningful. I had earned some of those through individual submission, and it was clearly in the interest of my goals to include these in my 100.

My compromise was to score the unrated sites as zero, and count up the others in groups according to their Focus rating. In other words, I decided to skew my overall 101 average with a curve. I ended up with 60 rated awards and 41 unrated.

The breakdown came out like this: 3 Focus level 5 awards; 11 level 4.5 awards; 29 level 4 awards; 8 level 3.5 awards; 9 level 3 awards; and 4 of The World's Top Awards. So my true average, the one you're challenged to supercede (and I have no doubt that you will!), came out to 101 awards with 60 Focus rated at an average of 3.93. To beat this you simply have to earn Don's award with 60 or more Focus rated at an average above mine. The quality of the other 41 is up to you, but clearly the more meaningful they are, the better it's going to look for your reputation.

Evaluating Awards

So one of the tasks necessary is to be able to personally evaluate all intended awards, whether Focus rated or not, in order to establish the relative quality. I came up with three sub criteria.

First, how difficult is the award to earn? Do you see the respective graphic at many average sites, or only a few of the very best? How many winners are posted each month relative to submissions? If a program receives 400 submissions per month, and posts 100 winners, they clearly award the top 25%. But if there's only 20 winners, the program awards only the top 5%.

Second, what's the reputation of the award program? Do people talk about winning it? Do the better designers express a wish to earn it? Do people recognize the graphic and respect it accordingly? Is the award connected with a well know Internet site? When people click through to the award site, is cutting-edge professionalism reflected in its own design? In other words, does it reflect the high quality consistent with the statement you're trying to make about your own site?

Finally, does the graphic award itself reflect professional quality design? For example, what sense would it make for an online graphic design firm to display a crudely illustrated, poorly designed, over optimized graphic award to reflect their achievement? No matter how few were awarded, no matter how well recognized, it might be antithetical to the intended purpose of their site. Of course it's impossible to discriminate perfectly. Some high level awards have superb graphics, and others do not. Still, doesn't it make sense to try for the best appearance first?

And of course there's the Focus rating to consider. Anything above a level 4 is an "iffy" award to earn. I'll categorically state that it's impossible to earn all of the level 4.5's, much less the level 5's. That's because the criteria for the awards vary enough that no single site could possibly qualify for all categories. A commercial site would clearly not qualify for a non-profit educational award. And a non-profit site couldn't qualify for a commercial marketing award.

It's fundamental to read the respective award criteria and submit accordingly. The judge that had to sit up all night to find out you hadn't read the criteria for one award might also sit on the panel of the next award you actually do qualify for and hope to win. Plenty of judges evaluate for more than one of the top-level awards. If a judge remembers the red eye you left him or her with for the first award, how do you think he or she's going to be compelled to score you for the second?

Don Chisholm's World's Top Awards listing presently consists of 42 of the most difficult to earn awards in the entire world. Don has done most of the homework for us by screening these award sites according to a great deal of discretion. All you have to do is have a very, very good site, read the criteria, apply, and cross your fingers.

Improving Your Average

Still, no matter how we break it down, there's always going to be a lot of subjectivity and a little politics in the process as well. It's human nature. Some of the awards state that right up front. Again, read the criteria. Some of the awards are only given for sites hosted in their respective countries. An American site can't win an award limited only to sites in the UK. But if you have a very busy commercial site, apply more aggressively for commercial awards. It you have an art site, apply more specifically to award programs that are sympathetic to artists.

And to earn any of the higher level awards, there's simply no substitute for visiting and studying the respective award winners. Establish what the judges like and dislike, and improve your site accordingly before you apply. Don't submit and then try to improve after a rejection. This is another mistake I made. Judges are more likely to remember your worst effort than your best.

Simply stated, learn what's expected, what's respected, and what's rejected. And submit your site to those that award styles and designs similar to yours. That will help to improve your average.

Don Chisholm provides an awards worksheet you can download from his site. Do it. Use it. He updates it often, noting Focus ratings where appropriate. Some have suggested starting at the bottom, and working your way up to the top. I suggest you spot check your level by studying criteria and winners for the highest award you think you can achieve, and spot submit in a range where you think you fit.

Then concentrate where you seem to earn awards at the highest level you can, and push carefully for the next level up. Once you earn a few in the next level, then try all you qualify for in that level, or at least those you have an interest in earning after applying the evaluation criteria described above. In other words, remember the reputation, the difficulty, and the graphic itself. Apply with the most effort for those awards that fit your own needs. And consistently push to the highest average.

Another way to inch your average up is to watch the Focus Award Sites' rating changes. When a new program comes on the scene in the level you're trying for, apply there first. Even difficult programs seem to award sympathetically to their first few applicants. After they've seen hundreds, the eye of the judge tends to become just a bit more critical.

That I can attest to first hand. I sit as an evaluator for the Nem5 Focus level 4.5 program, where Maggi Norris is working diligently to create an extremely meaningful award. After long hours of reviewing, it's impossible not to become progressively more critical. I felt much more sympathy toward effort for the first sites I judged, remembering my own early attempts. Eventually I had so many good sites to review each week I simply had to review more carefully.

Finally, keep a record of your average score. I used Microsoft Excel to list each award by name, count, url, date, Focus rating, whether they listed and linked winners, and whether I listed and linked back to the award program. It was simple to place a count and averaging tally to keep track.

Now It's Your Turn!

So now it's up to you to beat my Superb! 100 Award score of 60 Focus award sites averaging 3.93, and help us all raise the mark. Maybe some of you already have! I'll be anxiously watching, ready to surrender my position to the first compulsive achiever who's determined to help us move the bar up a notch.

Copyright 2000
All Rights Reserved
Terrance "TnT" Emerson

About the Author
Terrance "TnT" Emerson, webmaster of the Dynamite Digital Designs site, is a Hollywood motion picture communications engineer, a commercially published author, a programmer, a graphics designer, a photographer, and a web site designer. He sits as a web site evaluator for the Nem5 award program and currently works as a web developer for the Surveyor Corporation, a web cam engineering and Internet development firm.

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