The web has become the second home to much of humankind. If we are planning on going out to eat, we check out reviews. If we want to know something, we google it. If we are lost, we simply look up the address. If an institution desires to be successful, it must have an effective online presence.
The duplicity of website design is if anything the aesop fable of the man, the boy, and the donkey. A website needs to appeal to the common person but also uphold academic standards, as well as be flashy but not too flashy. Ads can be distracting, but provide much needed support for smaller websites as well. I think it’s also obvious not to use obnoxious fonts like papyrus or comic sans and don’t put four animations on a size 113.5 neon spinning title, as while that will attract attention it will quickly frustrate the reader and cause them to migrate elsewhere.
On a side note, I actually already have and run a website (or rather, a wikia) for my Dungeons and Dragons group. What started out as a way for me to keep track of all my NPCs without having to worry about losing a notebook or leaving it at home over the course of three years has turned into a network of hyperlinks connecting players, NPCs, story arcs, homebrew additions, recaps of previous sessions, and discussion pages. While many of the features of wikia are not exactly ideal, they have helped me nail down aesthetic by a noticeable margin.
One of the first and most important things is the organization of the page. Repetition of the font and format isn’t required but it helps the reader get immersed into the reading. Each one of Cohen’s articles we read opened with the first letter in the large ornate decoration depicted as being done by monks, yet online.
One of the things I haven’t really seen from historical websites but have seen from wikia, Worldcat, and wiki is the use of hyperlinks and links to related inquiries. For each one of my entries when I reference another setting or character I put a link up to their appropriate page. This allows any new players with questions on who a person or place is and how it relates to the article they are reading can jump to that page, read the synopsis, and then go back to what they were reading with a better understanding. This may be a personal preference, as a reader can quickly get overwhelmed with information as well if they aren’t sure what they are looking for.
An example of a quality website would be the Ridgefield Historical Society, which has a searchable archive of their resources, oral histories of a few residents, a smooth and easily navigatable design, and links to novels and books relating to Ridgefield along with other resources in town like the Ridgefield library.