How to build a killer small business website
"For many businesses, a Web site is the first way that your clientele will look at you--even if it's just to find your address and phone number," says Rand Fishkin, founder of Seattle-based search engine optimization consulting firm SEOmoz, which aims to increase the odds that search engines will happen upon a given site. "The quality of your site is often a measure of the quality of your business."
While most entrepreneurs probably should farm out the programming of their sites, they shouldn’t turn over the design process altogether. Getting the biggest return on your online investment hinges on understanding what works and what doesn’t, so you can give the coders as much smart direction as possible.
Indeed, having a well-oiled site could be the difference between surviving the current recession and succumbing to it. "Conversations between manufacturers and buyers used to take place over the phone," says Linda Rigano, director of strategic alliances for ThomasNet, a consultancy for the manufacturing industry. "Now that same conversation is conducted through the content on manufacturers' Web sites."
The folks at Ericson, a Willoughby, Ohio-based manufacturer and distributor of temporary power and lighting products, would strongly agree. Two years ago, Ericson overhauled its site with ThomasNet's help, creating a catalog featuring detailed descriptions and pictures of its products, along with an easy-to-use search function.
Despite the persistent downturn in its key markets, Ericson has thrived, thanks in great part to the 20,000 potential customers who surf the catalog every month. That activity translated into an average of 25 price quotes per month, a quarter of which ultimately result in orders, each averaging about $3,000 US to $5,000.
"Since re-launching our site, we have received more purchase orders from customers who find us online because they get a much better idea of what we're selling than they used to," says Phil Bearden, who heads the company’s Web marketing efforts. One of Ericson’s newest marquee customers: the CityCenter Las Vegas, an $8 billion collaboration between MGM Grand and Dubai World.
If you've yet to set up shop online, you'll need a Web address. Address sellers--called domain hosts--include Go Daddy, Network Solutions and Register.com. Direct names that are easy to remember are your best bet, if they're still available. Example: If your business is called Chocolate By Melanie, buying the rights to the URL "www.chocolatebymelanie.com" makes a lot of sense.
Given how cheap domain names are (around $20 a year), you might also want to buy a few variations that are close to your primary address or that could be easily confused with it. There is also a strong secondary market for names that someone else already owns.
One of the most important steps in good Web design is nailing down the navigation. There is no one correct way to move visitors around your site, but there are certainly types of navigation strategies to steer away from. For example, while drop-down menus are increasingly popular, menus within menus can be frustrating as more menu boxes pile up on the screen.
Note, too, that many computer monitors are wider rather than longer, so horizontal navigation (using organizing tabs from left to right) "takes advantage of that extra real estate," says David Mihm, a contract Web designer and search engine optimization expert in Portland, Ore.
Having a Web site isn't just about letting people know you're out there; it's also about establishing credibility. That’s why you should present compelling backgrounders on company leaders and their accomplishments. Include personalizing head shots.
If you have a respectable client list, let the world know. (You should get permission from clients before listing their names on your site.) Better yet, cobble together a few glowing testimonials — or even full-on case studies — that highlight specifically how you solved clients' problems.
Slick graphics can draw readers in, but they can also confound the search engines. Your best bet when it comes to graphics: Use them sparingly and only go for the highest quality. As for what colors to use, some render better than others on the screen. For one palette of 216 "non-dithering" (high-resolution) colors, check out O'Reilly Media.
The most gorgeous, easily navigated site in the world won't do much good if no one can find it. That's why search engine optimization (or SEO) — the art of rising to the top of the search stacks on Google and Yahoo! — is so important.
The key to SEO: selecting 50 to 100 key words most relevant to your products, services and target audience. The more those words appear on your Web pages (within reason), the higher up the stack your site will tend to appear. For help, check out Google AdWords, a free service that allows you to type in a word like "bakery" and get a list of keywords and phrases that are most commonly searched in that category, like "bakery delivery," "gourmet bakery" and "bakery shop."
Many small professional-services businesses (think lawyers and doctors) depend on having a strong local presence. For them, key words shouldn't just relate to industries or products; they should specify zip code, city and region as well.
Placement on local online business directories is helpful, too. For more, check out Google's free Local Business Center. Other sites that can help boost local visibility are Yelp.com, Insiderpages.com and Best of the Web.
How do you know if one Web design is better than another? Track the clicks. Web Trax, a software program, allowed Ericson to see which areas of its old Web site were getting hit and which were being ignored.
Another service, called Offermatica.com, automates the testing of different Web pages to see which earn more click-throughs--a handy tool for, say, a retailer looking to drum up interest in a certain sales promotion.
Finally, for those launching a new site, be sure to prime the pump first before going live. That way you can take steps to move up in the search ranks even while making final tweaks behind the curtain.
Simply ask your site host to attach meta tags — hidden programming code easily read by search engines — that include your top 20 keywords in order of importance to your business. The tags will drive traffic to your site when people search those keywords. Create a greeting that says something like "This site is under construction, but we will be up and running shortly."
By the time you officially launch your beautiful, bug-free site, it will already have marched up the search stack.