10 Steps to a Small Business Website
By: Codie Hart
In today’s marketplace, a small business almost certainly needs a presence on the World Wide Web. I say almost certainly because there are business verticals that may or may not benefit from a website – say a local coffee shop or a Mom and Pop café. Anyone else had better own a place on the web, because you can bet your competition will! What follows are ten points to consider before you, as a small business person, should make the leap to http://www.yourbusiness.com:
1. Understand what you want to accomplish with your website. This should be a business decision. Having a website for the sake of having a website is just not good business. Like any other business investment, you should have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, what your budget will be, and what you can expect the return on investment to be. Do you want a static site that provides information on your goods or services? Do you want an e-commerce site, a virtual marketplace from which to sell your goods or services? Do you want to enhance customer input, or provide customer service, or answer frequently asked questions? Maybe you simply want to show potential customers how you can help them, or simply provide a forum for feedback. Whatever business goal you might have, have a good, concrete vision before you begin.
2. Don’t do it yourself. Yes, you probably could get a website up by yourself, but the fact that you could doesn’t mean you should. A properly constructed business website entails a lot of fairly intricate detail. There are many not immediately apparent considerations – from the type of server you use to the types of files you use. At Owl Creek Communication we’ve spent a lot of time repairing and rebuilding websites attempted by well meaning do-it-yourselfers. It’s a far wiser (and in the long run, cheaper) business decision to hire a professional to get it done right the first time. In addition, hiring a designer means you have someone responsible when you encounter that broken link or corrupt image file on your website, and to lay the framework for good search engine optimization, orderly file handling, superior usability and the clean, crisp, professional image your site must portray.
3. Talk to a designer BEFORE you make any decisions about your site. As I mentioned above, a lot goes in to creating an effective business website. While you should definitely have a plan for your site (see Rule #1), don’t make any hard and fast decisions concerning any part of the project until you’ve had a consultation with a professional. There are considerations to ponder before you even start the design work. You’ll want to talk the entire process over before putting a stake in the ground. Listen to what the professional has to say. This won’t be their first rodeo, and you can benefit a great deal from their experience. Make sure that you communicate your goals and aims, and ensure that you’re being heard. A good design company is indispensible – and you do need their input – but in the final analysis, this is YOUR website.
4. Consider hosting. One of the decisions that you’ll need to come to even before the design process is the question of hosting. It’s worthwhile to understand that even if you have the best website design in the world, it’s useless without a hosting arrangement. Some website design companies do their own hosting, and some have relationships with third party companies that they will use, and roll the cost into their final price to you. Still other website design companies will have recommendations for you, but will use any hosting provider the two of you decide upon. You will definitely need a designer’s input here, because not all hosting providers are created equal. Any hosting provider can get your website on the web, but some will offer services or products that make it easier – or harder – for your designer to work with them. Some hosting providers offer different types of server environments that can affect how your website will look and act on the web. Some hosting providers will limit the size and use of your website, while others don’t. Sometimes you can get services such as email addresses specific to your business, and some can offer discounted (or even free) services such as e-commerce utilities, web site traffic analysis, SEO (search engine optimization) services and much more. You will definitely need to talk this over with your website design firm.
5. Get help with your site (domain) name. One of the things a good website designer will do is help you find and register the name of your website. With the right designer, this may even be a free service. There is much to be considered here. Your website or domain name is called a URL, and there are definitely bad choices here. Consider the site dedicated to finding the name of a celebrity’s agent. The business is called Who Represents. Unfortunately the URL is http://www.whorepresents.com. There are many, many cases of domain names that were just not thought through. It’s worthwhile to note that there are companies whose business it is to register as many attractive domain names as possible. In this way, if you wish to use one of these names, you must buy it – at a premium – from them. A good designer may be able to help you here by showing you cheaper (or even free) options or derivatives of the name you want, or even the name you want with a different extension.
6. Oversee your content. You hire a designer mostly to – well, to design. The designer is going to do your layout, and with your plan in mind, create the look and feel of your website. They will draft – or help you draft – the text that will appear on your pages with an eye toward SEO and driving business traffic. They will create your imagery or use the images you provide, and develop the site so that it is user friendly and compatible with different browser environments and screen resolutions. They will recommend user interface strategies, and build the necessary forms or links and handle their placement on the page. Your designer will do all of these things and more , but you must see to it that they are doing it all under your supervision. Remember, this website is an extension of your business, and you must ensure that the final product is one you are proud of. Insist on reviewing every aspect before it is published to the web. But remember that your designer is a pro. If your designer and you disagree :
7. Understand the ramifications. Your designer may be urging you to accept his version of the text because his version is specifically designed with SEO in mind. What you say on your website, the images and links you use and the way the site is laid out all have an effect on how search engines like Yahoo and Google see and rank your site. That in turn can have a huge impact on how much traffic gets driven to your site, which in turn has an impact on the return on your website investment. Your designer may want you to use smaller images than you like because of load times and abandon rates – the longer it takes your site to load on a user’s computer, the more likely they’ll just skip your site and move on. You’re the boss, but listen to your designer and understand clearly the decisions you make.
8. Consider your content. Be sure that your website is fun to visit. Dry and boring websites don’t get viewed, they get skipped. Encourage your designer to use pictures, maps and other graphics, and to use relevant links to other places on the web. Consider joining a web ring. These are loose collaborations of websites on a common theme. Find complimentary businesses that you can establish reciprocal links with, and provide links to places like your local Chamber of Commerce. Take the time to write articles in your area of expertise (like this one!) and publish them on your site, or on content sites with a link back to your website. Use content sites to find relevant articles, and repost them on your site. Give people a reason to visit your site over and above the visit to your place of business.
9. Use multiple contact methods. Insist that your designer incorporate multiple contact methods between you and your customer base. Use email, postal addresses, information forms, and telephone numbers to provide ways for people to contact you, and acknowledge EVERY contact. The World Wide Web is a great method of establishing communication, but don’t fall into the trap of supposing your email address is all you need to provide. There are still plenty of folks out there who want to call, send a letter, or simply request a specific piece of information via a filled out form.
10. Review and update regularly. Check your website every day for broken links or missing images. Update your content, and put new information on the site on a regular basis. If you have an e-commerce site, make sure the shopping cart works, and that all the links for checkout are functioning. Some designers will do this for you for a fee, and others will teach you to do it yourself, if you wish. No matter who does it, it’s up to you to make sure it happens. Nothing is a bigger turnoff for a potential web customer than visiting a site with broken links, images that don’t appear, or an online store that doesn’t work.
A website is a must for small business today, but there are many potential traps and pitfalls out there. Just as you get professional help for other aspects of your business like accounting, taxes or legal issues, you should seek professional assistance for this very important aspect of your business. As with any other contracted professional service, ensure that there is a clear scope of work and contract – or at least an agreed upon rate or price in writing – in place, and keep these ten rules close at hand. See you out on the web!
About the Author
Codie Hart is the founder and owner of Owl Creek Communication Services, a business communication firm. He specialiizes in helping small and very small business prosper, and has more than two decades of business and technology experience.
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