Creating a Successful Business Website
By Dan Horne
If you're considering a new company website, or you're re-evaluating your existing one, then you'll be aware that there is a lot of information about what you should be aiming to achieve.
Some of it is contradictory, and a lot of it is scattered across the Internet and countless books. Even if you have time to read it all, how do you make sense of it?
Redbone has put together some pointers for the decision-makers in small and medium-sized businesses. Our aims are simple: to provide you with the minimum information necessary to start considering your web strategy.
The Big Picture
Rule # 1: Your Site is About Your Visitors
I cannot stress this enough. Why do visitors come to your site? They want to find out about your products and services. They want to find support information. But most of all, they want to know how you can help them. Your website is about serving your visitors' needs.
Sell Yourself by Selling a Customer Solution
Chances are your business is not unique. Have a look at most commercial websites in your specialty. You'll typically see a list of products or services and, more often than not, a history of the company and an account of the business philosophy. The focus is topsy-turvy. Your site should be customer-focused. At the risk of sounding redundant, I repeat: let the customers know how you can help them. After all, that's all they care about.
A company history should be included if it enhances your image. For instance, if you are selling items over the Internet, then a stable company with a history may ease customers' concerns about making an online purchase. Alternatively, you might wish to provide information to potential investors.
Approach the sell with caution. Your company philosophy may be to provide outstanding service above and beyond the call of duty, but people have heard that one before, and they're rightfully skeptical. Such claims are only step above "our staff is our greatest asset" in the pecking order of empty phrases.
Information Can Differentiate You From Your Competitors
If you're offering commodity products or services, then your prices are going to be pretty much the same as everyone else's. So your website needs other differentiating factors, and content is the most obvious one. "Content is King" is one of the old mantras of the Internet, but the saying should really be "Targeted Content is King."
Consider writing articles on your area of expertise. For instance, legal firms can offer advice on recent law changes. Delicatessens can provide recipes and or recommend food storage techniques.
Despite what you may think, you aren't encouraging people to "do it themselves" rather than use you. Do-it-yourselfers will always look for the information they need elsewhere, particularly on the Internet. Instead, you are providing expert credentials - proof that you know what you're talking about.
If writing isn't your specialty, consider getting someone else to do it for you. Make sure that they keep the prose lively. If it's a chore to read, your visitors will move on.
Beware of Using too Many Images
The Internet is a visual medium, but that doesn't mean that you should plaster your website with images. Generally, graphics should be used for the following reasons:
- To provide illustrations of a product. Customers want to see what they're getting before they buy.
- To illustrate a concept. A diagram often aids the explanation of the accompanying text.
- To reinforce the company branding.
- To supply visual interest and break up the monotony of a text-heavy site.
It is very easy to add too many images, and then you have an aesthetic eyesore instead of a good-looking site. Keep the graphics to a minimum, but do use them.
A Good Site is a Fast Site
According to the Ministry of Economic Development, approximately 95% of residential users in New Zealand do not use broadband. So for most people, surfing the web is slow. And the more graphics you have on your site, the slower the surfing is.
Sometimes businesses don't realise how slow their sites are, because their staff view the web site on the internal network, or they connect to the Internet via a broadband solution. So if your target audience is the regular consumer, then think twice burdening your site with multimedia files.
Even if your main customers are other businesses, don't assume that their staff will be using high-speed connections. Some of them may be working from home, and if they're doing overtime on the kitchen table the last thing they need is to be waiting for your pages to appear.
Images are no Substitute for Content
Websites should take a leaf from the direct marketing philosophy: text is more important than the graphic. Or, to put it differently, the image should enhance the message, but it should not replace it. Visitors have more important things to do than admire the graphics on your site. Unless your business is based on graphics then keep the images to a minimum. Remember: Visitors just want to get to your content!
Avoid the Splash Page
A splash page is an introductory screen that you encounter before you get to the real home page. It may have an animation, or the company logo. What purpose does it serve? None. Using a splash page means that you've lost the chance to attract your visitors' attention, because these pages no longer have any novelty - visitors turn off straight away. In fact, splash pages may prevent your web site being indexed by Google, and this is the one search engine that you can't afford to be ignored by: "Google does not encourage the use of doorway pages. We want to point users to content pages, not to doorways or splash screens"
When Style is the Content
Despite the advice above, there are times when the heavy use of graphics and animations can be appropriate. Entertainment sites that are aimed at the youth market and lifestyle sites selling designer furniture or appliances often rely on images to impart the message. If this applies to you, then make sure that all of your images are optimised for speed so that the pages load as quickly as possible.
Don't Hide Access to Your Content
Have you ever visited a website and haven't been able to find the links to a new page until you hover over a graphic with the mouse pointer? Vincent Flanders, author of Web Pages that Suck, calls this Mystery Meat Navigation - referring to meals served at US high school cafeterias where the meat is of an indeterminate type. Don't put roadblocks in front of your visitors. Your website isn't a puzzle to be solved.
Help Your Visitors Find the Content
Small sites don't have a problem making their content available. Generally all the pages are one or two clicks away from the top level menu, and with 20 pages or less, if the navigation is well designed then the whole site is readily accessible.
However, as the site grows, it becomes increasingly difficult for your visitors to find the information that they want. One way to help out is to provide a sitemap, a page that gives an over view of the site, and links to main pages.
You should seriously consider providing a search facility, so that visitors can find information through typing in a few keywords in a search form. There are many inexpensive search engine packages that provide this functionality.
Keep Your Content Fresh
This is another of the classic clichés. But it's true. If you're not in a position to continually update your site - and you should be if you are online - then make sure that you don't date your content. If visitors come across pages that talk about projects that happened two or three years ago, they're going to wonder whether you're still a viable business, or whether you forgot to shut down the website and turn off the lights when you left the building.
The Technical Side
Can Someone in my Company Design the Website?
Certainly. There are a number of software tools available that make the job easier for a non-technical person. But there are a couple of questions you should ask yourself:
- Are you willing to take the time to train yourself or your staff?
- Will your site reflect the professionalism and aims of your business?
Take a look at some of your competitors' sites. How would yours stack up? And are you able to judge your site objectively? Remember, not everyone who can use a word processor can write a novel, and not everyone who can create a web page can design a successful site.
However, this is not to say that you shouldn't give it a go. There may be someone with hitherto untapped potential within the company ranks.
I would, however, recommend that you consider using a professional copywriter to actually come up with the content. Ironically, businesses spend so much time worrying about their web site design that they forget that the most important part is the message.
Hosting the Site
Most small to medium-sized businesses will host their site with a professional web hosting company, while larger firms may host it themselves. Generally four options are available:
- Your site is installed on a server that hosts a number of other sites. This is best suited to situations where your site is relatively simple, with light to moderate traffic levels.
- You are supplied with your own server by your hosting provider, who also manages it for you. This works better for busier, more complex sites, and also means that another of your hosting company's customers doesn't affect your server's performance.
- You purchase a server and a hosting provider houses it on your behalf. You maintain the server yourself.
- You host the service from your own premises.
Many host providers offer other services, including email for your staff, virus scanning, and firewalls. Some of these services are part of the base costs, and others are extra. Be aware that many hosting companies don't back up your website. Make sure that you have a copy of all your web pages, and of your database if you have one.
Choosing a web hosting service can be a stab in the dark. Ask around and read the web reviews.
The Domain Name
The domain name uniquely identifies your web presence - e.g. amazon.com, redbone.co.nz. You will see it as part of your email and website addresses. If possible, choose a domain that matches your business name. If can't do that, then try and match your line of business. You can search for domain name availability at http://www.domainz.net.nz.
Usually your hosting service provider can register your domain on your behalf. Be careful that the domain is owned by you and not your host provider, in case you decide to switch providers at a later stage.
Generally, it doesn't matter what technology you use as long as the job gets done. The exception is when you develop the system in-house, or are purchasing the technology yourself. In these cases you should seek professional advice.
Update Your Stationery
If you haven't done so already, make sure that your website address is on your business cards, letter heads and also your advertisements. Keep your web address at the forefront on the minds of your customers and prospects.
Tell Everyone about It
Let people know that you have a website. If it's only just gone live, then chances are very few people will be aware of its existence. It's an ideal item for your next newsletter.
Submit it to the Search Engines and Internet Directories
Most search engines and directories have forms where you can submit your web site. Make sure yours is added. Don't rely on the engines to find you. And directories never look, so let them know.
Ask People to Link to You
Exchange links with colleagues and business partners - get them to link to your site and you link to theirs.
Suppliers are often only too happy to provide a link to your site because it's free advertising for them - you're one of their satisfied customers.
Is Selling on the Internet Right for You?
e-Commerce was one of the big buzzwords of the dotcom boom years. Now that the hype has died down, it's clear that selling over the Internet is an attractive proposition. It means that anyone in the world can purchase your products at any time, night or day. Having another sales channel is a boon to many businesses, but there are things you should be aware of:
- Whenever money is involved, you risk attracting unscrupulous characters. Hackers can and will target businesses that collect money over the web, so you need to take security precautions.
- Check your contracts. In the case of fraud, liability tends to rest with you - not the banks, the credit card provider or the card owner. If you are making a small margin per transaction, it only takes a couple of instances of fraud to wipe out your profit, or in fact, cost you much more dearly.
- Customers are very unforgiving. They use the web for convenience, so if your site is down, or you can't provide what you have undertaken to provide, they understandably get quite upset.
- If your company is not hosting the site, then there is no connection between the e-commerce system and your own in-house business systems. Can you keep track of stock levels? If there is a run on a particular item, can you guarantee that you can fulfill the order, or will you have to contact the customer and apologise?
Online, real-time purchasing can be a competitive advantage for many businesses, but you need to need to feel comfortable with the risks, and satisfied that you can deal with the worst-case scenarios.
The Web Can Free Your Staff
Put yourself in your customers' shoes. What information are they likely to want about you business? Try and anticipate that questions that they are likely to ask, and then put up a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section on your website. This serves two purposes:
- A well-constructed FAQ frees your staff from having to field questions directly.
- Anything you can do to ease the concerns or doubts of a potential customer steers them in your direction and away from your competitors.
Having a contact form where visitors can ask questions allows you or your staff to answer them at a time during the business day that suits. However, you must be sure to respond to any question within 48 hours, and preferably within 24 hours. If you don't, chances are you will never hear from that person again. Online customers tend to be more demanding than most.
Reduce Your Support Costs
If your business requires a high level of customer support, then consider creating a Knowledge Base. Solutions to common issues or questions could be documented and posted on your website. Provide a search engine that allows customers to search for the answers.
Know Thy Visitors
Although you can't make visitors reveal information about themselves, you should encourage them to do so. The best way is by offering something for free, but ask them to fill out a survey first. "Free" is one of those magic words that marketers love, and so do web surfers. However, people are wary of surveys, and there are a few guidelines that you should follow:
- Don't ask for too much information. This scares people away.
- People lie, especially people who think that you're being overly intrusive. Any information they provide is a guide, not absolute truth.
- People are concerned about privacy. Reassure them. Let them know that any details they provide will never be passed on to any third party.
- Provide a checkbox where the visitor can decide to whether to receive information from you in the future. Marketers debate whether or not the default should be to automatically received information, but regardless, let your visitors decide and never contact them if they do not wish to be contacted.
Your web logs provide another valuable source of information. Most web servers - the programs that interact with your site and the visitors - produce logs containing information that allows you to determine how many unique visitors you had, which pages are the most popular, and what country your visitors come from. The data is in a raw form, but there are free utilities that can convert it into user-friendly reports. Many hosting providers offer this as part of the service.
Over time you can learn what worked, what didn't, and where you should concentrate your energies.
The Website is Only Part of Your Arsenal
A website can be one of the most inexpensive ways to drive your business forward, but it's not a complete solution. Even if you intend moving a large proportion of your business focus to the Internet, the off-line or real-world support required is significant. As I have continually stressed, web visitors are demanding and unforgiving. They can always go elsewhere. But the business potential they offer can be immense.
The Last Words
- Your website is about your customers, and not about your company.
- Differentiate yourself from your competitors with your content.
- Only use graphics that help the site.
- A good site is a fast site.
- Targeted Content is King.
- Get rid of the splash page.
- Make it easy for your visitors to navigate your site.
- Make it easy for your visitors to find the content they're after.
- Keep your content fresh.
- Only design in-house if you have expertise in the area.
- Consider hiring a copywriter.
- If it does the job, it doesn't matter what technology you use.
- Get your web address out there.
- E-commerce is for everyone, but real-time ecommerce may not be.
- Use the web to free your staff resources.
- Know who is visiting your site, and adapt accordingly.
© Copyright 2005 Redbone Systems Ltd