Small Business Website 101

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When business owner Duane Draughon launched his landscaping company’s website six years ago, he and his associates didn’t put too much thought into what they were developing.

“We started with a basic page site, posted pictures, put up some ‘about us’ info and let it rip,” Draughon explains, before adding, “no one called the site and it was really just a waste.” Despite this failed attempt, Draughon and his cohorts understood that developing a successful website was becoming increasingly essential to a small business’s success.  So, when the company revisited the web venture a year later, they decided to up their efforts.

“We hired a company and let them go to work,” Draughon told MainStreet. “They came up with a great design layout and they also had no out limits, meaning we had no rules on how many pages or changes [we made] as long as we paid the monthly fee.”

Five years later, Paverstone Design Group’s website gets more than 300 visitors a day. Following its website’s redesign, the construction company has been featured in local papers and on CNN. “Eighty-five percent of our business comes from the site,” Draughon says. “It’s like we’re bigger than our market, because now we’re getting calls to work in other states.”

Draughon’s story highlights what a successful website can do (or not do) for a small business. Establishing a web presence is important because consumers consistently rely on the Internet to cut out the middle man. Popping up first or second when a user is searching for a specific service (or product) can net more business than a word-of-mouth recommendation or expensive marketing campaign. However, you can’t take advantage of the World Wide Web by simply buying a domain name and attaching some content to it.

“The Internet is getting more competitive everyday and search engines like Google are constantly advancing, creating increasingly sophisticated ways to index and rank the Web,” Brenda Rowe, media relations coordinator of SiteSell Inc., tells MainStreet. “More than ever it is essential to create original, high-quality content to generate and sustain that free traffic.”  

While many small businesses owners advocate pursuing professional help, others have found success running their website themselves. Lori Sullivan, for example, created two websites for her small businesses after initial quotes from marketing agencies seemed too steep for a startup.

“You can either take the time to try and figure it out or pay the money to have it done for you. I decided to invest the time,” Sullivan explains, saying the development of her companies’ websites was a process.  “Over time, I have taught myself how to add functionality, links to my Facebook Fan Page, ability to purchase my jewelry right from the site and more. There are improvements that I still want to learn to make like adding the ability to comment on my blog posts, but the sites are serving me well.”

Whether or not you seek professional help with your site, small business owners shouldn’t simply slap something together.  Do your research to determine, first, what you would like your site to look like. This can be achieved by simply looking at the websites of leading businesses in your industry or spending some time navigating a local competitor’s web page. Next, figure out who is best suited to creating this site for you. Recommendations for large marketing companies are easy to come by, but business owners on a tight budget can also look for freelance web designers, who generally offer lower rates than large agencies. Sites like Elance.com lets you compare these designers’ profiles, view works in progress and get competitive quotes on your project so don’t have to rely on a shot in the dark.

Conversely, if you elect to go it alone, make you sure you’re using the software that most suits your needs. Many business owners suggest content management systems, such as Wordpress, Joomla or Drupal, which offer more advanced do-it-yourself features. These systems also allow you to update and change your content every day, which is essential if you plan on making the most of your web venture. Whether you elect to hire a recommended web designer, your Great Uncle Jim or even yourself, here are some other rules of thumb to follow when creating and updating your website:

A Clean Design

While you may be enticed to overload your site with every web tool created by man, it’s best to keep things simple. Generally speaking, less is more as people want to able to look at your site and instantaneously locate the information they need.  Additionally, fancy web features will make a site take awhile to load and, in the lag time, a customer is likely to click over to your competitor’s page.  To avoid this, only include the tools that get you closer to your objective.  As Bob Firestone of Firewalker Media explains, “If you are a hotel in Hawaii, having a weather widget on your site makes sense. If you ship car parts across the country, it doesn’t.”

Accessible Contact Information

Don’t get so wrapped up in adding bells and whistles that you hide your contact information. Make sure to include your business’s address, phone number and e-mail address on your homepage (as opposed to just having an “About us” link at the bottom of the page”). In fact, it’s a good idea to put a phone number on every page of your website so that people can get in touch with you as soon as they’re interested in what you’re selling.   

Ways to Drive Traffic

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is one of the reasons many small business owners advocate pursuing professional help. After all, many people aren’t even sure what SEO is, let alone how they can utilize it. The basic gist is this: Search engines, such as Google, use keywords, backlinks and fresh content to, essentially, rank websites. This means the more user-friendly and/or relevant your site is found to be, the higher up it will appear in a potential consumer’s search results.  If you’re manning your own site, you can use free web tools, such as the Google Adwords Keyword Tool, to figure out what keywords generate the most SEO traffic. Beyond that, keep it straightforward and avoid cutesy jargon. For example, don’t call your restaurant an “eatery” or your gym a “fitness studio.”  In general, it’s best to describe your product using the most commonly used, accessible language possible.

“Consumers are in a rush on the Web,” John Nicholson, a managing partner at Marketade, explains. “They rely heavily on search engines to find businesses and they scan website content quickly for the words they just searched on. Getting cute with your language may seem like a good idea, but it rarely works, given the reality of online consumer behavior.”

A Way to Accept Payments

The main objective is to convert a visitor into a customer and you can’t do that if you haven’t arranged for a way to take their money. Fortunately, both Google and Paypal offer ways for small business owners to accept credit card payments, which can be easily integrated into most websites.  (Just note before signing up that both Paypal and GoogleCheckout take a small percentage of the sales made through their services, similar to other credit card transaction providers.)

Change/update the site easily and frequently

Launching your small business website is actually the easy part. What you net from it comes down to how you update, change and maintain it. This means that owners employing a web designer will need to make sure that the designer is regularly available to access the site and make changes whenever necessary. Those maintaining a site on their own should plan to spend ample time at the computer.

“Once you launch your website, you are not finished,” Bob Destefano, an online marketing strategist, says. “Websites are never finished. They need to continually evolve to improve their value to the customer. [Business owners] want to communicate that they are a dynamic and active company. The best way is to have a dynamic and active website.”

Want some more marketing advice? Check out MainStreet’s article 4 Small Biz Marketing Mistakes to learn what no to do when launching your small business.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

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