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If you’re a business owner, having a website for your business is a must these days.
Whether you’re a plumber or dog groomer, lawyer or baker, gone are the days of consumers leafing through the yellow pages to find you. More and more, your potential customers are turning to the Web to locate products and services available at local establishments. And odds are good that, before taking a chance on you, customers are going to Google your business to find out more about you.
Are you a plumber? Customers want to know that you’re experienced and responsive. Dog groomer? Clients wonder if your hours are convenient, and what amenities are available for their beloved pooch. Baker? Let potential customers first taste your wares with their eyes.
If you’re like most business owners, however, you may be stretched thin just managing your business on a daily basis. What’s more, though you’re an expert in your particular industry, you may have little or no knowledge of how a website gets put together or maintained, and therefore may feel a bit intimidated. So how are you going to find the time to build a website? And where do you start?
Fortunately, building a Web presence doesn’t have to be overwhelming or scary. Local experts and Millbury Savings Bank customers Stan and Adeline Birdwell of Clearmark Studios, a Sutton-based Web design and development company, and Steven Tetlow of SeaNSun LLC, a Millbury-based online marketing and products company, lend their knowledge and expertise for building an effective site.
When it comes to website development, there are really two routes you can take. The simplest and most cost-effective is to build your own site using an online, templated website design product. These website builders promise turnkey website design, often including hosting services, for minimal cost. Their capabilities and tools range from the very minimal to the fairly robust, which could be exactly what’s needed for the smallest of companies, especially those like home-based businesses.
“Today, there are many website builders available to you, so you can build your own professional-looking website with little or no experience,” says Steve. “Your website will then act like a sales person working 24/7 to sell your products or services.”
The other avenue is to find a local Web designer or developer who can create a customized site that’s both unique and consistent with the already established look and feel of your business (i.e., your brand). While more expensive, these website professionals first will interview you to understand your business and website needs, and then build and manage a comprehensive site for you.
“First and foremost, your website is an important marketing tool designed to increase your business, so it’s critical that it fully integrate with your brand and all your marketing efforts,” says Stan. “A website design company can bring the branding and design elements together to ensure your site incorporates all aspects of your business.”
In either case you’ll first need to register an available domain (i.e., your website address), either by finding an online registrar and registering it yourself, using a registration service, or having your website design company handle that for you. Of course, the domain needs to fit your business, so most simply choose their company’s name, if it’s still available. However, if it’s already taken, you’ll want to think a bit creatively about how to make your domain relevant to the product or service you offer.
“For example, if you believe, and want others to know, that you offer the best chocolate chip cookies perhaps www.bestchocolatechipcookies.com is what you would go with for your domain,” says Stan.
Steve offers a similar take. “If John sells used books, he may think that www.johns.com would be cool to have,” he says. “But perhaps a better option would be http://www.johnsusedbooks.com.”
You may’ve noticed that a range of domain extensions now exist — from the most popular .com, to the alternative .net, .org, and .biz, to name a few. While many new ones have been added recently, by far .com remains the most widely known extension, and therefore is a must. That said, obtaining the same domain with multiple extensions may make good business sense.
“Choose your domain, and secure it with .com, .net,or .biz, at a minimum,” suggests Stan. “But remember that some domain extensions have restrictions. For example, .edu is reserved for educational institutions and.gov is reserved for government entities. Commercial companies should stay away from .org, which implies a not-for-profit.”
“Registering multiple domains is a great way to protect your brand name, create a dynamic online identity, and market your business,” Steve says. “It also offers more ways to be found on search engines.”
Next you’ll have to decide (or let your Web development company help you choose) where your site will be hosted — that is, on what server the files that make up the website are stored. A shared server, so-called because your site shares the server with other business’s websites, is typically the most cost-effective and is fine for businesses who expect a limited amount of traffic. A dedicated server hosts only your site, and is best for sites with lots of visitors or that use a robust content management system. Between the two is a VPN, or virtual private network.
“Be wary of hosting services that offer free bandwidth and very low fees,” warns Stan. “This is a good indication that they are cramming as many sites as possible onto a single server, with every site competing for bandwidth. As a result, your site may be slow to load.”
Your Site Takes Shape
Once these primary decisions have been made, it’s time to start developing the specific elements of your site: the navigation, content, and design.
In general, visitors will get frustrated if the information they want is more than three or four clicks away. So think of navigation as the master organizer of your website, helping visitors know where they are and where to find what they’re looking for.
Organize your content in a simple structure that includes, at a minimum, a homepage, separate pages for each product or service—including a description and a photo gallery of your work, if applicable—and an “About” page. Depending upon the complexity of your industry, business and products or services offered, additional pages and topic areas may be needed.
“The ‘About’ page, which tells all about your company, is especially critical for small businesses, because it’s the second most frequently visited page on your site after your home page,” says Steve. “On the other hand, a contact page is optional, because you can design any or all of the pages of your site to display a contact form.”
“Be sure to break out multiple or lengthy topic areas into several pages, so you can dedicate the content on each page to that topic and that topic only,” says Stan. “The key is to be as targeted and relevant in each area as possible.”
Filling all of those site pages with good quality, relevant, and, most importantly, search engine-friendly information is critical. You want your site’s visitors—who can be, of course, potential customers—to find your site so engaging and informative, that you’re building their respect and trust in your company with every click.
It goes without saying, then, that your site’s content should be well-written, free of typos and grammatical errors, and not so lengthy that users are overwhelmed and click off your site. While website development companies can help you develop and write the content as well, you’ll be on your own with online website builders. Therefore, if you go that route, be sure to have others read and review your content before it’s posted.
Of course, content works best when it’s actually found, and that’s where writing in a search engine friendly fashion is imperative. Both Stan and Steve emphasize keeping search engine indexing methodology in mind when writing content, so that your site can be appropriately indexed and ultimately found higher up in searches— a process called Search Engine Optimization, or SEO. But avoid the dated practice of heavily loading in keywords in an attempt to get your site higher in the search results.
“Search engines are intelligent these days, and can tell when someone is stuffing keywords onto a page, which can ultimately earn you demerits with the engine,” says Stan. “Make the content as natural-sounding, targeted, and relevant as you can, so that you gain greater weighting of value and authority with the search engines. Remember, content is king. ”
Steve concurs, and also encourages businesses to utilize the top third of the page—also referred to as the section that’s “above the fold”—since that space is seen in most visitors’ browser windows without needing to scroll.
“Put an action item near the top of the page to catch visitors’ attention,” he suggests. “Simple ones can include, ‘Call today for a free estimate’ or a coupon for a 20% discount off a particular product or service.”
Consider using either a content management system or the website builder software application to upload new or updated content yourself as frequently as necessary to ensure it isn’t stale or outdated. However, both Clearmark and SeaNSun agree that updating the primary content on your site doesn’t need to be done more than once or twice a year, since it takes search engines 30 to 90 days to fully index your content anyway.
“Updating content doesn’t have to be a chore, unless your business has a particularly fast-changing product or service” says Steve.
Addie adds, “To keep things fresh, though, consider using a blog, newsroom, or events calendar that allows for posting current or cyclical information. It keeps the information timely, and also gives search engines a different way to index your site, which will allow you to build additional authority with them.”
We’ve all seen websites with dancing logos and busy pages. So we all know how much they’re a turn-off. No matter whether you’re choosing your own website builder template or hiring a designer to design your site, your ultimate goal should be a design that’s attractive and appropriately projects your business’s brand.
“Flashy and graphic-heavy websites are slow to load, expensive to build, and do nothing to increase your search engine rankings,” says Steve. “Focus on designing a clean, professional-looking website with a mix of text and graphics.”
“When we design custom websites, we provide a couple of ‘wireframes’ that show potential outlines of the site, as well as several options for ‘mood boards’ that demonstrate the use of colors, fonts, photography, and other design aspects,” explains Addie. “That way, customers can choose their favorite elements from each and build the site’s design in a way they believe works best.”
Designs should be tested to ensure they’re compatible with all of the major browsers, including Microsoft Internet Explorer, Apple Safari, Mozilla Firefox, and Google Chrome. Moreover, with today’s mobile technology, keeping tablets and smart phones in mind is important, too. Steve recommends building a second version of your website so it displays correctly on a phone, and redirecting smartphone users to the mobile site for ease of use. The Birdwells say they now build all sites in something called Responsive Web Design (RWD), which means that regardless of the type of device used to visit the site, the site’s elements automatically respond to that device’s screen size and rearrange to fit nicely on the screen.
Regardless of which method you use to build your website, one thing is increasingly clear: Businesses that have websites are able to better connect with the potential customers who have grown accustomed to using the Web to research their buying decisions. If your potential customers can’t find you, your business may be left out of their decision making process altogether.
Talk to a couple of website designers and developers, and research some online website builders today. It’s the important first step to having an online presence that will help you effectively grow your business.