Top 5 Building Blocks for a Great Website

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It would be nearly impossible today to find someone who doesn't use the Internet to find information or to shop for personal or business needs. But does this necessarily mean your business needs a web presence? Consider this: According to a study by the Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center, nearly three-quarters of all US households have Internet access and more than 85% of users say they find new businesses through Internet search engines. Even if your customers are local or the business you're in requires personal relationships with your customers, the statistics don't lie: a professional website is a must today for any business!

A website is a great way to find new customers at a lower cost. Most people now search first for a product or service on the Internet, so having a web presence is critical to ensure that potential customers find you...and quickly. A website in fact can be your online business card, brochure, lead-generation tool and customer referral method. But, more than this, a website is the newest sales channel. You can easily and inexpensively create online catalogs to sell your company's products and services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. The best part is that you can do so at a lower cost.

Ultimately, websites are no longer "nice-to-haves." A recent Web.com small business survey reveals some persuasive figures about how much importance small businesses attach to their websites:

78% of respondents indicated their company benefits from having a website

56% of respondents attributed some portion of their annual sales to their online presence

38% of respondents said they are unlikely to do business with companies that do not have a website

So, now that you understand what a professionally designed website can do for your business, let's get started. Below are some basic steps you should follow to ensure that your website is a success. Click here for more resources and special offers on building your business website.

1. Plan Your Website.

Planning your website involves creating the blueprint for the website; where it will reside, what it is supposed to accomplish, and how it will look.

Define your goals and objectives for the website: Think in terms of action verbs here: what do you want your website to do for new and existing customers, as well as other visitors? What services — such as eCommerce or scheduling — or interactions — such as forms or web logs — do you want to include? It helps to take a look at the competition and see what they're providing.

Determine the look and feel of the website: Your website should reflect your other marketing materials, including colors, logos, layout, writing style, and even the style of type you use. The more consistent, the better, because people remember visually. Colors, logos, and the overall look and feel of your marketing materials are important and should be professional. When thinking about the look of your website, do your homework. First, spend some time thinking about how you want to be thought of by your customers and prospects. This decision will affect all of your choices. No matter what you choose, create a brand that will appeal to your audience.

Brainstorm ideas for a website address: Your company's online presence begins with your website address, which can also be used in your e-mail addresses. Most importantly, your website address should reflect the name of your business, like www.web.com. However, sometimes the website address you really want is already taken and creativity comes into play. Whatever name you choose, make sure it's easy to remember and easy to spell.

Choose an experienced website partner you can trust: Your website partner should be an expert in design and technology, so that you don't have to be. After all, you have a business to run! Also, make sure the company you choose is established and reputable — don't be afraid to ask for client references and samples of websites they've created. Just as importantly, be sure they provide you with a reasonable way to update your website after it's published. You shouldn't be charged a large fee every time you need to update your website; in fact, you should be given the ability to do at least some simple updating yourself. Your website creator will be your partner for a long time, so do your homework before signing someone on. Saving money now by having a neighbor or family member build your website could cost you big down the road if they lose interest in your project!

2. Create Your Website.

As you create your website, make sure it's attractive, readable, efficient, and easy to navigate. Whether you create a website yourself or have someone do it for you, keep the following best practices in mind:

Use an attractive, professional-looking design: Your website reflects directly on your business.

Include photos: Not only can photos help visitors see your products and services, but they can help reflect your company's culture, your staff, and other aspects of your business. Photos can be warm and familiar, conservative, and businesslike, or fun and trendy, depending on your desired image.

Avoid verbose text: People are turned off by text-heavy websites, so get to the point. Use clear, fast-loading pictures. In particular, avoid high-resolution pictures, which take a long time to load.

Avoid animated introduction pages: Pages created with Macromedia¨ Flash¨ (a Web-authoring tool that provides text animation effects). Display your home page as quickly as possible.

Remember the 3-click rule: It should take visitors no more than three clicks to get to the information they're looking for.

Don't include a counter on your website: Counters tend to look unprofessional, so invite interaction in other ways.

Test your website on a dial-up line: There are still many people out there using dial-up connections, which are slower.

3. Prepare Your Content.

Content is the most important aspect of your website. Regardless of your business, remember the goal of your website: to communicate who you are, what you offer, and how to contact you. If you represent your company, goods, and services effectively, you will capture the attention of prospects and win their business. Spend some time thinking about exactly why you think someone should choose you over a competitor. Then, using the following list of elements as a framework, you can create an informative website.

All websites contain the same basic elements:

Home page: This page is the entry point to the rest of the website. The first goal of the home page is to describe your business and what you offer. Keep the description brief but informative — approximately 200-300 words are usually a good length. At a minimum, your home page provides a brief description of your company, how your business is unique or different from your competition and possibly a company history or information about key personnel.

Goods and services page(s): This area provides a description of your company's goods and services. It might also provide links to an online catalog where customers can buy products, make appointments or reservations, etc. Depending on your business and the breadth of goods and services you offer, you may need more than one page to cover all the important details about your goods and services.

Contact Information: You'd be surprised at how many websites don't provide the most basic information. Even if you have an online business only, include your address, telephone number, at least one contact e-mail address, your hours of operation, directions to your company, and preferably a map.

Other Tips for Creating Good Content: Take the time to add extra touches that will improve your website content.

Personalize your business: Customers who do business with small companies prefer the sort of high-touch, personal relationship they don't find with larger companies. Including personalized information about your business, such as your history, your commitment to the community, staff bios, and so on, can create more of a bond with customers.

Show your successes: Websites are the primary resource for people investigating businesses. Your website can keep their attention — or even close the sale — through content such as a portfolio of past projects, testimonials from happy customers, certification logos from professional organizations, and lists of awards.

Cross-sell products and services: The next time you visit Amazon.com and buy a book, notice that the website suggests other books that you might like. This is a perfect example of cross-selling. You can cross-sell, too, in many ways. For example, if you're a CPA, break clients out of the "my CPA only does my taxes" mindset by introducing the other services you provide. If you own a hair salon, put information about the products you sell in the salon on your website, so people can read about them in advance and purchase when they come in to your store.

Empower customers by inviting interaction: As we've said before, many customers prefer to do business with smaller companies, in part because they feel they get more personal attention. Your website can be the ideal tool to help you keep in touch with your customers.

Keep your content current: One of biggest mistakes the small businesses make on their website is not keep the website current. After all, if customers return and see that nothing's changed since their last visit, why would they rush to come back? Since many details about your business don't change very often, a great way to keep your website feeling fresh is to include recent news, customer success stories, interesting articles, etc. By updating your website at least once each week, you help maintain website traffic and keep your customers coming back for more!

4. Promote Your Website

OK, so you've built a terrific website — the design looks great and the content is right on target. Your next step is to make sure your prospects find it. Websites are passive, but website marketing is not. Here are three tried-and-true ways to create an effective promotional campaign that seeks out your best prospects and draws them to your website.

Search Engine Marketing: According to a study by the Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center, more than 85% of users find a website through a search engine. You should optimize your website for search engines and even consider a pay-per-click advertising campaign with a major search engine like Google™ or Yahoo!¨ These programs are great for businesses of all sizes because you only pay when some actually clicks on your ad and visits your website. At a cost of about 15 cents to a dollar or two per click, you can choose as many keywords as you like and your listing will appear each time someone searches on them. With tools like Web.com's MyEzClicks™, creating a search engine marketing program that guarantees traffic to your website, you'll find that search engine marketing is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to promote your small business.

E-mail Marketing: E-mail marketing is an enormous opportunity for most businesses. Whether you send an e-mail newsletter to your customer database or rent opt-in e-mail lists to reach prospects, you'll be rewarded with increased traffic and repeat visitors. The advantages of e-mail marketing over traditional direct mail include lower costs, reduced turnaround time and the potential for higher response rates. E-mail tools like Web.com's E-mail Marketer offer a substantial savings by eliminating the cost of printing and postage, and a campaign can be executed in about two weeks from start to finish, versus three times that for traditional direct mail. What's most compelling is that effective e-mail communications can drive website traffic and sales, enhance customer relationships, and increase brand awareness. While most e-mail campaigns produce an average return of one percent, some marketers report results as high as eight percent or more!

Offline Promotion: Put your website address on all business-related materials, including business cards, print advertisements, brochures, appointment-reminder postcards, invoices, coupons, flyers, and promotional materials.

5. Once you publish your website, invite feedback

Even before your website "goes live", ask people you trust to review it. You might also ask a customer you trust to try it. Is there anything that confuses them? Can they find what they're looking for? Correct these issues before publishing the website. If you include a comments form on your website, you might also get some suggestions for improvement to the website itself. Pay close attention to these, and be sure to send appreciative reply e-mails.

The Bottom Line...

We won't lie to you. Building a compelling, interactive website takes a lot of thought and some work. For most small businesses, the first question is "Where do I start?" The great news is that you've already got the help of one of the biggest, most experienced website companies in the country. In fact, Web.com has built or hosted over 4 million websites! Just by taking the time to read this guide, you're already heading in the right direction. With proper planning and guidance, we're confident you'll find that investing in a professionally design website is one of the smartest and most cost-effective things you can do to grow your business.