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After years of denial and procrastination, you've finally given in and taken your business online with a company Web site. Instead of hiring a professional Web designer, you cashed in a favor and had a friend put together a basic Web site which is now up and running. With a sigh of relief, you can now safely check "Web site" off your task list and move on to other projects, right?
No way! An ineffective Web site is almost as useless as having no Web site at all, and there's a lot more to creating an effective Web site than slapping your company's contact information up on a Web server. Fortunately you don't have to be a Web design guru to create a quality Web site. In fact, by following a few simple guidelines, it may be easier than you think to make the most of your company's online presence.
Our tips below cover the basics of good Web site design for small businesses but also offer some techniques that may be useful to you even if you are a seasoned pro at building Web sites to help you take your business to the next level.
Test Your Site Against Your Business Goals
Web sites don't exist in a vacuum. They should be built to accomplish specific goals. What are the top three goals for your Web site? If you don't have that list top of mind, you can easily end up with a Web site that doesn't help you to grow your business. Think about what you most want to accomplish through your Web site and tailor the site to accomplish that goal in the most attractive and efficient way possible. As your business goals change, it's imperative that you update your Web site to reflect your new goals.
Conduct a Competitive Web Site Audit
Prior to building your Web site, you should conduct a thorough evaluation of competitive Web sites. What do they do well that you should emulate in your own Web site? Don't just emulate your competitors try to set a new standard for Web site excellence within your industry. After you've launched, revisit competitor Web sites at least once a month to see if they've changed. Better yet, install some Web site monitoring software on your computer and get an immediate notification whenever your competitors' sites change programs like Webmon, ChangeNotes and Check&Get are excellent for this task and are inexpensive.
Keep It Simple
Simplicity is something that everyone appreciates. One of the most common misconceptions about small business Web sites are that bigger is always better. But most of the time, customers prefer an attractive and easily-navigated smaller Web site over a poorly designed site chocked full of options and information. Start simple. You can add other functions later. For now, your priority should be to keep the main thing, the main thing and to do it well.
Another mistake many small business owners make is filling their Web site with too much text. A Web site isn't supposed to read like a book or a letter. It's supposed to catch visitors' attention and invite them to learn more about your company and its products. If your Web site has too much text, it will overwhelm visitors and encourage them to leave your site for one that is more user-friendly. If you don't want to shorten the text on a long page, consider breaking the page up into multiple pages or providing the extra information via a downloadable brochure. Mind you, too little text on a page is also a faux pas. That's because search engines must find meaningful text phrases on your page if you want to avoid being a no-show in search engine results.
Test Your Site for Readability
Here's a tip that even some sophisticated Web pros often overlook. After you've built your site, test it for readability. A quick search in your favorite search engine for "Web site readability tests" will give you instant access to some free online readability assessment sites. If you are selling toys to kids and your readability level suggest that site visitors will need a PHD to read your text, it's time to rework the text to make it easier to read.
Market Your Site
Your company Web site may be stunning, but it will be completely useless until people know it exists. To attract visitors, you need to proactively market your site through search engines, on your company letterhead, in your store, etc. Depending on how important your Web site is to your business, you may even want to consider hiring a professional to get the word out. For additional tips, see our Marketing Web Sites article.
Monitor Your Site
How much traffic is your site getting? What are your uptime percentage rates? If you can't answer these questions, odds are you've forgotten to monitor your site. To monitor uptime rates, use a free website monitoring service like SiteUptime. To determine traffic on your site, try a free web analytics tool such as Google Analytics.
Provide Regular Updates
There's nothing worse for visitors than a Web site containing outdated and irrelevant information. Some Web sites require more updating than others, but regular site maintenance is a must for every site, regardless of how much time-sensitive information it contains.
Web sites are highly versatile business tools. They can be adapted to accomplish just about anything you want to accomplish in small business. Ultimately, the most successful Web sites are the ones that are integrated into the life of the business rather than being sidelined as just one of many promotional resources. By making a determined effort to integrate your site into your business, you'll discover new and creative ways to use the internet to your advantage.