Credit: Website development image via Shutterstock
Is your small business still operating without a website? If so, you might want to step into the present day: Modern consumers expect brands to be online, and without a Web presence, you're losing a valuable opportunity to make a good impression and gain those customers' business.
Having a well-designed website can also be an effective way to market your business and compete with larger brands in your industry. With plenty of pricing options and easy-to-follow templates available, it's never been easier for budget-conscious companies to make themselves look as professional and polished as the "big guys."
Whether you're creating your first website or rebuilding an outdated one, here's a step-by-step guide to help you design, market and maintain a great professional site.
Determine the primary purpose of your website
A business website generally serves as a space to provide general information about your company or a direct platform for e-commerce. If you don't plan to accept payments through your website, you won't have as much work to do in setting it up. If you are a retailer or service provider and want to offer your customers the option to pay online, you'll need to use an external service to receive your payments, which will be discussed later in this article.
Even if you're a service-based business, you can still include a strong call-to-action on your business's website, said Gabriel Shaoolian, CEO of website design and digital marketing agency Blue Fountain Media. Whether it's through a quote-request form or a newsletter sign-up, the purpose of your website is to gain more clients, and this should be defined from the start, helping to shape the way your website is structured.
"Think about your specific user experience, and the journey the user will go through as they navigate your site," Shaoolian told Business News Daily. "Whatever the fundamental goal of your website is or whatever the focus may be, users should be easily able to achieve it, and the goal itself should be reinforced as users navigate throughout your site."
Decide your domain name
Your domain name is one of the most important features of your website. It's the URL you'll be sharing with your current and potential clients, and if you want to keep them coming back to your site, you need to make it something memorable. Try to keep it short, and steer clear of abbreviations, acronyms and numbers if possible, to avoid customer confusion.
You will also need to decide your top-level domain, or TLD. This is the suffix at the end of your domain name. Since many domains ending in .com have already been taken, you may want to consider a nontraditional TLD and register your site as a .net or .biz.
Once you've selected your domain name, you'll need to confirm its availability and purchase it through a domain registrar like GoDaddy, Squarespace, Wix or Web.com. Don't forget to check copyrights to make sure you're not infringing on anyone else's protected name with your website. [Best E-Commerce Software for Small Businesses]
Choose a Web host
Every website needs a "host," a server where all of its data is stored for the public to access at all times. As a small business, hosting your own website is simply too large an expense, so you'll need to select an external host. Depending on your budget, you can go a couple of different ways. A shared Web host, the least expensive option, means you'll share a server with other sites. Dedicated hosting costs significantly more, but it means that you get your own private server and won't have to compete with other sites that could drag down your speed.
When you're choosing a host, you should not only consider the cost, but how well that host can answer questions about its server locations and reliability, said Jim Cowie, chief scientist at cloud-based Internet performance company Dyn.
"It's good to ask [a potential Web host], 'Can you show me how close you are to the major markets my customers are going to be in?'" said Cowie. "Any good hosting provider should have the tools to show you ... measurements" of their performance.
As you grow, you may find that you need to upgrade to a different Web host, or even work with multiple providers to handle your website traffic and operations. Cowie advised keeping a close eye on your site performance and the experience your customers have using your website, so you can determine your hosting needs. [How to Choose a Web Hosting Service]
Build your pages
A good website consists of more than just a home page. You'll want to create multiple pages dedicated to different aspects of your business, such as a detailed catalog of your products or services, or a blog section for company updates. A contact page, your customers' direct link to you, is one of the most important sections of a website, so make sure you include as much information as you can (phone number, email address and physical location if applicable). It's also a good idea to include some information about the founding team or staff on an "About" page to help customers put real names and faces to your brand.
If your business doesn't already have a logo, consider hiring a graphic designer or creating a logo yourself to use on your website, business cards and social media profiles. This will help your clients identify your company quickly and easily on the Web.
Justin Zalewski, a design lead at design and innovation consultancy Studio Science, offered a few basic tips to help you create efficient, content-rich pages for your website:
- Be clear about what your business does. Distill what your business does into a clear, concise statement and lead with that. Visitors should be able to understand what you do within seconds of landing on your home page. A few well-written pages are more effective than dozens of poorly written ones.
- Place strategic calls to action. Call-to-action buttons tend to perform best if placed where visitors also find the information they need. Rather than placing calls to action throughout the site and on every landing page and blog post, take a more strategic approach and place the button at the point where the visitor is prepared to make a decision. For example, if you have a page describing your products or services, you can place a "Buy" button or quote request form at the bottom.
- Automate speed improvements. Set up as many automated speed improvements as you can. If you use a content management system (CMS), installing the right plugins will cache parts of your site so visitors don't need to download anything more than once. For WordPress users, Zalewski recommended WP Super Cache or W3 Total Cache, which can compress files and allow visitors to browse your site more quickly. Some of the more technical aspects of caching and compressing files may require a Web development partner if you're not particularly tech savvy.
- Avoid stock photos. Cheesy stock photography is the quickest way to turn a great site into a mediocre one. If you're looking for photos to use on your page, it's best to use a picture of your actual team or office.
Set up your payment system (if applicable)
While this step won't apply to all business websites, companies that want to offer the option to pay online will need to integrate electronic payment systems into their websites. The easiest way to do this is through e-commerce software or third-party payment processors.
Some Web hosts offer an in-house option for e-commerce integration, but not all do. So if you have to choose one on your own, be sure to do your research. For a side-by-side comparison of the best e-commerce software, visit Business News Daily's sister site Top Ten Reviews.
Test and publish your website
Before you announce that your site is live on the World Wide Web, make sure it works on all major browsers, like Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Chrome. Click through each page and feature on every browser to ensure a hassle-free user experience. This will take some time, but the effort you put in now will save future complaints from visitors who can't access certain features.
Another important feature to incorporate into your website from the very beginning is an analytics program. By setting this up before the website is live, you can iron out any issues and coordinate a proper setup, Shaoolian said. Once the website is live, you can monitor page performance and determine the reasons why a page is successful or unsuccessful based on your analytics.
"You can take a look at which of your marketing campaigns are showing the most conversions, and examine any metrics such as city, browser, etc. to shed some light on how your audience is interacting with your site," Shaoolian said. "If you ... implement this [after] the site goes live, you'll miss out on valuable data and have no way of seeing which elements of your site are successful or unsuccessful right from the start."
Market your website on social media/search engines
If your business doesn't already have profiles on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, create them now and include links to these profiles on your home page. This is the best way to increase your audience reach and to alert customers and clients about what's going on with your company. Anytime you update your website, post about it on your social media outlets — but balance that out with genuine, nonpromotional engagement. Learn more about social media for business in our marketer's guide.
Submitting your website to major search engines will also help direct potential leads to your page, as will deploying a strong search engine optimization (SEO) strategy across your site. Shaoolian said that defining title tags, meta-descriptions and uniform resource identifiers (URIs) that are relevant to your company and aspects of your industry will help ensure that you rank correctly in search engines for the products or services that you're trying to market.
"Building relevant keywords into your content from the very first phases of your website, and having a strong focus on SEO from website launch will help you generate traffic early on," he said.
Maintain your site
Staying relevant is just as important as being on the Web in the first place, so update your website frequently with blog posts on current industry events, new products and offers, and company news to keep visitors coming back to the site. You should also test your site periodically and make sure that you are using the latest versions of your Web host's software. If you don't have time to do this yourself, delegate the task to a trusted employee or hire a freelance website manager.
Starting a website for your business is a low-cost investment that will help you to both establish credibility and reach a wider customer base than you ever could through traditional marketing techniques. As long as you keep your website updated with fresh, current content and are quick to address technical issues, you'll never have to worry about "not existing" to your current and future clients.
Originally published on June 20, 2013. Updated April 9, 2015.