In this day and age, it's almost impossible to get away with not having a website for your business. Even small, local businesses can benefit greatly from having a simple Web page that provides potential customers with more information. And it's not a matter of having a website in the first place — your website needs to be built with quality and customers in mind in order for it to be effective.
So how do you create a website — or improve your existing site — that will build up your business? We asked business owners and Web experts to share their advice. Here are five simple tips for achieving online success.
Plan your website thoroughly before you build it
You may want to get right into the creative process, but it's important to take the time to plan the structure of your site and your goals before you start building or revamping your design.
"My No. 1 tip for creating an effective website is to spend adequate time on planning and strategy at the beginning," said Anna Stout, owner of Web design and marketing company Astute Communications. "I've seen so many Web designers skip the planning process and jump straight into design. By doing this, you end up with a product that might look good, but it doesn't serve any particular goals."
By outlining your goals and priorities and mapping out your site architecture first, Stout said that you will create a website that will actually be an effective tool for your business.
"To that same end, creating content first, and designing around that content will allow the business to feature its important messaging, rather than trying to fit its message into an existing design," Stout said.
Stout's company uses a 6-step process for each Web project. This process starts with planning, research and goal and priority identification, and is followed by creating a sitemap and user flow diagram that anticipates how users will interact with the business. Then, they consider the customer acquisition funnel, which is how a user moves through the site to a point of conversion, be it a sale or signing up for an email list, for example. From there, the focus is on content development, then the creating of a visual interpretation of the hierarchy of information on the site. The last step is the actual site design.
"Each step of this process informs the next," Stout said. "Ultimately, by the time we reach the design phase, we have developed the inner workings of the tool that is your company website," adding that the process eliminates any guesswork.
Track your changes
Just building a good website isn't enough — you have to sure you're keeping up with changes, too. That's why it's important to look at and understand your site analytics. You can use this information to improve your website and bring in more visitors.
"Measure — that's the most important piece of advice I can give you," said marketing professional Sharon Mostyn. "I have been working with websites for almost 20 years now, and with the numerous free and affordable website analytics tools, there's no reason to make a change to your site and not understand what it impacts."
First, Mostyn said, you need to decide on the metrics you want to measure, and then track those over time.
"That can be anything from the number of site visitors, the number of sales, the bounce rate, where you're ranking in organic search results, your quality score for pay-per-click advertising, or something else entirely," Mostyn said. "Of course, to get a holistic picture, you should track all of these metrics and more."
When you make changes to your site, pay close attention to how the metrics change, Mostyn said. You can also try this out in other ways, for example, with a split test.
"If you can, you may want to consider doing a split test before implementing a more permanent solution," she said. "This allows you to compare results without making too big a sacrifice if the test doesn’t perform the way you think it should."
The key is to test, measure, optimize and repeat, Mostyn said, adding that you may not even realize how much a simple change can affect business.
"Sometimes, changes that you think will have fantastic results will yield nothing," she said. "Or the smallest changes may drive major results. One website I manage added a link to a video on the homepage and saw a 78 percent increase in conversions. We wouldn't have known how that minor change affected things if we hadn't already been tracking our conversion rate." [10 Ways to Boost Website Performance ]
Optimize for mobile
More and more people are accessing the Internet from mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, so it's important that businesses make sure their websites are just as functional on those devices as they are on a computer.
"My one tip is mobile, mobile, mobile," said Will von Bernuth, co-founder of skin care company Block Island Organics. "We've consistently seen an increase in our mobile traffic month over month, yet we did not have a mobile optimized site. This made it very hard to monetize our mobile users."
He also pointed out that Internet best practices are now geared toward mobile users, and that your site can suffer in search if you don't optimize for mobile.
"With all the stats on increasing mobile Web usage and Google's search algorithm penalizing nonmobile optimized sites, it's a must to have a mobile site," von Bernuth said. "Even if you have a mobile app, a mobile optimized website is a must too and this is only going to get more important."
His advice? Take a look at your site analytics, specifically your mobile traffic, and see how you can better cater to your visitors' needs, von Bernuth said.
Focus on your customers and clients first
Clients and customers want to know your story and read about what you do, but they mostly want to know what you can do for them. That's why it's important to structure your site and write content with your audience's best interests in mind.
"Define your audience and the goals they are trying to accomplish on your website — then make sure you help them accomplish those goals," said Mike Jones, managing partner and brand strategist at marking and branding company Resound Creative. "Instead of just describing your business the way you think you want to hear it, think about how a potential customer or client researches the types of products and services you offer."
Jones suggested thinking about the kinds of questions customers will ask and the problems they'd be looking to solve, then building your site and messaging around that same perspective.
"For example, if you're a coffee shop downtown in a commercial district of a big city, your audience is likely young, very busy professionals who need that caffeine jolt early in the morning before they hit the office," Jones said. "And they probably like stepping out of the office during the afternoon for another pick-me-up and a breath of fresh air. So what are some questions they're asking in finding and choosing a coffee shop?"
Questions like "Where is your shop located?" "How late are you open?" and "Do you have non-coffee drinks or snacks?" are all good examples of the kinds of questions you should be thinking about, Jones said. If you know customers will be asking questions like this, you can add a map to your website with your address and easy directions, make your hours of operation clear, and post your menu, for example.
The more questions you ask yourself from the perspective of your potential clients and customers, the more useful information you can provide on your website.
Change the way customers contact you
Many business websites today still have old-fashioned contact forms where you can fill in your information in order to be contacted by a representative. But Lindsay Higgins, CEO of marketing and consulting company Leave it to Lindsay Marketing, pointed out that customers and clients want a better way to get in touch.
"My most important tip for improving a business website is to make it easy for a prospective customer to get in touch with your business without needing to fill out a contact form," Higgins said. "These days, people don’t want to fill out a contact form on a website, hit submit, and then sit around and wait for a response."
Higgins said that many customers also don’t want to pick up a phone and start the initial conversation. So in order to give your customers and clients a better experience, you need to make sure your website offers better options for contacting you.
"Having convenient options like live chat or an online scheduling system will give your prospective customer a great experience with your business, and give them the opportunity to get in touch with you faster, without picking up the phone," Higgins said.