Your business website is your most important online marketing tool. A survey by Sailthru showed that 56 percent of retailers said their websites generate the most revenue of their digital marketing efforts, followed by email at 18 percent. Therefore, it is vital that you make your website the best it can be so that you promote your business in its best light.
"Don't underestimate your need," said Joe Ardeeser, CEO of the website design agency Jordan Crown. "People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a physical location, but you're going to have just as many or more people going through your central website."
There are plenty of website creation services, as well as website creation programs that provide good templates and easy-to use editors. However, whether you dish out $20,000 for a website or go the DIY method, there are important basics you need to know before you build and as you evaluate your site during creation. They boil down to three principles: purpose, completeness and simplicity. [Editor's Note: For a side-by-side comparison of website creation programs, visit our sister site Top Ten Reviews.]
1. Understand the purpose of your site and why people visit it.
Purpose begins in the planning stage. You must have a clear idea of what you want your customer to get from a visit to your site, and even from each page. Be sure that everything about your site supports its purpose and that every page results in a goal achieved – whether it's giving the visitor the information she needs or enticing her to purchase an item or sign up for a newsletter.
"Think through every individual page. What are the important parts? What are the goals?" Ardeeser said.
Knowing your purpose also determines the format. For example, while single-page, scroll-down websites are growing in popularity, they may not be the best choice for your website.
"If you have a tremendous amount of content with a lot of layers and depth, it's a no-brainer. You can't have one page," said Erin Pheil, founder of the web design company Followbright. "More importantly, if you currently have content enough for one page, but know you are growing, a site with multiple pages is the way to go."
If your purpose is e-commerce, then your customer wants to be able to buy items easily. That means including high-quality photos, making the shopping cart accessible from every page, and having contact information on the checkout so that if a customer is having problems, they can call someone for help rather than click away to your competitor. "It can make the difference in conversion (to a sale)," Pheil said.
2. Give complete information so your customer doesn't click to a competitor.
Regardless of purpose, visitors to your site expect complete information – i.e., enough to answer their most important questions without overwhelming them with details. They also need a way to contact someone if they have specific questions unique to their situation.
Pheil and Ardeeser agree that one necessity is ensuring your home page has a concise statement of what your company does.
"It should be incredibly clear what the business is and does, (and) what problems it solves," Pheil said.
"Don't make users go four or five pages on your site to understand who you are," Ardeeser added.
Other important information, especially for service-type businesses, includes how much you charge and how (hourly? Flat rate? Monthly plans?), how you work with the customer, and what they can expect as far as results and scheduling.
Social proof – positive customer feedback and interactions on your brand's social media channels – is also important to include on your website, because it's a vital part of your marketing. According to Marketo, only 33 percent of buyers believe what a brand says about itself, while 92 percent believe what their peers say about it.
"It's really powerful to have social proof in a website, to show that other people have had positive experiences, and what those experiences were like," Pheil said. "Businesses often think someone comes to their website just looking for the facts, but the experience of what it's like to work with the company is equally important. Anything that you can do to paint a picture of that experience is a huge bonus."
To do this, Ardeeser suggested testimonials (that include the customer's first and last name), reviews and ratings, and a list of clients.
Finally, you need a way for people to contact you. Phone numbers are always welcome, but Ardeeser said that even a simple contact form works if you respond quickly.
What about e-commerce?
For e-commerce, you should answer the most important questions about the product – sizes, colors, options – as well as state return policies and service agreements. Pheil said that customers who cannot get their questions answered on your site are more likely to give up or to click away to your competitors and purchase the item there.
High-quality images of products are an especially important investment for e-commerce sites. Pheil said consumers are more likely to purchase a product if the website has a beautiful image that shows off the product.
"By the same token, bad photography can decrease purchases even if the website is otherwise great," she said.
3. Make your website intuitive and easy to navigate.
Even if your website contains all the information your customer could want, it won't mean a thing unless it's organized and easy to read.
First, keep your design clean, on-brand and in a form visitors expect.
"One of our most common requests is for extraneous elements that sound cool and might have visual impact, but aren't good for the business target audience," Pheil said.
She said that this often happens when someone in the decision-making process wants to follow a trend or introduce a wow factor, such as the latest color or nifty animations or unusual menu settings. However, these can not only confuse the visitor, but also slow the website down.
Websites have best practices because that's how people use them, Pheil noted. If you choose a wow factor that goes against that, you may set a trend at the expense of your profit margin.
"If it's a site that people leave, it hurts business," she warned.
Based on advice from our sources, here are some best practices to follow on your website:
- Contact information in the top right
- Logo in the top left
- Menus with only 4-8 items using standard, clear names
- Dropdown menus that can have more than eight items, but are vertically listed rather than horizontally
- White space
- Footers that repeat links to the most important pages as well as contact information
- Text that follows the reading conventions of the language (such as left to right, top to bottom for English)
- Clear sentences in the style your reader expects (e.g., a medical site may employ precise, technical language, while one selling skateboards can be freer with slang)
- A simple checkout process that does not involve too many extra steps
Navigation is another important aspect of a website. No matter where someone is on your site, they should have an easy way to get to the home page, the shopping cart or your contact information.
If you have a lot of major menu tabs, make use of the ancillary menu (the extra menu often found on the top right that holds only a couple of links). This usually contains contact information, login and the shopping cart, but it can also be for less urgent links such as your About Us page or mandatory regulatory information. You can also make use of the footer to repeat links to important pages that may be in the submenus. Ardeeser said that people are used to scrolling to the footer for support pages and contact information, for example.
You don't have to limit navigation to menu links. Pheil suggests adding navigation in the form of text links or buttons for related pages throughout the content. For example, "Interested about costs? Check our pricing plans." "Want to read testimonials?" "Ready to buy? Click here now."
"It's a useful technique that's often overlooked but can prevent the reader from dead ends," Pheil said.
Create a plan for website success
Whether you create a website yourself or hire a company, your site will benefit from planning beforehand. Start with developing a clear site map so you understand where each page lies. Both Ardeeser and Pheil say that this is a crucial element to planning and should not be skipped.
When planning, think about your customer's experience:
- What are they most likely to look for first? Those determine main menu items.
- What would a customer call a piece of information? For example, you may call your monthly plans "service agreements," but most readers may think of that as maintenance and warranties. Instead, you might consider "Plans" or "Pricing."
- Under what category would a customer mentally place information? Remember, your business process may not mirror your customer's purchasing process.
Pheil suggested that if you are not a naturally organized person, or if your site has a lot of moving parts, you should seek out help.
"If you don't have too many pages, look at a competitor's site to see how it is organized," she said. "But if you have a lot of pages, working with someone who is a content strategist or with an agency would be worth the investment, because if your content is scattered, even if it's great content, it can create an extremely frustrating user experience."
Once you have the site map, create blueprints for the different types of pages. Ardeeser recommends creating color mock-ups of 10 to 30 pages, depending on the complexity of the website, and then working through those mock-ups thinking like a consumer.
Be realistic about your timeline too, said Ardeeser. This is not a process that should be rushed. He also said that if you hire a company, be sure it’s consulting you at every step, not just taking your information and coming back months later with a full-fledged website.
You should approach your website with the same care you'd approach choosing and designing a physical storefront. Determining your customer needs, mapping out your website navigation, and having complete information that is easy to navigate and read will make your website a success, and enhance your business ROI as well.
For more ideas, check out our guide to building a business website.