We no longer live in a world where entrepreneurs can stay offline and still be competitive in the marketplace. Every business, no matter how small, must have a professional Internet presence, starting with a well-designed, easy-to-navigate website that communicates its brand and is consistent with other marketing materials. No matter which type of business you own, prospective customers are going to get a very distinct impression of your business based on your online presence. Your website is essentially your online storefront or business card, so you need to ask yourself, "What does my website say about my company?" Want to build a new website or improve the one you already have? Here are five things you need to know.
1. Choose your domain name carefully.
Ideally, you should select your domain name at the same time you are naming your business, because you want it to match your company name exactly -- so people can find you easily online. The experts at IT consulting firm Catalysoft agree that a domain name should be intimately connected to your company's brand. The next best option is a domain name that is related to the key product, service, or benefit you provide. When you follow these rules, your site will be more likely to appear at the top of Web search results, because potential customers will be searching specifically for what you offer. Previously, the three-letter extension after the domain name or "top level domain" was very important, because each type -- ".com," ".org," or ".net" stood for a different entity. Now that the Web has exploded as a business medium, these domain names have essentially become interchangeable and can be used for any purpose.
2. Keep it simple.
One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make when setting up their websites is getting too fancy with design and using large images that slow down loading times and make navigation impossible. Simple navigation and graphics can let more visitors view Web pages and keep them on your site longer because the pages load faster. To simplify your website layout:
- Create the content first, which can often be the most difficult part of creating a website
- Use small-but-striking graphics that can be reused on multiple pages
- Make the navigation of your website easy to understand
- Use the same template to create the layout of each page of your site so you can cut production time and make the site easy to read.
Often, the most simple websites are the most effective. Clever visual design, animation, or other surface features will never impress as much as simple language and to-the-point statements about the benefits the company provides.
3. Pay attention to search engine optimization, or SEO.
SEO is a way of analyzing and creating individual Web pages and entire sites so they can be discovered, analyzed, and indexed by search engines like Google. SEO is critical for small-business websites, because it makes the content of pages more relevant, more attractive, and more easily read by search engines and other indexing software. Paying attention to the keywords your potential customers will use when looking for your company and the services or products you provide is critical to creating the right text for your website. Without SEO, a site can become virtually invisible. Optimizing your site means creating a site map and paying attention to details like title tags, headers and site description. Improving your search ranking -- whether on your own or with the help of a hired SEO consultant -- should be an ongoing part of your marketing efforts. In today's complex online world, ignoring SEO is like failing to put a sign on your storefront.
4. Design is important, but content is still king.
When setting up a website, the overall appearance is important, of course. People coming to your site will be enticed to stay if the look and feel is appealing -- just as they will be turned off by an unprofessional looking website. However, content is what will get potential customers, clients, and partners to stick around. Once visitors are convinced to stay, the content of your site, and particularly the copy, needs to keep their attention. It has to be relevant and answer questions they have. Copy on the site has to lure visitors to your marketing message and products, and give them "calls to action" that will engage them.
5. Your site should reflect your company's personality.
Small businesses are not faceless corporations -- and that's a big advantage they have in the marketplace. Your website should convey your company's unique story, without generic business jargon and stock photos. Try using straightforward language, starting a company blog, and including real photos of your company and staff, to help enhance your online persona. You want to keep it professional, but authenticity resonates with customers, and anything you can do to spread that is bound to be good for the bottom line. Creating Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts, and including links and widgets on your own website, can also help create a personal, one-on-one connection with customers.
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 5/10/10.