Small Business Marketing: Smart Web Design Best Practices and Tips

You are not alone if you don’t have a dedicated website for your startup or small business. But you’re in grave danger of falling further behind your competition.

You might be slowly building a fan base on Facebook (if you’re buying fans on Facebook by advertising, you’re very likely wasting your money), sharing small bits of content on Twitter, and posting images to Pinterest. But without a digital home, you’re scattering your efforts and missing an incredible opportunity to engage and connect with your customers and potential customers through a dedicated website.

Today, we’ll cover small business web design best practices and tips. It’s been a few years since we’ve written on this topic. Many things have changed – we’ll point you to great new resources and examples – but the fundamental best practices of good web design have remained consistent.

Here are our top 10 tips to help you create an awesome website design:

1. Keep the design simple, fresh, and uniquecs-site

Your website reflects your brand. It is the first impression a visitor will form when they visit your site for the first time. If you use an off-the-shelf template and your website looks like thousands of other sites on the Internet, you’ll miss an opportunity to create a unique impression. Why would a potential customer remember your site when she has seen dozens of other sites that look just like yours?

The homepage is typically the most important page in a small business website because your potential customers will likely see that page first when they visit your website. Moreover, because most small business sites have fewer than a dozen pages, the homepage is an important anchor for your overall site. It must answer several important questions – including who you are and what you do.

Consider the impression you want to make and the message you want to communicate to your customers and potential customers.

Make sure you have a professional logo design. A logo created from clip art or a template won’t be unique and will create a poor impression. Even worse, it may expose you to substantial legal risk.

You should keep one very important fact in mind: users typically read only 28% of the words during an average visit. Don’t overload your homepage with a lot of text and images. Consider the most important content and images you want your users to see and get rid of everything else.

Consider too that your visitors might be visiting from laptops and mobile phones, so try to avoid designing pages for a large monitor size or pages that use more complex features such as flash animation or complex navigation (flash isn’t supported on the iPhone and iPad, for example).

Tip: You can implement modern design trends to make your site look current. For example, flat design has become popular. If you’ve used iOS 7 on an iPhone or iPad, or Windows 8, you’ve seen flat design first-hand. Flat design eliminates gradients and shadowing, making images and fonts smaller and easier to read. Other 2014 design trends include blurred backgrounds, simple animations, more scrolling, and bigger fonts. For even more about 2014 design trends, I recommend you read 18 pivotal web design trends for 2014.

You can consider parallax scrolling for a more sophisticated look, although this is typically overkill for most small business sites. Parallax scrolling presents the webpage as multiple layers; the background layer scrolls at different speeds than the foreground layer (or may not move at all). Sometimes, animation also helps to enhance the effect. For more on parallax scrolling, including tips and examples, I recommend you read 2014 Will Be Year of Parallax.

Advanced Tip 1: Once you design your homepage, you can run very simple tests to figure out which buttons, colors, and pieces of content earn the most clicks. After all, marketing is as much a science as it is an art. For more about A/B testing, I recommend you read 7 Dead-Simple A/B Tests You Should Run on Your Homepage.

Advanced Tip 2: Particularly on your homepage – but also on any pages where you’re trying to persuade the user to take some action – think about what action you want the user to take and create a prominent call-to-action button. For tips on creative effective calls to action, I suggest you review 10 Techniques For An Effective ‘Call To Action’.

The call to action (CTA) on your homepage is an important element to draw visitors deeper into your site. You should consider a few important factors when you design your CTA, including: (a) location (above the fold – visible on the monitor when the page first loads is typically ideal), (b) make sure the CTA stands out from the other content on your site (notice how the crowdSPRING “Learn more” CTA is pink?), (c) create a link to another page so that your call to action will draw the visitor deeper into your site, (d) create a less-emphasized alternative variation (notice the “take a quick tour” link below crowdSPRING’s primary CTA, (e) and test design, content, and placement.

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2. Showcase your products and services

You’re selling a product or service. Make sure that you showcase that product or service on your homepage. I’ve seen many small business web designs that failed to effectively show their products or services and others that tried to showcase far too many products or services on one page.

You have only a few seconds to make a first impression and ensure your impression is professional.

If you’re selling products and your customers will buy the products online, you need to ensure that the product photos – or graphical images and descriptions – are clean, crisp, and appropriate. You can have a great site design, but if your product photos look terrible, prospective customers will think twice about buying your products. Look at how well-known online stores present products (Amazon, Apple, and Zappos are all good examples).

For good examples of startup websites that showcase a single product or service, I recommend you read Showcasing The Design of Startup Websites.

Tip: Don’t overload your site with photos or graphics. Although it’s been said that a picture can say a thousand words, pictures can also confuse and diffuse attention. Pick a few good product shots and feature those products on the homepage. You can feature your other products on interior pages. basecamp

Advanced Tip: Great content is an important element in your site design. More on that in tip 6 below. Consider the homepage for Basecamp (on the left). There’s a good mix of narrative content and images with useful information to get the user to invest more time reading, if they’re interested. Notice the effective use of subheadings, bold fonts, and justification to keep the content simple and easy to read.

3. Pay Attention To Site Load Times

People are impatient when browsing websites and slow load times impact conversions (getting people to buy your products or services). If your site design is graphically intense, you need to make sure you’ll have the hardware infrastructure and bandwidth to support the designs. This is especially critical if you’re serving a large customer base and expect substantial traffic to your site. You can improve your site load times by picking good hosts.

The cheapest monthly hosting option does not typically offer the best value. It might be cheap, but is also likely to be slow and unreliable.

Tip: want to compare how quick two sites load in comparison to each other? Here’s a free tool you can use:

4. Make your site easily accessible

Consider how people with certain disabilities – such as color blindness) can learn about your products and services if they visit your site. Also consider how people with slower internet connections will view your site. This is especially important for small businesses, including rural small businesses, catering to local clients – accessibility is one of the best ways to endear your business to such clients.

Tip: Keep the web design and navigation consistent throughout the site. Don’t create unrelated designs for different pages on your site. All the pages should have a similar overall layout and design.

5. Organize your site to provide a better user experience

Search engines prefer websites that are properly organized. People also prefer good organization. Keep in mind that when your prospective customers visit your site, they’re typically looking for specific information. They’re rarely going to read entire pages – they’ll skim headlines and small portions of text and look at photos or graphics (but not all of them on the same page). A properly structured site that presents information in an orderly and organized way will be much more successful than one that appears chaotic.

Tip: Use bold fonts and bullets to present key information or to stress things you want the readers to notice.

Add text color to stress the most important information, but try to keep your use of text color and fonts to a minimum. You want to emphasize, not confuse.

Keep in mind that most people will ignore content if the headline above the content doesn’t interest them – so don’t ignore good headlines (more on that in tip 6 below).

Advanced Tip: action buttons/links should be clear and unambiguous. For example, “Save” is not the same as “Submit.” Consider a user’s expectation when they click a button or link and make sure that your labels properly set those expectations.

6. Content is important

You probably already know that search engines index sites based on the quality of content (and links). The more content on your site, the more attractive your site becomes for search engines (more about search engine optimization in tip 9 below).

People also like content. In fact, poor content can quickly cause a visitor to leave your site. Don’t ignore headlines – they can be very powerful and can mean the difference between a visitor reading the rest of the content and leaving your site.

Keep the content fresh and current. If your 2014 website has content dated from 2010, your visitors may quickly leave your site

Tip: Study your successful competitors – especially those that have been in business longer than you. Look at their websites and study how they present their products and services to their customers and potential customers. Study their site colors, brand voice, use of graphics and photos, and organization. For more information and tips for evaluating your competitors, I recommend you read Start-up tips: 10 Tips for Evaluating Your Competitors.

Advanced Tip: Consider using larger font sizes for your content. As screen resolution has improved, many displays show smaller fonts in a too-tiny-to-read size. Take a look at some of your favorite websites and consider which font sizes you prefer for viewing/reading. With few exceptions, you probably prefer sites that use larger fonts.

7. Understand the difference between design and development

To build a website, you’ll need a design for the site and development of the site. Although some freelancers can do both, the skills for design and development are typically different, and you may want to leverage different people for each part of the job. Freelance web developers tend to specialize in frontend or backend work.

Frontend developers tend to focus on the client side – what your users see when they visit your website. Backend developers usually focus on the interaction between the server and databases.

Backend developers often work on several things, including scripting to permit users to interact with the site, web server configuration, and developing e-commerce features, such as a payment system. Good freelance web developers are skilled in multiple areas, including web design, information architecture, usability engineering, web content management systems, web server administration, database administration, software engineering, project management, network security, and search engine optimization.

Tip: If you decide to hire a freelance website designer and/or developer, you should look for at least three people (or shops) and ask them for detailed quotes. You should also remember to ask for a few examples of their prior work so that you can evaluate their style and experience.

8. Consider the domain but don’t obsess about it

Your domain will communicate important information to your visitors. It might tell them what your small business does. Or it might simply be an effective way for people to easily reach your site. If you’re unable to find a URL that matches your small business name, you can consider changing the name or finding an alternative URL that includes the name – or one that complements the name.

Try to find a domain that’s easy to remember, but don’t obsess about it. If you need help, consider leveraging the 151,000 creatives on crowdSPRING to help you find a great new company name (including a domain).

Tip: Consider how the URLs on your site will look to search engines and people. Where you can (this is not difficult to do when you use content management systems – such as a WordPress blog), use natural sounding names for your URLs and titles. For example, the How It Works page on the crowdSPRING site has the following easy to read ULR:

9. Don’t forget search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM)

For a small business, efforts spent on one marketing initiative typically detract from other marketing initiatives. Search engine optimization and search engine marketing are highly specialized fields and require a substantial investment of time to learn. But SEO and/or SEM campaigns can provide great leverage to small businesses and as a result, should not be ignored. For a useful primer on small business search engine optimization and search engine marketing, you can read 10 Practical Small Business SEO and SEM Marketing Tips. For additional tips, I recommend PPC Tips for Small Business Owner and How To Leverage Rich Media SEO for Small Businesses.

10. Use a responsive design

Mobile devices account for a higher percentage of web traffic. In fact, some businesses, like Facebook, have more people accessing their sites via a mobile device than a desktop computer. This trend has been going up for years and will continue in 2014.  To learn more about responsive web design (and see examples of how sites implement responsive design), I recommend you read The Pros and Cons of Responsive Web Design vs. Mobile Website vs. Native App.

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