Small Business Marketing: Web Design Best Practices and Tips

We’ve recently discussed several useful topics for small businesses and startups, including naming your company,  how to make you taglines stand out from the crowd., and tips for buyers looking for logo design.

Today, we’ll cover website design marketing best practices and tips for small business.

Most businesses, from one person start-ups to small and mid-size businesses to international conglomerates, need to have a presence on the Web. A strong website can help a small business to more effectively market its products or services  – even if the small businesses’ customers are all local. A strong website can also help individuals and businesses to promote their brands online, including on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Classmates, Bebo, Yelp, Foursquare, and others.

If you need help, you can leverage crowdSPRING’s community of more than 67,000 designers and writers for your custom web design. Whether you leverage crowdSPRING’s community to develop a Web presence for your small business, work with a freelance designer or design firm, or create a design yourself, you might find the following 10 tips useful:

1. Keep the site design simple, fresh, and unique.

Your website reflects your brand and is the first impression a visitor will form when they visit your site for the first time.

The homepage is typically the most important part of a small business web design. This is what your potential customers will first see when they visit your website. And because most small business sites have fewer than a dozen pages total, 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 that you want to communicate to your customers and potential customers. Keep in mind that users typically read only 28% of the words during an average visit, so don’t overload your homepage with a lot of text.

Consider 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 navigation (flash isn’t supported on the iPhone, for example).

Tip: 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’.

2. Showscase your products and services. You’re selling a product or service. Make sure that you clearly 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. You have only a few seconds to make a first impression and you should make sure that the impression you make is professional. Most small businesses can benefit from professional photographs (or videos) of their business.

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If you’re selling products and your customers will buy the products online, you need to make sure 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, your prospective customers will think twice about buying your products. Look at how well-known online stores present products (Amazon, Apple, Zappos are all good examples). If you’re presenting your products graphically (without using photos) – I love the way 37signals presents their products on their homepage (below). You get a peek at their product and a brief statement explaining what each product does.

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. Alternatively, as you see in the 37signals example, you can create a longer page and showcase more content – and photos/videos on that page. Because the page is longer, there’s plenty of breathing room for everything and the homepage is easy to follow.

3. Consider Site Load Times. People are generally impatient when browsing websites and slow load times do 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.

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 the same general 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 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. 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).

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 2010 website has content dated from 2003, your visitors may quickly leave your site. As an example – we update the crowdSPRING homepage multiple times every week to give our visitors something new whenever they visit.

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, 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.

7. Understand the difference between design and development. To build a website, you’ll need both 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 a number of things, which include scripting to permit your 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 or one that complements the name.

Try to find a domain that’s easy to remember, but don’t obsess about it. Tate Linden, CEO of Stokefire (a firm that specializes in branding), says that people often place too much value on the domain:

The number of people who type in URLs is shrinking every day.  Small business owners still seem to be obsessing over getting the pure URL as, but the larger organizations have adapted.  We’ve done quite a bit of research that indicates the URL is becoming much less important.  Nowadays people are putting the name into Google to find sites.  We see this as a great thing.  The sad fact is that the vast majority of names we consider are ‘camped’ by squatters hoping to make a quick buck.  If you don’t have deep pockets or a convincing story to share you’re going to get taken to the cleaners.

Google is a great tool for getting around this issue—if you’ve got a strong brand and you’re getting links from people you’ll end up as the number one response for your name even if it isn’t the pure dot com domain.

Last, there are some promising developments on the horizon.  There’s talk of opening up the area to the right of the ‘dot’ that would at least temporarily help businesses get their own domains.  There are also some processes in place where business owners can go to ICANN and file a complaint based on the fact that their trademarked domain name is being held for ransom.  I’ve heard some success stories of businesses going through the process and winning the domain rights from people whose sole intent in owning the sites is to sell them.

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 take away 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 about 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. Leverage online tools to improve your website. crowdSPRING is a small business. As a small business, we leverage online tools to help us run our business efficiently and inexpensively. We use those tools daily to improve our own website and recommend that small businesses identify online tools that can help them in their online marketing efforts. I’ve previously written about 10 Awesome Online Tools Your Small Business Should Be Using – I recommend you read that article to learn about online tools that can help you get the most out of your online presence.

Also remember that it is always great to ask for professional help regarding the design and development of your web page.

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