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Website Best Practices

By Robert McGarvey

September 12, 2017

Here’s today’s blunt reality: Your business needs an engaging website; it had better be good, and it had better be suited to the times.

Used to be, a business needed a Yellow Pages ad, definitely. Now? That’s up to you—some businesses swear by such old-school methods, others don’t. But what is beyond debate is the need for a good web presence. That’s become essential for just about every business, of just about any size.

Lack a website, and—harsh as this sounds—it’s as though you don’t really exist. Even if the company has in fact been in existence for a century. To many 21st-century consumers, where they look first—and often last—for their answers is the web. You have to be there, and what you need is a 2017 website.

That means a web presence crafted for today, and remember that the World Wide Web dates back to 1989, although it really took off with the debut of web browser Netscape in 1994. That means it’s been part of our lives for 20-plus years. And a website that worked in 1997 likely won’t meet the demands of today.

Ditto for a 2007 website. A lot has changed in recent years, particularly how we access the web—with what devices and at what speeds.

So, what are the best practices in 2017? What are the must-do’s—and the must-nots? Here, web designers who work in the trenches, usually with small and midsized businesses, share the top 10 ideas for creating a website that sizzles.

Even better, none of what’s suggested is that hard. It will take attention and some thought, but this recipe is well within the reach of just about every company.

Step 1

Accept that it won’t necessarily be easy to find a good vendor, says Matt Roy, director of digital marketing at The YGS Group, a Pennsylvania-based communications company that, for the record, helped redevelop the website for AICC in 2015 (www.aiccbox.org). The point: Nowadays lots of people claim web expertise, and maybe they have it, but do they have skills in working with businesses like yours and in communicating with the customers you serve and those you desire?

Lack a website and—harsh as this sounds—it’s as though you don’t really exist.

That’s a central idea: An effective business website is a communication tool. And if it doesn’t communicate—no matter how beautiful and technologically slick it might be—it fails. Keep digging until the right vendor is identified.

Step 2

Know your budget. How much do you need? Maybe less than you fear. Roy sets out what he calls an average budget range for an effective website for most smaller businesses: $30,000 to $50,000. Of course, there are websites that cost upward of $1 million, and some are built from templates that might cost under $10. But for a typical business, think in terms of the $30,000 to $50,000 range.

Step 3

Ask about security, says Roy. “I’m surprised how few businesses ask.” Most business websites—probably 95 percent—reside on third-party web hosts. What security do they have? What backup procedures are followed? In an age of epidemic ransomware and hacker attacks on the one hand, and natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy on the other, it’s crucial to know about security and backups before they are needed.

View these three steps—vendor selection, budget, and security —as the building blocks for an effective business website. Now, the creative fun begins.

Step 4

Know your audience. For whom is your site intended? In most instances it will be potential and current customers—so, what interests them? Ask them. And ask them what they don’t like about websites. Start from that basis, and website design gets that much easier.

Daniel Davidson of By Dan Design, a website company in Colorado, elaborates: “When you start with your customer, you ask all the right questions: Who is my customer? (Build out your customer personas.) Why are they on my website? (Map out your buyer’s journey.) What does the site visitor need?”

In that vein, Nick Leffler, owner of northern California website design firm Exprance, says: “The rule for an effective business website in 2017 is to focus on the business’ customers first. The design of a website is very important, but what’s even more important is how well the website acts as a business tool.”

Leffler adds, “A business website in 2017 should always be business-oriented first and look good second.”

Paul Hirsch, co-owner of website design firm Studio 1337 in Houston, says likewise: “It’s amazing how many businesses will put design ahead of function or will concentrate on how a site looks instead of focusing on how people will use it.”

That last bit is crucial. Some websites fail because they are too cute and too technically slick by half. Dial back ingenuity in favor of maximizing effectiveness.

Step 5

Key advice—from multiple sources—is to make the site about your customers, not you. Enlist customers to help tell your story—typically with short quotations, possibly video—and that’s a powerful way to persuade new customers.

Customers like to read about customers like them.

Enlist customers to help tell your story—typically with short quotations, possibly video—and that’s a powerful way to persuade new customers.

Step 6

A big 2017 must-do—“think mobile first,” says Daniel Lobring, managing director of communications at rEvolution, a Chicago marketing firm. He adds: “Sites built in 2017 are more likely to be visited on a phone, tablet, etc., so that site must be mobile-friendly and easy to navigate on the go.”

That’s key, and by the way, always test sites before launch on a variety of platforms—particularly cellphones, and be sure to test on both Android and iPhone.

As of late 2016, experts began to report that mobile web traffic had eclipsed desktop and laptop computers, and the gap has only grown.

Won’t a mobile-friendly site be a big fail for viewers who come in on a desktop monitor? Nope. That’s because the 2017 trend in website design is what’s called responsive sites—sites that automatically configure themselves to provide an optimal experience for users coming in on any device of their choosing, from desktop computers through tiny cellphones, and also tablets such as iPads and Microsoft’s Surface. This has become a 2017 must in a world of diverse users, as well as people surfing from subways and coffee shops and while walking city streets.

Step 7

Focus on content that maximizes SEO is advice from Adam Binder with Creative Click Media in New Jersey. That’s critical, because if people cannot find your site, they won’t visit it.

What’s SEO? Search engine optimization—which nowadays means Google, because it already has the majority of searches, and its share is projected to grow above 80 percent by 2019, according to eMarketer. A site with good SEO scores higher in Google than one constructed without SEO skills.

Lower-rated sites may never be noticed by users.

How to get good SEO scores? Google continually tweaks its formula—and never reveals all of it—but perennial advice is to make a site fast-loading, because Google marks down sites that load too slowly, even on slow 3G cellphone connections, and to make the site easy to navigate. Also, use keywords that are probably what the people searching for you will put into their Google search. Want more SEO advice? Go back to step one: Ask your website vendor what their approach to SEO is—a vendor who gets it. Then routinely test how your own site performs in Google searches. When many prime competitors score higher, it’s time for a rethink.

Step 8

Don’t forget the entire world is not digital. “Make it easy to contact you,” says Lobring, and sure, provide an email address, but also give a phone number, even a physical address. Give website visitors choices, and let them pick what works best for them. Lobring ominously adds: “If it becomes too burdensome for a consumer to find the answers they need, chances are they will move on, and move on quickly.”

Remember: Most site visitors probably are mobile, and how do they like to initiate contact? Often with a phone call. Don’t think a website means you can turn off your phones. It just may increase the calling volume.

“If it becomes too burdensome for a consumer to find the answers they need, chances are they will move on, and move on quickly.” —Daniel Lobring, managing director, communications, rEvolution

Step 9

Know the answer to this question: Can you update your site yourself—or must you go through the website designer? Some companies want to go through the designer, and that’s fine. Others, with a stronger DIY streak, sometimes find that—practically speaking—they nonetheless have to go through the design firm for updates, because the site is built using obscure and technically complicated tools.

Find that out after the site is up and running, and it can be a source of big irritation. Get clear on this on the front end.

Step 10

Accept that a website is not forever. “Two years is the approximate lifespan,” says YGS’ Roy.

That means not long after you put up a new site, it’s time to start the planning cycle anew.

Will your site need to be totally redone? Maybe. Maybe not. But the pace of change in the world of the web has been blistering. Expect that to continue—and make sure your website continues to meet the expectations and desires of visitors.

So, the process starts anew.


width=150Robert McGarvey is a journalist and blogger based in Phoenix.