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How a Website Can Help Your Business
Your small business can benefit greatly from having its own website. An effectively
built site can play a key role in helping your company make an impact in the
information age, and can enhance the effectiveness of your company’s
marketing and customer service.
Your website is the presence of your business on the Internet. It is important
to understand how to properly develop a site that will effectively meet or
exceed your business expectations. Your website may be relatively simple, providing
visitors with a general overview of who you are and what you do, or it may
be large and complex with online sales capabilities, a virtual catalogue, a
virtual tour, and customer service functions. The possibilities are endless,
so careful planning is required to develop the right website for your business.
The first step in creating an effective website is to consider the role that
your site will play in your business strategy. Make sure your business goals
are clearly identified before you start planning your site. Review your current
business plan to see how and where a company website could strategically help
your business grow and prosper.
Know Your Competition
When planning your business strategy, you need to research and understand
your competition. The same basic rule applies to the development of your website.
It is crucial to study your main competitors’ websites to get a better
understanding of how they use the Internet to promote their products and services
and improve customer relationships.
It is quite easy to conduct a simple but effective competitive website audit.
First, identify your competitors and find out if they have a website. When
you have compiled a list of competitors that have a web presence, examine each
site in detail. Approach each site as though you were a potential customer,
noting what you like and don’t like about their site. Pay particular
attention to content (useful, current and relevant?) and design (easy to use,
intuitive navigation, and professional?). Try to identify the four or five
key tasks your competitors want their clients to accomplish online.
You can ask a few friends to evaluate your competitors’ sites as well.
Have them compile a similar list of what they found most useful (or useless)
about your competitors’ sites, and see if their impressions were similar
to your own.
How and Who Will Use Your Website?
A critical aspect of building an effective website is knowing who will use
your website and what key tasks they want to accomplish. Consider what you
learned during the audit of your competitors’ websites. Posing as a potential
customer, were your needs or expectations met or exceeded through their websites?
Did you find what you were looking for? Role-playing as a customer will help
you identify the information and tasks that are most important to your clients.
Another effective strategy to determine the key tasks of your customers is
to ask them directly. Take an informal survey of customers to find out how
they would potentially use your website. Not only will you get valuable information
about your audience, but it will show your clients that you are committed to
finding way to serve them better.
Selecting the Right Developer
Website development is not as easy as it may appear. You are generally best
to outsource the development of your website to a professional. A poorly designed,
amateurish website can actually do more damage to your business than having
no website at all. You must carefully select the right web developer for your
project – not all web developers are equal in qualifications and experience.
Create a List of Candidates
Get referrals from other business people who have websites of similar complexity
to yours. Look in the business section of your telephone directory and create
a list of website developers located in your area. Meet potential developers
and request portfolio samples and client reference. Follow up with the references
and ask questions about the quality and timeliness of the developer’s
Narrow Down the List of Candidates
Review the portfolios and client references and create a short list of strong
candidates. Contact these developers and ask them a series of questions, including:
- What makes you better than any other developer?
- What main software applications do you use when developing a website?
- How can you assure me that the site will be done on time and on budget?
- Can I view the development of my site in progress?
- What is your deposit fee (if any?)
- How much will the site updates cost after the site is complete?
- Have you worked on a similar project in my industry?
You should then request a web development proposal that includes a cost quote.
A quality developer should be willing to meet in person to discuss your website
strategy. Remember, you usually get what you pay for. A very low quote
could mean the developer is unqualified to provide a quality end product, while
an abnormally high quote may indicate that the developer believes you are willing
to pay more than you need to. A web development proposal should contain reasonable
timelines and targets. It should also contain a communications protocol that
ensures you will have direct input into the development of your website.
Choose Your Developer and Sign the Contract
There are some other important factors to first consider before signing a
contract. Most developers will request an up-front project deposit. Reasonable
deposits range from 15% to 50%. Do not pay for the entire project up front.
As a client, it is also reasonable for you to demand a holdback (a contractual
condition where you will hold back money until an agreed upon project milestone
Carefully review the development contract, and have your lawyer review it
if necessary. The development contract should include clauses that protect
your rights to take legal action if your developer fails to fulfill his or
her obligations. Make sure the contract gives you full ownership of all
intellectual property related to your website, including content and any
media or graphics. You may consider using an escrow service where a third party
holds all of the intellectual property for the project, and releases the work
once the contract has been paid in full.
Your contract should specify that all source files produced by the
developer be backed up onto a CD-ROM and provided to you upon completion of
the project. Also ask how much ongoing maintenance and updates to your site
The Key to Success: Planning
You will need to work with your website developer if your website it to be
successful. Your developer may be an expert at website development, but you
know your clients and business best. Planning is critical in developing a successful
website. A good web plan documents your website’s goals and objectives,
describes the target audience, and includes an analysis of your competitors’ websites.
Just like your business goals, your website goals should be SMART – Specific,
Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and include a Timeframe.
Your web plan should include your website’s positioning strategy, key
brand attributes, and a site map. A site map outlines the main sections of
your website. A simple yet effective way to organize a site map is to write
each individual content idea on a sticky note. Place each sticky note into
a pre-identified website section (for example, a company history or profiles
of key people in your business would be placed within the “About Us” section).
Try to limit your section categories to ten or fewer. Your next step is to
decide on a domain name for your business. Your business domain name should
be short, memorable, and easy to spell. Register you own domain name. The only
technical piece of information you’ll need is your web host’s domain
name server (DNS) number. You should conduct a trademark search at a corporate
registry office before registering your domain name, to ensure that you are
not infringing on U.S. or Canadian copyright law. You should also be aware
of all legal and security issues related to your website. For example, you
your site, you will need to have a sales agreement that outlines the terms
and conditions for the product purchase, including payment terms, interest,
shipping, taxes, warranties, and customer support.
If your site is complex and handles sensitive client information, you may
want to invest in a security audit. A security audit is a third-party evaluation
of your site and your internal systems’ security. The goal is to establish
reasonable safeguards to protect your systems and customer information.
What Should You Have on Your Website?
A website is of little use to anyone if it doesn’t have any content.
The following are some common sections and pages that should be contained within
- About Us
You should include a brief overview of your company, what you do, your
key staff, and a brief history of your company (how many years in business).
- Products and Services
You need to tell people what you do and provide detailed information about
each of your company’s products or services (how to order, reasons
to buy, client testimonials, etc.)
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
A well-developed FAQ page can provide answers to your clients’ most
- Customer Support
You should tell visitors about your product and service support. It’s
also a good idea to provide contact information for support staff.
- Contact Information
Your customers have to be able to contact you. This section should contain
all relevant contact information (company name, mailing address, phone,
- Value-Added Content (News, Events, Resource Information, etc.)
A regularly updated website can encourage visitors to return often. A
common strategy is to include news articles that provide company and related
industry information, or a free, valuable offer.
- Site Map or Search Function
You can include a site map that provides links to the major sections in
your site. If your website is large, consider integrating a search function.
you care about their privacy. You should also include any relevant legal
Top Mistakes in Website Development
Building a website isn’t as easy as it looks! There are tens of thousands
of websites that make common mistakes in content, layout, usability and clarity.
Consider some of the most common errors made by developers.
The Boring Website
Your company website should be designed to interest or excite your viewers,
not to bore them to tears. A website should pitch your company and its products
and services clearly, without unnecessary “fluff” or overly detailed
The Misleading Website
As always, honesty is the best policy. Your site must accurately portray your
company and its products and services. While it is important to sell yourself
to potential customers, do not create a false impression through exaggeration.
The Cluttered Website
An uncluttered, clean site is not only visually attractive, but is also effective
in making your sales pitch. Limit the amount of content on each page, and avoid
overloading your pages with graphics. Your site navigation bar must be consistent – located
either across the top, or along the side of your pages.
The Hard-to-Read Website
A common web design flaw is creating pages with text too small for the average
reader to view without difficulty. Use an uncluttered sans-serif font (such
as Arial or Verdana) with a minimum point size of at least 10 or higher. Black
text on a white background is easiest to read. Coloured backgrounds with coloured
text usually results in an unprofessional looking, illegible page.
The Slow Website
This is a common error by developers who overload their web pages with high-end
multimedia that is only accessible to viewers with high-speed connections.
Make your pages accessible to all viewers on any Internet connection.
The Useless Website
The useless website fails to provide the viewer with meaningful information
about your company and its products and services. Websites that do not provide
basic information, such as product descriptions, will often lead to a frustrating
The Scrolling Website
The scrolling website refers to improperly designed sites that require long
vertical scroll bars, or even worse, horizontal scroll bars, to view the entire
page. A website’s horizontal dimensions should never exceed common computer
screen widths (that width limit is currently around 740 pixels). A website
that is too wide will result in a horizontal scroll bar on a viewer’s
browser, one of the worst design mistakes possible.
The Distracting Website
A sure sign of an amateurish website is the use of distracting graphics, or
animated gifs. These pesky graphics usually add little value to the content
of a web page. Other unnecessary elements include blinking text, silly icons
like “top 5% visited site on the web”, and hit counters.
The Reproducing Website
Many companies now provide software to fight reproducing websites. The reproducing
site involuntarily opens up pop-up windows when a viewer browses to a certain
page. Not only is this distracting, it can be very confusing and frustrating
for the viewer.
The Rebel Website
Rebel websites serve less as a source of business information, but more as
an outlet for designers to make a statement in an unconventional way. That
they defy conventional standards means rebel websites are generally poor in
terms of usability, clarity, and content.
The Unlawful Website
Beware of the use of any images or media without the permission of the copyright
owner. You have nothing to gain by “borrowing” someone else’s
intellectual property. Invest in custom photography or royalty-free images
and media, which are relatively inexpensive and readily available.
After Your Website is Online
Website development is an ongoing process. While getting your site up and
running is a major accomplishment, you must not lose sight of site maintenance,
marketing and promotions, and monitoring site traffic.
It is a good idea to hire someone to oversee the maintenance of your site.
Many developers charge a basic monthly maintenance fee to assist with the task
of updating or changing content, adding or removing web pages, etc. If you
are outsourcing the development of your site, request a maintenance quote that
incorporates the fees for site maintenance (including hourly rates). In preparation
for this quote, outline a list of pages or sections that you believe will need
to be updated on a regular basis.
Once your site is online, implement a marketing strategy to generate traffic.
Depending on your marketing budget, you may wish to advertise your site on
the web or register it with Internet search engines and directories. It can
be effective to advertise your site in trade related publications or associations
(online and print). Integrate your website address into all company marketing
publications – brochures, business cards, radio and television advertisements,
and e-mail signatures.
Your site should also have the ability report the number of daily web visits
and length an origin of each visit. There are a variety of free and pay-per-use
web traffic tools available on the Internet.
Next Steps: Advanced Web Development
There are a variety of more advanced web developments and maintenance options
that you may want to consider. Depending on the purpose and size of your site,
there are instances where these advanced options are worthwhile.
This is one of the most popular and widely used interactive multimedia formats
on the Internet. Flash has a wide variety of applications – from interactive
graphics to online games. Depending on the content of your site, you may wish
to use it to demonstrate a product or service.
Content Management Systems ( CMS)
Depending on how often you maintain or update your website, a content management
system ( CMS) can be a good investment. Most CMS tools come at a fairly high
price. If your site requires frequent changes or updates, a CMS can automate
the updating process, saving time and money. However, if your website is only
updated occasionally, you probably don’t need a content management system.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
There are a variety of companies on the market that offer “search engine
optimization” and promise to improve your rankings in the major search
engines. Before investing in these services, make sure you understand how your
site will be optimized and how you will measure the success of the project.
However, before committing resources to SEO, a good first step is to build
a website with useful content. This will help Internet search engines properly
categorize your website.
There may be instances where you may wish to include more advanced web features
such as audio or video. Such media can be very effective for demonstrating
a product, but you should approach advanced multimedia options with some caution.
They can require a lot of bandwidth. Even with the advances in broadband technology,
a sizable portion of the web surfing public still uses slow dial-up connections.
Having bandwidth-intensive media may exclude those viewers from fully accessing
the information on your website.
There are lots of resources and information available for anyone who wants
to explore the subject of website development more fully. The local Alberta
E-Future Centre is a great place to start. Below are some other good resources: