The Art of Building Successful Websites
Effectively marketing products and services to potential consumers in unique ways is critical for successful businesses. Every company identified as great in Jim Collins’ bestseller Good to Great demonstrated technological sophistication, using technology as a tool to accelerate success within the guidelines of their individual “Hedgehog Concept:” what they can be best at, are passionate about, and is most profitable to them.
Technology in our society is rapidly advancing, radically changing the way businesses must market their services or products. Running an ad in the local newspaper and obtaining significant results is becoming an unsuccessful, expensive strategy of the past. The Internet is now the source that consumers use to find the best, most reliable companies, products, and services they need at reasonable prices.
While the Internet is important, we continue to believe that effective marketing must be diversified. A company cannot rely on a single marketing strategy, even one utilizing the Internet, to fuel all their business. Effective marketing is all about what works best for each individual business. The way to determine the best strategy for your business is to take note of how each customer who signs a contract first learned about your business, then focus your marketing efforts in that area. Great businesses reach out to potential and existing customers in a variety of ways (including newspapers, magazines, flyers, newsletters, press releases, brochures, radio and television ads, the Internet, and the Yellow Pages) with the ultimate goal that most of their business will eventually be driven by word-of-mouth. Of these options, the Internet has become the most effective marketing frontier and your presence (or lack thereof) on the Internet can either make or break your business!
One of today’s best marketing strategies is to build an appealing website that can be easily found by potential customers searching the Internet. Consumers now prefer to sit calmly in the comfort and privacy of their homes and businesses when looking for businesses to satisfy their needs. Such Internet searches are often cheaper and faster than calling around or searching newspapers for advertisements. Building the right website with the right web design company can thus be a proactive strategy to weather dire economic conditions—a time when marketing budgets should be increased instead of reduced if your business intends to survive.
Let us guide you on a journey that will simplify the process of building a great, functional website with the least amount of frustration!
You want a simple website that reads well, navigates easily, and is customer-friendly, colorful, visually appealing, and understandable. Most importantly, the site should rank among the top ten sites found when keywords are placed into a search engine like Google. It is difficult to find a web design company that can provide all of these components for success since each web design service requires different specialists (like marketing and business professionals, customer service professionals, coding experts, technical writers, search engine programmers, and graphic designers). There are many great-looking sites created by web designers that are worthless because no one can find the companies on the Internet. In many cases, the artist knew how to build and post an attractive website, but did not apply the proper coding to attract significant traffic. One could type in the web address and get to the site, but that was it—it was basically invisible to anyone using search engines! The bottom line: thousands of dollars flushed down the drain. You also want to establish goals prior to building your website. Do you want your site to:
- Boost awareness about your organization and services?
- Support existing customers and/or bring in new prospects?
- Provide information about your company so that customers will contact you?
- Describe and sell products online with credit card capability (promote e-commerce)?
- Sustain or increase business?
- Understanding Costs:
Successful leaders know that “it takes money to make money!” View your website as an investment and remember that you get what you pay for—as long as you choose the right web design company for your needs. We have interviewed individuals who paid a lot of money for their website only to reap limited, disappointing results. We have also heard many stories where customers “went cheap” on building a website and got what they paid for: no traffic and no business! Others paid for good websites, but received poor post-development service from the web design companies. We have even heard horror stories of web design companies being dishonest by quietly retaining ownership of the customer’s website during the development stage. Then, the unethical companies revealed the customer’s worst nightmare when they wanted to switch to another web design company: the customer did not own the website!
Our companies’ purchasing philosophy is to always go first class at the best possible price and with the right company. In the long run, a high-quality web design company will save you money, generate more profitable business, and prevent unwanted headaches. Paying reasonable prices for any service, web design included, is important, but don’t let money be your primary selection criteria.
The overall cost of website development is driven by the number of pages, the depth of graphic design, the type and quality of hosting, how much video animation is involved, and the need for custom applications such as e-commerce, Internet marketing and ongoing support services. The more you want from a website, the more time it takes the designer to produce the site, resulting in higher costs. You should also budget money for website maintenance, problem solving, analysis, and marketing support to ensure that the site is consistently up to date, achieves high search engine rankings, and produces plentiful website traffic. A monthly retainer fee to your web design company ensures quick response times and gives your company the ongoing support you need to keep your website functional and effective from a marketing standpoint.
Designing Your Website:
Conduct an analysis of competitors’ websites. Competitors are great teachers, so learn from them and always stay one step ahead. When looking at others’ websites, it is acceptable to borrow broad ideas, color schemes, and layouts, but you want to honor their work, copyrights, and trademarks. Document the addresses of those you like and what you like about them to give your designer some ideas when creating a site for you. Keep in mind that you do not want to mimic your competitor. As Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, noted, you want to stand out in the crowd. Before you approach a web design company, research basic web design knowledge so that unscrupulous designers don’t talk in language you don’t understand, recommend web components you don’t need, and overcharge you. However, effective, friendly, and customer-driven web designers will guide you step-by-step through the process. Doing some homework will save you time and money while leading to the website you need and want!
Defining Your Website Domain Name:
Choose a unique, short, easy-to-remember website address to help obtain high volumes of web traffic. Your web design company should work closely with you to ensure that you create the best web address for your business. Be sure that the address that you choose relates the services you provide to your audience. Long web addresses are difficult to remember and make it easier for customers to accidentally type the wrong address. In the 1990’s, one of our companies, Research Associates, secured the domain www.researchassociatesco.com, a long, tough web address to remember and type without mistakes. We later changed the site’s name to www.grantexperts.com, which is shorter, easy to remember, and showcases grant writing, one of our services. Ideally, you want potential consumers to see your web address and know what your company does. You can visit www.domain.com to search for available website domains. The costs are usually nominal to secure one and you may wish to purchase several similar site names to prevent competitors from buying them in the future. Sometimes, individuals will buy groups of desirable addresses and resell them to the highest bidder. However, their prices are subject to negotiation. We suggest buying addresses with the suffixes .com, .net, or .org since these appear most credible to customers.
Searching for the Right Web Design Company:
Once you understand the basics and know generally what you want in a website, approach several companies to determine the best match for your business. To identify well-recommended, quality web designers, inquire with friends and colleagues, communicate with your local chamber of commerce, or contact the web designers listed at the bottom of the websites you like. You can also consult the Yellow Pages or search the Internet. As with any business, web design companies’ philosophies, ethics, honesty, quality, knowledge, staff, financial security, and customer service will vary. Before making your final selection, check with your local business bureau to ensure there have not been any formal complaints filed against the business. A quality web design company will have professional staff members who:
- Are well-educated, preferably in business and/or technology areas.
- Speak to you in terms you can understand and are not arrogant or pushy.
- Are quality-driven and honest about what they can and cannot do.
- Have proven graphic design, coding, business, and marketing experience.
- Are customer-driven, friendly, and interested in learning about your business.
- Can provide references and examples of their work and have a proven success record.
- Educate you on the process and lay out a realistic, understandable plan of action.
- Maintain a philosophy of doing fewer projects really well versus serving many customers fairly well.
- Listen to your needs, answer questions, and provide suggestions.
- Provide web services and ongoing support at a reasonable price.
- Offer you the option of having your own content management—the simple ability to make text, graphic, and picture changes to your site yourself instead of having to wait for (and pay) the web design company to make them. Frustrated customers frequently complain that their changes sometimes take days or weeks to appear on their site and costs to make edits are high.
- Give you all website rights and ownership. (This is very important!)
- Maintain high-quality offices (you do not want fly-by-nights!) and have an excellent website.
- Are good writers and will catch typos and grammatical errors.
- Usually have wait lists—expect that you will have to wait in line for quality companies that focus on one customer at a time. Your website reflects your organization, and you shouldn’t rush this process. A reasonable, realistic timeline to have a website posted is within 90 days. Quality companies want to develop and test the website and work with the customer to ensure their work meets or exceeds expectations.
- Document what they propose in written bids and contracts. (Read these very carefully! Remember that contracts are a two-way street and should reflect your final agreement.)
It is helpful if your web company is located within 75 miles of your business. Many web designers provide services to clients hundreds of miles away, creating frustration for the customer and eventually reducing effectiveness. Ideally, you should meet with your web designer face-to-face to brainstorm and develop strategies. They also need to see and understand your business for maximum effectiveness.
Also, examine several samples of websites the company has created for other customers using different Internet browsers like Firefox, Safari, AOL, and current/older versions of Internet Explorer. You can download these browsers onto your computer at no charge and use them to see how your potential customers would see the site based on which browser they are using. Some companies design websites that are not compatible with each Internet browser. So, while it may look great on Internet Explorer, when a consumer using another browser visits your website, it may appear distorted, skewed, and unprofessional. Your website should display correctly in all browsers.
Contracting with the Right Web Design Company: Once you have thoroughly investigated, checked references for, and selected your company, be sure that you enter into a written contract, which should include terms such as:
- Clear website objectives, payment terms, and deliverables with schedules (You should agree to submit payments after you are satisfied with particular sections. We recommend 2-3 payments.) Never pay any contractor all monies up front.
- You own all rights and current passwords to website files and domain names.
- You have the right to change web design companies at any time without penalty once the site is posted and all payments have been made.
- The company that will host your website and e-mail files once the website is posted is identified.
- Details about ongoing post-development support and related costs.
Getting Your Website Content Right:
Write text that reflects your business and website goals. The objective is to give visitors enough information (without too many details) so they will contact your company, or you may provide additional links that allow them to purchase your products online. You should initially write too much and then edit every word, phrase, or sentence, asking yourself: “Do I need this? Can I say this any clearer or simpler or with fewer words?” Normally, you will be able to cut around 30 % of your text by eliminating unnecessary words. Your text should be written on a high school level so that it is understandable to a wide audience. We strongly suggest using a technical writer to proof, edit, and refine the content before it goes to the web designer; it should be nearly perfect when the web coding begins. Otherwise, you will have to pay the web designer to make edits once the website is constructed. High school English teachers and English professors at colleges and universities make great technical writers. They charge $20 to $50 per hour, which is worth the cost to get professional text that flows well, is grammatically correct, and gets to the point in the fewest words possible. Font types, headings, and the way text is organized can impact readability and retain (or deter) visitors to your site, and typos and grammatical errors paint an unprofessional image of your company. Perception and first impressions are critical in making a good website, so be sure that the text on your site projects an aura of credibility.
Creating the Right Look:
A professional graphic designer should work with the web designer to create excellent graphics, color, and layouts that will impress visiting potential customers. These artists are creative and have been trained to make websites attractive and user friendly. They also have the unique ability to simplify things like navigational bars, create tasteful color schemes, insert appropriate, diverse graphics, and identify design inconsistencies.
Hosting Your Website:
You must rent file space on a server where your website will reside. Depending on the size of your website and the volume of traffic to it, this service usually shouldn’t cost more than $25 per month. Be careful since some small companies have slower hosting speeds and can’t provide 24-hour, seven-day-a-week customer support. If your web design company hosts websites themselves, be careful. If a hosting server fails, malfunctions, or overloads, it is imperative that this situation be addressed immediately. If hosting support is limited, your problem will not be solved until the next business day, which could impair your website and result in lost business! On your hosting plan, allow extra storage space and bandwidth to allow expansion with future web applications, databases, graphics, and other files.
The monthly hosting charge should also cover the option to have company e-mail for you and other employees that includes your website’s name in the e-mail addresses (for example, firstname.lastname@example.org). Having personalized, company-related e-mail addresses demonstrates to your customers that your business is a professional, firmly established company and reminds them that you are legitimate every time they type in your e-mail address.
Loading Time for Websites:
When browsing your potential web company’s previous work and sample portfolio, take note of how long it takes their websites to load. Depending on your connection speed, this could be associated directly with their hosting servers or the way their websites are constructed. If these websites are slow-loading, beware: your website will be also! Slow-loading websites are a major complaint amongst web visitors; most will simply move on to your competitor’s website!
Effective Internet Marketing (Search Engine Optimization):
Once your new website is posted, how are potential customers going to find it? More than 75% of your visitors will locate your website using keywords on major search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and MSN. If your website is not listed on the first page of Internet results, forget that customer! The ideal web design company will not only create great-looking, customer-friendly websites, but also code your site for maximum marketing and ranking potential. Many web design companies do not have this capability. For example, when someone from another city types in a phrase like “Columbia, SC wedding reception facilities” on Google, we want our Columbia Conference Center to be located at the top of the list of results (Columbia Conference Center is ranked third by Google and Yahoo as of January 2009). If a web design company specializes in this marketing service, they should be able to uniquely code the website, both internally and externally, to make it easily found during Internet searches. This ability is what makes great websites work to their full potential, resulting in more customer traffic and hopefully more profits for your company. Once your web design company completes your website, know their plan to keep your site at the top of the rankings. Search engines revisit your website frequently, so ongoing maintenance is required to maintain high rankings. Have a monthly checklist of what your web design company is going to accomplish in order to keep your website at the top of the list for Internet searches.
Work with the web design company to agree on a set of keywords and phrases that your potential customers will most likely be using in their searches, putting yourself in the customers’ shoes, thinking like them, and considering the words or phrases they may use to locate your website and business. You should drive your website content since you know your business better than anyone, and quality web designers will help guide you through this process. Skilled web designers also know how to examine competitors’ sites to determine what is attracting their visitors. The number of keywords and phrases that you use, combined with the competition for each keyword or phrase, will decide the costs of this service. The web company should provide you with a monthly ranking report to track the progress of each keyword in each search engine. Contact your potential web design company’s references to confirm that you are dealing with a company who can provide this service in a professional, understandable manner.
Be wary of companies that submit your website to hundreds of search engines. COMScore.com reports that 93% of the public conducts their searches on the three major search engines: Google, Yahoo, and MSN. Therefore, these three Internet engines are where you should focus your resources and search capabilities. It may also benefit your website to enroll in search engine pay-per-click programs or sponsored links. In this marketing strategy, you pay search engines like Google a certain amount each time a visitor uses selected words to find your website. These links and company descriptions are located at the top, bottom, and side of every page of search engine results and stand out from the other results. With this approach, the highest bidder usually gets the best position in the rankings.
Providing Ongoing Support:
Some companies will build your website but will not provide post-development maintenance and support. Choose a reliable company that will agree to build your website and offer ongoing post-development services. Website problems, questions, and updates will inevitably arise. Ask the web design companies you are considering for their plan to work with you after the website is posted, associated costs, and their average response time. Try to primarily communicate with one employee at the company so they know you personally, keep track of your needs, and provide timely responses. Caution: many companies subcontract their support to third-party organizations that may be located thousands of miles away!
After your web company completes your website, re-examine the initial proposal and contract to ensure they completed all of the agreed-upon objectives to your satisfaction. Carefully check that all links on each web page work and that what you see is what you agreed to. Insist on any necessary changes or refinements prior to making the final payment. Once your website is posted, you should visit it every week to confirm that all components are working and you are placing high in search engine rankings.
Obtaining Statistics and Website Traffic Analysis:
Once your site is operational, analyze your visitors and how they interact with your website every month (keeping in mind that it may take months before your website marketing is maximized). To effectively monitor your website, it is essential to track customer visits, assess which pages are most effective, and understand how customers are finding your website. There is much to learn about how your customers are navigating your site in addition to simply tracking website hits. Some areas you need to consider in your statistics:
- Worldwide Map: Which cities and countries are your visitors originating from?
- Visitors: Are they new or returning? Which pages are they visiting? How much time are they spending on your site? Which web page on your site are browsers exiting?
- Browser Capabilities: What browsers, operating systems, average connection speeds, screen resolutions, and Flash versions do your users’ computers have?
- Traffic sources: What percentage of traffic reaches your site by typing in the specific web address? Which websites do customers use to find yours? Which search engines are you being found on? What keywords and phrases are being searched that result in visitors locating your site?
- Content: What content, subjects, and titles drive visitors to your website? Where do they start and finish on your website? You want your site designed so they not only visit your homepage, but also go deeper to the other pages of your website.
Designing eye-catching websites that work is an art and a science. It takes significant time and effort to refine your website into the powerhouse you need it to be. Your web designer should be a solid partner in helping you establish your organization’s online presence and building strong Internet marketing programs as you travel toward that distant destination that few reach: SUCCESS. You can have the best products and services in the world, but if you don’t market them the right way – well, you know the rest of the story!