Concrete Goals Are Critical to Designing a Successful Website
Jason Mark of Gravity Switch says search engine optimization is important, but there are markets where it is impossible to rank high on a search list.
In 1998, when Jason Mark was teaching a class on Internet strategy, he told students that, before they used any type of technology to create a website, they needed to identify their goals and what they were trying to accomplish.
“Even though there is so much different technology that developers can use today, the exact same process still needs to take place,” said the co-founder of Gravity Switch in Northampton. “People need to know what their goals are, and businesses should not assume that technology will fix all their problems. If it were that easy, their competitors would have already done it.”
Experts agree that, in order to create a successful website, the developer needs to know exactly what a business wants to accomplish because, without that information, it becomes impossible to calculate whether the return on investment will justify the cost.
Dan Green, president of the Green Internet Group in Springfield, says the first step involves a diagnosis of the problem a company is trying to solve. “Otherwise, it’s like a doctor giving the same medicine to every patient.”
Many businesses have not kept up with cutting-edge technology, but there is often no real need to do so. “One of my colleagues did a recent study that showed 48% of restaurants don’t have a website,” Green said, adding that it’s possible to have strong Internet presence without one due to social media and other networking tools.
“But the way people search for a business is a critical aspect of all web marketing; you need to know your customer’s intent and what problem they are trying to solve when they type something in to the search bar,” he said, noting, for example, that if someone wants a plumber, what they require differs greatly from someone looking to purchase an automated time clock for their business, which typically involves research.
Peter Ellis, creative director for DIF Design in Springfield, says social media and mobile devices have led to changes in consumer expectations. In the past, many businesses had separate websites for desktop and mobile users, and the mobile versions were often limited to basic contact information. But responsive design has changed the way the industry operates.
“We prepare websites to be intuitive, so they automatically adjust to the size of the device the person is using,” Ellis explained. “The quality and success of a website is based on how it appears to their target audience.”
Lawrence Shea agrees. “There is more and more mobile web traffic every year, and if someone goes on your website and it is not optimized, people may not think you are competitive,” said the owner of Web Wizard in Springfield.
Mark said 10% to 75% of the visitors at many websites are using mobile devices. “If you don’t know how people are accessing your site, you need to find out,” he told BusinessWest, adding that content needs to flow in a way that doesn’t require people to pinch the screen or zoom in frequently.
Ellis concurs, and says social media has shortened people’s attention spans and changed expectations. “People want instant gratification, and if it takes them 10 to 15 seconds to find a phone number or restaurant menu, they may leave the site,” he said.
Google predicts that, by the end of this year, 51% of all Internet traffic will come from mobile devices. However, experts say this does not mean that every business should have a responsive website.
But their site should correspond to their specific goals, and designers say outdated websites often fail to attract new customers because they were not built with a specific purpose in mind.
“In this day and age, just having a website is not enough. The business owner needs to know what they want to communicate, who their customer is, and how they want to present that information,” Ellis said.
In the past, people were willing to hit tabs on a menu to get information. But today, the home page needs to be a mini-version of the entire website. “You need to give the visitor enough information to make a decision without having to navigate to a secondary page,” he continued.
And although social media can play a real role in success and is changing the way businesses interact with their customers, it also doesn’t mean every company needs to be on Twitter or have a Facebook page. “There are hundreds of platforms that should be considered,” Ellis said, adding that experts are knowledgeable about what will work best.
When someone types in words on a search bar, they are apt to call up the first websites listed by the search engine. But getting a top spot is not easy, and Ellis says many variables are involved in search-engine optimization, or SEO. They begin with how a website has been built, since search engines dramatically change the way they operate every three to six months. For example, Google started requiring a certain number of words on a page, and if a site contains only contact information, it may be deemed less important than others.
Still, having pertinent information on a home page is not enough. “It has to be placed strategically, which depends on what customers are seeking from a business,” Ellis said.
In addition, frequent updates are necessary. “We suggest doing an update monthly,” Ellis said, adding that “the shelf life of the average website is two to three years. A website may look good and work and function well, but not comply with current search-engine criteria.”
Shea agrees and advises companies to choose nine keywords their competitors are not using. And although a small business may not be able to compete on the wb with large companies, it can beat competitors by focusing on the local market, he said.
Green calls matching content to customer intent “context mapping,” and says the return on investment for businesses seeking leads that result in a purchase can take more than a year if their product costs thousands of dollars, which makes it critical to recognize the phases involved in decision making, which are very different for a coffeemaker and an automobile. “People really need to think about how complex the sale is, how competitive the marketing is in their industry, who they are selling to, and what they are selling,” he said. “These things must all be considered before you can design a website that is effective. It’s easy to create one that is pretty, but what people are seeking is a desirable outcome.”
So, although design, function, and content are important, small businesses may need to employ a different marketing strategy when competing for customers via the Web.
Ellis has a client who specializes in foreign car repair, and his strategy is to identify specific work he does, such as repairing BMW exhaust systems. “It’s absolutely critical to have a strategically designed website to be competitive. But there is no road map to success. There is just knowledge, best practices, and things to avoid. It is a journey that needs to be developed between a customer and a web designer based on overall goals and strategies,” he said.
Once a website is operational, it’s important to access the data connected to it. But although Green and other experts say statistics are important and many businesses have that information, they often don’t know how to analyze it or what to do with it. “Businesses need someone who can take the data and make recommendations in line with their goals,” he said, adding that companies are often using several marketing tools, so it becomes tricky to determine which one is getting the best results.
But once that has been identified, it can be translated into their website. “Once you have defined your goal or how you want your brand to appear online, you need to execute a plan,” Ellis said.
Mark agrees, and says analytic software is useful in determining how often people visit a page, then leave it. If it’s a high percentage, it means action is warranted. “But it really comes down to math and where to invest for profit. There are definitely cases in which to invest in the Internet, but you need a smart plan, and there are markets you can’t make inroads into by using the Internet,” he said.
In many cases, it is better to refine an existing website and drive more traffic there rather than investing in a new one, Mark added. For example, if a business generating less than $2 million annually is competing against an industry giant, there is an instant return on investment if they update a website that made them look like a mom-and-pop operation. The Internet can also be effective in generating leads, if used properly.
“We can consistently get people leads at almost half the cost of other methods, and those leads are better-qualified,” Mark said. “But it’s all about math, and people should not have their website redesigned until they understand how it will add value. It should never be done just because it is out of date.”
Many business owners are concerned about the program a developer is going to use for their website. Mark said more than 75% of the top 1 million websites in the world run on WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla. “All three are very powerful, stable, and well-supported. In my mind, there is no reason to use anything but those three.”
Shea added that fads, such as using ribbons on a site, tend to have short lifespans, so it’s important to stick to things proven to improve the user experience. His specialty is e-commerce, and he says people using mobile devices often access a website because they want to make a purchase, so listing prices is useful.
“People will pay for branding and convenience, especially if they can do one-click buying,” he said.
However, security is critical for businesses engaging in e-commerce. “The last thing a company needs is to have their site hacked,” Shea said.
Social media can also play a key role in marketing. But some strategies are more effective than others, so knowledge is key. For example, the number-one reason people don’t open an e-mail is because they don’t recognize the sender, Ellis said.
Shea says a plug-in tool, such as the free Mail Chimp (for people who send fewer than 2,000 e-mails per month) may be needed to maintain a professional appearance and keep responses organized. However, rules must be adhered to even in this realm, because more than six e-mails sent to the same user each month can be dubbed as spam.
Green said blogging is another effective tool that is often left out of the mix. However, posts must be made frequently and must contain fresh content.
“It takes time, but if you put in the effort, it will pay off,” Shea added.
But, again, strategy depends on goals. “What’s right for your flower shop might not be right for the shop across the street from a college,” Green said.
Business owners may also not be aware of praise or criticism regarding their company on Facebook or other sites. “Most people have comments about their business on the Internet they don’t know about,” Green noted.
Ellis agreed. “It’s important to know both the positive and negative and filter them through your goal,” he said.
Green told BusinessWest that knowing whether or not to react to a post is important. “If someone says something bad about a business and has a small Internet presence, it may go away. But if you jump on it, it may escalate,” he said, adding that, if a business is not well-run, social media will amplify the negatives.
He advises business owners to study negative comments because the feedback can be valuable. They also need to know the statistics before launching a social-media marketing plan. “It’s very complicated to figure out the return on investment with social media. You can do well if your audience uses it, but you have to be honest, interesting, and run a reasonably good business.”
Still, only 5% of online business leads result from this medium, so focusing on other issues, such as the strength of one’s sales force and the search engine a website uses, may prove more fruitful.
However, good writing is something that makes a real difference, especially since a business has only three to five seconds to capture someone’s interest. “The most highly viewed content is the headline,” Green said. “But if you don’t have a starting point and a key-performance indicator that you plan to measure, it’s difficult to define success or know what to do in terms of improvement.”
Shea concurs. “Content is key, but presentation is also important,” he said. “It’s the first impression people have of your business.”
Although some business owners feel pressured to update their website and use social media, Green said, it may not be relevant to their goals. “You need to measure what you are doing to determine if you are making progress.”
Mark agrees. “Think forward three years,” he advised. “Don’t get caught up in what’s new. You may need to talk to experts to determine the best path, but everything you do should be driven by your goals.”