6. What is the process of building a website?
In truth, most clients simply ask, “Where do we start?” But that question begs the broader question of overall procedure. Most lack any knowledge in this regard, which is understandable. What they are seeking from me is a summary of the process from start to finish, so they can be as helpful as possible in getting the job done. I find it inspiring how excited people suddenly become once they commit themselves to working with me on the website of their dreams.
But few actually realize how much work they will need to do themselves, in fact, just to get things off to a profitable start. The first thing I do is correct any misconceptions in this regard.
As I’ve indicated before, I believe in proven fundamentals.
Why is that important or relevant here?
Because what some clients want, and what they initially think they need, is a website that really “pops,” meaning one that produces a stunning effect on the visual (and perhaps auditory) senses and, when initially unveiled, makes them say, “Wow!”
In truth, I could easily, without any help from the client, assemble a website that, figuratively speaking, jumps off the screen–and many design firms do take this approach, charging exorbitant fees for something that is essentially creatively arranged stock photos and fancy wizardry–but I find it unconscionable to sell the sizzle and not the steak to clients who are trusting me to help them succeed online.
Without a doubt, you need a nice-looking website. But “nice-looking” is subjective. So I start by asking my clients if they’ve surfed the internet for websites in their industry and found any that appeal to their eye. Most have. Often they point me straight to their most successful competitors (the top two or three). I peruse these websites quickly, noting things like color-scheme and visual layout, but also substance, which is more important.
From there, I mention the features of each website that are most beneficial to bringing money in the door. With few exceptions, I’m focused on content over design. To the surprise of many clients, the content I’m pointing out as vital is content that they will have to provide. (Since I intend to expand on this as part of another question, as well as in a forthcoming section, I won’t elaborate in depth here.) Vital content features of nearly all small business websites include such things as:
- Details about the business
- Products and services offered
- Frequently asked questions
- Examples of experience
- Customer testimonials
- Professional certifications
- Industry memberships
- Photos of the business
- Logos and artwork
- And so on
The process of building a website is essentially three-fold:
- Setup the foundation and underlying architecture (the platform)
- Create the structural and aesthetic components (the design)
- Add the information and images (the content)
Which of the above is most critical to a small business’s online success?
If you guessed “3,” you are correct. In fact, without the content, a website is nothing but an empty shell of colors and components. Without the content, a small business website is severely handicapped in its ability to be found online, to convert potential customers, and to bring money in the door.
Only the business manager can effectively produce the information and images relevant to his or her particular business.
So where are we at this point?
I suggest to my clients that we start like this…
“Send me your logo first, then, while you work on assembling the other necessary content, I’ll set up the platform and create the design. I’ll have it ready to add additional content within a day or so. Don’t think you have to wait to send me everything at once. Whatever you send, I’ll add. We’ll see your website taking shape as we go, starting with the fundamentals, then adding bells and whistles down the road. Sound good?”
They almost always respond in the affirmative.
7. How many pages can I have?
There is no limit.
In the old days, the most efficient way for design companies to sell websites was to promote them and price them per page. For example, you could have the “Bronze” package, which included three (3) pages; or you could upgrade to the “Silver” plan, which included five (5) pages; or you could shoot for the stars and order the “Gold” deal, which included seven (7) pages. Something like this made sense when each page had to be constructed by hand (aka “coded”), but those days went the way of the dinosaur.
Today, the underlying platform has evolved, and been improved. The vast majority of modern website pages are created dynamically, meaning “on the fly,” by lacing page structure (i.e. a template) with data called from a database. These systems separate the design elements from the content, allowing new pages to be created with just a few keystrokes and clicks before being impregnated with vital content in the form of text and images.
As I’ve said before, a website is an ongoing thing. But I’ll add to that now by saying it is also a growing thing–and more so now than ever, given the technology we have at hand.
Again, though, we must consider the value of time, and possibly money. While modern website platforms allow laypersons to manage (with hands on) the content areas of the system–adding page after page, word after word, image after image–the small business manager must keep in mind that not every addition will translate to money coming in the door. Often, especially once the essentials are in place, the manager’s time, and possibly money, are better spent in other ways.
(In the future, I’ll delve into the vast array of other ways my clients are achieving success online. On my whiteboard now, I have a list of ten-plus ways, with each being a topic by itself.)
The right question to ask is which pages should be had, as the top priorities? By which I’m simultaneously thinking what kind.
Pages serve three broad functions:
- Pages designed to be found
- Pages designed to inform
- Pages designed to sell
For example, an Our Services page should be found. A Contact Us page should inform. A Testimonials page should sell.
The hardest working pages, and thus the most valuable, will effectively mix all three functions together. This is where artistry comes into play. It’s one thing to understand the objective, yet another to successfully pull it off.
If the essential content required to be found, to inform, and to sell could all be lumped onto one page, would anything be wrong with that?
I’m not advocating you attempt to build a small business website consisting of only one page. I am suggesting, however, that you keep it simple and focus on pages that effectively display your vital content.
Beyond this, competing successfully online will require you to spend a goodly share of your time thinking “outside of the box.”
8. How will people find our website?
A small business website is only as valuable as the signboards and roads that lead to it. Such have little to do with the creation of the website itself. In this respect, to mock the Field of Dreams metaphor, if you build it, they will not come. How people will find your website is an extensive and important topic, so I will discuss it at some length here.
I once employed a rouge salesperson who impressed me with how many new small business web clients she was bringing into the fold each week. I began eavesdropping on her sales pitch, only to find myself appalled at hearing her assure prospects, “Oh, definitely, you’ll be on all the search engines.”
When I summoned her into my office for an immediate reprimand, she pleaded ignorance, and I believed her. Either way, once she stopped telling prospects that particular misinformation, her sales dropped.
In truth, I could never have delivered on such a promise because, at that time, there were literally dozens of search engines. (Most are defunct now, and only relevant to the history books.) But I learned a fundamental reality about what small businesses want and need, which still holds true today…
Small businesses are desperate to be found!
A common misunderstanding is that a website, brilliantly constructed in cyberspace, will immediately be visible to all prospective cosmic wanderers–for example, when such prospects search online for a local caterer, the bright beacon of your new website will somehow be radiating like a supernova in the cosmos.
This does not happen automatically.
- The first step is to create the website.
- The second step is to establish the signboards and roads that lead to it.
There are two fundamental components of the second step:
- Promotion (both on- and offline)
- Advertising (both on- and offline)
Recall that I mentioned the need to think “outside of the box.” This is where that concept applies with your website.
Online website promotion includes:
- posting social media announcements
- listing with industry and civic directories
- listing on relevant manufacturer and supplier sites
- submitting to search engines
- and so on…
Offline website promotion includes:
- telling people about it
- printing the domain name on vehicles
- printing the domain name on apparel
- printing the domain name on handouts
- and so on…
Online website advertising includes:
- Google and search engine ad campaigns
- Facebook and social media ad campaigns
- niche directory paid memberships
- banner ads, featured listings, sponsorship links
- and so on…
Offline website advertising includes:
- T.V. and radio ads
- newspaper and magazine ads
- billboard and display ads
- charity and event sponsorships
- and so on…
What about Search Engine Optimization?
Over the years, the basic concept of SEO has matured.
Initially, the goal was to improve your website’s placement on Google (and other search engines) by manufacturing each page in the “optimal” way according to specific keywords and keyword phrases. While this is still a valid objective, an absolute focus on this has proved, time and again, to be a fickle endeavor. A business can spend considerable resources “keyword optimizing” their website today (occasionally with great success), only to find that the rules may be changed tomorrow. I have personally experienced the joys of dominating the search engines; I have also suffered the heartaches of having that magic carpet yanked out from under me.
Google, in particular, has repeatedly discouraged the use of tricks and techniques designed to “beat the system.” They have also repeatedly changed their search algorithms to thwart would-be gamers who might temporarily find success that is misaligned with Google’s own goals. For gamers who refuse to learn, Google can easily blacklist a domain name as quickly as flipping off a light switch.
(Once, in the early days of SEO, I helped a client get blacklisted by auto-submitting 10,000 computer-generated web pages, each of which ranked within the top 10 results of their respective keyword searches. For two days, my client danced around the office singing “We’re in the money…” Getting his name off the blacklist took two months.)
To be sure, Google’s objectives are complex. However, over the years, they have done a fantastic job of curating the super-abundance of information available on the internet, delivering relevant and valuable content to the end user. Such a steady focus in this regard has slowly matured the concept of SEO.
Today, intelligent methods of SEO focus less on subversive keyword techniques and more on fundamentally sound content and usability strategies that match end user desires.
In my opinion, small businesses should focus primarily on meeting the basic, fundamental requirements of SEO, which are easily implemented at the website design level, especially until the more reliable components of promotion and advertising have been set into place.
Can I add a hit counter?
Once upon a time, when simple “hit counters” were all the rage, this question would be asked by nearly every one of my new website clients during the initial design interview. They wanted to measure how many new clicks they would be getting on their home page daily–a reasonable request, considering the buzz. It didn’t take long before unscrupulous web designers began manipulating the daily counts to satisfy their desperate clients (nothing spells failure like zero new hits in a given week). Eventually, these simple hit counters stopped being used altogether.
The essential question is still valid.
Today, it’s asked in different words, and at different times. When my clients are busy as beavers, with phones ringing and orders coming in, seldom will they call me to inquire about their website statistics. Their business is working, and they’re happy. On the contrary, when a client’s business is struggling, no matter what the cause, they generally start paying closer attention to their website to verify it worth. Their business is not working, and they are looking to make cuts.
This second type of client, on the verge of going under, seeks validation by asking me, “Is there any way to track how many people are seeing my website?”
Whether I originally designed their website or not, and no matter how long they’ve had it, when I receive this essential question it’s a bad omen. From experience, I know this person is on the fence about the value of their website. They want less to hear the obvious answer–“Yes, we can track visitor statistics”–than what can be done to make their website start working at bringing money in the door.
I put on my salesman’s hat and say, “There’s never been a better time to grow your business and gain more customers with a website. Is that what you’re wanting to do?”
However, by this point, the client generally has so little money left that they can’t afford to pay very much to turn their situation around. Beyond this, I have no magic wand that overcomes undesirable business products and services, let alone poor managerial skills, which, in truth, is often the main problem.
I could get deep into philosophy here, but I won’t.
What’s important for the small business manager to know regarding website hit counters and statistics is that they are only useful measures of what you are doing right, not what you are doing wrong. I’ve already clearly explained that to succeed online one needs to view their endeavor as a continuous work-in-progress. One needs to implement fundamentally-sound strategies, measure the results, and make appropriate adjustments. Certainly, website statistics can help you put your finger on which pages are the most popular, and which inroads to those pages are the most used.
While even the most advanced statistics cannot explain why a particular website has low visitor traffic, rest assured, it is not that the website designer (even if that means you) created it poorly. The reason, in most cases, is improper use, promotion, or advertisement.
To be clear, a website is an important ingredient to the success of any small business. However, since it’s only a tool, like any other, if you are using it improperly you shouldn’t expect outstanding results.
Not only do I educate my clients on proper use of their websites, I also encourage them to implement effective methods of promotion and advertising, two ideas I’ve previously touched on.
A website, despite what some assume, cannot magically generate traffic on its own. Were you expecting your website designer to perform such magic? This is more within the powers of the online marketing consultant.
10. Do I need to pay this official-looking bill?
I’m treating this as a bonus question–one that shouldn’t have to be asked, but frequently is (because our world is full of dishonest people).
It has become commonplace for lowlife companies to harvest the publicly available contact information of domain name registrants, and then use this information to mail or email a solicitation for bogus services.
(For the record, your information can be made private by paying a small additional fee.)
The solicitations are very misleading. Usually, they take the form of an official-looking invoice or bill, complete with a perforated, detachable portion at the bottom, which should be returned with your payment by a given deadline. The language of these solicitations is intentionally technical in order to prey on the layman’s ignorance.
Examples might include:
- “This is an important notice about your domain listing!”
- “Notice of your annual website domain name on the internet!”
- “Important: Please return immediately!”
- “Website domain listing service – Remit payment by due date!”
- “Return by due date to avoid offer expiration!”
- “Make checks payable to…”
Since many victims pay without reading or understanding the fine print, these unscrupulous companies continue to rake in cash.
The telling verbiage of these notifications is often overlooked, which is certainly by design. While the eye quickly sees the overall formatting and colored boxes and official-looking graphics (such as fake bar-codes), the eye must focus more slowly to see what really matters.
The following keywords clarify the scam:
- This is not a bill
- This is a solicitation
- You are under no obligation to pay
- We are not affiliated with your domain name registrar
- We are not affiliated with local yellow pages
Still, I get countless calls every year from clients who are confused. The amount requested to be paid by these companies is not excessive–usually between $300-$1,000. But since my clients have come to rely on me for advice, their first inclination is to contact me about the necessity of paying. I am thrilled at the opportunity to have them shred the phony bills immediately, and continue to shred them as they come, or contact me again when in doubt.
Because I often handle domain name registrations, hosting management services, etc., for my clients, there is generally nothing they need to do or pay that is not taken care of by me. The benefit of this is that my clients only have to make one call regarding any questions they might have about their website, their domain name, their related online services, and so on.
So even if you endeavor to build and maintain your own small business website, I highly recommend, as I’ve done before, that you keep an experienced and trustworthy online consultant at your disposal to assist you with things that may unexpectedly bite you in the wallet.