Small business website design is a booming business - there are freelancers, companies, agencies, outsourcers, mothers' brothers' cousins all creating websites and touting their wares on their own well designed and made (not always!) websites.
This means it's really quite confusing for businesses looking to choose someone to create them a revenue-generating, mobile friendly, engaging, fully content managed and CRM integrated website! Don't worry I'll explain why all these things are important as we go on!
We thought we give some background to this industry and try to explain all the important things that a small business needs to know about websites.
Evolution of small business website design
The small business website design we see today has evolved ever since the first web page went live on August 6, 1991. A simple text-only page with only colour to mark what are hyperlinks to elsewhere
The page created by Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) outlined how to create web pages.
The page was created to enable a better sharing of information between the scientists, academics and researchers working together at CERN. Luckily Berners-Lee wanted to share his invention and for the WorldWideWeb to be open and free, he said
"Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.".
Whilst starting primarily in the defence and academic domain, the internet quickly evolved and in January 1993 there were 50 web servers across the world, by October there were over 500.
Some early adopters of the WorldWideWeb have websites which are still enormously successful today:
1994 - Yahoo
1994 - Microsoft
1995 - Amazon
1998 - Google
Early websites were text heavy with not much formatting available to entice and engage. The novelty of just viewing information online would have to suffice.
Basic tables were implemented to give structure to the information displayed but anything more extravagant wasn't supported. Initially, there were only 16 web safe colours but as things evolved this grew to 256 in 1996.
It was in the late 1990s and early 2000s websites began to have a more structured navigation and the introduction of web development tools, like DreamWeaver, made designing and building websites more accessible.
Whilst the dotcom boom came to a crashing end in 2000, the internet was still evolving. 2004 saw the introduction of Web 2.0 which started the thinking of making websites more usable and interactive for the visitor. This was enabled by the growth in available web technologies which expanded the functionality that could be included on web pages.
The new technologies and availability of information enabled those with an interest in websites to learn more about web design and creation, opening up the market of affordable small business websites. No longer did you have to study design and development at college or university, you could create a website from a template or even from scratch with some on-screen guidance.
Today there are still those with an interest that make a living creating websites using templates alongside those with creative passion and technical understanding who build something unique. A secure, well-performing website is now totally achievable for all small businesses.
Small businesses often choose to create their first website themselves and with the quality of products like Squarespace you can understand why this is the first stage of a business's online presence. Often once a business grows their website needs become more particular and it's then that they approach web design companies to help provide a bespoke online solution which also links to their social media as well as meets their online marketing and lead generation needs.
We are lucky that across Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall there is no shortage of creative web design agencies, many of us working in partnership with each other.
The importance of a small business website
So that's how they evolved but why is a website still important for your business? It's not just to sit there and look pretty!
1. Search & local search
Searching online replaces the phone book. People expect to be able to find a business online.
With the mass use of mobile devices, people also expect to be able to find local businesses instantly and get the details they need quickly and easily. If your business isn't featuring in any search, then that's potential customers you're missing.
2. Legitimacy & credibility
Following on from search, if you can't be found, it raises questions about your businesses authenticity. There are, no doubt, plenty of alternative businesses that do have websites who are welcoming potential customers.
Once visitors reach your website a professional looking, well structured and engaging website helps to build your reputation as a credible business. Combine this with online reviews from your customers and you become a trusted business.
3. Cost effective marketing channel
A small business website really is a cost-effective marketing tool. It's an online shop window to entice and welcome your potential customers. You can build rapport by keeping your audience informed about your business 24/7 as well as provide offers as well as helpful information and industry insight. Your business doesn't need to be traditionally "open" to be selling to someone, it can happen whilst you sleep!
4. Data capture & lead generation
A small business website is a great place to start capturing the data of your visitors to turn them into prospects and then customers. Adding forms and asking for email addresses (whilst providing them with the correct legal notices under General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR)) allows you to start to nurture your prospects.
To get a visitor to give up an email address you need to offer them something worthy, a helpful download or a newsletter subscription. From there you can keep providing them support and impact your expertise, ensuring your business is at the forefront of their mind when they decided to make a purchase.
The basics of small business website design
When it comes to having a website whether you create it yourself or whether you are working with a web design company there are some basics that you need to understand.
1. Content - less is more
It's tempting (don't I just know it!) to write lots on a subject you are confident about. It's tempting to speak volumes about how great your business is, how your product or service is the best, how your customers always speak highly of you, but remember, you've got a very short amount of time to engage your visitors' attention before they get bored and click away. (I'm assuming now that your web page loads super quick so it's the web page content that needs to impress your visitor. If your page doesn't load super quick - get that sorted first as no one waits long for a loading page anymore.)
The key things a visitor needs to get from your homepage is
- What is the website about?
- Engagement with the content
- A place to go next whether that is to contact you or learn more.
That's it! Getting this right is an art, the rules are always changing and your customers will have specific wants and needs, but if you try to remember the mantra of less is more you won't be overwhelming people.
2. Obvious contact
Having your contact information clearly displayed and easily accessible from all of your pages saves your visitors having to hunt if they arrive on a page which isn't a contact page is key.
Any barrier to preventing a visitor contacting you may lead to them contacting a competitor.
3. Calls to action
A call to action (CTA) is something to induce your visitor to do more, for example, call now, learn more, email us on your website.
These are all the common buttons or links you will have seen on a website which are important so that you can draw visitors in deeper. You can use calls to action to help visitors get in touch (Call now), see what your customers say (Read reviews), find out about your business (Learn more), see related information (View more like this) and sell products/services (Buy now) - make them obvious to give more opportunities to impress your visitor.
When it comes to CTAs try to make sure that at least one is always visible on a page, so that there's never a dead end - there's always somewhere else to click. That said an intrusive CTA will defeat the object and become annoying rather than encouraging - for example, I'm not going to break a paragraph of text in this page to add a CTA so one is always visible, but you can bet your bottom dollar when you get to the bottom of this post, they'll be at least one CTA to get in touch.
4. Mobile friendly websites
It's highly likely that a significant percentage of your visitors will be accessing your website on a mobile device.
Over a quarter of our visitors visit from either a mobile phone or tablet. If your website isn't optimised to give those visitors a great experience, they will be going elsewhere - that could be a significant amount of potential leads you are losing.
With stats telling us that initial web research is often done on a mobile device, if your visitor’s first engagement with you is hindered by a slow website, that doesn’t work on a mobile, the likelihood of them coming back is low - even if your website is great on a desktop.
A mobile-friendly website is a must for a small business, so if your website isn't, get it sorted, quickly.
5. Easy to use
Visitors expect to find what they want on websites, quickly and easily. If they can’t, they leave it's as simple as that.
Simple, consistent navigation makes sure your visitors can easily move around your website without getting lost or frustrated.
A good experience gives you credibility with your visitors, it keeps them engaged on your website and often gets them coming back. Returning visitors are gradually building a loyalty to you and that makes them far more likely to buy from you.
If you can’t analyse your website you are losing vital information about what is and isn’t working for your visitors.
Google Analytics or other packages allow you to glean vital insightful information - views per page, bounce rates and average session duration can all help you identify what pages have engaging content, what pages don’t and how engaging your website is as a whole. Analysing all this data regularly can help you optimize your website for your visitors giving them a great experience.
CLICK HERE IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO DOWNLOAD OUR SMALL BUSINESS CHECKLIST TO REVIEW YOUR OWN WEBSITE IN YOUR TIME.
As well as these basic things you'd expect on a small business website, there are other things going on behind the scene that can ensure your website is always working efficiently and effectively for you - hang on its acronym time:
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) - Search engine optimisation is about ensuring your website easily be found and indexed by search engines. If search engines can easily reach and understand your website, your website is mobile friendly and quick to load, they will look on your website more favourably when they decide where to place, or rank, your website in a relevant search. Other important elements are how your website is structured, that the relevant meta-information is populated with the relevant phrases and that the content you have uses phrases and terms that are relevant to what searchers would use. Past tactics of keyword repetition and loading will now all detrimentally affect your search positioning, so the key is to really understand the language your audience uses and then use this to create clear, concise text which describes your product or services.
Content Management System (CMS) - A CMS enables you to keep your website content up to date yourself without having to go back to your developers all the time. If you need to change a phone number or add a new service, a CMS will allow you to do this. WordPress is probably a CMS you've heard of - one of the most popular in the world, which unfortunately makes it one of the most targeted by hackers. Whilst we do have some WordPress websites, we prefer to
Client Relationship Management (CRM) - A CRM system means you can securely store all the contact data and information that's entered on to your website through your web forms. Captured in the right way, you can then use this to data to provide useful information to those contacts whether that be additional services, offers or discounts, or just helpful advice. A CRM has the added benefit of enabling you to keep track of your data and ensure you are compliant with the data protection legislation.
CLICK HERE IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ARRANGE A NO OBLIGATION CALL BACK TO DISCUSS HOW HUBSPOT FREE CRM CAN BE INTEGRATED INTO YOUR WEBSITE.
Choosing a web designer to work with
Whilst we've explained the importance of web design for business and given you a few pointers on the basics for your website, I would always advise using an expert when it comes to designing and building a website. When I say expert, I do mean expert not mothers' brothers' cousins son who can knock one up in his bedroom after his homework.
Good web designers have crafted their design skills to create a website that fits your exact needs based on research, analysis and the all-important, can't be bought, experience. The placement of buttons or calls to action to get visitors to delve deeper, the placing of content to engage with your audience, the colours and micro-interactions to invoke a reaction are all chosen and placed for a reason and its that knowledge that sets good web designers apart.
That all said, how do you choose a good web designer or web design company? A Google search throws up hundreds of products, companies, prices but who do you choose?
I've put together a few tips to try and help you determine who to work with:
1. Get recommendations
Ask friends, acquaintances and other business owners what experience they have had, who they used, who was good, who wasn’t. Posting the question on Facebook or LinkedIn is a good idea but be ready for the deluge of names, sales calls and emails which may then follow through.
2. Research the recommendations
Look at their websites and social media see if they have any reviews. Look at their portfolio of work and contact the ones you like - make sure you contact at least 3.
Compare and contrast the responses you get back. Note the ones which come back to you promptly and courteously. From there, ask the ones you still like to provide a name of a current or recent client you can talk to direct.
3. Arrange a meeting
A reputable company will definitely want to talk to you, preferably face to face to find out your requirements, as well as to explain their process to you. They will encourage you to talk about your business, your customers and your own personal likes and ideas. From this meeting, you’ll get a good idea as to whether your personality will fit and how professional, knowledgeable and friendly they are.
When it comes to costs, you will find a vast range from £199 to costs in the thousands for what may seem a very similar website. Whilst as a small business, you always need to keep costs down, cheaper is not always better. Cheaper could mean there are hidden costs along the way or it’s a template like thousands of other websites. Alternatively, it could be just one person, who may or may not be around/have the time in 6 months if you have a problem. It's best to try and have a budget in mind first, so you can see what's on offer.
No matter who you pick, before any work is commenced, agree a fixed price and what you're getting for that price, in advance, in writing. Most reputable web companies will have a set of terms and conditions for you to review and sign to protect both you and the web company alike. Ensure that once payments are settled that you own the domain name and your website, just in case you want to move at a later date.
If a company asks for full payment in advance be very cautious. A lot of companies offer some type of staged payment plan throughout the development period - most will ask for a deposit. Make sure when you read the terms and conditions you specifically check the payment requirements if anything goes wrong, on either side.
7. Gut instinct
There’s a lot to be said for instinct and if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. There really are plenty of businesses to choose from so finding someone else that does feel right shouldn't be a problem.
In summary, although choosing a company to build or refresh your website is potentially a daunting task, if you ask yourself these questions you should avoid any problems:
- Have I got a recommendation for this company?
- Have they got a website, a portfolio of work and do I like it?
- Are there any negative reviews on social media?
- Do they respond quickly? Do they seem friendly?
- How long have they been around?
- How many people make up the company?
- Will they provide a fixed cost? Are there any other potential costs?
- Do they require full payment in advance?
- Does it feel right?
What to do if you have problems
With the best will in the world, sometimes things do go wrong. Sometimes a lone web designer just can't respond as quickly as you'd like, sometimes customer service isn't great or sometimes you just want to get a fresh approach and its time to find someone new.
Finding a replacement won't be hard if you follow the advice above. To transfer from one web design company to another shouldn't be hard but it's best to get a few things in place first:
Domain name - you or your business need to be the registered owner of your domain name. This is so you can access the details as and when you need to. If you move your website or if you have a new one created, you will need to access these details so your domain name points to your updated website. You'll also need these details to get reminders and renew the domain name when necessary.
If you aren't the registered owner, ask your current team to update this information for you. If they can't or won't, there are other approaches that can be taken to try to get access to the domain but they may take time and have costs associated with them.
Hosting - if your current web company is providing the hosting for your website, it's likely that they may no longer wish to do so when you move to a new web company. Your new company should likely be able to provide with hosting or you can sort this out yourself, however, if you are moving your existing website (rather than having a new one built) you will have to choose the right hosting environment for the technology on which your website is built.
It may be easier to leave this to your new provider to sort. As long as your old provider is willing (you may need to check your contract) and able to send over all your website files, you can then move your existing website over. However if there are issues with ownership of your website and getting access to the files, it may be easier to start afresh with a new company - just make sure that with the new company the domain name goes in your name and that you own the website (this is usually case once all payments have been made).
There's no getting away from it - your website is key to your business and it's only going to grow in importance with technology advancing all the time.
So what do we think will be the important areas for the future?
Voice search is a huge growth area with the likes of Amazon's Alexa coming into our homes and as well as cars that are enabled to instigate searches, so optimising websites for conversational key search terms is going to be important in continuing to rank well in searches.
Providing targeted, personalised online experiences will also give businesses an edge in speaking directly to their audience. Engaging content that provides an emotional response as well as answering a need or desire of your audience will identify you as
Design wise, we think simplicity will continue to win out. An emphasis on usability will be the differentiator for small business websites - those which are quick and easy to use across all devices, especially those which allow the buyer journey to continue when the device changes, will take the traffic from competitor websites that don’t make this process easy. Website visitors will continue to expect excellence from businesses online, irrelevant of the device, with consistent responses and messaging across social media.
When it comes to web design companies, as with everything, those that continue to provide a good, honest service will continue to thrive with good reviews and feedback boosting their presence. Continuing to evolve with the ever-changing technologies will ensure longevity and the best possible web presence for the business client.