There is some confusion over the use of the term “business site”, so let's start by defining exactly what that means. A business site is not just an e-commerce site. In fact, it does not need to contain any e-commerce features at all. A business site is simply a site that represents a business as a virtual online representative. Such a site may sell things, but it doesn't have to in order to qualify as a business site.
Also the mere fact that a site does sell something doesn't mean it automatically qualifies as a business site. Many hobby sites sell things, but they're not business sites because the owner of the site is not running a viable business and doesn't intend to invest in the level of quality and professionalism required for a business website.
Quality and professionalism are valuable attributes for any site, but they're absolutely vital for a business site. There are some businesses out there that don't seem to realize exactly what a website is for. The simple explanation is that a website is an extension of your brand, and is there to reinforce or represent what your business is all about.
Show your website in an unprofessional manner, then by extension, your brand is tarnished with that image of unprofessionalism. That ultimately will have an effect on how successful your business will be when it faces competition.
Every business needs a website
This is true. Many small businesses don't see the value in having a website, or think that having a Facebook page is sufficient to meet their needs, but no matter how big or small your business is, having a website is definitely essential. Social media isn't designed to be a replacement for a website, it's there to enhance your website's interactive potential.
Almost half of small businesses don't have a website, but close to 100% of consumers do their shopping research online before they head out into the real world to make a purchase, plus of course many of them also prefer to buy online. If your business is one of those without a website, it means consumers aren't even seeing you when they're making their choices, and that's not good for business.
A business website needs good hosting
Once you decide to go ahead and get a website, you'll have to choose a hosting platform. In general, unless they're lucky, the typical small business starting out with their first website, makes the wrong choice in web hosts.
Usually they'll go to the host that is advertising more than others, and that has the highest recognition factor, but without really researching for negative points. Your first priority is always to go to Google and type: “[name of hosting service] sucks”, where “[name of hosting service]” is replaced by the actual name of the service. This will show you all the complaints about that service and give you a better idea of what to expect. If you don't see any results, it doesn't mean that the service doesn't suck, but it may mean it sucks a lot less than the ones people are complaining about.
The factors you especially want to look at include:
- Customer service
- Complaints handling
- Respect for customers
- Honesty in billing
- Easy to transfer in or out
- Know what they are doing
Customer service is major, because many of the bigger companies just hire people in call centers with no real knowledge of the technology they are supporting. These people just answer questions by reading from a script, and their entire purpose is to screen out minor problems, so that the tech support workers who know what they are doing (and therefore cost more) are handling the least amount of cases possible.
Also it is important to know that most small businesses pay for more than they need (or will ever need) simply because they don't have a clear picture of what their real needs are.
Expertly designed site navigation
See, we didn't just say “good navigation” or “clear navigation”, because that's not enough. Navigation has to be designed. As for where it sits on the page (which is not the same as navigation design, that is part of page design), this must be at the top of the page or on the left side.
Due to the rapid increase in mobile device usage, it's much more common to use a fixed navigation bar at the top of the screen, and to avoid using submenus. This means professional navigation design is much more important than ever.
Your site should have contact information, even if the address and phone numbers only point to a virtual office. Including your email address has good and bad points. If you choose to include your email address, you should also make sure you have excellent spam filtering in place, and it should be an address that is exclusively reserved for new contacts. Alternatively, use a contact form, which can excuse you from showing an email address. If you use a contact form, you'll still need good spam filtering, because spammers now target us using our contact forms as well.
If you're selling anything, always include the prices
Strangely enough, millions of business owners think it's clever to hide pricing from their site. In reality, nothing could be worse than to do this. One possible reason is that you want to hide your prices to avoid competitors from under-cutting you, but if this is your concern it either means your prices are too high, or you don't have confidence that the value you provide justifies the extra cost.
Showing prices helps buyers make the choice to do business with you and shows that you're honest. When you sell something that doesn't have a fixed price, using an automated estimation system is far better than expecting the user to email you for a quote. The average user does not want to make that level of commitment. Doing business online is very different to offline business.
If you have physical products, include sample images
This one is obvious, but you'll see many websites where it's not thought to be important. It is a good idea to allow the user to activate a list view (without images) if that's what they want, but images should always be available on request. Also don't use images that are not of the actual product, you should try to show exactly what the customer can expect to see.
A valid SSL certificate creates trust
You won't need this if you're not selling online, but it can still be a good idea to have one anyway. This way, a user can connect to a secure encrypted version of your site and verify that they're not looking at a fake version. The user will also feel more confident and trusting on sites that seem to respect their privacy and security.
Social media integration
Way back at the start of this article, we learned that social media is not a replacement for a website. But that doesn't mean you can afford to ignore social media, either. Social media helps reinforce your website and creates additional communications channels between you and your customers. Make sure you have competent people managing your social media, because mistakes can be very embarrassing. Always remember that your business social media pages are not your personal social media. Also, if you do have personal social media pages which can in any way associate you with the business you run, you should watch how you behave on your personal social media as well.
Blog pages with genuinely original content are worth the investment
You need to avoid those sketchy SEO motivated blog posts that have become such a blight on the landscape of the web. Those will eventually prove costly, even if they work in the short term. Your blog is part of your SEO, but it shouldn't exist purely for SEO.
It has to provide genuine value to the person reading it, and must exist for their benefit. Also, unless you're a professional writer with a genuine gift for writing, don't be tempted to write it yourself. Hire a professional writer, because that way you'll get the best results.
Now, when we say professional, that means a real professional, not just somebody who writes for money. They need to know how to write an informative and entertaining article that keeps you reading to the last line.
header image courtesy of Svetlana Tokarenko