By Allison Bowlus
Whether you are a freelance photographer, own a hardware store, or have another type of small business, a great website is essential for your company’s success. As a webmaster who has worked on building or marketing over 100 small business websites, I know what it takes to create great and engaging business websites.
If you are looking to build a new startup website or make your current site more effective, here are 10 key steps to getting started and helping your small business website compete effectively in the online marketplace.
Looking to build a new startup website or make your current site more effective? Learn key steps to… [+]
Your domain name, also known as your website address, is often the entry point to your site. It is important that it makes a good impression for usability purposes, as well as for search engine optimization (SEO).
Here are some tips for coming up with an optimal domain name:
A website host (or sometimes referred to as a website hosting provider) is a company that offers the technology and services necessary for a website to be viewed on the internet. You connect your domain name to your hosting provider so that when users visit your website address, they are shown your website that you store on your hosting account.
Hosting services can cost anywhere between $2 to $100+ per month, depending on the kind of technology and support you choose. You can usually get a discount if you purchase a yearly plan as opposed to a monthly plan.
Here are some guidelines for choosing a good website hosting plan:
Some popular website hosting companies include:
It is important to let people know who you are and what you do right away so they don’t feel confused when they visit your small business website. Make sure your main homepage banner (also known as a “hero image”) and subsequent banners are visual representations of your services, and also that you have an introductory text blurb near the top of the page that describes who you are and what you do.
Additionally, make sure both your main and footer navigation menus have “About Us” page links easily accessible so people can click them and read more about your business in depth.
A content management system (CMS) is a software program or application that is used to create and manage digital content. A good CMS will help you maintain your site, and you don’t need much technical knowledge to use it. You should choose a CMS that is designed for your unique needs; different systems are used for different reasons, such as user-friendliness, extensibility, and budget.
The following are some popular systems with descriptions of their strengths and weaknesses.
WordPress: WordPress is the world’s most popular CMS. It has a vast, active support community and many useful plugins to extend the functionality of your site. (And if you cannot find a plugin that does what you want, it is easy to find a WordPress developer who can make one for you!) WordPress is also free and relatively simple to install. Most website developers are familiar with it so it is not hard to find an individual or agency that can work on your site. I normally recommend that small businesses use WordPress to create their websites, due to its flexibility and extensibility.
It must be noted, however, that WordPress’s biggest weakness is security—because it is so popular, hackers target it the most. Your WordPress site needs to be regularly maintained and secured so it is not hacked. Also, it is difficult to secure every single third-party plugin, so keeping your WordPress site secure must be an ongoing commitment through various best practices (checking to see if your plugins have been updated within the past few months, making sure it is a plugin provided in the official WordPress repository, deleting unused plugins immediately, etc.).
Drupal: Drupal is another popular CMS. It offers many of the same benefits as WordPress, including flexibility, ease of use, and a large support community. Notably it is a more secure CMS than WordPress (safer from malicious activity); however, it doesn’t have as many plugin or theme options, which makes it less extensible. For many years, the White House website (Whitehouse.gov) was run with Drupal, but has since switched to WordPress, which it still uses today.
Joomla!: Another popular CMS is Joomla! Out of the box, it has better SEO, security, and multilingual capabilities than WordPress; however, with the help of a few plugins, WordPress surpasses Joomla!’s capabilities.
Squarespace: Squarespace is a service you subscribe to monthly or annually that makes website and blog creation an easy “drag and drop” experience. It includes website design, development, software maintenance, metrics, domain name with annual purchase, SSL security, 24/7 support, and unlimited bandwidth and storage hosting all in one package. It is especially suitable for creatives and provides you with top-notch design templates. If you are on a tight budget, need a simple and beautiful site, but cannot afford a website designer, this is a great service for you.
There is a much smaller learning curve with Squarespace than with WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla!, but it doesn’t have nearly as many extensibility options. However, if you have little or no technical knowledge and are looking for a quick and easy way to put up a website, Squarespace is an excellent option for you.
Wix: Wix is very similar to Squarespace, but it is a bit more user-friendly. It offers a monthly, but not annual, subscription and includes similar features. Wix is also a drag-and-drop builder—you can freely drag and drop elements anywhere on the page; in comparison, Squarespace is more structured in where you can drag and drop on the page. The learning curve to using Wix is even shorter than Squarespace, so if you need to publish a site quickly, this may be your best option.
Wix has a lot more templates than Squarespace to choose from, but once you choose a template, you must stick with it or be forced to completely rebuild your site. With Squarespace, you can change your template anytime without having to rebuild the entire site.
If you plan on selling goods and/or services through your website, you will need the right technology to do so. (If you do not currently sell anything, you may want to consider doing so since e-commerce could potentially increase your profits.) If you decide to allow users to financially transact with you online, you will need to choose the right platform for your business model.
Here are some popular small business e-commerce platforms:
WooCommerce: WooCommerce is one of the world’s most popular e-commerce platforms—it can turn your WordPress website into an online store. Like WordPress, there are many plugins available, and it attaches to WordPress, which makes it extremely flexible. There are many free and premium themes pre-built for WooCommerce. (As a rule, it is better to use a premium theme from a reputable developer because it will offer better security and support.) If you are not tech-savvy, you will most likely need a WordPress developer to help you set it up and use it. WooCommerce also offers a very high amount of capabilities and scalability that your small business might need.
Shopify: Shopify is a cloud based e-commerce platform that allows you to create and customize an online store, and to manage products, inventory, payments, and shipping. It is not a WordPress extension like WooCommerce—it is a standalone platform that is hosted on the Shopify server—so if you have a main website, your e-commerce site would technically be separate from that. You can link to your Shopify account from your regular website built with WordPress, Drupal, Wix, etc., unless your main website has a Shopify integration plugin.
Features include unlimited products, unlimited bandwidth, fraud analysis, discount codes, reports, and much more. The key benefits of Shopify are that you do not need a developer to set up a store, and everything on the backend is already set up for you when you subscribe. The downside is you do not have as much control or flexibility over your store as you would with WooCommerce.
Shopify Plus: Shopify Plus is Shopify, but with a higher level of customization, more staff accounts, and international e-commerce options. It also has a higher level of support. However, all of this obviously comes with a higher subscription cost, and it still does not have all the flexibility and customization abilities as WooCommerce.
Business Squarespace: Squarespace has an e-commerce subscription option, so if you chose Squarespace to build your site and have very simple e-commerce needs, you can choose this route. Business Squarespace charges a transaction fee, but this can be bypassed by upgrading your subscription to a basic online store. It includes a free domain, SSL security, SEO, abandoned cart recovery, discounts, real-time carrier shipping, and more. However, it has been noted it is not as user-friendly as Shopify. And like Shopify, it is simply not as flexible as WooCommerce.
Wix: Wix actually has a Shopify extension which is very user friendly. You will have to upgrade your Wix account and subscribe to Shopify in order to use it.
GoDaddy Online Store: GoDaddy has a relatively new e-commerce standalone subscription platform that is relatively easy to set up and use. Very little technical knowledge is required to launch your shop with GoDaddy Online Store. The templates are simple and clean, and somewhat customizable. Features include marketing and SEO tools, social media integration, appointment booking, SSL security, rapid page loading, and more.
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Make sure your small business website interface leaves a positive impression that drives results. You can do so by implementing the following suggestions:
SEO is a set of practices you apply to your website to ensure search engines index and rank your website appropriately and then show it to search engine users. Once your website is “crawled” by search engines, it competes with websites that have similar content. The better your website design and content is, the higher your site will show up on search engine result pages.
SEO mainly includes the following practices:
SEO is an extremely important ongoing process that can mean the difference between showing up on the first page of search engine results pages (resulting in large amounts of free traffic to your website) or page 300 (resulting in no traffic).
Both content quantity and freshness are important to search engines, so it’s important that you create a plan to publish quality articles and/or blog posts on your site and on external sites that link to your site. If you want to rank highly in search engine results and encourage people to return to your site again and again, you will have to update your website with new and relevant content as frequently as possible.
In addition to static page content and articles, a great form of content to post on your website is testimonials. Asking for testimonials from your customers and then publishing them on your website is a great way to post fresh, high-quality content on your site that makes your small business more attractive.
Make sure your content uses an appropriate, on-brand tone that people will enjoy reading.
Make use of vital data to help you analyze traffic and site performance by installing Google Analytics and Google Search Console (both preferably via Google Tag Manager), and Bing Webmaster Tools. These tools can be used to track the following types of information:
A website shouldn’t be created and then allowed to grow stale. In order to have a successful website that ranks well in search engines and doesn’t get hacked, you need to make sure it is properly maintained.
Here are some tips to create a small business website maintenance plan:
As you can tell after reading this article, creating a great small business website may not be as simple as you first thought. However, if you follow the steps set forth in this article, your small business will have an excellent chance at succeeding in the online marketplace.
About the Author
I’m a Webmaster who specializes in WordPress, graphic design, mobile-friendly website development, search engine optimization (SEO), pay per click (PPC) advertising, user interface, e-commerce, and blogging/social media marketing. I am originally from Ohio and received my Bachelor of Science degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, focused on Web Design and Interactive Media. I have been involved in building or marketing over 100 business websites. To find out how to drive visitors to your website, check out my article, Small Business Internet Marketing Strategy: Pay Per Click Advertising and Search Engine Optimization. Visit my website www.allisonbowlus.com and connect with me on LinkedIn.
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This article was originally published on AllBusiness.com.
By Allison Bowlus