Back to Basics – Website Planning, Design and Management
“I’ll do it myself!”, “Yes, I must update those contact details…”, “What meta tags?”. Sound familiar? What about “I don’t need a website!”? These are things you may say to yourself regarding your existing website or the thought of having a website constructed. Over the coming years electronic communication and commerce will inevitably increase at a faster rate then ever before. The Internet gold rush is over, and now websites must compete for cyberspace, eyeballs and the dollar. It is time for web development to become more focused on quality rather than quantity, effectiveness rather than glamour.
Your website advertises your business. So do it right. If you have a website, ask yourself these questions:
o What are the objectives of my website?
o Can the objectives of my site be met?
o Does everything on my site work the way it should?
o Is all the information on my site up to date?
o Does the look of my site reflect my business and my image?
o What impression does my home page give?
o Can my site be found on the net?
If you are thinking about having a website built, these are questions that will be relevant to you also. You need to have addressed those during the planning phase of your website development. Your website can be a cost-effective and valuable marketing tool which, when used complementarily to your existing marketing plans, can help to grow and expand your business. Your website should work for your businesses effectively, and there are some basic steps you can follow when starting off, that can help make that happen.
Think it through, map it out and determine what the objectives of your website are. They may be to advertise or sell your products or services, impart information, gather information or to teach something to the users of your site. Identify the objectives before you start, they are the cornerstone of your web development project (and of your existing website if you already have one). You should have three or four clearly defined objectives for your website, and they should be easily achieved right from the home page. Consider impact! What will be the first impression that users of your website have when they open your homepage for the first time? Apart from the good versus bad impressions, ask yourself this: will the nature, image and focus of my business be able to be determined from this page? How far into the site will someone have to go to find out what your core business is?
What content do you really need? Keep focused on what your objectives are. There is nothing wrong with starting small with a view to expanding later. Remember also site flow, and how users will navigate through the site, moving through the pages, and using the links. Is it sensible and logical? And of course make it easy for people to contact you! That’s what your site is for! So plan the site, get feedback from others, and get it working correctly from the outset.
There are two options here. Build it yourself, or obtain the services of a web development company. The first option is noble and ambitious (unless you actually are a web developer!) but if you are serious about a website I wouldn’t recommend it. Would you record your own radio ad on a cassette and allow it to be played on air? Only if you were brave. A poorly developed site will probably do your business more harm than good. But it is possible: if you do it yourself, are happy with it and it works for you then great! Apart from that there are web development companies and there are lots of them too, so shop around, get quotes, find a good one (not necessarily the cheapest), and then ask the right questions. “What sites have you built before?” (these are usually listed on the web developers own website), “what do you suggest for me?”, “what time frames, testing expectations, hosting options, support and follow-up services do you provide?”. Ensure that search engine optimisation of your site is part of the deal and when the site is being built be involved, review progress with your web developer periodically to ensure your and their expectations are being met.
A brand new website should be tested thoroughly, especially in instances where there is a level of inbuilt functionality in the site, such as database searches, form submissions, shopping facilities and online payment. Make sure everything works as you think it should. A good idea, as in many situations, is to put yourself in your target market’s shoes, and use your own site from their perspective. It’s a great idea to get friends (and anyone at all, in fact) to test your site, and to give you feedback (good and bad). For a really complex site, hire testers if necessary.
A website that no one visits will not generate a lot of business for you. Market it. Obviously put it on your business cards and other stationery and advertising, but it may also be appropriate for you to market the site in its own right. Where do you market a website? Well it seems sensible that you could always start to market your site where users of your products or services currently look for your products and services. If you are one of the first in your industry to get online then offer them an alternative! Your site should be search engine friendly, and should be listed on relevant search engines and directories. Just make sure your search engine optimisation is correct because it can be difficult to change your listing on many search engines once you have been added, and good rankings on a number of search engines can take months, so be patient.
How do you know if your site is working for you? More phone calls generating more business? Contacts made with you from the site contact form? Sure is! The first and most logical thing to do is to research where your leads are coming from. Ask people making enquiries where they heard about you and get feedback from customers and users of the site as to how user-friendly they found it, and what were it’s good points and not so good points. As well as this you must analyse your website statistics. These are usually provided by your webhosting company, and there are also a number of statistics packages available to buy or download from the net (some of them free) which do a reasonable job. Most statistics software include explanations of how the statistics are gathered and what the terminology used in the reporting means. These website stats can really tell you a lot about the patterns of traffic to, from and within your website, as well as how much traffic is visiting your site, from where and what systems the users of your site are using. You should use this data to refine your site and to make decisions about the future development of it.
So you have launched a website and can now sit back and wait for the business to roll in? Don’t you believe it. There are very few websites that require no management, maintenance or review on an ongoing, if periodic, basis. If you have good traffic to your site and want to ensure they return then you will need to refresh the content periodically to keep interest. Content Management in the general sense is vital too: keep your contact details up to date, remove old products or services and add new ones so that interest is retained.
So there are some of the fundamentals of website planning and operation. Don’t forget: start small if you are unsure, and plan to expand over time as you review the effectiveness of your website. When your website really starts to work for you, you can expand out into other related areas if appropriate for your business, such as online marketing and email newsletters. These are great ways of spreading the word about your services or products, and of keeping your business top of mind with your existing and potential customers.
Finally remember: plan a site with objectives in mind, build a suitable and appropriate site for your business, get the users in, keep them in, get them returning and manage your site.