You have a great business idea, you have great products, and you know that the Internet is today’s greatest resource for potential customers. Only one thing stands between you and the 700,000,000 people in the world who have Internet access: you aren’t a web designer. At this point, you say to yourself, “I need to hire a web designer to get my small business on-line.”
It’s a defining moment, and then you go to your computer and start trying to find a web design company and are instantly overwhelmed by the number of options that seem to be out there. The purpose of this article is to help you narrow down all the options so that you have defined both what you need and which web design company will be right for the future of your small business.
Why we’ve devoted this article to web design for small businesses.
We all know that somewhere, out there, huge corporations are conducting business on a scale that would make most of our heads spin. At Solas Web Design, we’ll be the first to say, we are pretty much utterly lacking in that grand-scale corporate mindset. What we do understand is the small business. Why? Because Solas Web Design is a small business. And, the majority of our web design clients are small businesses, being run either by sole proprietors, husband-and-wife teams or multi-generational families across the U.S. We understand that small business owners are striving to support themselves and their families through their companies because we are in the same boat. Like you, we are dependent on Internet visitors finding our website, liking what they see, and doing business with us. Because of our real-life understanding of this, we take our clients’ goals and needs very seriously, and know that they are entrusting us with something extremely important when they hire us to design their website.
How is this different than hiring a big web design company?
Simply put, if you have your small business website designed by one of the larger design companies or corporations, you will not be talking to the owner of that company. You will be speaking to his/her employees whose job it is to work 9-5, endlessly turning out web pages for an hourly wage. Unless the designer really loves their job, chances are, their only personal investment in what you’ve hired them to do is to make sure they pick up their paycheck at the end of the month. They do not sit at home at night wondering how John and Mary’s woodworking shop is doing. They can’t be reached after hours to chat over a great new idea you’ve had for a sale or promotion. More than likely, if you do ever get to speak to a live human being at one of these firms, you will be talking to a very poorly paid employee in India who will have to try to bring your Username up on a screen to even have an inkling of who you are. For the most part, you will find yourself processed through automated voice messaging systems and truly unhelpful on-line help desks. Not much of a support system to be backing up a business you’ve put all of your hopes and money into. Basically, the point we are trying to make is that if you go with a big company, you are bound to end up being treated like a number, and we all know how frustrating, and even dehumanizing, that can feel. Many of our clients have gone down this dead-end road before coming to us, and we confess, it makes us feel awfully good to hear how delighted they are to be finally speaking to real people. Though the Internet is all about technology, humans are all about communication, and you need to be able to communicate, one-on-one, with the person whose role in your business is going to be so very important.
Why is my web designer going to be so important?
It is a common misconception amongst folks who are new to the Internet that you will simply put up the site, end of story. Try to think of it this way: the owner of a supermarket does not build their store, stock it with products and then never replenish the inventory again. Running an on-line business is an on-going process. If your small business will be running an e-commerce site, you will be adding new products, removing old ones, promoting specials and advertising. Even if your website will be purely informational, your site must be in a state of on-going development in order to remain important to search engines (thus gaining good rankings). Informational sites need to add new articles, new lists of resources, new interesting features to make their site useful to their visitors. Because your site will always be ‘under construction’ so to speak, in hopes of always improving its value to the public, you need to have a web designer who is going to remain available to you for these types of updates.
But why not just buy one of those build-it-yourself website packages?
The answer to this can be summed up in one word: rankings. Build-it-yourself websites are great if your goal is just to have some fun playing with a program that will allow you to easily create a web page with no programming skills. If your intention is to make a personal website about your life, your family, a hobby, and you really don’t care if anyone ever finds your site, this is a fine solution. Many such programs are available and they generally won’t cost you a lot of money. Unfortunately, they behave like they didn’t cost you a lot of money, too. Because these template-based programs are mass produced, what you end up with is a site which not only has not been created to fit your needs, but which has also not been created to meet the needs of customers or the search engines. Most of the do-it-yourself web templates out there are built with absolutely no regard for SEO (search engine optimization) standards, and because of this, they will not rank well in Google, Yahoo or MSN (the Big 3 search engines). Without the rankings, you will not have the traffic you need, and you will not be making the profits you want. The worst of it all comes the day a site owner realizes this and starts desperately looking for someone to help them overwrite the code of the template which has been designed so poorly. At this point, regardless of the investment you may have made, it is better to scrap the template site and start from scratch with a real website, custom built for the exact needs of your small business.
Your company is very important to you. You intend to run your business in a smart and professional way. In order to do this, why not get it right the first time by hiring a professional web designer who has spent years perfecting their coding, their design skills and their SEO abilities? Remember, you are starting your business because it is what you specialize in. You shouldn’t have to become a web designer before you can start selling your products or services. That’s taking a completely unnecessary step that all the options out there may have confused you into believing is a good way to go. You don’t want to be a web designer. You don’t want to spend your days creating web pages for your small business. You want to be taking in sales, filling orders and shipping out your products, or helping customers with your services. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, right? Don’t take a detour into the world of useless do-it-yourself programs when it comes to something as vitally important as the success of your on-line business.
CMS – the third option.
Your small web business does have one other option besides either going with a template, or hiring a designer with whom you develop a trusting, long-term business relationship. This is to hire a database programmer who will build you a CMS, a content management system. Basically what this means is that the designer builds you your own custom template with which you will be able to build new pages and manage your inventory from the back end of the site. The positive aspects of this are that you don’t have to pay the designer to add new pages and products. However, you will have to become expert at the ever-changing SEO techniques required to get your site ranking well, because that will not be built into the custom template. The negative side of this is that database programmers are very expensive. Why? Because database programming takes a great deal of work! You will need to have a large initial financial budget to secure the services of a good quality database programmer, and because most small businesses don’t have this, it is usually not the best option to go with. Apart from this, if you don’t have a relationship with the designer you hire and something goes wrong with the template they’ve built you, you may find yourself on your own. A quality database programmer will not leave you in this awful situation, but a fly-by-night company will.
Taking all of the above into consideration, what we recommend as the best route for a small on-line business is to hire an excellent HTML programmer who is also a talented graphic designer, and who can wear the SEO hat, too! The initial cost will be affordable if you’ve set aside a reasonable budget, and you will be starting with an appealing, professional, custom-made website which has been designed to standard SEO protocols. Yes, you will be paying for periodic updates of your site, but you will also have retained the services of an ally in the often-confusing Internet marketplace. You will know that you can phone up your designer with questions and concerns and they will know exactly who you are and how things are going with your company. A truly top-notch web designer will care about your business almost as much as you do!
Not all web design companies are created equal.
Chances are, you are going to need to shop around to find the web design company that is the perfect match for the needs of your business. First, let’s help you to weed out some undesirable qualities you may find in companies you contact:
*The reason we mention the Flash animations is that it is our earnest aim to educate all business owners about the dangers of using Flash on your website. Most people (apart from Flash designers) find animations extremely annoying when they are trying to buy something. They load slowly, do not show up correctly on many people’s computers, and most of all, distract the customer from what he is supposed to be doing which is purchasing something. Unless you are selling Flash graphics, don’t have Flash on your site. Apart from the annoyance factor, Flash graphics read as blanks to the folks at Google, Yahoo & MSN, thus wasting your valuable web space that should be used for your text content and products.
So, now that we’ve looked at some warning signs of a bad web design company, here are some things to look for which would bode well for the success of your small business’s website.
By following these basic guidelines, you will hopefully be steering toward an ethical and competent web design company for your business.
3 Small Business Web Design Case Studies
It is often by looking at how others have done things that a business owner comes up with the best plan for his own needs. Here we would like to present to you three simple case studies of small businesses we work with, going from the most basic type of informational website, to a fully-functioning e-commerce website. Please, feel free to visit these sites to explore how they are designed and organized, and how they function. Doing this will help you to formulate a better idea of what type of website will be appropriate for the scope of your company or group.
An informational website for a small business
Expert Plastering Inc. is a well-respected professional plastering company which offers their services in their own local area. They don’t need shopping features on their website, and they don’t need to compete with plastering companies in other regions, states or countries. The function of their website is to offer a portfolio of their work, and to enable customers to contact them via the web. This most simple type of web design helps their company to maintain a visible Internet presence at a fraction of the cost one pays for telephone directory or newspaper advertising. With more and more people turning to the Internet to find local services, a basic website like this is a must for almost any services business. Dentists, lawyers, architects, daycare facilities, landscaping companies and almost every other type of business professional will benefit from even a simple website like this. This type of website is also suitable for non-profit organizations, when the capability of taking donations is added to the site function.
Visit Expert Plastering Inc.
A shopping website without a shopping cart
Many small business owners want to wait before committing to a fully-functioning shopping cart for their website. In the case of our client, Classic Quilts of Vermont, her needs are met by simply presenting her products, and allowing customers to phone or e-mail her to make a purchase. Many artisans prefer to go this route, especially when they are just starting out in the Internet marketplace. Some small business owners will offer a form on the site which the customer can fill out, print and fax to them, or simply e-mail to them. Solutions like these enable the business owner to do business without a shopping cart, and while this may not result in the same volume of sales you will experience with a more complete store checkout, it can be a good way to start your small business on-line.
Visit Classic Quilts of Vermont.
A professional e-commerce website for your small business
Our fantastic client, Cape Cod Treasure Chest, needed a fully-functioning e-commerce website with shopping cart to vend their beautiful outdoor furniture. A visit to their website will show you their complete inventory of products, and the design of the site makes it super simple to get from one page to the next. The shopping cart is customer friendly, easy to use and accepts popular credit cards. E-commerce website owners may also opt to accept Paypal to increase the options they give to their customers when they come to the checkout counter. A site that functions as beautifully as this is the solution for most e-commerce businesses because it fully meets the needs of the site owner, the customers and the search engines.
Visit Cape Cod Treasure Chest.
One last word of advice to small business owners
Designing websites for small businesses is certainly a niche market. It requires a very different mindset than designing for corporations, and we believe that it is the far more human element involved in the work that makes it such a rewarding undertaking for us. All things considered, the Internet is a pretty vast place, and it’s always growing. For almost any product or service you offer, you will find yourself competing with hundreds, thousands, millions or billions of other websites. Feeling lost in the crowd should not be the sense you get from working with your web designer. Rather, it should be their sincere interest in your business needs, and their skill at what they do that will enable your website to shine out amidst all the others. At Solas Web Design, we welcome the opportunity to prove ourselves worthy of your trust, and hope to be learning the complete details of your small business web site design needs soon!