At some point, you, as a business person with a sense of progress and desire for profit, decide you’re going to have a web site. You weigh the pros and cons of hiring a professional to do it for you as opposed to trying to tackle the job yourself. Whether you decide on one approach or the other, there are some things you should consider doing in preparation for building the site.
One of the first things you might want to determine is what will be the purpose of the site? Will it simply provide information about you and your product or service (like a 24 hour information kiosk), or should it be more interactive, perhaps with feedback forms or even an e-commerce (online shopping) facility?
Next, think about who will be your intended audience, where are they located, and what sort of experience should they receive when coming upon your site? If you’re selling your own products or services, you may try to envision the sort of potential buyer you might want to entice. Bearing this in mind will help you pick out a general feel for your site (serious, arty, fun, confidence-inspiring, technological, etc.). If your prospective clients are going to be mature people, for example, you should consider graphics, photo images, and text that will appeal to them, and allow them to identify readily with your commercial offerings. In terms of feel, think about masculine versus feminine, conservative versus youthful, technical versus lay, etc. Consider that if your use of words or images alienates your visitor, he almost certainly won’t do business with you.
What sort of message do you want to convey about your company, or even yourself? Are you a trend-setting entrepreneur, a reliable and conservative provider of a professional service, or something in between? Your site needs to have a “voice,” too, and that may very well be your own. By this, I mean that you need to be consistent in the way you communicate with your visitor, with either a very formal tone and choice of expression, or maybe something friendlier and more intimate. This can really affect your visitors’ perception of who you are and what sort of company you represent.
Site Map Planning
Before you start writing tomes of Pulitzer Prize-worthy text, you should stop to think about what major topics your site should contain. This should be a balance of what your potential client would want and what you feel they need to see. Ideally, you should have both.
Then, start thinking about what pages you’ll need to have, each page representing an aspect of your company, as well as your product or service. Typically, every web site needs a prominent and attractive Home page — a place to greet your visitors and inform them, succinctly, of what you can do for them. One or more Product (or Services) pages dedicated to some (or all) details of your product/service is equally necessary, as is a page (or part thereof) displaying your contact information so that potential clients can reach you. Additionally, you may want to have a page describing your background, or maybe some details or the history of your company. Sometimes, it’s handy to have a page devoted to legal disclaimers, and maybe one for terms and conditions regarding usage of your product or services.
Once you’ve decided what pages you’ll need, think in terms of creating your site map, i.e. floor plan, of your site. Consider each page a room, and then determine where each lies in relation to the others, the order in which they appear, and how a visitor gets from one room to another. This planning stage will help you (or your web designer) in setting up the page navigation (or “menu”) system that lets your visitors view the pages of your site logically and intuitively.
Although this may seem like a no-brainer, the quality of your writing is extremely important. Few things can undermine a beautifully designed web site like textual errors or poorly written information. Spell-checking isn’t enough, either, since you may have inadvertently used a wrong word that is actually orthographically correct. As well, does it read well? Reading your writing out loud often helps point out possible problems and run-on sentences. Don’t be stingy with commas and other punctuation marks either — they can make a huge difference in meanings sometimes!
As well, you need to write your text in as concise and straightforward a way as you possibly can. Most people are busy and have little patience for longwindedness. As well, you should try to sound convincing and authoritative without coming across as boastful or pedantic. If it seems, even remotely, like you’re full of hot air, then you might as well be, as far as your readers are concerned, because for most of them, that’s all they’ll know about you: what you’ve written will represent you almost entirely.
Now for some of the more fun part! Your site must look appealing and credible to function to your advantage and benefit your business. A visitor must be convinced of your professionalism, sincerity, credibility, dedication, integrity, and attention to detail. Think of your site as your online workplace, or perhaps your online showcase. This will often been their first and everlasting impression and it should “wow” them. Colour schemes, images, graphics, and choices of text fonts will transform even the most mundane pages into something that will impress a prospective client and reflect your values (or amplify them) in such as way as to help sell your offerings.
For ideas, look closely — really look — at other web sites. Don’t just skim over other sites, but examine and appreciate them, noting aspects that you find appealing and positive. As well, don’t limit yourself to scrutinizing only your competitors’ or related businesses’ sites. Any sort of site that appeals to you will have characteristics that can be applied to your own site.
Goodies and Graphics
Being primarily a visual medium, think about the positive impact that some custom photography will have. Consider hiring a professional to accurately and tastefully capture important facets and features of your business, and maybe even some photos of the company’s principals and staff. Graphics and stock photos can command a great deal of attention and make for wonderful “eye candy,” designed to win the hearts, imaginations, and, hopefully wallets, too, of your prospective clients.
Another consideration is animated graphics, like Flash media. Flash was invented by a company named MacroMedia (now owned by Adobe, the people who make the Acrobat Reader software, Photoshop, and many other industry standard programs). Though not a tool for beginners, Flash allows a skilled user to create very slick and sophisticated animated graphics , slide shows, movies, and interactive applications that can be very impressive to view and use. When added to a web site, Flash can create a very powerful impression, especially when combined with sound or music, when appropriate.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
This is, in itself, an immense topic. Scores of web sites and hundreds of books have been dedicated to this topic, although its relatively esoteric nature remains somewhere between science and alchemy. Put very succinctly, a web site that can only be viewed when the domain address is typed into the address field is relatively useless. Ideally, your web site should appear on Google, Yahoo, MSN, and other search engine listings when pertinent search terms are entered. These search terms, called key words or key phrases, should be researched carefully by you, as the business owner or manager, at the outset of your web development. These terms are incorporated into the text (also called “copy“) of the site, as well as inserted into the hidden web page header information (“metadata“) visible to Google and other company’s robotic search programs (“crawlers“).
Basically, to do this fairly well, you’ll need to put yourself in the position of a potential client seeking your product or service; they don’t know you’re there, so how would they find you in a Google search? What words would they use to find what they’re looking for, assuming they don’t know of you? When searching for a used car, for example, I might consider searching for “used car Annapolis Valley,” or “pre-owned vehicle Halifax” to find a list of dealers that would be useful to me. In this case, for an automotive dealer to improve his chances of appearing on a search listing that I would end up seeing, he would be wise to include key words like car, vehicle, auto, new, used, pre-owned, and some geographical descriptors that would encompass his target market or sales area. Think of maybe about a dozen key words to use in the creation of your site and, as much as possible within reason, include these terms in a natural way in the body of your pages’ text.
These are indeed just some of the things you should consider in advance of designing a web site for your business, or, like many busy firms do, hiring a professional to do for you. Some other important considerations are: selecting a domain for your company, finding a good hosting service, and setting up your domain-based company email accounts. I will devote some time to exploring some more of these topics at a later date. In the meantime, I hope that you’ll find some of the information above a helpful point of departure in your steps toward acquiring an Internet presence. Contact me if you have questions or need help!
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