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6 ways to rev up your Web site

Posted Friday, March 7, 2003

Creating a business Web site can be a major investment of time, money or both. How do you make sure that you get the most out of that investment?

Here are six suggestions for making your Web site work harder for you. They are derived from looking at hundreds of small-business Web sites and talking to several designers who work with smaller businesses.

1. Cleanliness is next to godliness.

Too many small businesses are enamored with speckled backgrounds, unreadable type fonts and a bewildering gaggle of buttons and animated gewgaws running across their Web sites. Resist the temptation. A simple, clean design will do a better job for you than a site that looks like a flashing slot machine. You don't see the big guys like Amazon or Yahoo using pink marble or shadowy logos for their site backdrop. There is a reason for that. The background can quickly get in the way of the site itself, so keep it simple.

2. Catch them in the first 10 seconds.

Your front page needs to be both a stop sign and a fast, effective messenger. "In two to three seconds the person should know exactly what the site is about or what the business does," says Josh Beneviste of Nuba Design in San Francisco. Determine what image and message you want the customer to "get" in those first few seconds, and design your front page toward that objective. A short mission statement, or a summary of what your business does can be very helpful.

3. The first page should load FAST.

If you want to catch them in the first 10 seconds, your front page had better not take 20 seconds to reveal itself. Rod Thompson of Smokies Web, a Tennessee design firm, suggests that your front page should load in 12 to 15 seconds over a 28.8-baud modem. Test it to be sure! Photographs are usually the culprits when pages load too slowly. Many small businesses scan photos for their Web sites, but Beneviste warns that "just scanning a photo and throwing it up on your site is always a 'no-no'". You need to compress photo images so they are small enough to load quickly. Software packages such as Photoshop do this by removing some color information from your photo and reducing the quality of the image. It's a balancing act to remove enough information so the photo loads quickly but not so much that the image look like an amateur pointillist painting. It is more art than science; a good designer often gets better results than a novice.

4. A navigation system that a 6-year-old can master.

Make it extremely easy for people to find their way around your site. On the Web, the system that helps you find your way around a site is known as its navigational elements. "Navigation should be clear to a 6-year-old," says Sean Shelton, of Uversa, a Fairfax, Va., Web design firm. In fact, Shelton actually used to ask his son to test sites, before he outgrew the task around age eight. Navigation is easiest to find if it's on the left side of the screen. Thompson notes that since some surfers still turn off graphics, you need to provide text-based navigation, as well. Most sites do this at the bottom of each page.

5. Update your site regularly with fresh information.

Bring people back to your site by providing important or difficult-to-find information. The daily fish report at Tradewinds Bait and Tackle, in Ocracoke, N.C., is a great example of this. Each day, they update the fishing report to tell people if it's worth driving to the Outer Banks to cast for trout or bluefish. Another example is Pine Ridge Winery's use of their Web site to showcase upcoming events and wine reviews. Retailers use their views to create timely point-of-sale information that can improve wine sales, and consumers can find out when Pine Ridge is holding an event in their area. The one caution here is that you must keep information up-to-date. Recently, I visited a restaurant's Web site where the front page proudly featured a special menu for New Year's Eve 1999. If you don't have time to keep it current, avoid time-sensitive information altogether.

6. Hire professionals to design your site.

If you can afford it, your site will deliver better results if you work with a designer and a professional photographer. Unless, of course, you were born with awesome design skills. If you choose to hire a professional, be prepared to provide the designer with a project brief outlining:

- Goals for your Web site (e.g. sell goods online, provide information to convince people to choose your company, communicate to existing customers).
- The type of image you want the site to create for your business.
- The reactions or emotions you want the site to evoke in potential customers (e.g. this guy seems like he really knows plumbing, or I'd like to visit this place it seems so restful, or hey . . . I'd look great in that watch)?
- Who your current customers are and what they really like about your business.
- The size of your budget for this project.
- Examples of your current marketing materials (business cards, stationery, brochures).
- A history of your business and why you have a passion and energy about this business.

Keep these tips in mind when it's time to create your Web site or to give it a serious facelift.