Friday, July 3, 2009

Eight Signs It's Time for An Extreme Web Site Makeover

by Lauren Hobson

Let's face it - if your small business web site is outdated, looks unprofessional, or doesn't meet today's user needs, you are probably losing money and driving away new customers every single day. If you're like most small businesses, you've already invested a considerable amount of time and/or money into your web site, so you need your site to work FOR your business, instead of working against it. If it's time for you to take an honest look at your web site, here are eight signs to help you determine if your site needs an extreme makeover:

1. The site is image-based, Flash-based, or contains too many graphics. The biggest issue with these types of sites is that they are invisible to the search engines and cannot be effectively read or indexed by the search "bots" that visit the site. Another issue with these sites is that they are nearly impossible to update in-house, and even the smallest change requires your graphic designer to re-create the image for the page. Instead, use standards-based content and go easy on the images. That way, the site is much easier to maintain going forward, the search engines can actually see your content, and the page will download faster for your visitors as well.

2. The site has the same information as it did a year ago, six months ago, or even a month ago, and nothing ever changes. What is the incentive for your visitors to come back to your web site if they have already seen what is there? Why would users want to come re-read the same info that was there the last time they visited? If your site is just sitting there with nothing new, it's definitely time for a change. Create new content for your site, or re-use your other marketing materials as content on your site. Update it regularly with interesting, useful content and you will give your visitors and the search engines a reason to return to your site and take notice of what you have to offer.

3. It's all about you, and nothing about them. Visitors don't really care all that much about your company, but they care very much about your ability to solve their problems. If your site is filled with content that talks about your company, its history, how the owner got his or her start, how your products are developed, how great your service is, etc., you're missing the point. People come to your web site to see if your company can help them solve their problems, so you need to focus on how your products and services meet their needs, solve their problems, and provide BENEFIT to them.

4. The site looks unprofessional or has an amateurish design. You might be able to save a few bucks by having your neighbor's cousin design your web site, but it's just not worth the negative effect it has on web visitors and potential customers. It takes visitors less than four seconds to form an impression of your site and decide if they should stick around and explore what you have to offer, or if they should click on the "back" button and visit your competition. Don't represent your company with a web site that looks amateurish or contains unprofessional web elements like hit counters, time/date stamps, or template based designs - these can send your potential customers straight to the competition and cost you considerably more in the long run.

5. The site is hard to use, or has inconsistent navigation. Web site usability is critical in turning visitors into customers, and if your site is confusing to use, your visitors will simply give up and go somewhere else. Be sure that your navigation system is consistent across all pages on your site, and that the pages are well organized, making it easy to find information. Users should always be able to find their way back to the home page or other key pages, and nothing should be more than 2 or 3 clicks away from the home page.

6. The site is a "static" web site, with no interactivity or updated features. In the age of social networking, web widgets, mobile messaging, and web video, users today expect to have at least some level of interactivity on the sites they visit. At the very least, try to include a blog on your site, or an interactive online calendar or photo gallery. Use the web 2.0 features that make sense for your target market (e.g., insurance sites that offer instant quotes, customer service pages with how-to videos, etc.), but offer your visitors something more than just static, brochure-like web pages.

7. The site is not integrated with anything else useful. (Also related to "static" sites, above.) The most useful sites today are the ones that offer users additional value beyond the web site itself. Integrate your web site with your blog, and with your social networking profiles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Use e-mail campaigns and e-newsletters that direct recipients to specific landing pages on your site with information on special offers or coupons. Use online response forms and surveys that provide users with an easy way to give you feedback.

8. The site cannot be found in the search engines. If your web site cannot be found in the search engines today, that is definitely a red flag. There are many reasons the site may not be listed; such as an image or Flash-based architecture, improper coding and non-standards-based practices, not enough inbound links, or incorrect keyword densities, just to name a few. But search engine visibility is critical to the success of most businesses, so if your site cannot be found in the search engines, it may definitely be time to consider an extreme makeover!

About the Author

Lauren Hobson, President of Five Sparrows, LLC, has more than 16 years of experience in small business technology writing, marketing, and web site design and development. Five Sparrows provides high-quality, professional website and marketing services to small businesses and non-profits at affordable prices, giving clients access to customized services that meet both their needs and their budgets. More at www.fivesparrows.com.