Simple rules for a successful website

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With good planning and great ideas, a website can return your investment many times over. Many websites are built with the greatest intentions, only to be left to wither on the vine. Here are a few rules to set your project on the right path and keep the fire going once it is lit.

1. Keep it Focused

Your business has a purpose, and your website should reflect that purpose. When you plan a site, ask yourself - 'What is the goal of the site?' Answering this simple question correctly can make a world of difference.

If your main goal is attracting customers, your site should focus on showing potential customers what you offer, in a very direct way. If your site is confusing, people might assume your services and products are just as confusing. Don't add bells and whistles that distract from your purpose - a simple, strong message will always convey best.

2. Make It Easy To Use

People these days have tons of choices. There are so many things to grab and divert your attention - the last thing you want to do is waste people's time with a clumsy, confusing website.

People want information, and today's technology allows that information to be found instantly, anytime, anywhere. It only makes sense to make it as easy as possible to get around on your site. A poorly designed navigation system will frustrate potential customers and send them to your competitor's site. Usability is key to keeping people on your page.

Your site pages should be laid out in an easy to understand hierarchy, with the most important information prominently displayed for ease of use. Don't bury important information 4 or 5 pages down into your site. Most content should be just 2 or 3 clicks from the home page.

3. Have a Great Looking Design

First Impressions on the web are extremely crucial to winning your customer's trust. A site that looks thrown together or poorly designed will instantly turn people away. Great visual design instills trust and gives your business credibility. Even completely non 'artsy' people can tell good design from bad, and good design adds to the user experience.

From the color scheme to the text layout, your website should have a well-designed look and feel, with simple, consistent navigation and images that enhance and support the content. Think of the last book you bought and how the cover undoubtedly influenced your purchase. Good design reflects your business's image - make it a great image.

Don't always feel like you need to fill every space on your pages. Whitespace, or 'Breathing Room' gives your site a nice feel and sense of elegance. Think of a small boutique shop with plenty of floorspace and nice clean product displays, compared to a dollar store where every inch of every shelf is packed with cheap junk. I think you get my point!

4. Offer Excellent Content

The old saying 'Content is King' holds true in the internet world like no other. If your site is not offering fresh, informative, and well thought-out content, your visitors will move on. You don't need complicated, wordy verbiage or image clutter - strong content is easy to find and understand, with no wasted text. Chances are good that people do not visit your website to spend an afternoon reading! They want quick information about what you do, how much you cost, how to find you, etc... Always keep your content well-focused and simply organized.

Fresh content is another thing that will make your site 'sticky', or keep people coming back. If every time they visit your site they find the same old out-of-date content, they will have no reason to return. Update your content and keep things fresh to attract visitors and keep them coming back.

5. Make it Easy To Find (Search engine optimization, or 'SEO')

So you have a great looking, information-rich, superbly planned website...but can your potential customers find it? If not, you are not getting the full marketing benefit the web can offer. Today's major search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing are like the 'phone books' of yesterday, only faster and more informative.

It takes some work to get to the top of Google, especially if you are in a competitive market. People tend to think of the top few results in a web search as the top performers in that field, so the higher your site ranks, the better your chances of gaining that customer's business. Nobody wants to click through 10 pages of search results to find you.

Your site needs to be built correctly, with the right framework in place to support good search engine optimization efforts. From the titles of your pages to the actual content, every word goes towards your search rank. Make sure you have the right mix of content and key phrases to get more clicks. A well-planned SEO program can gain you as much or more than a print or other traditional advertising campaign, usually at a fraction of the cost. It truly pays to spend some effort here!

6. Be Present

Have you ever emailed a website to get some info, only to never receive a reply? Nothing says 'We don't need your business' quite like an unattended website. If you walk into a restaurant and nobody greets you or helps you, how does that make you feel? If someone inquires about your services or products, by all means reply to them - designate a part of your day to handle emails and inquiries from your site.

Just because your website is sitting out on the net does not guarantee you will get business. It really takes constant effort to create a strong online presence. So many sites start out with great design and strong content but they quickly get out of date and languish in antiquity because the owner just lets it sit there, untouched for months or years. Take the time to keep your site fresh - consider hiring an ambitious teenager or college whiz-kid to help you make the updates. Once the site is built and a strong framework is in place, updating content is easy. You just need to devote the time to it. I guarantee it will bring you results!

7. Work The Network

Marketing and advertising has always been based on relationships and getting the word out about what you do. If you don't tell people about your business, you will not be very successful. The internet levels the playing field in a way that no other marketing medium has before. With the right strategy, small to mid-size businesses can compete with the big players.

Take advantage of the tools out there to spread the word about your business. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc... soak up billions of hours a week of people's time. If you aren't taking advantage of these networking tools, you are probably losing business! The challenge has always been to get people's eyes on your products or services, and these sites already have your customer's attention - use the power of that existing network to promote your business.

The main power of the web is in it's ability to connect people, information, products, or services to those who are interested. The more connections you make with your site on the web, the more effective your site will be. Getting related sites and social networks to link back to your site will increase your search engine visibility and strengthen your web presence.

Go Mobile

It is estimated that half of the U.S. will be on smartphones next year. The convenience of having the internet at your fingertips is changing the way people surf the net and look for information. Make sure your site is accessible on mobile devices. One way is to build your site in such a way that it conforms to the smaller form factor of a Droid or iPhone. The other way is to create a mobile version of your site, using specific technology just for handheld browsers. This is not as complicated as it sounds, and can really increase the usability for those devices. Simply redirect the smartphone users to the special version of your site.

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