You've chosen the perfect name for your Web site; now it's time to get to the actual design of it.
This is paramount to your company's online presence, as a well designed Web site will quickly give users the information they're looking for, encouraging repeat business. If it's poorly laid out, difficult to use or needlessly complicated, you can lose customers to another site that can service them more easily.
For most small-business owners, this means looking to a professional. "To be a good
Web designer you need at least three years of experience to become adept at the details," says Juan Carlos Martinez, president of Internet design and marketing company
There are several factors to consider for your designer. "Look for experience, thoughtfulness, the ability to listen, patience and talent," says Eliot Phillips, partner and head of Interactive Communications at New York City-based branding firm
Find Your Message
First of all, consider your business, its place in the industry and its overall goal. The site for a financial advisor should convey a different look and message than that of a performance artist. Think about whether you want to make a formal, established business impression or a more intimate, mom-and-pop store feel, says Phillips.
Potential customers or clients will bring certain expectations to your site, dependent on your business. A certain level of professionalism should be clear from a law firm's Web site, which is different than what one would look for in an athlete's Web site. "For an athlete's site, we want them to look energetic, fresh, colorful and modern," Phillips explains.
The dominant colors on your site can also harmonize with your business' message. For instance, law firms tend to use more shades of blue and gray, says Martinez -- shades which commonly signify official, solid environments.
Extra features or tools can appeal as well, depending on your company's product. Designers may suggest flash programming for promotional or innovative businesses. This encompasses catchy animation, increased interaction with users and options such as accompanying music, adds Martinez.
Beware of going overboard, though. Web cookies, which are used for authenticating and tracking users, have caused some issues over privacy concerns -- and some browsers even block sites that use them. "Think twice before using cookies," says Ray Lapof, career counselor at
Score, a nonprofit organization that advises small-business owners.
Know Your Customer
Phillips advises small-business owners to get inside their customers' heads when designing the site. It should allow customers to navigate based on what they want to do, not what the business owner wants them to do.
There's a tendency for small-business sites to overcompensate for their size. Approaching the design from a branding point of view, Phillips advises people to make the site minimal but memorable. As he says, "Every small business has something unique about it. Try to turn that into a feature."
Customers will also stay interested if your site is dynamic, so add new content regularly. This doesn't need to be done daily -- it could be as little work as an hour a week, says Phillips. Make sure to showcase or otherwise feature that fresh content on the home page.
Finally, make sure your site is streamlined, and runs as fast as possible. People are impatient and may not wait around for technical glitches to be resolved. Likewise, avoid as much as possible having sections of the site under construction -- it sends the same message as a closed door on a storefront.
The Price of Perfection
Every Web design project is unique, so the final cost will vary. It will be a significant investment, though, from $10,000 up to millions of dollars, Martinez says.
"The thing that costs the most is the content management system. This is where we create a system for the owner to update the Web site in terms of adding new links and new content," says Martinez. A simple content management system from ForeScene, with a user-friendly administration, starts around $5,000 and could run to $5 million.
With these expenses in mind, "when you deal with the designer, set progress goals both in terms of time and money before you start," Lapof says. He advises small-business owners to pay designers in increments, so a mutually agreeable site can be constructed and approved.
Once the Web site has been finished, remember to obtain any necessary site-editing information or tools from the designer. You're the owner of the site, not the designer.
It's not over yet -- the final step is online marketing. If you've created a standout site for your business but customers aren't accessing it, then what's the point? As Phillips puts it, consider a restaurant with the world's most talented chef but empty chairs, because the owner hasn't marketed it properly. Next week, find out how to get the word out to your clientele.