By Jeanine Skowronski, MainStreet in New York.NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- When business owner Duane Draughon launched his landscaping company's Website six years ago, he and his associates didn't put too much thought into what they were developing. "We started with a basic page site, posted pictures, put up some 'about us' info and let it rip," Draughon says. "No one called the site and it was really just a waste." Despite this failed attempt, Draughon and his cohorts understood that developing a successful Web site was becoming increasingly essential to a small business's success. So, when the company revisited the Web venture a year later, they decided to increase their efforts. "We hired a company and let them go to work," Draughon says. "They came up with a great design layout and they also had no out limits, meaning we had no rules on how many pages or changes as long as we paid the monthly fee." Five years later, Paverstone Design Group's Web site gets more than 300 visitors a day. Following its Web site's redesign, the construction company has been featured in local papers and on CNN. "Eighty-five percent of our business comes from the site," Draughon says. "It's like we're bigger than our market, because now we're getting calls to work in other states." Draughon's story highlights what a successful Web site can do (or not do) for a small business. Establishing a Web presence is important because consumers consistently rely on the Internet to cut out the middle man. Popping up first or second on a search engine list can net more business than word-of-mouth recommendations or expensive marketing campaigns. However, your design must go beyond buying a domain name and adding a few lines of text. "The Internet is getting more competitive everyday and search engines like Google are constantly advancing, creating increasingly sophisticated ways to index and rank the Web," Brenda Rowe, a spokeswoman at SiteSell, says. "More than ever, it is essential to create original, high-quality content to generate and sustain that free traffic."
While many small businesses owners advocate pursuing professional help, others have found success running their Web sites themselves. If you need outside help, do some research first to determine what you want your site to look like. Look at the Web sites of leading businesses in your industry. Business owners who are on tight budgets can seek freelance Web designers, who generally offer lower rates than large agencies. Sites like Elance.com lets you compare these designers' profiles, view works in progress and get competitive quotes. If you go it alone, use software that suits your needs. Many business owners suggest content management systems, such as Wordpress or Drupal, which offer more features. These systems also allow you to update and change your content every day, which is essential if you plan to make the most of your Web venture. Here are some other rules of thumb to follow: Keep it clean: Less is usually more. People want to instantaneously find the information they need on your site. Fancy Web features will slow down your site and extend load times, opening the door for your customer to click over to your competitor's page. Use only the tools that get you closer to your objective. As Bob Firestone of Firewalker Media explains, "If you are a hotel in Hawaii, having a weather widget on your site makes sense. If you ship car parts across the country, it doesn't." Make contact information obvious: Include your business's address, phone number and e-mail address on your homepage, instead of hiding them behind an "about us" link at the bottom of the page. It's a good idea to put a phone number on every page of your Web site so that people can get in touch with you as soon as they're interested. Make the site easy to find: In the Web industry, the term "search engine optimization" describes strategies that make sites search-friendly. Simply put, search engines, such as Google ( GOOG), rank Web sites based on their relevance to keywords. The more relevant a site, the higher up it will appear search results. To make your site more relevant, try to use the words customers are most likely to search for. For example, don't call your restaurant an "eatery" or your gym a "fitness studio." Google offers a useful keyword tool that tells users how many times a word had been searched and offers similar words.
"Consumers are in a rush on the Web," John Nicholson, a managing partner at Marketade, explains. "Getting cute with your language may seem like a good idea, but it rarely works, given the reality of online consumer behavior." Offer a way to accept payments: Google and Paypal offer ways for small business owners to accept credit card payments, which can be easily integrated into most Web sites. Keep in mind that both take a small percentage of the sales made through their services, similar to other credit card transaction providers. Update the site regularly: This means that owners employing a Web designer will need to make sure that the designer is regularly available to access the site and make changes whenever necessary. Those maintaining a site on their own should plan to spend ample time at the computer. "Once you launch your Web site, you are not finished," Bob Destefano, an online marketing strategist, says. "Websites are never finished. They need to continually evolve to improve their value to the customer." Want some more marketing advice? Check out MainStreet's article 4 Small Biz Marketing Mistakes to learn what no to do when launching your small business. -- Written by Jeanine Skowronski at MainStreet in New York.