Building your website: Advice from Toronto’s Low to the Ground, Soak Wash Inc and Powered by Search
A website can make or break an entrepreneurial endeavour, and knowing how to create an effective one starts with understanding your business from the inside out.
“You need to be clear on what you do and how you stand out. Otherwise, the site won’t really serve your business,” says Jennifer Johannesen, who runs the Toronto-based web design company Low to the Ground.
Johannesen has built more than a hundred websites for individual professionals and small companies from many different sectors. She says about 75 per cent of her clients spend anywhere from a few weeks to several months extra on the development of their website simply because they aren’t sure of its objectives.
She says most sites need pages that describe their company and its offerings, showcase past projects or other accomplishments, and provide contact information.
Sites should be easy to navigate, with information organized in logical sections so it’s easy to find. Johannesen says to aim for a clean, professional and modern look — this means minimizing the number of colours and flashy features, such as animated menus, music and pop-ups. She adds that images and design elements should be consistent with the company’s brand, and that copy should be clear, concise and inviting.
“Try to bring forward the heart of the business. First-person writing, photos, a welcome message from the owner — they can all help engage visitors,” she says.
Johannesen is not a graphic designer, so she works only with clients who already have an established brand identity, which she implements on their sites. Like many designers serving small businesses, Johannesen works primarily on WordPress, a software platform that makes it easy for non-technical people to maintain and update their websites. It’s one of many options for building websites available to entrepreneurs — others include buying one of the countless templates available on the Internet and customizing it as needed; hiring a full-service web design and development contractor or agency; or learning to create a site from the ground-up yourself. Which approach is right for what business depends on how much time and money entrepreneurs have available, and what level of quality they require.
And many other decisions must be made when websites feature ecommerce, says Johannesen. These include how to facilitate purchases, accept payment, fulfil orders and provide customer service. To determine what will work for your business, Johannesen recommends researching best practices online, consulting with fellow business owners, and asking designers for advice.
Johannesen says WordPress is a suitable platform for entrepreneurs selling a few products online, but recommends Shopify, a comprehensive service for designing, running and promoting a digital storefront, for more intensive transactional sites.
The ecommerce platform has worked well for Jacqueline Sava is Magento. The owner of Soak Wash Inc., which designs and sells liquid laundry detergents, she says the flexible open-source software makes it easy for her to manage and improve her site’s functionality and appearance.
“If there are any new software upgrades, with a click of a button it will just automatically and fluidly update to the most current version,” says Sava, who sells to retailers and consumers in Canada and the U.S.
The site also lets the three-person company more effectively market their body creams, fabric care labels and gift boxes. This fall, Sava will launch a new tool for generating more consistent sales — product “wish list” messages that are automatically sent to customers. This should make it easier for customers to learn about Soak product offerings and renew orders, and reduce the amount of sales and marketing legwork for staff.
Sava also understands the importance of connecting with current and prospective customers on a personal level, so she maintains a blog that features company news, information on and photos of new products, and videos covering fashion events.
“It’s a perfect forum for storytelling, and it enables us to drive more traffic to our main site, and generate more sales,” she says.
And, says Dev Basu, president of Powered by Search — a company that helps growing small businesses with search engine optimization, or SEO — there are simple steps entrepreneurs can take to increase traffic by ensuring their websites are easy to find online.
“If you’re not showing up in web searches, you’re effectively invisible,” says Basu.
Ensuring Google, Bing and Yahoo! detect your site in relevant web searches requires scannable web copy — basically any text that isn’t Flash-based — and keywords relating to your business. But online copy must remain reader-friendly, because search engines ignore sites with keyword-saturated text.
SEO experts like Basu also help businesses improve their visibility online by registering company addresses with search engines, and submitting information to relevant directories such as Yellowpages.ca, Canpages.ca, 411.ca and local chambers of commerce.
Basu also encourages entrepreneurs to increase links to their sites from other online portals, especially those hosted by companies and organizations in their sector.
Finally, Basu says, web-savvy business owners should install a usage-tracking system — Google Analytics is popular, free and effective — to monitor how frequently and in what ways people browse their sites.
“You can make some pretty good assumptions about what’s working on the site and what’s not, and use that data to make more informed marketing decisions,” Basu says. “It can help your business in spades, because what gets measured, gets managed.”