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9 Steps to Build a Successful Small Business Web Site

December 7th, 2008

Designing your own website from scratch can be daunting. It’s almost like someone handing you a blank canvas and challenging you to create a masterpiece. Well, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin, just follow a these nine steps. Do your planning and implementation in phases, taking your time. A good website will not be built overnight. With good planning and a communicative, experienced web designer, you will be able to create an effective website.

1. Lay out clear, measurable objectives. This is the step that many skip, and then run into problems later. If you don’t have a goal in mind, and have no way to measure it, you never know why your website isn’t performing well. And expansion of the website can be disjointed and frustrating. Decide if you are planning to inform, sell things, get new leads, entertain, educate, facilitate communication, be a portal, etc. Will you receive emails, collect email addresses, field phone calls, make money? Once you make that choice (it could be a combination), you have a direction for your project. Surf the net and bookmark websites you like. Envision your ideal, successful website, with no limits. You can reign in your ideas later.

2. Who is your audience? Do your homework to find out your current and target audiences. You want to attract people who are already looking for you, and don’t want to alienate those who may have never heard of you. Your fresh and interesting, high quality content should speak directly to your audience. The style of writing will be determined in part by your audience. At this time you will bring up accessibility for those with physical disabilities, the level of technical skill needed to move about the website, type of computer and internet browser, connection speed, etc. It’s better to talk to some of your customers beforehand, or do a survey rather than guess or assume.

3. Decide how to present the information. There are many ways to present the same type of information. Take into account your brand, company personality, and type of content before deciding whether to present your information as a blog, an online magazine, news articles, store pages, a gallery, a timeline, etc. Your presentation may be a combination or something completely new. The most important thing is that your format is context appropriate and helps, not hinders users from using the website.

4. Structure your information. Before you start talking about what your favorite color is, or if you want drop shadows on the buttons, you need to talk about information architecture. Draw informational flow charts, sitemaps, screenshots, navigation bars (learn about wireframing here). Get something down on paper explaining how the user will move about the site from section to section without getting confused or lost. This stage will help resolve any underlying structural problems before actual website design begins. It will also help to clarify which areas are most important and need to be highlighted at which level. Sometimes it helps to imagine a specific user given a task and to walk through the various levels of the site. Can they get where they need to go? What would make it easier? Incorporate new ideas generated here into your architecture.

5. Choose a style. Your style should be based off of your brand identity, the type of web experience and feeling you want to create, and your website goals you set in Step #1. (The style has nothing to do with that shade of green in your favorite sweater.) It’s best to have a unique design which addresses these factors and presents you exactly the way you wish to be portrayed in the online community. However, you don’t have to begin with a blank canvas. There are many well designed templates out there for you to choose.

6. Enlist help. Now, you should have conversations with a web designer, graphic designer, and web hosting provider. You will need your own domain name and space. Your web designer will be able to tell you what features you need to pay for in your hosting plan. Some choose to begin designing a small section of the website first, then launch and move to the next. Others complete the main sections, launch, and add on later. The website doesn’t have to be complete before you launch, but it should be presentable, functioning properly, and not have pages “Under Construction.”

7. Test, test, and re-test. Your website designer should be able to conduct informal tests of the site. He or she will watch people using the site and make any changes necessary. This step is crucial and will help you reduce unforeseen frustration. You will also get priceless feedback from users.

8. Watch it grow. Once you launch your website, you will need to track and analyze the web stats. Do this on a regular basis to see how well the site is performing. Remember, you determine how well the site is performing by if and how you reach your original objectives from Step #1. How many phone calls are you receiving? How many items have you sold? Use that information to…

9. Tweak it. The person analyzing the web stats should come back with solid advice and suggestions on how to make the website perform even better. This could include adding more content, using online advertising, search engine optimization, etc.

Building a website from scratch is by no means an easy task, but it can be fun and rewarding. Follow these steps, remember to enlist help, and continue testing and tweaking your website.